Keenness and Being Affected
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel of tremendous importance in the understanding of art and the mind of everyone: Poetry and Keenness. And we print here too part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Dale Laurin, an architect, presented this April at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "What Makes a Man Truly Strong?"
Aesthetic Realism is based on this great principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Opposites that war in people—without their seeing or understanding this war—are the self asserting itself and the self being affected. I am grateful to comment now on a big aspect of that war: the feeling that to be keen is not only different from being affected, stirred, moved—but that in order to be keen about things we should not let them affect us very much. Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that shows the complete incorrectness of this feeling!
Everyone wants to be keen. And in his lecture Mr. Siegel explains—with richness and clearness and subtlety and power—what keenness is. It is always a cutting through the surface of things, a getting at what they really are. However, the notion of keenness people walk around with has been made corrupt by that force in us which tends to corrupt everything—by that which Mr. Siegel so greatly identified as the source of all injustice: contempt, the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."
To be keen is, of course, not to be taken in. But people don’t know they have a desire to see the world as something tricky, repulsive, out to hurt them—so they can feel that they’re superior to everything and that the only thing they should care for is their precious self. This desire, a phase of contempt, has men, women, and children feel that anything looking good must be a phony, and they in their keenness won’t be taken in by being deeply affected. People’s contempt has them feel day after day that to be unmoved is to be keen: that for things and people to affect you is for them to have power over you, tell you what to do, and if you’re keen you won’t permit that but be unmoved by them and manage them.
Meanwhile, people despise themselves for feeling cold. They are pained by an emptiness within, a sense that life is dull, an inability to love someone. But they don’t see that this emptiness, dullness, inability really arise from what they’ve taken to be their "keenness": the self-monition, "Be cool to things; know that they’re mean and fake and you’re too good for them."
Aesthetic Realism magnificently shows that while people can go on the deep assumption that this contempt is the keenest thing in the world, it is really the stupidest. Mr. Siegel showed that the deepest desire we have is to like the world through knowing it. It is through being affected by things accurately, through seeing what they are, that we are able to be larger—become ourselves.
The Stupidity of Contempt
Of course, it is possible to be moved inaccurately, be moved in an ugly way. But it happens that to be unaffected is always ugly and inaccurate, because we were born to find meaning in the world, and the world has it. As we are "keenly" aloof, we’re not only deeply dead but (to use an unfashionable word) retarded, unable to have things get within our minds and make for stir and composition there. As we are determined to ferret out fakery while ignoring value, and sometimes ferret out fakery that doesn’t exist, we are not keen but dumb: to see a thing as our ego prefers and not as the thing is, is as stupid as saying the earth is flat or Boston is a pleasant tropical city in the heart of South America. Further, rooking ourselves of what we were born for—to like the world honestly, be just to it, find meaning in it—is not keen, but idiotic; yet millions of people who think they are keen are doing just that.
Keenness and John Gibson Lockhart
A person important in the history of periodical criticism, or reviewing, is someone who can be used to study the fight in every person between true and false keenness. John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854) had true keenness, which is the desire to cut through superficiality and see and feel as fully and accurately as possible what a thing is. But he also had, with terrific notability, the false keenness people go after, of making the bright, scathing, ever so effective statement, while not feeling and seeing truly the thing he was commenting on. A critic, Mr. Siegel has explained, "makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling." Lockhart was so sharp and stinging a critic that he was called "The Scorpion." Yet in various instances—one monumental—he was quite wrong. It is generally agreed now that he is the author of the 1818 review of John Keats’s Endymion in Blackwood’s Magazine. And we have in that influential review a kind of brilliance and keenness which was the same as a vast inability to feel and see the value of Keats.
Lockhart was the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, and his 1837 Life of Scott has been called the greatest biography in English after Boswell’s Johnson. He was impelled there by a powerful desire both to be exact and to be affected deeply. He wrote on German literature, and he translated, with feeling, old Spanish ballads into English. Yet, as the 5th edition (1985) of The Oxford Companion to English Literature tells it, "In 1817 he began [in Blackwood’s] a long series of attacks on, in particular, Leigh Hunt, Keats, and Hazlitt, castigating them as the low-born ‘Cockney School of Poetry.’" The attacks included Keats’s Poems of 1817; then in 1818 Lockhart reviewed Endymion. Here are some of the sarcastic, clever, oh-so-keen sentences from that review. (The "malady" Lockhart refers to is Keats’s feeling he could write poetry.)
To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr John Keats....He was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady....For some time we were in hopes, that he might get off with a violent fit or two; but of late the symptoms are terrible. The phrenzy of the "Poems" was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of "Endymion."
At the conclusion of the review, Lockhart advises Keats to resume his former occupation: "Back to the [apothecary] shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’" This was written by a person enamored of how "keen" he could be. But because Lockhart couldn’t be affected, couldn’t see value where value existed, yet felt that to sneer was astute, he wasn’t keen but ugly and ridiculous.
The fight in Lockhart is a fight in everyone: between the keenness of wanting to see and feel the meaning of things, and that contemptuous "keenness" which is really unintelligence and disability. Because Eli Siegel’s purpose was always to see truly, he was the keenest, kindest, most accurate critic—of both art and life in all their fullness. This keen, deep, alive seeing is immortal in Aesthetic Realism. But it was there, day after day, in the sentences he, as person, spoke—the most beautiful thing I know in the world.