Fitness, Chaucer, and Ethics
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue our serialization of the great 1949 lecture Poetry and Unity, by Eli Siegel. And we print, too, sections of a paper that photographer and Aesthetic Realism associate Len Bernstein presented this month at a tremendously important Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Mind & Body: Can a Man Use Both to Be Kind?” Mr. Bernstein spoke about something more worked at than ever before in history—physical fitness—and why, though a man’s body may be in top-notch shape, he can still dislike himself, feel dull, nervous, mean.
The basis of Aesthetic Realism is this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The chief opposites in everyone’s life, whether we are lifting weights or reading Paradise Lost, are Self and World. And Mr. Siegel explained what all the various therapists and counselors haven’t seen: the way we judge ourselves, however unconsciously, is an ethical and also aesthetic way—it is not on whether we have praise from others, career success, or fine muscle tone; it is on whether we are trying, with our thought and feeling, to be fair to the world.
Mr. Siegel showed that the crucial reason for our not liking ourselves is that we have gone after contempt—“the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” This drive to make ourselves more through diminishing other things and people, is not only the thing that has us feel cheap, depressed, anxious; it is the source of all the unkindness that has ever been.
The very current matter of exercise, of getting and keeping one’s body in shape, has to do with the subject of the lecture we are serializing: unity. We want to feel that this unit, our self, is substantial, powerful in individuality, distinctness, meness. But Aesthetic Realism shows that the criterion for exercise—for whether it will make us deeply surer or less sure, more whole or more inwardly at odds—is the same as the criterion for anything else we do: will we try to get to a snug and mighty sense of self through contempt for the world or respect?
Men and women throughout America, displeased with reality and themselves, have tried to get to composure and pride by concentrating on themselves physically. Our bodies should look as good and be as strong as possible. But if we find a satisfaction in kicking out the world from our mind and turning our own corporeality into the principal object of our fervent attention, we are really increasing that contempt for the world which caused us to dislike ourselves in the first place.
Fitness & Ethics, 14th Century
In the present section of Poetry and Unity Mr. Siegel speaks of a ballade by Chaucer, from his Legend of Good Women. So I use Chaucer, a little, to comment on this matter of body and ethics. Like every important writer, he was interested in the relation of the physicality of a person and the quality of that person’s thought. And in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales we find descriptions of how each of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury looked, and what that person’s ethics or character was. The most muscularly impressive is the Miller.
The work of a miller was to grind the corn, or grain; and as payment, or partial payment, the medieval miller would “tollen” take a fixed percent of the customer’s grain for himself. Chaucer tells us that this Miller was big in muscle and also bone—“Ful byg he was of brawn, and eek of bones.” That poetic line itself has weight, with those heavy b sounds in accented syllables. Meanwhile, in keeping with Aesthetic Realism’s great, true explanation of beauty: if the line did not have lightness too, a kind of skip, it would not be beautiful—would not be important, after 600 years.
Chaucer’s Miller had such physical prowess that he always won the prize, a ram, at wrestling matches:“ At wrastlynge he wolde have alwey the ram.” Yet Chaucer wants us to feel that this man, for all his fitness, saw the world as something to beat out, have contempt for, get the better of; and therefore he used his body for that purpose. The following lines have charm and music; but they tell of an intense combat with things: “Ther was no dore that he nolde heve of harre, / Or breke it at a rennyng with his heed.” This means: "There was no door he wouldn’t heave off its hinges, / Or break it at a running with his head.”
Kinds of Power
In the following lines, Chaucer comments on the Miller’s mind, his ethics. I quote the Middle English, then translate:
He was a janglere and a goliardeys,
And that was moost of synne and harlotries.
Wel koude he stelen corn and tollen thries.
“He was a loud talker and one who told coarse stories, / And they were mostly about sin and vulgarities. / Well could he steal corn, and take three times his due.”
There are various kinds of power in this world, and Chaucer was interested in them. There is physical power, and it can be used either to respect the world or not. There is the power of contempt, which can take the form of making the world disgusting and ridiculous, so you can look down on it: that is the power the Miller went for in telling vulgar stories. And he went after another popular form of contempt: taking financial advantage of people.
Then, there is what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the greatest power: to see and bring out the meaning in things. This power, of respect for the world, of good will, Chaucer describes lovingly in, for instance, the Parson, and the Clerk. It is what he as artist had—because to describe cheapness, like that of the Miller, with a grand accuracy is to respect the world.
In one couplet, Chaucer has us feel that the Miller, too, wanted the power of caring for the world, not just beating it. As the pilgrims head toward Canterbury, the Miller plays an instrument, the bagpipe. Doing so, he is using, at last and together, force and tenderness: “A baggepipe wel coude he blowe and sowne, / And therewithal he broghte us out of towne” (“A bagpipe well could he blow and sound , / And with it, he brought us out of town”).
Aesthetic Realism is knowledge that can enable every person to use both our minds and our bodies to be kind, intelligent, and proud.