Day & Night, Awake & Asleep—We Are Related
Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish here the 3rd section of the magnificent Hail, Relation; or, A Study in Poetry. This 1972 lecture by Eli Siegel can be seen as illustrating the following sentences from the Preface to his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems:
Poetry, like life, states that the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things. Whatever is in the world, whatever person, has meaning because it or he has to do with the whole universe: immeasurable and crowded reality.
Mostly, people do not feel that the things they meet, the persons, the occurrences, are related to each other—let alone to millions of other things and people of now and the past. Therefore, they have a pervasive yet taken for granted feeling that most of reality is messy and dull. If we do not see things as related, we have to feel agitated and feel too an essential emptiness, absence of meaning.
Poetry: Our Friend & Critic
In this lecture, Mr. Siegel shows that poetry, real poetry, is always a graceful, intense, surprising, true dealing with the relatedness of things. Poetry is, therefore, a criticism of how we see; and it also meets our largest hope, shows us what we long for.
A poem that Mr. Siegel discusses in the section printed here is one of the most difficult and puzzling poems in American literature. It is poem 7 of Wallace Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” And Mr. Siegel explains what it means. His greatness as a critic of poetry was in the fact that he saw and could show what made a poem beautiful (or not beautiful); and that he also could make clear what the poem meant, what the poet was saying. He understood truly what a poem was about, just as he understood people, the biggest and most delicate things in a person.
There is nothing I love more than the way Mr. Siegel spoke about poetry. And we meet some of that here.
All through the lecture, there is present that Aesthetic Realism principle which describes the fundamental relation among all things and people: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
How we see (and don’t see) our relatedness to what’s not us is the biggest matter in our lives. On it depends how well we learn; whether we are kind or cruel; in fact, all the things we are most concerned about in ourselves. I’ll comment on one of these.
Why People Can’t Sleep
Night after night, millions of men and women across America cannot sleep, or have much trouble sleeping. According to the CDC, about 9 million take sleep medications. The pharmaceutical companies reap huge profits from this nocturnal torment. And the various sleep therapies haven’t worked. Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which, understanding the aesthetic structure of the human self, explains the cause of sleeplessness.
We can begin to see the cause by asking: As people go to bed at night, is it with love for their relation to the outside world? Or is there the resentful feeling, “All day I’ve been meeting things that have the nerve to confuse me; people who don’t do what I want them to; a world which keeps giving me the sense that I’m imperfect and don’t know enough”? People have felt sleep is a time when they can finally get rid of the outside world, and have themselves pure, untainted by external things and people—which means unrelated.
There is a feeling, “Yes, I’m forced to be in some relation to things during the day—I have to meet people, smile at them, work with them—but all along there’s something in me that feels apart. At bedtime, my treasured apart-self can at last have free reign, be unencumbered.” This feeling is an aspect of what Aesthetic Realism identifies as the most hurtful, ugly, stupid thing in everyone: contempt. Contempt is the desire to make ourselves more by lessening what’s different from us.
Meanwhile, contempt is always in a fight with the deepest desire we have: to like the world, be ourselves through welcoming our relation to it. This fight is at the center of one’s inability to sleep. In Self and World, Eli Siegel explains:
In insomnia there is a...fight between that aspect of the personality which wants to use sleep as a means of dismissing externalities, and that self which wants proudly to recognize these externalities and to grow through them. [P. 337]
He describes that second, true self in a person he calls Ruth Darnton, who suffers from insomnia. He has the true self of Ruth say to her contemptuous self:
“You have made Ruth want to feel that her glory was in being able to see other people and other things as unimportant. You have made Ruth go to sleep as if sleep were a leaving of the whole world....You and I have to fight for Ruth. I don’t want her to sleep any more on the old terms....I suppose I’ll have to bother her. It’s too bad but Ruth can’t sink into a being who thinks that sleep is a time to put aside the very world on whose existence she depends; which represents her; and which is she.” [Pp. 336-7]
People can’t sleep because we have what Mr. Siegel has called an ethical unconscious. This ethical unconscious stands for the best and most fundamental thing in us, and it makes us dislike ourselves for being unjust, for having contempt. It can, as with Ruth Darnton, keep us awake if we want to use sleep contemptuously, to expunge our relation to things.
The answer to sleep difficulties is not in pills or sleep clinics. It’s in seeing what relation truly is. It’s in seeing that the world, with all its puzzlingness and grandeur, is, as Mr. Siegel so kindly explained, the other half of ourselves.