Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to serialize The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on October 11, 1972. Like Aesthetic Realism itself, it is philosophic, literary, scholarly—and at the same time vividly, mightily, plainly, and urgently about the life of every one of us.
At its basis are two Aesthetic Realism principles. First: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which explains that the questions of a person—including the most tumultuous questions—are solved in outline in the technique of art. This is because every good poem, painting, song, dance makes a one of the very opposites that fight in us—including the opposites Mr. Siegel speaks about here: the known and unknown, and truth and imagination.
The second principle is that contempt, the “addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is the thing in us which interferes with our lives. It is that within a person which weakens the person’s mind. It is also the cause of every cruelty. In the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel is commenting richly on the aspect of contempt described in these sentences from his Self and World:
The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please....The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form. [P. 3]
Among the things people feel they need not be exact about but can see however “they please,” are their own feelings. The lecture is very much about this. And it is about the fact that such carelessness with, or manipulation of, things, facts, and one’s own feelings is precisely what does not happen in authentic art.
Imagination, Good & Bad
We come to something central in the lecture—something Aesthetic Realism is the only body of knowledge to explain. There are two kinds of imagination. One is based on respect for the world, on the desire to know. The second is based on contempt. The first is beautiful and, however wild it may be, is always kind. The second sort of imagination is ugly, and always hurtful. There is nothing more important for people to know than this distinction, because all over America and the world people are imagining in a way that damages themselves and may harm others.
Every child, like every adult, is in a fight between the two kinds of imagination. For example, a little girl, Brigit, is imagining that the living room furniture is part of the landscape of an interestingly mysterious jungle, and her pussycat is a noble lion. Such thoughts come because there is a large desire in Brigit to feel that the strange and unknown are close to her, and that what she’s familiar with has wonder. It is good imagination. However, at other times Brigit imagines that she is a princess, far superior to all her classmates and siblings, and that they have to bow before her and humbly obey any order she chooses to give. That imagination is contempt. And neither her parents nor teachers know to distinguish fundamentally between them. They just say that Brigit is “a very imaginative child.”
Honesty Becomes Musical
Let us take an American writer whom Mr. Siegel mentions early in the lecture. He says that Hart Crane (1899-1932) had the honesty of imagination which poetry demands. Here is a short poem by Crane:
A land of leaning ice
Hugged by plaster-grey arches of sky,
Flings itself silently
“Has no one come here to win you,
Or left you with the faintest blush
Upon your glittering breasts?
Have you no memories, O Darkly Bright?”
Cold-hushed, there is only the shifting of moments
That journey toward no Spring—
No birth, no death, no time nor sun
This is imagination. The poem is called “North Labrador” but it certainly goes beyond what most people think a geographic region is and has. For one thing, North Labrador is made to be also a person; it is even given breasts. Yet Hart Crane is changing what a thing is, changing the facts, not in order to be unfair, to manipulate, to have contempt—but to be deeply and glowingly just.
On the other hand, all over the world people are changing the facts for a different purpose: to elevate themselves and despise what’s not themselves. A common way is: people will make someone an enemy in their minds, decide the person is mean to them, when he isn’t. They’ll give various attributes to that person which he doesn’t have: “He didn’t say hello to me—I’m sure he’s snubbing me. And the way he looked at me yesterday! He wants my job and would like me to get fired! I’ll bet he’s talking against me to my co-workers and boss.”
This kind of thought is quite ordinary. But when a person, for example, goes to a school and guns down children and teachers—a lot of contemptuous imagination preceded that act. There was a lot of “ordinary” changing the facts in one’s mind, turning people into what they were not, giving them qualities they didn’t have, which enabled one to feel justified in annihilating them.
Hart Crane, in this poem, is trying to see truly both what is not himself and his own feeling. And the evidence is in the fact that his lines have what Aesthetic Realism shows every true poem has: music. For example, in the sound of the first line, “A land of leaning ice,” we hear something massive leaning, even as it is also firm. In the lines “Flíngs itself sílently / Ínto etérnity” (each composed of two dactyls), we hear thrust and great stillness together.
