Philosophy, a Famous Song, & You
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great lecture Philosophy Consists of Instincts, which Eli Siegel gave in 1965. And we publish here too part of a paper by sportswriter Michael Palmer, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “The Mix-up in Men about Coldness & Warmth.”
In his lecture Mr. Siegel explains what no other philosopher has: the biggest conflict in every person, he says, the turmoil that goes on in people every day, corresponds to the largest matter in philosophy:
There is an instinct on the part of everyone to see or be honest; there is also an instinct to be comfortable....Perhaps the best way to see what this conflict is, is to see how it is present in the history of...American philosophy.
The fight between our desire to see, know, give things justice, and our desire to be comfortable, has many forms in everyone’s life. And then, there is what Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy to show—the only way we will be proud, at ease, happy, is to see these opposed desires as deeply the same, as one: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” To comment on that landmark principle and the fight Mr. Siegel speaks about, I’m going to look at a poem which is also an ever so famous song.
On New Year’s Eve
This issue of TRO will appear on the last day of 2014. And that night, men and women throughout the English-speaking world will again sing words Robert Burns wrote in 1788. His poem “Auld Lang Syne” is beautiful. But people have been puzzled; they haven’t really known what it’s about, though they’ve felt it has to do with the past. The Scottish title literally means old long since, and can be translated “Old Times Past.” The poem, sung to an old Scottish melody, begins:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?
This is a poem passionately, tearfully, firmly, joyfully against one of the biggest ways people have gone after comfort: the putting of things aside, the making them not matter. The poem is for knowing, seeing meaning. It says, If something of the past had value, you should want to see that value; you should want it to stay with you, be part of you.
“Auld Lang Syne” has to do with memory, that big matter which troubles people a lot. Throughout their lives, they can feel the way to be comfortable is to be not much affected by the confusing world—to get rid of it in various ways. For instance, people so often go to sleep at night with the desire to get rid of the world they had to deal with during the day. There is a big, ongoing feeling that: the outside world makes unkind demands on me, doesn’t appreciate me, has the nerve to mix me up; and the way to have comfort, peace, real pleasure is to put aside all (or at least most) of it and have myself to myself (with perhaps the company of somebody who’ll give me a lot of praise).
Memory is the world, experience, retained in oneself. But as the years pass, a person can have such an industry of putting aside the world that after a while this putting it aside is out of her control: she can’t remember.
To get away from the world can seem innocent, but it is a form of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the most dangerous thing in humanity: contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” “Auld Lang Syne” is against contempt. “Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” no. The world—including the world of your past—is for you to see, to know, to make part of you. There is the famous chorus:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!
“A cup o’ kindness” is a toast to the kindness one met, and a pledge to continue kindness. Along with memory as such, this poem has to do with something related to it, which people see as a terrific interference with comfort: gratitude. They’ve felt that to have gotten tremendous good from what’s not themselves, lessens their own superiority and perfection. This feeling is one of the ugliest, most hurtful things in the world.
When There Has Been Difficulty
The two greatest stanzas are in the middle of the poem. Twa means two; braes are hillsides; gowans are daisies; burn is brook; dine is dinnertime. In semi-anglicized Scottish, the stanzas are:
We twa have run about the braes,
And pulled the gowans fine;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot
Since auld lang syne.
We twa have paddled in the burn
From morning sun till dine,
But seas between us broad have roared,
Since auld lang syne.
That is: we seemed so carefree once—but so much has happened since; there’s been weariness. People have used the difficulties they’ve met to feel they should put aside the goodness, the wonder, the value they saw. But the lines of Burns have, along with poignancy, that electricity and reverberation which is Life. They are saying: I don’t want to use any difficulty to make less of what I saw as good; I want to keep seeing and valuing—not get to some shadowy, conceited, miserable comfort in myself by feeling cynically “what does it all come to?”
The last stanza uses a charming phrase to affirm the desire to know and honor: a “good-willy waught,” which means a drink to represent our good will. “And we’ll take a right good-willy waught / For auld lang syne.”
All art comes from the desire to know—to see and feel with fullness, depth, accuracy. And in all art, the sharpness and stir of justice are the same as composure, comfort in the truest sense. We hear these as one in the poetic music, as well as the melody, of “Auld Lang Syne.” And so, as people sing it, they will be singing about the biggest conflict in themselves—and also the beautiful and urgent aesthetic answer.