Everyday Worry & an Earthquake
Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish here, from notes taken at the time, the first half of the 1947 lecture Aesthetics and Worry, by Eli Siegel. It is one in a series that he gave at Steinway Hall early in the history of Aesthetic Realism. And it explains definitively a tormenting yet everyday matter: the inaccurate worrying that people find themselves driven to engage in.
Meanwhile, this issue of TRO is being prepared days after the earthquake in Haiti—at a time when so much true worry is taking place, along with human anguish and agony on a gigantic scale. We are reprinting here, from Eli Siegel’s book Hail, American Development, his translation titled “Some Lines from Voltaire’s Poem on the Disaster at Lisbon.” The poem is about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.
In the Life of Everyone
In Aesthetics and Worry of 1947, during the heyday of Freudian psychology, Mr. Siegel is explaining what neither Freud nor the therapists of now have understood: what the human self really is. He is defining the big continuous fight in the life of everyone. Three decades later he would put it this way:
The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now. [TRO 151]
In the 1947 lecture he shows that this fight is at the basis of all inaccurate worry.
Aesthetic Realism explains too that every human-made cruelty in history—including racism, economic exploitation, and war—has come from contempt: from the feeling we’ll be more through making less of what’s different from us. For humanity to stop being mean, and also for individual men and women to like ourselves and feel animatedly at ease in our lives, we have to want to criticize contempt in ourselves.
An Earthquake & Our Two Desires
Whether we know it or not, we are using whatever we meet to fortify either our desire to care for reality or our desire to despise it. What does it mean to use an earthquake in behalf of respect for the world, which definitely includes respect for people, rather than contempt? This is an urgent question.
I remember a class in which Mr. Siegel spoke about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. He quoted, and was very critical of, certain commentators of the time who advised smoothly that the disaster was somehow in God’s plan and we must have faith that it was justified. He also quoted Voltaire, who is saying with tremendous anger: I cannot see this earthquake, with its deaths and its screaming, bleeding children, as in any way justifiable and I refuse to bow my head about it and stop questioning! And Mr. Siegel said that Voltaire was more sincere. It’s much more respectful and deeply more reverent to say with honesty, intensity, and a real desire to know, “I don’t see how a world, a universe, a creator can be liked for permitting this”—than to “accept” in some glib way.
To be glib, not to want to see as burningly real the feelings of people who suffer, is contempt. The other aspect of contempt is to feel, without wholly articulating it but with a hidden triumph: “Look at this world which makes for something as horrible as an earthquake—this clinches my case that the world is disgusting and that I have a right to look down on it, to feel superior to what’s not me. This proves that the world inside me is better than what’s around me!” There is a huge tendency to use a terrible happening that way. And accompanying such a state of mind is the conclusion, also mainly unarticulated, “I don’t have to be fair to anything!”
Five years ago, in writing about the tsunami disaster, I described the thoughts of an imaginary woman of Trenton who was trying to see rightly:
“Yes, the world has shown it can be terribly brutal. And I don’t understand how to see that brutality, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist. But I’m also not going to say that this ugliness negates whatever good and beauty and kindness exist; they are the world too. And I’m not going to get a sleazy feeling of victorious superiority deciding reality is a mess. I’m going to say I don’t understand and I hope to understand, without making myself important by despising everything.” [TRO 1632]
What People Deserve
Central to using the Haiti earthquake in behalf of respect is to feel the following: “As I see what men, women, and children in Haiti are enduring, I am using it to see people as more real, as having much more value than I have given them. I am using this disaster to criticize my coldness. I am using it to see, and to keep seeing, that other people are like me, that their feelings are like my own.”
Part of this greater justice to people is the seeing clearly that before the earthquake, people in Haiti were forced to live in a way that arose from massive contempt. The poverty in Haiti is huge. And it is huge because the economy of Haiti is based on the ugly, immoral idea that it is right for whatever resources exist in Haiti to be owned by some few persons, for whom other persons are a means of profit. It is my opinion that the Haiti earthquake should be used by everyone 1) to have more respect for people, and 2) as part of that respect, to see vividly that the economy of a nation should be based, not on using human beings for profit, but on making sure every person gets what he or she needs and deserves.
I am glad and proud that the United States wants to assist the earthquake victims of Haiti. Meanwhile, we need to see that over the years the United States backed Haitian governments that kept their people impoverished. The idea was that any government favoring profit-based economics was one we should support, and any government questioning profit-based economics was one we should oppose—even if it could have people live less poorly, less hungrily, and with more dignity. We should use the Haiti earthquake to abjure this fake, awful equation.
Voltaire wrote his “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne” in 1756. It consists of 234 lines, in rhymed 12-syllable couplets. In 1967, Eli Siegel chose several passages from the poem and gave them subtitles. He translated them in free verse—immensely musical free verse, which, amazingly, conveys the quality, the feeling, of Voltaire’s couplets. In his note to the translation, he writes:
Voltaire argues. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is not something to be resigned to, unquestioning about, says one of the most alert men of all history. Voltaire, though, is poetic too....Grace, music, largeness, surprise, wit—and, again, auditory loveliness are in the Lisbon lines.
Voltaire’s mighty respect for reality, his reverence for reality, shows in the “auditory loveliness” of his lines. There are grandeur and tenderness along with indignation in, for example, these lines: “But I live; but I feel; but my heart, deeply hurt, /Asks for help from the God who made it exist.”
Here, then, are two important works, both of them crucially and kindly about us now: lines of Voltaire in a magnificent translation; and the first part of a lecture in which Eli Siegel understands the worrying that goes on in people’s thoughts, in streets, in kitchens, in beds at night.