|NUMBER 1877.—June 18, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are honored to publish “Reflections on a Certain Lack of Intensity,” by Eli Siegel. This great essay was written, it seems, in the early 1950s, and what Mr. Siegel describes in it has to do very much with the literature of that time. Now, more than sixty years later, various ways of literary expression have changed; but the matters, the troubles, the mistakes that he explains—magnificently explains—are with us still, both in art and in life itself. I’ll mention some of those troubles about intensity as they’re present in lives of men and women day after day.
Mostly, people are intense in ways that make them ashamed—so much human intensity is anger that’s inexact and selfish. One result of this inaccurate intensity is: since people are ashamed of having it, they try instead to be unruffled, unaffected, cool. Meanwhile, people, often the same people, also feel bad because they lack intensity: they’re not for anything passionately; things don’t have wide, sharp meaning for them; they have the flat, flaccid, empty “is that all there is” feeling. So in the streets, homes, cultural establishments of America and the world, people are ashamed of both their intensity and their lack of it.
The ubiquitous culprit, the thing in every person that corrupts our emotions, Mr. Siegel was the philosopher to identify. It is contempt: “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” Contempt, he showed, is “the greatest danger or temptation of man.” And this desire to look down on things can make our intensities narrow, ugly, and cruel.
Contempt also takes the form of a huge desire in people not to feel intensely about the world. Contempt is often a quiet, sneering drive to be tepid, cold, aloof, unstirred. The contempt in everyone says (without the person’s articulating it): “What’s not me is not good enough to move me mightily, sweep me, have such power over me that it makes for feelings I’m not on top of.” Every person is somewhere intensely desirous of being flaccid, indifferent, unmoved.
And all over the world, men and women do not see that their desire to be unaffected so they can feel superior is the thing that makes them unable to be affected when they think they want to be. For instance, a man and woman who were much taken by each other can feel a year or so after marriage, “What happened to us? Why does our relationship seem so tepid?” The most intensity they feel is when they fight with each other; they can occasionally get to some intense moments in sex; but day-to-day life together is pretty flat. And the reason is: both persons have gotten a hidden value from making the world dull.
Art Has What We Want
In his essay, Mr. Siegel shows that this matter of intensity—which has so much to do with every person’s life—is central to what art is. The relation of art to our lives is in the following landmark Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Intensity can be seen as having various opposites: intensity and ease are opposites; intensity and calm; also intensity and width; intensity and logic; intensity and structure. These opposites are together whenever something is beautiful—whether a song, a play, a sentence, a painting, a dance. And every person is thirsty to have them truly together in our own feelings—even though we’re driven to that fake combination of narrow intensity and flaccidity which is contempt. Aesthetic Realism shows that the desire to make reality’s opposites one in us by seeing them as one in the world, is, really, the most intense longing we have. It is the same as our deepest desire: to like the world.
In the essay, Mr. Siegel explains something not understood before: the difference between intensity that’s false and intensity that’s true. And he mentions some instances, in literature, of the authentic thing. Meanwhile, Mr. Siegel himself was beautiful about intensity, both in his writing and as he spoke to people. I had the enormous good fortune to witness this fact week after week, year after year. He was passionate about justice, and that passion was always simultaneously ease, grace, logic. When he spoke with casualness, lightness, there was always, burning within these, inseparable from them, an unstinting desire to see truly.
Here Are Intensity & Width
I’ll give an example of these opposites from one of Mr. Siegel’s very early works: “The Equality of Man,” published in the Modern Quarterly in 1923, when he was 21. The following sentences are alive with his intensity that people be seen justly—an intensity that never flagged; and in them too is width that is rich and resonant. He wrote:
Mind needs nourishment, care and training all by itself....And the fact is plain enough that millions and millions of people from the beginning of the world, with man living in it, have not got this mind’s nourishment, care and training. Their lives were forced to be led so, to get food enough for their stomachs was all that they could do....And I say it is wrong to say that anyone’s mind is inferior, until it has been completely seen that it has been given all the nourishment, care and training that it needs or could get.
Another way intensity and its opposite were one in Mr. Siegel I’ll mention only swiftly here, though I can think of nothing I’ve loved more in this world. Scholarship, erudition, intellect have so often been opposed to intensity—have been academic and dry. That was never so with Eli Siegel. He was the most learned person I knew or have heard of—and his intellect was always passionate. His scholarship was always alive, and as he spoke about a 17th-century poem, or the history of economics, or what mathematics is—you felt it had to do with your life and had the immediacy of your own beating heart.
