Science, Art, & Insistence
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the second part of the lecture we are serializing: the great Mind and Insistence, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. With it we publish a poem he wrote nearly three decades later, “Sciences for Me.” The poem and lecture seem very different. Yet they both have to do with the biggest matter in everyone’s life: how we relate two tremendous opposites—our dear, intimate self, and the world in all its width and particularity. “We all of us,” Mr. Siegel writes,
start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it. [Self and World, p. 91]
The ways we insist are forms of our “do[ing] something about it.” Some of our insistences we’re aware of; many, we are not.
In this lecture Mr. Siegel has us feel the multitudinousness of the insistences that go on in people, their nuances, subtleties, diversity. Yet Aesthetic Realism shows that every insistence of ours arises from one of the two central purposes battling in us. These are 1) to have contempt for the world, lessen it as a means of enhancing ourselves, versus 2) to respect the world, the “there [which] is not ourselves,” see it as something we want to know and care for. From the contempt purpose come insistences that damage the person doing the insisting, as well as other people and things. From the purpose to respect the world come insistences that are beautiful, intelligent, kind.
By means of introduction to this second section, I’ll mention several of the ways, mostly ordinary, that people insist.
For Example, These Five
1) Many people, in conversation, feel an insistence within them to show that somehow they’re smarter than the person they’re talking with. Someone gives information: you have to show you know something about the subject that this person doesn’t—and what you know is more important. Occasionally you may even tell yourself, “Don’t do it!”—but you feel driven. This insistence is an aspect of contempt. It comes from the feeling that the world, represented by one’s fellow humans, is not something to know but something to feel superior to; and further, that one’s purpose with people is not to learn from them but to wow them with one’s superiority.
This I-have-to-show-I’m-better-than-others insistence has many modes. There is: I have to decorate my home better than my neighbors do theirs. Also: I have to have my child beat theirs at soccer—and I’ve got a right to feel very bad and even furious if my child’s team doesn’t win. These insistences are present in homes throughout America. And they are always accompanied by a feeling of emptiness and shame.
2) Anger can be an insistence. People have wondered why they feel driven to be angry; they have a notion they’re not wholly accurate, yet they cannot stop. And the various “anger management” courses don’t help much. There can be a true anger, a beautiful and kind anger. But the hurtful anger, the dangerous anger, so much in people’s lives, is an insistence that: I shouldn’t have to think more, learn more—I can sum up a situation in one big rage, turn it into an enemy to defeat. This way I deal in a blaze with a world that has had the nerve to confuse me and make me feel there’s more for me to know!
3) One of the most horrible insistences is something that goes on every day: lying. Behind every lie, whether massive or casual, is the insistence This must be so, and if it’s not, I’ll make it so! Lying is the ugly insistence that one’s own desire is superior to the truth, and that if the facts don’t go along with what one wants, the facts should be annulled.
4) There is the insistence that the world simply isn’t good enough for oneself. This insistence has various modes, and one mode is boredom. It may be hard to see boredom as an insistence, yet it is. It is the saying, Bring on your sunsets, your novels, your history of ideas, your sounds, your animals, your happenings, your ever so many human beings—I won’t be excited by any of it. In a world sizzling with interest, to be uninterested requires a certain determination, though that determination may be unconscious. “Being bored,” Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, “is a victory for ubiquitous contempt.”
5) A person’s insistence that the world is not good enough for her, can take the form, too, of a readiness to be disgusted and feel sad, low, depressed. One can unknowingly insist on feeling bad, because through such a feeling one has a sense of oneself as miserable Royalty in a world composed of messy, mean, inferior things and people. To find things interesting, vividly valuable, for one, would mean to respect them, be grateful for them. The self that wants contempt can’t stand that idea, and insists against such a thing.
All the examples I have just given are instances of contempt. They all make a person ashamed, make one dislike oneself. That is because the greatest insistence within us, equivalent to the insistence of our heartbeat, is: See meaning in this world you were born into and born from—do all you can to be fair to it! Mr. Siegel puts the insistence this way in Self and World: “The unconscious, as judge, has said: ‘Do not separate yourself from reality. If you do, you are not being yourself entirely, and one side of you will punish the other.’”
The Other Insistence
All the good occurrences in human history have come from the insistence I just spoke of: Be fair to what is not you—this is the way you will be truly yourself! There were, for example, the American Abolitionists of the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. They insisted it was wrong for some people to own others: they insisted slavery must end! And though they were widely hated because of their insistence, they would not let the matter rest.
All art arises from insistence. Let’s take Vermeer, looking, around 1657, at a young woman asleep at a table. We can be sure he felt, This woman, her head resting on her hand, the other hand resting gently on the table, insists on something from me—insists on being seen a certain way; there is a justice that the folded cloth on the table, with its rich pattern, is demanding—and the fruit and jug on the table, and the half-opened door. Every artist feels an insistence from his subject, which is met by an insistence from himself: I must be fair to this, and I must find what that being fair is!
Then there is science. Science can seem so methodical and careful, it may be difficult to see it as an insistence, but it is. Eli Siegel described science as “the known desire to know.” Every true scientist is insisting, I must see what this is, know it. Galileo insisted on seeing truly the relation of earth and sun. Jonas Salk insisted on finding how to prevent that terrible ailment polio. In the best scientists, there is the largest insistence on knowing.
All the sciences Mr. Siegel speaks about in the poem “Sciences for Me” arose from an insistence on knowing the world in various of its forms—not on conquering it, sneering at it. The poem is charming; it has humor. And it does what its author always did: it makes education ever so close to one’s very self. In the course of this poem, Mr. Siegel speaks about 17 sciences. He describes clearly what many of them are—in a way anyone can understand.
Both the poem and the lecture are instances of the most beautiful insistence I know: Eli Siegel’s insistence that he find out what the world, in its fullness, is, and be fair to it. He was true to this insistence always. From it came the grandeur of knowledge and kindness which is Aesthetic Realism.