Spontaneity, Poetry, & Sex
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the conclusion of Poetry and Spontaneity, a 1949 lecture in which Eli Siegel illustrates, with might, humor, scholarship, vividness, the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." We print too part of a paper by art director and Aesthetic Realism associate Harvey Spears, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this month titled "The Power Men & Women Want—What Makes It Right or Wrong?"
Mr. Spears writes about sex. And the fact that Aesthetic Realism understands that confusing, captivating, and tormenting subject and makes possible pride and kindness about it, I consider one of the biggest, most merciful happenings in the history of civilization.
Let us take the author of the poem Mr. Siegel speaks of in this final section of Poetry and Spontaneity: Matthew Arnold (1822-88). The poetry of Arnold, while thoughtful, graceful, is passionate too—including about love, and bodily love. Yet there is enough in his writing to show that he mistrusted sex—and it wasn’t because he was a Victorian. In "Absence," one of the poems concerning the lady he calls Marguerite, there is this quatrain, written when Arnold was in his 20s:
I struggle towards the light; and ye,
Once-longed-for storms of love!
If with the light ye cannot be,
I bear that ye remove.
These lines are about the fact that there was something large Matthew Arnold wanted to see. He felt the world, particularly the world as culture, was something he should know truly; here he calls that possibility of true knowledge "the light." He had wanted the "storms of love," a sweeping intensity, including bodily intensity. But he felt that what happened when his body was close to Marguerite's did not encourage the knowledge he was after—in fact, was against it. Therefore, he says, it is right that this bodily stir not be: "I bear that ye remove."
Matthew Arnold did not know—as last week I said W.B. Yeats didn’t—what made him feel bad about love, about sex. That is what Harvey Spears writes about here. So I say swiftly: the thing making Arnold feel that sex did not go along with thought about literature, and education, and justice to people in England, is described by this Aesthetic Realism principle—"The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt."
Sex has been tremendously usable for contempt: to get rid of a world that seems to question us, and turn reality and a human being into something that exists to please us, focus on us, be ruled by us. Contempt, Mr. Siegel has explained, is the only thing making sex immoral. What made Arnold so uneasy about those "storms of love" was the contempt they included.
One of the important critical writings in English is his 1880 essay on Keats, because of the meeting in it of discernment and large feeling. Yet in that essay, so honoring of Keats, there is a place where Arnold is churlish and, I believe, deeply uncomfortable. He quotes a love letter of Keats to Fanny Brawne, and describes it chidingly as having "the abandonment of all reticence and all dignity .... It has in its relaxed self-abandonment something underbred and ignoble." Keats certainly could have seen Miss Brawne better. But I believe that Arnold’s repugnance was really caused by his own despair: his feeling that to let oneself go as to love, to be in a terrific organic stir, had with it something that was against the large seeing, the kind seeing, he hoped for.
Matthew Arnold would have been grateful, enormously, for the knowledge Harvey Spears presents in this TRO. He would have had the gratitude I have for learning from Mr. Siegel that the purpose of sex is to like the world itself through a cherished representative of reality. He longed to know that sex has to be, and can be, good will, "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121).
Eli Siegel was the critic who understood Matthew Arnold. He spoke of a central theme in Arnold’s work: the idea that we do not know a person we are close to and are not known by that person. Mr. Siegel said that this situation, which deeply torments everyone, was something Arnold felt more with keenness and awareness than most people. I think he felt too: having one’s body palpitatingly proximate to another’s while feeling one’s mind was not seen by that person, as one didn’t see that person’s mind—this made for a rift that was unbearable. He would have rejoiced to learn from Aesthetic Realism that sex—every moment, touch, happening of it—should stand for our desire to know a person in all his or her fulness.
Then sex, with all its powerful spontaneity, would have exactness. That means it would be like poetry, not against it. How beautiful Aesthetic Realism is, Eli Siegel was—in their understanding of art at its grandest, life at its most confusing!