Then, there is his poetry, which is immensely diverse and always has what, in this essay, he says literature must have. We publish here an early poem, of around 1926. It is intense, graceful, musical. The meaning of a person and someone’s feeling about her throb in the lines, and are simultaneously mysterious. The lines are, at once, in quiet searching motion and vibrantly tight. In the words-as-music of this poem the intensity about one person is inseparable from love for the tender, sometimes fearsome, yet friendly width of things.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Reflections on a Certain Lack of Intensity
By Eli Siegel
Sudden, thy shadow fell on me;
I shrieked, and clasped my hands in ecstasy!
...O awful loveliness!
—Shelley, “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty”
Shelley, in the “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” is intensely affected by something, and it is lovely too. It is quite clear, then, that his contemporary status is questionable. Evil may excite one these days, but loveliness, no. That would be naïve, and reprehensible. Somehow, the Divine Comedy of Dante has lost a book, the Paradiso. Hell is intense, Purgatory has its points, but Paradise is with William Jennings Bryan—outdated.
Literature, though, is bigger than any attitude to it, and literature asks that you be as excited by as many things as possible, as deeply as possible, as long as possible—and, too, as controlledly as possible. An honest intensity about a strawberry is still more valuable literarily than a dishonest excitement about a spiritual wound. A joyous intensity that has form is more on the side of art than a lugubrious state of soul without it.
Any age may be disparaged; yet it is true that a good deal of the poetry written today is like hidden water moving about languidly on hidden oilcloth. There is a great slowing up. Mind has been caught, as a typewriter key can be caught. Being in a jam is very much associated with being wise.
Now, there has never been literature without intensity. Intensity implies excitement, and when there is authentic excitement, joy is with it. Literature is still that which finds satisfaction even in the grudgingness and difficulty of the universe.
Rimbaud, for example, is very different from Herrick; but they have this in common: something meant so much to them that they were disposed to put, and did put, it into form. Whether it is a boat going along drunkenly in deep shadows or a Devonshire festivity in May, whether it was seen in France or in England, in the 19th century or in the 17th, there are with Rimbaud and Herrick that adequate momentum and richness, that intensity which literature requires and never will do without.
Reality can be intensely hated and intensely liked, and that person is for literature who hates with form and likes with form. An honest satire is closer to an honest dithyramb or rhapsody than to an insincere satire. Tolstoy and Fielding are closer than Tolstoy and some sad finder of wretchedness in a Philadelphia suburb. Dostoyevsky and Jane Austen are closer than Dostoyevsky and some desiccate depicter of a husband’s anger and deliquescence in Sheffield. Sincerity makes hate and approval close, and this is to be seen in the technique of the novel and poem.
It has come to be, however, that satisfaction-with-intensity is scarcely admitted. I’m afraid that Mr. Eliot has something to do with the banishment of intensity plus joy as a fit preliminary to properly contemporary literature. In Mr. Eliot’s The Waste Land, one could find seemingly commendable reason for seeing our age as run-down; also for seeing anyone who still saw reality or nature as fresh, as hardly in the know. Somewhat later, “The Hollow Men” likewise called the discerning to view the soul of man as hardly able to cope with attractive weariness and overwhelming ontological dissatisfaction. Weariness became a sign of intellectual modishness.
In my opinion, Shelley’s “To a Skylark” has some qualities unparalleled in the work of Mr. Eliot, and I find in St. Francis’s “Canticle of the Sun” a naïve rightness, a religious impetus, which serve poetry more than the incitements present in “East Coker.” Perhaps what this comes to is that I don’t see Mr. Eliot as sufficiently intense.
The Impetus Is There
Where I do find intensity is in the early work of Hemingway and the poems of Hart Crane. The styles of the two writers could hardly be more different: Hemingway is block-like and Crane is subterranean and gorgeous, but the impetus is there. It is there, too, in the Harmonium of Wallace Stevens. This impetus, of course, can be anytime, anywhere.
Yet a little Jack London, or at least Mark Twain, properly placed, would serve present-day letters well. They are, these letters, pale and intricate. The campuses and other literary milieus harbor paleness or not such authentic intensities. Intensities of the past are looked at, not to be felt, not to be gladly appreciated, energetically asserted—but to serve as something of a model for one’s own lesser intensities. This, certainly, does not deserve encouragement.
