The Drama of Self & World, Justice & Contempt
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue our serialization of the great 1970 lecture Philosophy Begins with That, by Eli Siegel. He explains that philosophy—contrary to how it has been seen—is not just about large concepts, nor is it about a higher, purer reality than the one we go around in, hope in, battle in, feel mixed up in every day. Philosophy is in everything. It has to do with paperclips, nasty looks, funny jokes, our agitation at 2 in the afternoon, our nightmare at 3 in the morning. The fundamental matter in philosophy is told of in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
In the lecture, Mr. Siegel uses passages from a 1929 diary of writer Arnold Bennett to show how philosophy is in the happenings and feelings of a day.
We print too an article by Leila Rosen, eminently successful New York City teacher of English, now retired. It is from a paper presented at a public seminar last month: “Care for Yourself & Justice to Others—Do They Have to Fight?”
An Object, Philosophy, & Contempt
There are, Bennett’s journal illustrates, various fights going on in us. Ms. Rosen’s article is about the biggest of these. And it’s about what Aesthetic Realism has identified as the thing in us which interferes with our own lives, and which is the source of every cruelty: contempt. Contempt is the “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Since it pits the two biggest opposites in our life against each other—our self and the outside world—it damages the relation of all the other opposites in us.
To illustrate that fact, and how philosophy is grandly in an everyday object, I am going to quote and comment on a poem by Eli Siegel. “This Is Your Cup of Tea” is related to Arnold Bennett—who, as Mr. Siegel says, “was affected by the pottery doings in Staffordshire,...by the idea of clay becoming polished and usable.” It is from Eli Siegel’s Hail, American Development and first appeared in 1967 in the Scottish periodical Poor Old Tired Horse:
This Is Your Cup of Tea
The title has more than one meaning:
First, we’re going to tell you about a cup of tea;
And then we’re playing.
The cup of tea is from India, maybe,
And then it is right here.
This means it is foreign and domestic at once;
Away and immediate.
The tea flows
And there is the resisting and helping cup.
How firm the cup seems
Compared to the flexible, the liquid, the soft tea.
What could have more differing temperaments
Than a porcelain cup and flowing tea!
The cup, by itself, is down and up.
Good for the cup!
The cup, by itself, is severe,
What with its being hard.
However, it curves so gracefully.
The cup is severe and yielding.
The tea, the tea is there;
It is still.
But we know the tea is in motion,
For it flows.
Stillness and motion,
In the same two seconds, Dwight!
The color of the tea is assertive
And also reclusive.
Boldness and modesty, Alice!
The cup has a center
On which a perpendicular line
Nevertheless, the cup is wide.
Verticality and horizontality and such, Euphemia!
Your cup of tea, then,
Is an arrangement
Of opposites, contraries, oppositions, polarities,
Contrasts, warrings, jars.
The cup is a series
Of reconciled jars.
This is your cup of tea:
A study in
The everlasting opposites.
Live with it, Horatio.
It is your cup of tea.
I love this poem. It has that thing which Aesthetic Realism shows true poetry must have. It has music: music which itself is the oneness of reality’s opposites. In the sound of this poem we hear the definite at one with mystery. We hear playfulness and sobriety, together. We hear, at once, delicacy and might.
This Is What Can Happen
I’ll comment a little on three pairs of opposites mentioned in the poem, and what contempt does with them in our lives.
The tea is at once “foreign and domestic,” “away and immediate.” But in contempt there is the feeling: “What’s nearest to me, my own being and thoughts, what’s under my skin, is a different reality from what’s outside me. I can hide within myself from the outside world so ‘foreign’ to what I am, and have thoughts inside which make less of what’s not me.” This use of what’s of me against what’s away from me, foreign to me, is the beginning of all injustice—including all ethnic prejudice. It’s also the cause of the emptiness and agitation millions of people walk around with, though they may pretend to be oh-so at ease.
“The cup, by itself, is down and up”—and down and up are feelings in everyone. The way people go from soaring to sinking confuses them enormously. There’s nothing more important to learn than this: it’s because we make ourselves superior through contempt, elevate ourselves through looking down on things, that we come to feel low, self-disliking, depressed.
“The cup is severe and yielding.” It is like us. We want to show that we are we and won’t give way sloppily: that is, we want to be severe. Yet we want to be affected, have feeling: that is, yield. The ways contempt tampers with these opposites are encyclopedic. For instance, contempt tells us nothing is worthy to affect us much—in fact, the world is something to repel and punish. However, we can, out of contempt, trickily “yield” to what we think people want from us, in order to fool and manage them.
The great joiner of opposites in us is the purpose contrary to contempt: good will. Mr. Siegel described good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” For instance: the first thing in good will is the desire to know, and knowing is the fullest yielding to what a thing is. It is also the strictest severity, because it is after exactitude. Aesthetic Realism arose from Eli Siegel’s good will. It was my honor to witness for years his constant, indefatigable, beautiful desire to know.