Sex, Intellect, & Real Integrity
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the historic lecture Poetry and Words, which Eli Siegel gave 50 years ago, in September 1949. And we publish a part of a paper by photographer Len Bernstein, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled “Is Kindness Possible in Sex?” Three weeks ago, we published a paper by Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman from the same seminar. And I said then that I love how Aesthetic Realism sees both subjects, words and sex. I spoke about the immense fact that the following principle explains the beauty of words and also is the means of seeing how sex can make for kindness and pride, instead of suspicion, conquest, resentment: “All beauty,” Eli Siegel wrote, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Self and world are the chief opposites in the life of everyone. And Aesthetic Realism shows that the big question in sex is the same as the big question in economics, in education, in politics, in conversation, in every aspect of life: How can I be fair to myself and to what's not myself at the same time? It can take the form of: Can I feel I am gloriously pleased—and at the same time can I be ever so respectful of the outside world and a person standing for it? Because people have not known that justice to self and justice to the world at once is the central matter in sex, they have been terrifically troubled about body—despite all the pretense of ease on the subject. They have seen sex as in a world apart from, and discordant with, the other aspects of life. They have had the anguish of feeling less of an integrity because of how sex has been in their thoughts and life.
The lecture we are serializing is about words. And people interested in words have felt that as they tried to use them accurately and well, and as they got pleasure from words used well in a book or play, they had a very different kind of mind and were getting a very different kind of pleasure from the mind and pleasure present in sex. Writers have not felt that what impelled them as they tried to get to le mot juste was the same as what impelled them to the body of another—as scientists have not felt that their desire to be exact and their desire for sex were coherent.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson years ago, Eli Siegel described this rift as it existed in me. He described it beautifully; and the way he used words to do so is great both as kind—ness and as prose. I quote from that lesson here, because as Mr. Siegel comprehended my pain and its cause, he was explaining what millions of people feel right now:
There are two things every person asks [about another person]: “You please me, but do you make me stronger? You make me stronger, but do you please me?” These are terrible questions. Their terror cannot be overestimated, because the fact that something can please one and make one weaker has brought ascertain sick quality to the life of man.
...In the field of expression, enjoyment, or sex, we hope to be proud and pleased at once. Ellen Reiss hopes to be proud about her manner of taking earth—in the same way that she would take the page of a book. The difference between the two things is felt by man and woman: “I’m a different person making love from him or her who goes after knowledge.”
It Was Felt by Matthew Arnold
We can see that rift between making love and going after knowledge, between being pleased and being strengthened in—for example—lines by Matthew Arnold. Arnold stood as much as anyone in the 19th century for the love of words well used. In his poem “Absence,” he says that his feeling about a woman doesn’t go along with his care for knowledge—which Arnold here, and elsewhere, calls “light.” If the stir about a woman can’t go along with knowledge, he says, he doesn’t want the stir. And yet, the closeness to Marguerite is something he so desires! All this is in the following qua—trains. They are very melodious, but they have in them Arnold's very real distress:
I struggle towards the light; and ye,
Once—long’d—for storms of love!
If with the light ye cannot be,
I bear that ye remove.
I struggle towards the light—but oh,
While yet the night is chill,
Upon time’s barren, stormy flow,
Stay with me, Marguerite, still!
Flesh & Intellect Can Be Friends
I love Aesthetic Realism, as I know Arnold would have, for enabling that desolating division between intellect and flesh to end. Aesthetic Realism explains that the thing—the only thing—which makes sex hurtful is the use of it for contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” That is what Len Bernstein writes about here. And sex in all its corporeality will go along with literature, care for words, culture at its largest, intellect at its most exact, when the purpose of sex is to like and respect the world and to have good will for a person—to want that person to be in the best possible relation to other things and people and to reality itself. I am infinitely grateful to know personally that we can have that purpose in sex. And when we do, pride and pleasure are tremendously one.
In Poetry and Words, Mr. Siegel is giving evidence that words and what happens to them in a language—the way their forms change to show tense, number, case, and more—all arose from the desire in people to see what the world truly is. It is a beautiful fact that sex can serve the same desire—and needs to. All the opulent proximity of body should be a form of knowing the world, being pleased by the world, feeling joined to the world, honoring the world—through a person who stands for the world and means much to us.
Because of Eli Siegel’s honesty and enormous knowledge, we can see every aspect of life in a way that makes for kindness and pride.