Intensity That Is Not True
I have said that there were intensities not authentic. There surely are. These arise from the use of the world intricately to present one’s own incompletely seen confusions. In true intensity, our feelings are objects just like other things. They are seen with the same thoroughness and boldness as a board is or an inkwell. The way the words are placed shows this. In the intensity that is not true, the intensity which is not about one’s own feelings and the world at once, a personal insufficiency is mingled falsely with external images, the shows of reality.
True intensity can be pictured as a cone. There is no interruption in the line, or structure, by which the base becomes the point. And that is how intensity becomes ours. The width of the world comes to a point in us; and the point in us expands (while still being a point) to become wider, also deeper.
Intensity never happened without something outside of oneself being seen intensely. This is quite plain, but it is likewise something which can be missed. Somehow, it has been thought that intense poetry or an intense novel can be written without there being an intense something in the mind of the person writing the novel or poem. It has been thought, too, that because intense feeling needs form, control, design, management, and so on to become art, somehow the intensity is no longer there. The fact that flowing water has become a block of ice does not undo the presence of water. And it should be seen plainly and permanently that even when intensity becomes structure, it is still intensity.
Personal & Impersonal
Because all art has structure, a person has tried to impose a structure on what he sees as his “intense” feelings. It needs to be seen that the only intensity which can truly become structure is an intensity which is personal and impersonal within the mind of the person. When intensity is personal and impersonal within one’s mind, there already is a structure in mind, before the words are set down. One’s job is really then to see the structure as an outside fact, even if it is of a situation within oneself. The structure within one’s mind, as Hegel might say, compels one to view it. So much as the structure is entire, will there be insistence on seeing it, and ability to see it.
All this is in difficult territory. Some idea, however, of true intensity can be furthered by a consideration of the article on intend in Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary. Skeat says that intend, the verb with which intensity is cognate, comes from the Latin “intendere, to stretch out, extend, stretch to, bend, direct, apply the mind.” One gathers from this that intensity arises from the mind’s stretching towards something, bending towards something. What is that something? It is something evidently outside of one’s mind at any one time. And how could our mind stretch towards something, how could our mind do it willingly, unless there was already some interest, love, even joy doing so?
According to Aesthetic Realism, an interest in oneself which is not simultaneously an interest in an object, or the outside world, is an interest making for false intensity or for languor. The false intensity may hide a languor, or the languor may hide an unexpressed, strident, false intensity. The intensity of poetry and the novel is the intensity of the world, without having been diminished, becoming oneself; and neither is the self diminished. When world and mind meet in such a way that there is enhancement of both, true intensity is in the making.
We Must Distinguish
It has always been hard to meet the world head on, deeply, unprotectively, and to feel that one is taking care of oneself at the same time. Yet this is necessary for literary intensity. In the thirties it was felt that what was required was to see, bravely, the suffering world from a sociological point of view. Now, more, and something different, is asked. It is beginning to be recognized that there is a hesitation of feeling itself. We recoil from things as such.
If, then, a lack of intensity is to become less and less of a lack, timidity and tepidity will have to be more understood. One of the main purposes of criticism is to distinguish that intensity, that passion, that energy which arise from reality and a person in felicitous merging, from those which arise from the possible use of literary ordonnance or structure to hide and make flourish one’s personal misgivings, penitences, insufficiencies. We must distinguish the true intensity of Strether in James’s Ambassadors from the not so true intensity of a swearing major on some Pacific island.
She Is Dead and She Might Not Be
By Eli Siegel
She might not have died;
But then, events.
She had tried, she tried, but well, there was the world and knowing wasn’t all hers.
She had been so pretty, so longed for, so thought of, in summer, misty nights, filled with strangeness, and lingering meaning, and far and wide feeling.
So pretty, so longed for, she was then.
In that soft, thin, ripply, fast dress that went so daintily with her body; and she so dainty and wise then; so pretty, so longed for, what was she knowing then; how was she going then; to what was she going?
It was July; it was June; now, winter; now December; and now she is dead, as many have been; she is dead; and she might not be; so is the world.
She is dead; she might not be.
She, she, as she is, as she was, she beautiful, she longed for; she is dead, she, so beautiful, so great, so longed for, was alive and dainty and gay; and knew this much; she knew what she knew then.
She, beautiful, is dead.
She might not be.
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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