|NUMBER 1840.—January 16, 2013||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this TRO we conclude our serialization of Instinct: Beginning with Shelley, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on March 19, 1965. Here, he relates a famous but puzzling poem of Shelley to the essay that has been the text throughout the talk.
We find in this section an understanding of Shelley that is great, that is beautiful, that is unprecedented, that is true. What drove Shelley in the field of love—drove him superbly, yet also blunderingly, and painfully? And what is the relation of Shelley’s confusion, in all its grandeur and sinking, to what men and women are going through today?
Always, the World
“The purpose of love,” writes Eli Siegel in Self and World, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole.” He says about two people who represent all couples: “There is...a third partner to the relation of Edith and Jim. That partner is the world as a whole.” And later, in these sentences, the cause of so much turmoil and bitterness is explained:
Love and marriage, in the contemporary world, are attended often by desires to possess, desires to hate, giving of one’s body without the giving of one’s self, anger, shame, misery. It is all because that third partner in any relation of two people is not seen for what it is and not loved. One cannot really love a person without loving reality.
The deepest need of everyone, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to like the world itself, in its comprehensiveness and immediacy. The trouble in love, the fights, the suspicion, come because two people have used each other to put aside that world. They have collaborated in having contempt for it, in making themselves superior to it. Yet each feels deeply rooked. Each feels—without being able to put it in words—taken away from his or her largest purpose. Each is ashamed, and angry with the other. That is because what we really want from another is encouragement to know the world that is not ourselves, see meaning in it, be resplendently just to it. If two people don’t get that encouragement from each other, they’ll feel resentful and empty, though they may go out in style on Saturday nights or be married for fifty years.
The desire of Percy Bysshe Shelley to like the world in its largeness was more encompassing, beautifully driving, and conscious than most persons’. Yet the elements of his turmoil are those of the turmoil felt now by a man in Omaha or a woman in Tallahassee.
For example, in an Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago Mr. Siegel said this to a man whom I was seeing and who felt hurt by me:
What is your guess about the emotion Ms. Reiss is missing? In the same way as every painting and poem is true to all experience, that is how we want our feeling for a person to be. Ms. Reiss is displeased with herself because her care for you is not equivalent yet to her care for all reality and art. You get hurt because it seems she’s not entirely happy with you. But the relation between the representative and the complete is being sought.
“The representative” is a particular person, who comes from and stands for reality. “The complete” is the world itself, beauty, art. I felt richly understood as Mr. Siegel described my displeasure with myself and a person I was close to: we may go after praise from someone, comfort from someone, as a shortcut for esteeming ourselves in a world we dislike; but there is such a thing as the true self in everyone, which says, The one way I’ll like myself is through caring for the wide world into which I was born!
Closeness Is Not Understanding
At the end of the lecture, Mr. Siegel quotes a further passage from Shelley’s “On Love.” It is on the subject of Mr. Siegel’s own landmark essay “The Ordinary Doom”: the painful feeling people have that they’re not understood by others, including those closest to them—even though at the same time most people do not want to show themselves fully. Shelley writes fervently about his longing to be comprehended. It was a tremendous longing in him, and his writing is passionately sincere.
There is a relation between persons’ not wanting to understand each other in love, and their wanting to put aside the world. After all—a person we may select to love is part of the world; has to do with the world every minute; and has, Aesthetic Realism shows, the world’s structure in him or her, the oneness of opposites. Mr. Siegel, in his Preface to “The Ordinary Doom,” explains a situation that is causing daily grief and shame in millions of people, even though they may pretend to be at ease: the fact that so much amorous physical closeness is accompanied by such a lack of comprehension. And he explains it in some of the best prose in English letters:
Skin takes the place of brave, graceful desire....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. Wrestling in bed does not annul this. Elaborate proximity of sections of body will not annul this.
The large inward catastrophe of today is: We let ourselves be pleased by and do what we can to please a person we still want to hide from, we still do not fully respect.
...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.
Shelley, Speed, Liberty
In his classes and writing, Mr. Siegel spoke about Shelley often. He discussed such poems as Prometheus Unbound, “The Sensitive Plant,” “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” “Ozymandias,” “The Cloud,” “To a Skylark,” “To Night,” “Adonais,” “Epipsychidion,” “Arethusa,” “The Indian Serenade,” “Song to the Men of England,” and more, including—many times and always freshly—“Ode to the West Wind.” He spoke about the importance of Shelley’s essay “A Defence of Poetry.” And he discussed critical writing on Shelley, including Matthew Arnold’s trouble and mistake in judging him.
As a prelude to the final section of Instinct: Beginning with Shelley, I am going to quote from an earlier lecture, in which Mr. Siegel spoke about another aspect of this writer and human being. In October 1951, he said:
Shelley’s mind happens to be one of the most important....It is historically important, it is important because of the necessity to understand mind in general, and it is important because it has some noteworthy and great beauty.
...One of the things about reality that it has taken a long time to feel is speed. Speed, to be sure, existed before Shelley. (He was born in 1792 and died in 1822.)...But speed...is to be found in Shelley in a great manner. That speed is along with light and along with space. There were no effects like some of the effects in Shelley’s poetry before he wrote....It is the source of these new effects that should be understood.
Speed is associated with liberty, and for a long time Shelley was seen as the poet of freedom or liberty, which he still is. There is still enough in him to alter the world....He has stood for freedom that was of geography, of politics, and also freedom of persons, particularly as to love. But freedom in that sense has a deeper attendance which has to be understood, too.
According to Aesthetic Realism, everybody is to a degree icebound, and crippled, and stuck, and jammed, and shut in, and clamped in, and riveted in, and just generally imprisoned and jailed....What is it for a person to be free?
...A person wants to feel there is nothing unnecessary holding him back, and he also, to be sure, wants to feel that he is accurate. This question Shelley met in a most pangful manner; he met it head-on, he met it magnificently... A person wants to be free and determined at the same time....I have said that it is the big thing in art: to feel that the utmost freedom is the utmost necessity. But Shelley has that all through his poems: in fact, it can be said to be as big a thing in his poems as any. [TRO 350]
In Eli Siegel, Shelley would have found that understanding of himself and humanity which he sought so ardently. It is here, in Aesthetic Realism, for us now. And part of its beauty is the fact that through study of Aesthetic Realism, the subject of the present lecture, love, can succeed in people’s lives at last.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Love: Impersonal & Personal
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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