Poetry versus Cruelty
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we print nine poems by Eli Siegel. They are all from a single notebook of his—a notebook which, while mainly containing writings of the year 1961, has also, in its early pages, some of his poems of the 1930s. All have his logical imagination; his imaginative logic, wild and exact; his love of reality; his kindness.
We publish these poems on the 33rd anniversary of the terrible operation that led to his death. I’ll comment a little on them; they stand for him. And I’ll comment some too on those cruel happenings in the spring of 1978 which I have written about with more detail over the decades.
Simply: In May 1978, Mr. Siegel underwent surgery for a benign prostatic condition. The effect of the surgery was that his life was ruined. “I have lost the use of my feet,” he wrote, and called it “the operation so disastrous to me.” The physical debilitation, which had not existed before that “standard procedure,” grew with each week. By August he could no longer use his hands to write with. Instead, he dictated poems, and essays for this periodical. Mr. Siegel was agonized by what the operation had done to his body: that it had stopped him from meeting the world with fullness; it had made for an increasingly awful severing from the tangible world, from the earth, sidewalks, objects, which he loved so much.
Nevertheless, in the summer and early fall, he taught Aesthetic Realism classes, giving lectures of cultural might on such authors as Scott, Byron, Milton; he spoke on the drama; he gave Aesthetic Realism lessons to individual men and women, in which the largest questions of their lives were understood with grandeur. Yet the weakening, severing results of the surgery were intensifying, and it was clear they would worsen. He could not bear to live in an ever more curtailed relation to a world it was his life’s purpose to be fair to. His death occurred on November 8, 1978.
That is the outline. But behind it is a matter that has been much in human history. What was inflicted on Eli Siegel 33 years ago is hugely important in itself; but he would want it also to be a means of understanding something which people need to understand if lives are to fare well and the world is to be civilized.
Anger at Respect
What needs to be seen is this: People can have within them an anger, a fury, that someone else is better than they are in a large way—intellectually, ethically. This anger at respect, at the need to look up to someone or something, is the ugliest thing in the human self. Eli Siegel met it, directed at him, throughout his life.
It is an understatement to say his scholarship and intellect were tremendous. He was at ease in every field of knowledge. And when he spoke, the subject—literature or history, for instance—was alive, warm, thrilling to those who heard him.
His honesty was constant. Donald Kirkley, writer for the Baltimore Sun, who knew him early, described in a 1944 article “a certain integrity and steadfastness of purpose that distinguished Mr. Siegel.” The poet William Carlos Williams, writing about the way of seeing that is in Eli Siegel’s poetry, said it represents “the truly new”—“[He] has outstripped the world of his time.” And then Williams wrote, “The other side of the picture is the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new. It shows itself by the violent opposition Siegel received.”
In a recent New York Times op-ed article, author David Rakoff wrote about people’s craving to see someone who is respected fall. This desire, he says, is not for justice: rather, “it is because we knew all along that nobody could be that good. How did we know? Because we’re not that good.” Rakoff says we feel another’s “altruism is an indictment” of our selfishness, “and so some punishment—of him—might be in order.”
Over the decades and even now there have been various persons thirsty to “get” something on Mr. Siegel and the philosophy he founded, because they stupidly felt that his goodness, integrity, and knowledge made them less. They felt what Iago says in a statement from Othello that I’ve quoted on other occasions: “He hath a daily beauty in his life / That makes me ugly.” They felt their own dishonesty and cheapness were justified because “isn’t everyone else that way too?—and so you, Eli Siegel, have to be, and I’m furious that you’re not!” They could not find in him the falsity they were salivating after, because it wasn’t there; some tried to manufacture it by telling lies, which didn’t stick.
Further, Aesthetic Realism presents the world in a way that makes for great respect for reality itself. Persons who feel it’s their right to have contempt for everything have seen Aesthetic Realism as an enemy to their very personalities; for they associate their personalities with the ability to look down on and sneer at the world. The rage of such persons, and their desire to punish Mr. Siegel and Aesthetic Realism, have been tremendous.
In May 1978
All this has to do centrally with what went on when Eli Siegel was dealt with by a surgeon, with cutting instruments, in an operating room.
The surgeon, Joseph De Filippi, met with Mr. Siegel some days before. There was a lengthy conversation that was like an Aesthetic Realism lesson, in which Mr. Siegel spoke with De Filippi about the doctor’s own life. Then, in the hospital, De Filippi chose to use general anesthesia, uncustomary for such a procedure. He wanted his patient to be unconscious. When Mr. Siegel awoke, his life was permanently shattered. Weeks later, questioned by me and others, De Filippi would not say what had happened, but admitted that he had been angry at his respect for Mr. Siegel.
