The Insistent Opposites
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing a work great in art criticism: Aesthetic Realism and Music, by Eli Siegel. This 1951 lecture has in it what only Aesthetic Realism provides: the explanation of what beauty is, and of what we are—what is behind all our turmoil and hopes. The lecture is an illustration of this principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the present section he is in the midst of showing that the relation of concord and discord in music stands for what reality itself is like, and represents how we want to be. Printed here too is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this spring.
Every aspect of life, whether earthshaking or apparently frivolous, is a means of seeing that the need to make a one of reality’s opposites is the largest need we have. And so, I write about something that has become more popular these years: tattoos and body piercing.
The desire to have some part of one’s flesh pierced and an ornament inserted there, the desire for a design to be permanently of one’s skin through puncturings, have been with humanity for centuries. So a man walking down a Boston street with a ring through his nose is like a man in the midst of Africa 400 years ago. A college student in New York with tattoos on her legs is related to Egyptians of the Middle Empire (around 2000 BC).
In his book Self and World, Eli Siegel writes these beautiful, kind sentences:
We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it. We have to be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves.
We Flaunt and Are Humble
But people don’t know what to do about the world, the “there” not themselves. Everyone who ever lived has wanted in some way to be humble in relation to what is not himself—and has also wanted to be proud, self-flaunting, superior—and hasn’t known how to make sense of the two desires. To have one’s body pierced is a humble thing. To be—through that piercing—ornamented, decorated, bejeweled, is a proud thing, even a showy, flaunting thing. The desire for piercings and tattoos is a desire to answer one’s question of how to be at once humble, even humiliated, and flauntingly magnificent.
Close to these opposites of pride and humility are other opposites: criticism and praise. We want to be criticized, because we want to change and become better than we are. We feel we’ve been unjust in various ways and some representative of the “there, which is not ourselves” should have us see our injustice pointedly, criticize us incisively, piercingly. But we also want the outside world to glorify us, treat us as though we were wonderful. The desire to be tattooed or to have one’s body pierced and then adorned can be a symbolic showing that one wants to be both criticized and glorified. The question is (as with other things a person may do): are these symbolic choices a substitute for, evasion of, the sincere oneness of pride and humility, criticism and honoring, we are looking for?
Aesthetic Realism shows that the deepest desire we have is to like the world honestly, to use ourselves to see justly things and people not ourselves. To like the world and try to be just to it is utterly humble: it is a saying that something is bigger than we are, and our happiness and self-respect depend on how fair we are to other things and people. To like and try to be just to the world is also the one true pride: it is a saying we can add to the whole world—it needs our fairness; and as we like the world we feel we deserve to be pleased by it. This use of ourselves to care for reality is the only way we will feel proud and humble at once. Nothing else will do: not having “supportive” friends, or possessions, or a jewel in our flesh.
Contempt Can Take This Form
Eli Siegel is the philosopher who has described the thing in every person which weakens our minds, interferes with every authentic hope we have, makes us nervous, empty, lonely, depressed, ruins love, and is the source of all the unkindness in private lives and world history. That thing is contempt: “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” We need clear criticism of our contempt; otherwise we will punish ourselves for it unclearly, through various discomfort and self-dislike. We may also go after some arrangement whereby, while seeming to punish ourselves, we invest ourselves with scornful glory. Having a part of one’s body both punctured and adorned can be such an arrangement. It can be a means of expressing the following contempt: “This world is my enemy. It wants to hurt me, cut me. But I’m better than it, stronger. Look how I can take the lacerations of reality and emerge supreme, even begemmed! I glory in the world’s hurting me—because through its very cutting I can display the fact that I’m superior. As its mean hardness passes through my soft skin, I can flaunt a medallion of my supremacy!”
A Beautiful Piercing
A piercing famous in the history of thought and religion is the dart that Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa, felt through her being. St. Teresa (1515-82) was a sincere mystic; also a very practical person and a writer of exceedingly good prose. This piercing of Teresa by God is in Bernini’s sculpture of her and Crashaw’s poems about her. I translate, from her autobiography, her own description (the dart is held by an angel):
I saw in his hands a long golden dart and at the tip it seemed to have a bit of fire; it seemed as though he put this through my heart several times and that it reached my inner parts; as it was removed it seemed to take those with it and to leave me all burning with a great love of God. The pain was so large it made me moan and the sweetness this great pain gave was so tremendous that I had no desire for it to stop, nor was my soul content with anything less than God.
I think St. Teresa felt God criticizing, with fierce penetratingness, her self-containment, her having of herself to herself, her self-love—so that she could love in a way both immensely personal and unbounded that source of everything: God. This is mysticism; but it stands for what everyone wants in an ordinary day: the criticism of ourselves that is the same as great love for us, because it enables us to love the world.
Whether we pierce a nostril or feel (perhaps wisely) that this is unnecessary—we should know what we are really longing for: the criticism which can have us “be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves.” The education of Aesthetic Realism provides, articulates, that longed-for criticism.