Space, Walt Whitman, & Our Lives
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 4 of Poetry and Space, a beautiful, amazing, vivid, and very important lecture that Eli Siegel gave in 1949. “Anything,” he explained, “seen as permitting motion without any interference at all could be seen as space.” That description takes in all the various ways the word has been used and is central to the many feelings, good and bad, that people have about space. For instance, there is the feeling we have looking far out to the horizon. There is the assessing of whether a parking space is large enough for one’s car. There is the design question of how to fill that space on the wall, or on that web page. There is the use of the word to mean air, interval, vacancy, expanse—and more.
In this section Mr. Siegel speaks about Walt Whitman, and how enormous and rich Whitman’s feeling about space was. What he describes here has been said by no other critic. Nor is it in Eli Siegel’s many other great discussions of Whitman, though certainly it’s in keeping with them.
Space & Purposes
Offhand, the subject of space doesn’t seem to be the most urgent, doesn’t seem on a par with things people worry about—like love, money, and how to think well of themselves. Yet how we see space is connected with how we see everything. Space is, Mr. Siegel says in this talk, one of the permanencies—as time is, change is.
Though every person has a particular sense of space, our feelings about and purposes toward it depend crucially on what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the constant fight in everyone. This is the fight between our desire to respect the world and our desire to have contempt—to “lessen...what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”
Walt Whitman, because his desire to respect reality was so strong, welcomed the world in its untrammeled largeness, its infinite ability to include: that is, its spaciousness. But if we want to make ourselves big by looking down on what’s not us, we’ll be in some war with space: we’ll resent reality’s vastness and try to limit it. This war with space has hundreds of forms. It may take the form of an excessive effort to turn measurable space—perhaps acres of land or many square feet of real estate—into something that we can buy, own, make profit from; that is, we’ll try to make it subservient to ourselves. Or we may engage in the very popular activity of getting to a fake sense of space just for us in our own mind: get rid, in our mind, of happenings, people, facts, make them dissipate, wipe them out, turn them into undemanding blankness.
Space & the News
To provide contemporary footnotes, of a sort, to what Mr. Siegel is showing about space, I am going to comment swiftly on space in relation to articles from a single issue of a newspaper. I chose the New York Times of January 18, 2018 (I could have chosen any issue). And my purpose is not to comment on the rightness or wrongness of anything told of, but to point to space as having to do with whatever concerns us.
1) On the front page is an article that begins: “North and South Korea reached an agreement Wednesday for their athletes to march together under one flag at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.” And it describes the large, hopeful feeling expressed by people in South Korea about this joining. Space is here in a central way because, despite politics, there is a big and deep sense in Korea that the division into two nations is an artificial division of space. There is the feeling that the expanse of the Korean Peninsula is one nation, no matter how many years space has been falsified by a phony separation. Here space and the depths of people are inseparable.
2) In the same section is a related article. It reports that there may be a women’s hockey team in the Olympics composed of players from both South Korea and North. Along with that inseparability of feeling and space which is a nation, this article is about space in another big way: every sport, including hockey, takes place in space, and is a dealing with space in a particular fashion. As we move across ice, and cause an object to do so, we’re moving through space—and someone on an opposing team may want to impede that.
3) The front page also has an article on Mr. Trump’s proposed wall along our border with Mexico. Whatever such a wall might be, the proposal is an attempt to stop, curtail, block space. Again, inseparable from that proposed dealing with space are the intense emotions of people—in some instances, the very lives of people. However one may feel about the wall, that feeling in a big way is about space.
4) Another front page article has the headline “Hard Turn Left in Warm-up for 2020 Race.” It is about Democrats’ increasingly presenting themselves as progressive. What I point to for the present purpose is the phenomenon, so taken for granted, of using spatial terms, left and right, to characterize politics. The terminology is said to have begun in the early days of the French Revolution, when at a meeting the more progressive persons stood to the left of the king and the conservatives to his right. However that may be, the terminology continued, and not only in France. It would not have stuck if people didn’t feel unconsciously that, in some fashion, ethics and space are related.
5) In the Styles section of the January 18 Times we are told in large type: “It’s 2018, So Dress the Part.” And “the part” might include: “purple nails, shoes inspired by tropical fauna, and purses that look like whales.” Each of those things, while composed of matter, is also a dealing with space. To polish a fingernail is to see it somewhat as an artist sees that space which is a canvas, to be filled rightly. Both a shoe and a purse are matter that must have space within it: how else could a shoe accommodate our foot, or a purse hold our items? Then, purse, shoe, and fingernail each has a shape, which makes a division of that item from outside space. (And space is with them in other ways too.)
Space, then, stands mightily for the world. And Eli Siegel, in his great justice to reality, is beautifully fair to space.