The Keenness We Most Want
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the conclusion of the magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Keenness, by Eli Siegel. We print too part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss presented this spring at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What’s Real Security, Real Adventure? or, The Danger in Playing It Safe.” And as a preliminary, I comment on a poem by Mr. Siegel that has in it the basis for understanding security and adventure, and for seeing what is the keenness we most want. In its four long free verse lines, “A Lady Sails the Sea” is playful, deep, immensely kind, immensely musical. It was likely written in the late 1920s, and is published in Mr. Siegel’s Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems (Definition Press, 1957):
Over the sea from England, a ship going, going to Africa, with a timorous lady aboard.
And the waves came about the ship, and the winds came, and roared and whistled; then it was the lady gave up her novel-reading in affright.
But the winds roared once only, and the waves were big once only; and the lady finished with some delight Lady Huntley’s Secret, a novel of England.
And so she left England, and sailed over the sea to Africa, and to Africa came.
The lady in this poem, who is satirized a bit, and tenderly, is all of us. We are all our very particular self in a wide, strange world different from ourselves. And our need, and this lady’s need, is described in the great principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” There is nothing we need more than to see that two huge opposites—caring for our dear self and being just to the outside world—are the same. To see this, is the real keenness. Yet mostly, it is a keenness people do not have.
The Ship We All Have
The first line of the poem describes something that happened fairly often in the second half of the 19th century: “Over the sea from England, a ship going, going to Africa, with a timorous lady aboard.” British ladies would join their husbands, perhaps, who had business dealings or government work in Africa. But the line also describes the human situation. The ship is making a trip from a cozy, more familiar world, to a world that is different, strange, unknown—and that is a trip we take every day. It is the trip from the self we are within ourselves, to other things, which we meet and think about and have to do with.
To feel—as people usually do—that the self within us is a different reality from the reality of outside objects and persons, is, Aesthetic Realism explains, the beginning of all mental mishaps. It is the beginning of contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” Mr. Siegel identified contempt as the source of mental difficulty and of every human unkindness. Once we feel that care for ourselves is apart from the meaning other things and people have, apart from what they deserve, we will be cold to those things and people. We will also be “timorous.” And we will look down on them, and feel we have the right to fool, exploit, and hurt them.
Yet our deepest desire, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to do what sailing the sea in this poem stands for. Our deepest desire is to like the world: to know it; to feel that the world in all its strange, vast difference from us is also like us, and that to go out to it is to come home.
Wideness and Coziness, Together
The four long lines of this poem do what we want to do. Each of them is wide, spreading, seems to have ups and downs and tumults in it. Yet each line ends—in both the meaning of its words and its sound—with a feeling of something intimate. These lines have the beautiful keenness which Mr. Siegel showed is in all true art: they see, they show reality’s opposites as one. In these lines we feel at once the vastness of things and one person’s finite, palpitating heart. We feel strangeness and coziness don’t fight: they are together.
In the second line, reality, in the form of waves and roaring wind, seems to say to this lady: You can’t keep yourself so tidily aloof from me; I, reality, have power! It happens that the self, needing the difference of the world yet also wanting to be contemptuously unhad and unchanged by it, can come to fake arrangements. This lady wants to feel the mystery of things through a novel, yet she is afraid of the mystery of the world itself—she is “timorous.” And today people are partaking of various novels, movies, television shows which provide a kind of excitement but which don’t have the depth to affect one richly, to make one’s inner self leap with respect for the world. They are a means of seeming to have adventure while keeping the depths of oneself aloof, apart, intact.
Where Cruelty Begins
“A Lady Sails the Sea” is not a sociological poem. But through Aesthetic Realism we can see that that rift between the meaning one gives oneself and the meaning other things have, is what had the British and others feel they could use Africa to enrich themselves. That rift is the cause of imperialism; of making profit from somebody else’s work; of slavery. Mr. Siegel wrote in James and the Children—with that oneness of powerful logic and passionate justice he always had—“As soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person” (p. 55).
In the third line of “A Lady Sails the Sea” we find that the world the lady feared was, after all, not so much to be feared—“the winds roared once only.” In the fourth line, the trip which represented the strangeness and roaringness of an unknown outside world, has come to seem neat, tidy, even cozy—through the measured, factual, soothing phraseology of “And so she left England, and sailed over the sea to Africa, and to Africa came.” That last line is lovely and humorous in the way the wide and the tidy join musically in it. The final phrase ends with the warm, intimate m sound—a sound made as the lips of a person come together enclosingly: “to Africa came.”
So in order to be truly intelligent, at ease, free, happy—in order not to be fearful, nervous, mean—we need to see that our intimate self and the vast, various, puzzling, different world are vibrantly akin. Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that vital kinship: we are trying to put together the same opposites all reality has. Take our huge, intimate need to feel free, untrammeled, yet also organized. Mr. Siegel writes about how reality has these personal opposites of ours: “Does it not have storms and crystals? Are there not jungles and ordered grass? Isn’t the body of an animal organized and changeable? Isn’t the sky fixed and moody?” (Self and World, p. 110).
Aesthetic Realism is here forever, because it is true about an infinite world and your own so personal self.