Love—& How We Talk to Each Other
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing a beautiful, definitive lecture that Eli Siegel gave in 1964. In it, he discusses his 1930 poem “A Marriage” and how it preludes what Aesthetic Realism explains about love. With enormous pleasure and gratitude I say: Aesthetic Realism is that which makes clear what love really is, and also what the big interference is—the huge mistake people have made about love for centuries and are making right now.
The purpose of love, Aesthetic Realism shows, is “to feel closely one with things as a whole”—to like the world itself through one’s closeness to a person. And the mistake—the immensely popular mistake—is to use a person one says one cares for to get away from the world, lessen it, feel superior to it together.
“A Marriage” is a poem in 20 sections. It is musically sweeping and vivid, logical and throbbing. And our current issue has Mr. Siegel’s discussion of sections 2 through 5. He is showing that any two people, however alone together they may be, are always related to the whole world, and have the world in them. Even the troubles in marriage—for instance, the way two people can go from sweetness to rage—have their inexpungible likeness to outside reality.
Always There: The Opposites
Love and how it will fare begin with what the nature of the self is, and the nature of the world. And these are described in a central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” A person we see ourselves as caring for has the structure of the world in him: reality’s opposites. We may be taken, for example, by the way he is intense yet gentle. But intensity and gentleness are also in the way rain may fall, sunlight may come to us on a spring day; they’re in the music of Chopin, brightly colored silk, the sudden but friendly laugh of a stranger. We can’t truly love those qualities in a person we’re close to, if we spurn the world those qualities are of, and the people and things that have them.
The person we care for is related to the world in thousands of ways. He’s related to it, as I said, through reality’s structure, which is in him: he is a particular joining, not only of intensity and gentleness, but of surface and depth, logic and feeling, seriousness and lightness, and more. And he is infinitely related to the world because he is composed of all he has to do with—including the words he uses, which came from centuries of human beings; the subjects that interest him; the people he has known; the skies he has seen; the sounds he has heard; the stairs he has walked on; the food he has tasted; the material of his dreams; world events; mathematical calculations; every item ever mentioned to him. He is a particular arrangement of these, but he is these. And if we have contempt for the world, we have contempt for him. That is why the desire for contempt is the biggest interference with love. Contempt, the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world,” is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the ugliest thing in a person, albeit ever so ordinary. It’s the source of all cruelty, and is that in us which weakens our mind and life.
“Words in a Room”
I have said that a protagonist of the poem being discussed is A Word. Section 2 begins with the line “An auto going south, and words in a room.” And Mr. Siegel speaks about the fact that in marriage, people seem less and less able to talk to each other satisfyingly. There is huge pretense on this subject of how couples talk, use words together. On the one hand, each person would like to be hidden, contained, unshown, while having somebody’s devoted and flattering company. But on the other hand, people are ashamed of not speaking to each other with the desire to know each other, to show themselves, to learn about and value the world together. If two people are not hearing from each other words impelled by such a purpose, they inevitably resent each other and feel an aching emptiness.
It’s necessary to see that you cannot want to know a person if you’re using that person to get away from the world. The reason is: to know a person is to know how the world is in him, and how he sees the world. Eli Siegel explained (and the prose style of these sentences is ever so fine):
To know a person is to know the universe become throbbingly specific. It is always the universe on two feet, with two eyes, and an articulate mouth. It is the universe we want to skip.
What a magnificent fact it is that Aesthetic Realism, in showing a person that her deepest desire is to like the world, also frees in her the desire to know, really know, another human being. Aesthetic Realism enables one to see that knowing is the same as warmth. In the first line Mr. Siegel discusses here, the phrase “words in a room” has in its sound the oneness of warmth and largeness, tenderness and stirring mystery. That phrase and the poem as such have in their music the oneness of opposites that love is looking for.
In Aesthetic Realism lessons and classes, when Eli Siegel spoke to or about a person there was always, in his words and seeing, the oneness of the wide universe and a particular self. He wanted to know that person in his or her specificity—and he saw that person as related to everything. Sometimes he would show that the person having the lesson was in the midst of questions had also by a character in a novel, or by someone in history, or by a composer or scientist. This seeing of one individual, you, as related to all reality, is the basis of Aesthetic Realism consultations now.
To study with Eli Siegel was to meet the height of intellect, which was also the height of kindness. It was to experience the greatest success of “words in a room.”