Complaint, Consolation, & Art
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the wonderful lecture that Eli Siegel gave on August 3, 1966, about complaint in poetry. What is in it, every person needs mightily, even urgently, to know.
People see their inner complaints—their dissatisfactions, their feelings of injury, of having been let down—as ever so personal, intimate, just-their-own. Yet Aesthetic Realism shows that each of us has to do, all the time, with the whole world: the world of happenings, facts, things, history. And we need to try to see our own feelings as related to other people’s feelings, as related to a world of feelings. If we don’t, we will be wrong about ourselves. Our thought about what goes on in us will be narrow, inaccurate, deeply ugly. And that is what usually happens.
But in this lecture, we see that complaint—so intimate to ourselves—is a subject. It is about many things, has many aspects and qualities, takes in centuries. For example, at the start of the class Mr. Siegel spoke about poems by the Chinese poet Chu Yuan (c. 332-296 bc). Next, in the section printed here, he speaks about Thomas Wyatt (1503-42) and Emily Brontë (1818-48). How different these three people are—yet poems by each of them have complaint. As we see this, we see ourselves and humanity newly.
There is the all-important fact that the complaint being looked at is in poems. They contain that way of seeing something which is the art way: the object (here, a complaint) is seen with such fullness, accuracy, relation, that there is form; there is music. These poems are described by the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” For example, the Emily Brontë poem, as both statement and sound, is a oneness of truculence and tenderness. It is a oneness of pride and humility. And we hear—together—the Brontë assertion of her individual self, and deep wonder about the world.
Consoling Ourselves, Truly & Falsely
Very often in life, complaint is accompanied by a going for consolation. In both poems that Mr. Siegel speaks about in this section, that is so: the writer consoles him- or herself through something or some way of being. How we console ourselves can be ever so fine, as it largely is in the Brontë poem. For example: we can complain, feel there’s something very wrong that we have met or endured—yet at the same time feel that what we’ve seen as beautiful and just in this world is still beautiful and just; and we console ourselves by wanting to love it more truly, deeply, extensively than ever. That is good, authentic consolation. But there’s another kind of consolation, much more frequent and infinitely hurtful. It is the consolation of contempt, the getting an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
A person may be right or wrong in feeling something should be complained about, but—even if our complaint is somewhat correct—one of the most dangerous yet ordinary things in life is to “console” ourselves with some form of contempt. For example, the feeling that someone has been unjust to us is often followed swiftly with the consoling triumphant feeling, “How superior I am to him!”
And millions of persons, feeling they’ve been hurt by some representative of the world, have gone for the consolation of: “People and things don’t deserve for me to be affected by them! I can make myself cold, unfeeling, emptily and scornfully above it all.” This is the ugly consolation of thumbing one’s nose at most of reality.
People have consoled themselves for their complaints by managing the world in some fashion. That’s why alcohol is so popular. Through it, a person seems to make the world do one’s bidding, become less questioning, less real. And the consolation that is the dealing with food grabbily also makes reality a servant of oneself: through those extra portions of chocolate cake one has made the world say, “I’m here just to please and soothe you—you don’t have to think or be fair to anything. I’m succulent, luscious, in my feeling it’s an honor to serve you.”
The consolation for our complaints can be our ability to punish others. A woman, disliking the world and confused by men, can console herself by conquering a man, making him less sure of himself, making him seem foolish because he’s in a tizzy about her. Men can do the same with women.
In fact, people hope to have complaints, look to feel hurt, in order to justify getting the consolation of contempt.
Like complaint itself, consolation has many forms. But the criterion for its goodness or badness is: are we being consoled through having respect for the world, or contempt?
Grandeur & the Everyday
We are reprinting in this TRO one of the greatest poems of complaint in world literature: “Must I Wait All My Life; or, The Misery Song,” by Eli Siegel. It was written in 1932 and has the subtitle “Uncouth-and-not Anthem of the Particular and General Unconscious.” It is published in Mr. Siegel’s 1957 collection Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems with this note by the author: “A Blues song about Destiny as Ill-Intentioned. Goes, I think, well with the Gregorian Chant.”
Eli Siegel was one of the writers who least saw “Destiny as Ill-Intentioned”; but he was able to present with richness, force, delicacy, and poetic structure the feeling, so much in people, that it is. I think he wrote, humorously, that “The Misery Song” goes “well with the Gregorian Chant” because the two are so different, and the reverential regularity of the Gregorian Chant needs, to complete it, the objection, discomfort, jolting, poking, moans, tumult—all with form, all with music—that are in “The Misery Song.”
The subtitle describes the poem as “Uncouth-and-not.” The person speaking in it (I always see her as a woman) seems to be speaking to herself. And she uses language that is vernacular, has roughness. Yet really these couplets are elegant too; they have grandeur. Every line has four beats, though with varying numbers of syllables around each beat. There is such variousness of sound, of motion, in the phrases, each of which expresses feeling. Here, feelings have different motions. They are in a kind of dance. We hear a person wanting to demand, and wanting to sink. We hear swirling bewilderment, and thrusts. There is a tremendous drama of slowness and speed in sound. And all this is about what goes on within a person. And all this is in neat rhymed couplets.
The Underlying Complaint in America
While “Must I Wait All My Life; or, The Misery Song” is about people’s individual lives, I think the first line also stands for a complaint had by the American people today about our nation itself: “Must I wait all my life for a certain thing to happen?” Those words have to do with a complaint about economics: economics as ethics, as immensely personal, affecting every aspect of one’s life. What is the underlying complaint in America about how our nation is run? Mr. Siegel described it in various ways in the 1970s, in his Goodbye Profit System lectures. One way is: “There is a feeling...on the part of persons who work that they are not getting their just share of the gross national product, and they feel that their not getting it is caused by ill will.”
The underlying complaint in America is: I’m not getting what I deserve. I should not only have a job, but I should be seen with respect, treated with respect, on that job—and that includes being paid a dignified wage.
The big complaint in America is about the question Mr. Siegel said is the most important in the world: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Whether people have heard that question or not, there is a feeling of huge complaint because it has not been answered honestly. This complaint needs to be seen truly, expressed clearly. When it is, the result will be kind, proud, efficient, and beautifully American.