Feelings, Facts, & What We Do with Them
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the third part of The Scientific Method in Feeling, by Eli Siegel. This great 1973 lecture begins with his describing the rift people make between feeling and knowing. It is a division men and women take for granted in their everyday lives, even as they’re weakened hugely by it and ashamed of it. Throughout the world and throughout the years people have seen their feelings as things they need not—and cannot—be exact about. Scientists too have severed knowing from feeling; they have seen feelings as essentially unknowable. But early in the lecture, Mr. Siegel says: “The purpose of the real scientific method would be to know a thing in the best way....The question is: can there be scientific method which isn’t at the same time fair to feeling?”
The disinclination to see our feelings exactly, be accurate critics of them, is as frequent as breathing. Yet the danger of not trying to see ourselves truly is gigantic. As Mr. Siegel once described in a lesson: if we don’t want to know ourselves we’ll misuse ourselves—in the same way that people have hurt themselves operating a big, powerful machine without wanting to understand how it works and what it is. To feel and to know are opposites, and this central principle of Aesthetic Realism includes them: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
How Alive Is a Fact?
In his lecture Mr. Siegel uses an anthology, the College Book of English Literature, to show that knowing and feeling are inseparable. At this point he has reached the Tudor period, which began in 1485. And as Mr. Siegel gives facts about that period, including specific dates, we see something beautiful, something that stands for him as educator and person: he presented any fact—including those that could seem dry or cold—in a way that had one feel the life in them, the electricity, even sometimes the humor. He did this not through any artificial means or clever additives. He had one feel the emotion, the meaning, in facts because he felt that meaning; and he stated any fact with such graceful truth about it and its relation to other facts, and with such fine prose rhythm, that a technical thing was reverberatingly alive.
Mr. Siegel speaks “technically” here at some length about the Tudors; and I believe the reason is to show what it’s the purpose of the lecture itself to show: that there is no datum, no strict fact, that doesn’t have feeling in it and that can’t make for feeling.
Fundamental to understanding what we feel is this explanation, given by Aesthetic Realism alone: Anything we do, including feel, is on behalf of either respect for the world or contempt for it. A feeling based on the desire to have contempt for reality is always ugly and hurtful. Feeling based on the desire to respect the world is strengthening, kind, and can be immensely beautiful. Meanwhile, there is subtlety in this matter. Take a very homely feeling: A person welcomes some chocolate cake into her mouth and feels, “This is delicious.” There is respect there, for an aspect of reality. However, her feeling pleased can swiftly become the feeling, articulated or not, “I’m in a mean world, and this cake soothes me against that nasty world, enables me to feel apart from it. Also, as I have the cake between my teeth and on my tongue, at last I have the world on my terms, submissive to me, designed to please me.” That is contempt. A different feeling, though, could accompany the “this is delicious” feeling: the feeling that the relation of intensity and soothingness or sweetness in chocolate cake is a means to value the oneness of these qualities anywhere—including in music, the spoken word, people. That feeling is respect.
Uncriticized Feelings, Personal & International
I mention now just a few of the feelings people have not wanted to look at in themselves, have not wanted to know. They’re part of personal life; but, since people running nations are people, all these feelings have also been present in a national and international field. There’s this frequent feeling, which, though it can seem quiet, is contempt all the way: the feeling, “A person who praises me is good, while anyone who questions or criticizes me is bad.” To judge the quality of a person, and the quality of truth, on the basis of whether he, she, or it makes us important is foul.
The chief reason people have not wanted to know their feelings is something Eli Siegel was the philosopher to explain: we would rather use ourselves than know ourselves, use that equipment which is we to go after making ourselves comfortable and impressive. If we were to look at our feeling, question it, see it truly, our ability to use ourselves for our own false glory would be much curtailed. To see that “a certain feeling of mine might be unjust” has been very distasteful: it hinders the going after what we see as our way. Also, a person can have a feeling that is very good—for instance, the feeling “No child should be poor in America!”—and not want to see the feeling clearly, with full vividness. The reason is: knowing this feeling might interfere with various notions of comfort and importance she has, because it would make her feel she should do something about the situation. And it would make her feel she should question her sense of herself as deserving much more than other people deserve.
A big aspect of feeling is wanting something. And what people have wanted is, again, in behalf of either respect for the world or contempt for it. People have wanted praise; a certain power; someone’s affection. Are we interested in knowing whether we want these in order to respect things more, or in order to have contempt? It could be either.
This Has Been Done with Feelings
In our time the social media, which can be a field for kindness, is also a field for the sloppy and harmful thrusting of feelings that one doesn’t want to see with critical exactitude: “I have this feeling. It’s mine so it must be right. I can get it into 140 characters and spread it abroad in seconds and I don’t have to look at the facts, or possible results.”
One of the awful effects of severing feelings from a desire to know, is: people have thought they could create logic and facts to justify their feeling. This is called lying. It has gone on throughout the centuries and, as we have seen recently, it can be quite elaborate. We should use the seeing of it, in its ugliness, to see the importance of trying to be exact about our own feelings, including our desires. There is no real alternative: either we will want to see the facts about our feelings, or we’ll “create facts” to justify them.
For example, a boy, Clay, punches another boy in the face—and then Clay tells this phony story to inquiring adults: “I only did it because I heard him saying he would beat up my sister. Everyone knows he said it! Fifteen people heard him. And he was snickering when he said it!” And it’s all untrue.
Sometimes the created “facts” are told by us to ourselves, in our own mind. A girl, for instance, who feels driven to be against another girl, to be angry at and make fun of this girl, tells herself the following—which isn’t so: “Jenna is always showing off. She looks down on me. She wants to take away my friends. The way she smiles is creepy. Also, her family is strange. It’s right for me to hate her, and to wish she didn’t exist.”
Then—as we have been seeing—lying, creating “facts,” can be horribly extensive in its viciousness, geared to bring out the viciousness of many others. And all this falsification comes from the seeing of one’s own feeling as unquestionable, as supreme, as something to which everything else, including the truth, should be subjugated.
In this part of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about two poems. He is the critic who explained: “Poetry is logic and emotion brought together so well, music ensues.” And through the magnificent philosophy he founded, we can learn to do increasingly that vital thing which poetry, and all art, does: have logic and emotion inseparable friends in us.