Point, Width, & Being False to Oneself
Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish here the final section of the great 1969 lecture Has Poetry Point?, by Eli Siegel. And with it is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Robert Murphy from the recent public seminar “What Makes a Man’s Life Large or Small?”
In the lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about two opposites that are in us and in events, and are made one in every instance of art: width and point, or welter and resolution. As he does, we are looking at this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
There is a spurious, very hurtful dealing with width and point that every person is prone to. One can feel that one’s life has much confusion in it, that there is so much one doesn’t comprehend about oneself. And there is a desire to take that uncomfortable welter, that width of confusion, and, without having to think, make it come to some swift point, to some rapid sureness, and so feel bewildered no longer. People can get to this fake sureness in many ways. Anger is a principal one. We can want to be angry, because at the moment we yell at someone, or throw a cup across the room, or even blast someone inwardly, in our own thoughts—at that moment we feel we’re completely clear: there’s nothing more we need to know. This and all fake modes of getting from sprawling unclearness to triumphant “clarity,” leave one, after the initial heady sense of release, more unsure and self-disgusted than before.
A reason racism is so abundant is that it is a way of taking a sprawling uncertainty about oneself and annulling it by getting to a “point”: a focus of hate. If one can despise an entire race, feel superior to millions of people, one can seem to put aside the fact that there is so much one is unsure of and so much one doesn’t like about oneself.
People have used—misused—sex for the same purpose. If you can have a very definite ecstatic corporeal release, you can feel the whole dissatisfying world has been dealt with victoriously by you. It has been annulled, transformed into someone pointedly, keenly, existing to please you.
A Readiness in History
The desire to take wide unsureness and weltering self-dislike and, without working to be exact, have them get to some ego-pleasing culmination: this is also the reason people have found war attractive. As I write about this fact, my purpose is not to comment on current events or particular countries. It is to describe a way of mind that has been in history, which has not been understood and needs to be understood if our future is to be civilized. The one means of comprehending why millions of people in nation after nation have welcomed unnecessary and wrong wars, is the Aesthetic Realism explanation of contempt. “Contempt,” Mr. Siegel wrote in a definitive issue of this journal, “is ...the main cause of wars” (TRO 165). It is also what has made ordinary citizens support them.
Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt can be wide: a general state of mind scornfully taking in ever so much. But it can also provide a terrific sense of point: a feeling our questions are answered because, look!—we’ve lessened someone and are superior.
Sometimes it has been necessary to go to war. In 1861, when the South wanted to secede from the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery, and began by grabbing Fort Sumter, it was necessary for the United States to fight this. It was necessary to fight Hitler. Meanwhile, a student of history knows that ever so many wars were not necessary—though at the time, politicians and press succeeded in having people feel the war must be!
That was so in 1898, with the completely unnecessary Spanish-American War, about which there was intense war fever throughout America. Many people feel, and felt at the time (say, Emerson, Thoreau, Lincoln), that our 1846 war against Mexico was unnecessary and had an ugly purpose. And there was the Franco-Prussian War; and the First World War, with history showing that in 1914 neither side stood clearly for justice, though millions of people in each country were whipped into a fervor and pictured themselves Right and Patriotic and with God, as soldiers were sent to kill.
Why Something Has Been Welcomed
1) So we find that a person of any country, perhaps you, has a feeling of wide unsureness, pervasive self-dissatisfaction. And do you want to get rid of it! The need to think and keep thinking, to try to understand though the answers don’t immediately come in, is annoying and humiliating to the ego. Then, if something standing for you, your country, seems to say, “There’sthe enemy, them—we’ll hate them and level them!,” there can be the feeling that messy, ongoing questioning is finally annulled.
2) If you can defeat somebody you feel superior, and people want to feel superior. War is attractive because people, not liking themselves, feel that through lessening another nation they’ll think well of themselves.
3) People can back their nations’ leaders in an unjust war because they feel, “What’s connected with me must be right.” It’s sheer conceit. When a child tells his mother how mean another child was to him, she has a tendency to take his side immediately, because he’s hers. A good mother is interested in finding out what’s true, not “siding” with her child: she feels loving truth is loving him.
4) Contempt has with it the desire to feel hurt—because then you don’t have to criticize yourself and can feel you’re a superior person assailed by mean barbarians. That is why you (of any nation) can be ready to believe politicians and press who tell you someone is out to hurt you. That is why you don’t want to distinguish precisely between what may hurt you and what may not.
5) People have many, swarming angers: at family, boss, neighbors; about money, love. They would like to consolidate those weltering, seething, unresolved angers into one nationally backed, explosively effective anger.
People, then, welcome war because they welcome contempt. But as persons welcomed incorrect wars, however intensely, the depths of themselves were never fully convinced. That is because what we want most deeply is to be just.
More than anything else in history, Aesthetic Realism encourages in people the desire to know. It shows the pleasure in trying to see. And that desire to know is the one real alternative to contempt. It is what Eli Siegel himself had, grandly and always.