Reading, Talking, & the Battle in Self
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue serializing the 1972 lecture Reading Itself Has to Do with Poetry, by Eli Siegel. It is surprising, playful, deep, hopeful, definitive. Mr. Siegel is showing that reading as such—what goes on as one reads, what reading takes in—is a poetic matter, an aesthetic matter: it is described in this principle—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
He speaks in particular about the opposites random and plan. These are large in the life of everyone, and people have been very troubled about them. For example: a person can feel that the matters in her life lack coherence, that she just goes from one activity to another, one thought to another, without a sense of composition, and therefore without a feeling of meaning. This is a randomness that has things seem disconnected and rather empty, and it makes one feel angry and ashamed. But a person can also be pained because she is afraid of spontaneity: Oh, why do I feel I have to map out everything—why can’t I meet life more freely?
In the lecture, Mr. Siegel quotes from the book Good Reading, edited by J. Sherwood Weber (1964). It’s a work that offers both advice about reading and lists of books with brief descriptions. As Mr. Siegel mentions various titles and as he comments on statements by contributing editors, he is illustrating through them what the world itself is: a oneness of randomness and plan. And there is this great fact, central to Aesthetic Realism: as we see, consciously, clearly, opposites as one, those very opposites become better related in us. “We are,” he wrote, “the way we know” (Self and World, p. 118).
Reading, Smartphones, & Trouble
From one point of view, there is much more reading today than ever before. People are reading, in terrific abundance, text messages, email, material on social media and throughout the internet. They’re reading these things on smartphones as they walk down the street, lie in bed—and are with others at meals, cultural events, business gatherings. The terms addiction and compulsion have been used for the attachment of millions of Americans to their smartphones.
I’m going to comment on an article that appeared on the New York Times’s “Well” blog this month: “The Phones We Love Too Much,” by Lesley Alderman. It’s about the feeling people have that smartphone use is interfering with close human relationships. The writer says, “When one partner constantly checks his or her phone it sends an implicit message that they find the phone (or what’s on it) more interesting than you.” This has been seen as a situation new in history, distinctive of our time. But the principles of Aesthetic Realism explain it and show it has to do with the human self of any time and all time. In fact, it is only through Aesthetic Realism that the excessive drive toward one’s smartphone can be understood.
Why are people so tied to their phones that, the article notes, they “check them, on average, 47 times a day”? Does it have to do with the opposites in everyone—the fundamental opposites self and world? Aesthetic Realism explains that the biggest need we have is to take care of our particular self through knowing and being just to the world that’s not ourselves. Reading is that—when it’s reading in the truest sense (whether on a smartphone or in an old folio): we use ourselves to meet deeply, authentically, the words, the feelings, of another person; they come into us and make us larger. Meanwhile, there are two battling desires in a person, and we need to know about them in order to understand how we see anything—from love to smartphones:
1) Every person wants to be related to what’s not oneself, to have to do with things, be affected richly by them. But, 2) every person also wants to have oneself to oneself, be unchanged by other things and people, be aloof from them, be un-had in hidden scornfulness. This second desire is a form of the most hurtful thing in us: contempt. Well, a smartphone can be a means of meeting both desires simultaneously but not in a full way, true way, accurate way. It can be a means of feeling somewhat connected while also having oneself, hidden, apart.
“The Buried Life”
The Times article says that excess smartphone use has stopped couples from having conversations, and the writer mentions a book titled Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. However, one cannot “reclaim” what one never really had to begin with. The problem of people’s not speaking satisfyingly with each other, of being unwilling or unable to talk, has been around for a very long time; it far predates smartphones. It used to be said (and truly) that people watched television rather than talking with each other. And long before that, and after, there have been painful yet taken-for-granted silences at dinner tables; or people not listening while another talked; or people shouting at each other. If people really liked talking with each other, no smartphone would stop them.
The poet Matthew Arnold lived from 1822 to 1888. He never owned a smartphone, though today his words can be found readily on one. In his poem “The Buried Life” he writes about the inability of people close to each other to express themselves to each other. For example:
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?
Arnold didn’t know the cause—as today people with smartphones in their hands do not. It is explained by Eli Siegel in his great essay “The Ordinary Doom” and its Preface. In the following graceful, vivid sentences is the reason a person is using a smartphone to evade that showing of oneself and knowing another which constitute real conversation:
We haven’t yet come to the courage needed to have ourselves be seen and to see another fully....We have to think that what is to know us deserves to know us before candor will be cared for by us adequately or used adequately. Our attitude to the world is still one of fear, one of contempt, and one of aloofness. This means that whomever we know, our attitude to that person will be one of fear, contempt, aloofness....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.
In the article a “leadership coach” is quoted. How should you encourage your partner to interact with you rather than with his phone? “Emphasize the benefits of being more connected,” the coach says. But the “benefits” won’t be presented in a way that’s convincing unless the presenter herself is convinced that knowing the world and showing oneself to it is wise and thrilling. To something in the self, to have oneself, unruffled, unstirred, while seeming to take part in things, dwarfs every other benefit. That’s because, as Mr. Siegel explains, if we don’t like the world we won’t want to meet it with a certain fullness.
This fake joining of opposites—being somewhat “connected” with the world but aloof from it—also affects the kind of reading often done on a smartphone: the skimming, the jumping from one link to another, the “surfing,” the feeling that nothing deserves more than a few moments’ attention. In keeping with the opposites Mr. Siegel discusses in the lecture on reading: smartphone reading often has a bad randomness—bad because, while we’re meeting many things, nothing holds us, nothing does very much to us.
A Beautiful Fear—& Hope
There is a beautiful fear that can drive people to their smartphones with perhaps undue frequency. They are afraid of how they separate themselves from the world, afraid of being locked in themselves—and through their phones they feel some relation to the wide outside world. But we need to love our relatedness to things. We need to see that through knowing what’s not ourselves we take care of ourselves, are ourselves. When we see this, not only will phones be smart but our use of them will be too. The study of Aesthetic Realism makes that seeing possible at last, to the grand benefit of people’s lives, expression, and kindness.