Real Love Is Like History
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 5 of Eli Siegel’s great 1949 lecture Poetry and History. And here too is an article by filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman. It is a portion of a paper he presented this summer at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Which Goes Wrong —Love or the Lover?”
So we have, in this TRO, love and history. I love how Aesthetic Realism sees both subjects. The way Mr. Siegel spoke and wrote about history made the wide, tumultuous past have the warmth that one associates with love. And he showed that if love between two people does not have the respect for the world in its largeness which history stands for, it is not love.
This principle, stated by Mr. Siegel, is true about both love and history: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." For example, history is infinitely specific and infinitely inclusive at once. To look at a happening in the American Revolution (say in Brooklyn, in the summer of 1776), is to look at that happening, as sheerly itself. Yet the sheerly particular setback of George Washington at Brooklyn Heights in late August 1776 is joined, in history, by incalculable other happenings and feelings —including the tribulations of Cleopatra, the games children played in China in the year 810, the fluttering of a leaf on a Parisian tree in 1234. And in some fashion, Washington’s difficulty in Brooklyn is related to all of them.
In the present section of the lecture, Mr. Siegel refers to his poem “This Is History.” It says, with rich music and logic, something about history as at once specific and inclusive. This poem of 1926 begins:
When rose petals, sometimes in night, go down through the air of night to grassed earth, green earth,
History is being made, history is not adequate without the doings of roses.
In his note to the poem, in his collection Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968), there are these sentences:
The falling of rose petals in night stands for a big thing in the life of man: Leaving. That a rose petal should leave a rose is like Charles V when he abdicated as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
History: A Guide to Love
Aesthetic Realism says further: the way history is specific and inclusive is how love should be! If we truly love a person, we want to comprehend and strengthen that person in his terrific particularity —but we also want, through that person, to be more keenly aware of, and to care more for, the whole world of men and women and happenings. Usually love, as it exists on dates and in homes, is not that oneness of specificity and inclusiveness, and therefore the romantic feelings people have about each other fade swiftly, and change to something dull, angry, bitter. Aesthetic Realism is that which explains, after all the centuries, what makes people fail in love—and what has interfered with every aspect of life throughout human history. It is contempt.
Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the thing in people that is anti-inclusiveness. It says, “The way to be Me is to see myself as unrelated to other things: my importance is in my being able to look down on things, feel superior to them.” From contempt has come every cruelty and, really, every stupidity.
Contempt is completely opposed to the desire that has humanity be interested in history at all. To say, as Herodotus did, and Thucydides did, and Gibbon did, “Things that happened long ago have meaning for me, for us, and I want to understand them and also tell of them justly”—this arises from what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the deepest and most beautiful desire we have: the desire to like the world.
And Aesthetic Realism explains that love has failed because people do not go after love as a means of liking the world. They want love, not as a means to be more inclusive of persons and things, but as a means of getting rid of the world and feeling superior to it. A woman tonight will not think about a man the way Gibbon thought about the history of Rome: as something to see exactly and also to see as having tremendous scope, and relation, and nuance. She will see this man, Pete, as someone existing to make her important and to show she’s better than the rest of reality. Years ago, in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel put in a succinct and beautiful sentence the mistake I was making with a man—the mistake human beings have made about love. He said, “You used Mr. V to create a world somewhat apart from the world Aesthetic Realism tries to honor.” I thank Mr. Siegel, with all my life, for teaching me to try to honor the world of history, words, and humanity, including with a man; and for showing that to do so is the same as romance, intelligence, and happiness.
Words That History Asks For
Since this TRO about history and love contains an article by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Ken Kimmelman, I comment on his most recent public service film, in relation to history. That film is the greatly moving What Does a Person Deserve?—about homelessness and hunger, and about the one real solution to them. It is now being shown on major television stations throughout America, and in movie theatres. It has music by Edward Green. And the matter concerning history that I am speaking about is whether the question and statement by Eli Siegel that one sees in this film are what history has gone toward and is asking for.
The people whom we see in the photographs that comprise Mr. Kimmelman’s film ask for money in order to eat, are in a soup kitchen, reach for something desired in a public garbage pail; yet they all, through how they are presented, have immense dignity. And before and after photographs that quietly shake us, is this question by Mr. Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being alive?”
The statement that we read, at the film’s end, after seeing men, women, children without homes, and also a vast field of American wheat blowing in the wind, is from Mr. Siegel’s Self and World:
The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.
That question, “What does a person deserve by being alive?,” is the most necessary question in all of history. From its not being asked has come all the brutality of the world. The honest asking of it is the one thing that will stop injustice. It is also, Mr. Siegel has shown, the one thing that will have the world’s economy be efficient.
In the statement with which the film concludes, Mr. Siegel has described what every person fundamentally deserves; what human beings have been and will be angry until they get. He has described what people across our nation want now and could be given gracefully and proudly—an America “truly theirs.”
Eli Siegel, in his honesty and courage, was the greatest friend to history. He spoke for it, and will be loved by it forever.