Shakespeare, & More
The anger one can have at beauty, the anger that there’s something to look up to for an honest reason—is represented by the famous desire to “put a moustache on the Mona Lisa” (as Duchamp did in a mocking work). It’s also the thing that every once in a while has made a person enter a museum and try to slash a beautiful painting, or attack sculpture.
Shakespeare saw that ugly feeling in people. It’s in the lines I quoted from Othello. And in Julius Caesar, as Shakespeare presents Cassius luring Brutus to kill Caesar, it’s this hate of looking up to someone which Cassius appeals to. “For who so firm that cannot be seduced” in such a way?, he says to himself.
In act 1, scene 2, Cassius “seduces” Brutus by telling him: “I had as lief not be as live to be / In awe of such a thing as I myself.” That is: I’d rather be dead than have large respect for some guy who’s a human being like me. Then Cassius says to Brutus about Caesar:
Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about.
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that “Caesar”?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Soon Brutus is ready to murder Caesar, because, as Cassius saw, Brutus had that hate of another’s might.
I know firsthand about resenting someone for having a goodness we don’t have—about the resentment of respect. As I have told for many years: In May 1978 Mr. Siegel did not want the operation. The doctors said if he did not have it he would die. He said he would prefer to die. He asked his wife, Martha Baird, to seek the opinion of some of his students. And we all said very rapidly that he should undergo the surgery. I see our rapidity as shameful, and cruel.
Speaking for myself—it is true that I was terrified by the dire urging of the doctors; but my hurry did not come only from great concern for Mr. Siegel’s life. I have seen that I did not want to think deeply and fully about him at that time of acute need, because of something that existed intertwined with my love for him and gratitude to him: a resentment that I respected him so much. I and Mr. Siegel’s other students were angry with him, because he who was so great, for whom we had so much respect, did not have unmistakable fame. And those of us consulted about the surgery had the sleazy feeling that at last we were wiser than Mr. Siegel: that we knew better about his health than he did. Mr. Siegel agreed to the operation.
The Fight in Everyone
Anger at respect, resentment at seeing large and constant value, are aspects of something which Aesthetic Realism is the body of knowledge to explain: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.”
Contempt is the beginning of every cruelty. But it is not the deepest thing in us. It is at war, in all of us, with our deepest desire: to respect the world, see meaning in what is not ourselves. I saw this passionate, accurate, glad respect for the world in Eli Siegel all the time—including in 1978 as he was in agony. And I have, along with burning regret, the knowledge that to respect something honestly is not a lessening of oneself but an achievement, a victory. Respect is the source of every instance of real art.
Here, then, are poems by Eli Siegel, which have his beautiful way of seeing the world.
The poem “Two Statements” is dated July 11, 1933 and is immensely musical. It has Eli Siegel’s seeing of the grandeur that is in a thing (here, a flower). And it says injustice to a thing should be objected to resoundingly.
There are poems about contempt—that feeling that to be yourself you should lessen what’s not you. “Gertrude Broods Alone” is about this, humorously. And “The Self, Beating” is on the subject. These are of 1961.
“A Girl and Things” has the bracketed date 1925 written near it, though it is in a section with poems of 1961 and in the same ink. I assume Mr. Siegel recopied there, or reconstructed from memory, lines he had written 36 years before. This poem is about life and death, and its seven lines have severity and glow, strictness and sweep. A poem on a subject close to death and life is “Starting”—about cessation and freshness. Can we look at such fearsome opposites and honestly like the world? That is what happens in both poems.
There are poems about a relation between our own intimate self and outside things; for example, “They Resist” and “Disappointment.”
“Restrained Song about Sleet” is a scientific and charming poem about a fairly miserable subject. It makes for delight without smoothing over the discomfort reality can give.
There is, finally, one of the great poems about art: “Color and the Inconceivably Unknown.” It was written in 1961 for a Terrain Gallery exhibition of color photographs by Nat Herz. (To present color photography as art was new then.) In the free verse lines of this poem, in their oneness of statement and music, one feels the throbbing, rich withinness of things, and what’s clear, definite. This poem is fervent and exact; surprising and logical; it states and soars.
These poems are immortal. So is the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, from which they are inseparable, with its principle “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Immortal too is the writer of these poems, Eli Siegel, who was true magnificently all the time to the philosophy he founded.