Hart Crane felt a likeness between earth and the human self. He felt this honestly. It is throughout his long poem The Bridge. And it is here. North Labrador represents something in the self. There is a coldness within us, an iciness toward things, and we can associate that frozenness with our importance even as we ache to be freed of it. Hart Crane worried about the vast coldness in him, and here he worries honestly and beautifully.
“‘Has no one come here to win you, / Or left you with the faintest blush / Upon your glittering breasts?’” That is a way of saying: Hasn’t anyone wanted to understand that cold thing in me, that huge cold land in me?—if someone did, perhaps the coldness would not have to win. Crane was able to present with majesty what gave him great suffering.
The coldness people get to and nurture is, itself, contempt, and arises from bad imagination. It comes from changing the facts: in being cold we take away the meaning from things; we say they do not have to do with us. Every person is ashamed of his or her coldness, and mostly pretends on the subject. Hart Crane, as true artist, was more fiercely ashamed, and in his art did not pretend. And so I have commented briefly on lines of his as a prelude to one of the most important and kindest discussions I know: this 1972 lecture by Eli Siegel.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry
By Eli Siegel
One of the things that we can be pretty sure of is: whatever mind (or, some people think, minds) went to the making of what is now The Iliad, there was a certain procedure of that mind. And also there was a certain purpose, which goes along with procedure, a certain beginning.
Wherever poetry occurs, Aesthetic Realism sees something similar as occurring: The first thing is that one cannot write poetry unless one is trying to like the world which poetry is about. The second is that at the time of writing poetry, there is a kind of honesty which is a oneness of justice to the known and to the unknown, or the known and imagined. Homer—or, again, the persons, as some say, standing for Homer—had that honesty.
Everything can be seen in a way that is larger than the way it was seen before. That is, it can be imagined, which means it can be put in more relation. The relation can often be looked upon as going away from precision. For instance, if one says, “She twirled a broom towards the man as an angel falling from heaven,” there’s a certain relation between an angel falling from heaven and twirling the broom and letting it drop on the man somewhat; and it can be called not as precise as simply the statement “The broom is in the room.”
However, there’s a kind of truth which, while being truth, honors the unknown. Two of the opposites that are in poetry are the known and unknown. These are the opposites, also, that get people depressed, and crazy too. There’s a tendency to exploit the unknown, as there is to exploit the known.
“The Corruption of Consciousness”
A passage that is one of the deepest in 20th-century writing on art, and at the same time doesn’t have to be agreed with, says something that goes along with what I have said: that if one doesn’t want to be conscious exactly of what one feels, one is going toward mental disruption and insanity. The passage is by R.G. Collingwood, and I am reading it from a collection called Contemporary Philosophy: A Book of Readings, edited by James L. Jarrett and Sterling M. McMurrin (New York, 1954). Among the philosophers included is this rather difficult writer on art, Collingwood, with a selection taken from a 1938 work of his, The Principles of Art. I am not commending the work, but I have never seen a passage that goes more towards honesty as to one’s feelings than the last part of the selection, this particular writing about “the corruption of consciousness”:
The corruption of consciousness in virtue of which a man fails to express a given emotion makes him at the same time unable to know whether he has expressed it or not. He is, therefore, for one and the same reason, a bad artist and a bad judge of his own art. A person who is capable of producing bad art cannot, so far as he is capable of producing it, recognize it for what it is. He cannot, on the other hand, really think it good art; he cannot think that he has expressed himself when he has not....
But nobody’s consciousness can be wholly corrupt. If it were, he would...suffer simultaneously every possible kind of mental derangement, and every bodily disease that such derangements can bring in their train....Corruption of consciousness is not a recondite sin or a remote calamity which overcomes only an unfortunate or accursed few; it is a constant experience in the life of every artist, and his life is a constant and, on the whole, a successful warfare against it....
Every one of us feels emotions which, if his neighbours became aware of them, would make them shrink from him with horror: emotions which, if he became aware of them, would make him horrified at himself. It is not the expression of these emotions that is bad art....On the contrary, bad art arises when instead of expressing these emotions we disown them, wishing to think ourselves innocent of the emotions that horrify us, or wishing to think ourselves too broad-minded to be horrified by them.
