Complaint, Honesty, & Shakespeare
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the conclusion of the great 1966 lecture that Eli Siegel gave on complaint in poetry. In the talk he speaks about many poems, beginning with one of 4th-century-bc China. And we see that this matter, complaint, which people feel so personally, is of literature, culture: it is not just a misery—or triumph—of one’s own. Here I state again this historic fact: Aesthetic Realism has shown there is a criterion for distinguishing between good complaint and bad. Complaint is good, and can even be beautiful, when it arises from a person’s desire to respect the world, people, things. Complaint is bad, ugly, mean, when it comes from that most hurtful yet huge frequent desire in everyone: contempt, the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
This issue includes too an article by Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss. It’s from a paper she presented recently at a public seminar titled “Honesty & Deception in Love & Life—How Should a Woman See These?” The dishonesty Ms. Weiss principally tells about is that which is behind all spoken and written lies: the seeing of the world not as it is but as something that should make me important, show my superiority—as something about which I have the right to change any fact I please. The fundamental yet mainly unspoken dishonesty is the seeing of oneself as more important than any fact, any person, any happening—more important than truth itself. It’s the dishonesty of contempt, and is the way of seeing from which all lies come—including those so much around today.
Shakespeare & Honesty
The last poem Mr. Siegel speaks of in his lecture on complaint is Sonnet 66 of Shakespeare. He speaks about it briefly here—in its relation to the lecture’s particular subject and to the other poems he discussed. But I am very glad to look a little further at it now, to quote some of what Mr. Siegel said about this poem on other occasions, and to do so in regard to the second subject of this TRO: dishonesty. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was one of the greatest haters of dishonesty—and lovers of sincerity—in human history.
Eli Siegel’s lectures and writing on Shakespeare’s plays—including Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest—are definitive and magnificent in literary criticism. And so is his series, of 1950-51, on all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. In it he made clear that the “friend” Shakespeare talks of—whom scholars have been unable to identify successfully—is not a particular person at all. It is what Shakespeare treasured most: “art as trying to perceive reality and to respect it,.. .that in himself which poetically could be just to the world,” and the world itself seen truly, seen beautifully. That is what Shakespeare saw as his “friend,” his “love.”
You will soon read the whole of the 66th sonnet, because Mr. Siegel quotes it here. It begins: “Tir’d with all these....” And then Shakespeare gives, with speed and subtlety, thrust and delicacy, instances of what he cannot stand. And they are all instances of dishonesty: he tells about good made to seem not good, or weak; about meanness, cheapness, and stupidity presented as having grandeur. In a 1964 lecture Mr. Siegel, discussing the sonnet in another context, showed succinctly what the lines were about. I’ll quote him now, beginning with line 2. (Shakespeare’s lines are in italics, followed by Mr. Siegel’s swift comment, and occasionally my own addition in brackets.)
2) “As, to behold desert a beggar born.” What has merit is a “beggar.”
3) “And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity.” Nothingness is honored [dressed up showily].
4) “And purest faith unhappily forsworn.” Faith is worked against, betrayed.
5) “And guilded honour shamefully misplaced.” [The wrong things are honored.]
6) “And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted.” [What’s fine and pure is treated as though it were a prostitute.]
7) “And right perfection wrongfully disgraced.” What is good is not seen rightly.
8) “And strength by limping sway disabled.” Power is limping and disables strength.
9) “And art made tongue-tied by authority.” People can’t say what they truly want.
10) “And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill.” Folly, having a certificate, can control skill. [Persons who are foolish, but seen as intelligent, have power over those with true knowledge.]
11) “And simple truth miscall’d simplicity.” That which is simple is called naïveté or foolishness.
12) “And captive good attending captain ill.” [Ill will is running things, and good has been made its servant.]
Shakespeare could be dispirited, could be tempted to have a large disgust at the world, as he saw what contempt with its dishonesty could do—how it could try to hurt what was fine and good. And here I’ll say simply, restrainedly, I have been sickened reading lies about what in our own time is honest, beautiful, kind, true: Aesthetic Realism itself.
Then there is Shakespeare’s quiet final couplet—about his feeling that what he loves is more important than the dishonesty that so disgusts him. This is so in our time too: a way of seeing the world that has truth, grandeur, meaning is more powerful than sickening lies. And such a way of seeing the world—beautiful and honest—is in Aesthetic Realism. William Shakespeare once seemed so much less important than many of the high-placed fakers of his time; and the fact that he has grandly outlasted them—the fact that persons who once seemed powerful, if they’re around at all now, are around as footnotes to his works—is evidence that real sincerity is much more powerful than lies.
Poetry Is Honesty
So this TRO is about complaint, dishonesty, and poems. Authentic poetry, Eli Siegel showed, is always honest—even if it seems to express something wild or false. It comes from a person’s seeing reality, and the immediate subject, and his own feeling with such a passionate desire to be fair to these, that the structure of the world itself is in his words. That structure is the oneness of opposites. And we hear it as poetic music. We hear, for example, the oneness of rest and motion, wonder and matter-of-factness, smoothness and roughness, expansion and tightness, the immediate and the far, the tactile and the abstract. “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Eli Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Aesthetic Realism is the great, logical, immensely kind, thrillingly effective study of that principle.