...A truthful consciousness gives intellect a firm foundation upon which to build; a corrupt consciousness forces intellect to build on a quicksand....The effort to overcome corruption of consciousness, is an effort that has to be made...by everyone who uses language, whenever he uses it....If he deceives himself in this matter, he has sown in himself a seed which, unless he roots it up again, may grow into any kind of wickedness, any kind of mental disease, any kind of stupidity and folly and insanity.
The passage is difficult, and there are things you can object to. But in it Collingwood does go for this: we are the custodians of feelings, we are the custodians of ourselves, and we can think either that we should meddle with what we see or that we should try more and more to look upon our feelings as an explorer would a wilderness, trying to be just to it.
There Is Homer
It is said of Homer that he is exact. It is said also that in primitive poetry there’s a kind of good health in which a person sees his feelings—and the feelings, as such, are immediately imaginative. That is, we can’t, for example, think of Isaiah saying, “This is a good metaphor,” or the writer of the Psalms saying, “This goes along with the laws of the trope.” Something occurred that makes for boldness of language or boldness of imagination.
Homer has metaphors, but mostly, in terms of metaphor, he is careful and doesn’t go very far. He calls the sea, in a line I quoted last week, polyphloisboio, many-roaring, which isn’t so very bold: the sea does roar in a multitudinous way. And when he says Juno is ox-eyed, that isn’t so bold. His boldness is in similes.
However, much can be done with language, and language can be used to assist the corruption of feeling. I should say that every person who has ever lived has gone through this corruption of feeling, or, as Collingwood puts it, corruption of consciousness.
The way that Collingwood is alarmed is very unusual: he says all insanity comes from “corruption of consciousness.”
Consciousness, if we look at the word, means knowledge that is with ourselves. The Latin word that is in science, beginning with sci, is there. Then, the prefix con- means with.
Art, Reason, Expression
Collingwood is giving that notion of art which is a later form of how Boileau, and to a degree Pope, and somewhat Samuel Johnson, saw art. It is the idea that art is a high point of reason, reason that’s in motion, reason that has feeling but is still reason. It is the idea that the beautiful is the true, and art is something which honors the mind of man; art is that reason which can make for building a bridge, or arranging a city more beautifully than it was, which makes for architecture and can build cathedrals, even though the cathedrals may in early times have a few gargoyles.
The point is that reason is that which looks for coherence in a world not always providing it. But an individual can find usefulness in incoherence. In making something incoherent he can feel he’s comfortable; he gets away from where he’s critical of himself.
This passage is unusual because it smolders with ethics. So I’ll look at it. We can apply what is said to every writer. Was Homer honest? Was Isaiah, who was quite different from Homer, honest? Was Hart Crane honest? I think Hart Crane in general (sometimes he felt it better not to be) is more honest than T.S. Eliot, say, and quite a few other persons.
It is hard to distinguish whether one is honest with one’s feelings. Every person has suffered from the lack of honesty. So it is well to relate the problem of honesty as to one’s feelings in life to honesty in poetry, or in art. I’ll take up some of Collingwood’s sentences, though they are not too easily discussed:
The corruption of consciousness in virtue of which a man fails to express a given emotion makes him at the same time unable to know whether he has expressed it or not.
A person has felt this question in the following form: is the emotion that I just put on paper, or is the emotion that I expressed, big enough; or is it something I’ve not been able to express? Is there something wrong with the substance of the emotion—what’s called by the theme reader the content—or is it that I’m just not able to express it? For instance, many people will say, “I don’t know how to express myself,” and then somebody will say somewhat sarcastically or satirically, “That’s because you have nothing to express.”
People can feel they have something to express but don’t know how to express it. That problem can come up at any time in life. It can be said about the great books that a person had something large to express and did express it. That is, if God were a theme reader he would look at Homer’s manuscript and say: “Thought, 98%; form, 97%; mark generally, A.” Thought and form are still around, but there can be a mishap about both. What we can feel may not be big enough. Also, how we express what it seems we feel, let alone what we feel, may not be done well enough.
What Art Is
So however difficult it is to deal with these sentences, it is necessary. Art can be defined as honesty become beautiful. Art can be defined as honesty become original. Art can be defined as good sense becoming bold and metaphorical. It’s always a combination of exactitude and bravery: the banner of all reality is waved by a courageous person.