The Opposites—in Everyday Confusion & in Art
Dear Unknown Friends:
The Opposites Theory, by Eli Siegel, is a work of the late 1950s, and we are honored to be publishing it in serial form. With this issue we have come to chapter 4.
At the basis of Aesthetic Realism is something looked for through the centuries of philosophy and criticism: the explanation of what beauty is; the showing of what is central to, and in common among, art of all times, places, and genres. Whether in a Byzantine mosaic or American jazz, art is “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” That fact is what The Opposites Theory presents and illustrates.
As we serialize it, I have been commenting on that other tremendous aspect of Aesthetic Realism: its understanding of the human self—of us, in our hopes, turmoil, victories, and confusions. Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that the self of everyone is an aesthetic situation: we, without knowing it, “are trying to put opposites together,” the same opposites that are in reality and art. Further, the thing in us which most interferes with our doing so is contempt, our desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Our contempt is the great harmer of our lives and weakener of our minds. It's the source of every meanness and cruelty.
Our Lives Every Day
What about the opposites Mr. Siegel discusses here, so technical to art: tightness and diffusion? What do they have to do with our lives every day? Well, people are mixed up, terrifically, by forms of these opposites. There is a big desire in everyone to be “tight” in a bad way: to hug ourselves, contract, make a small, confined world, separate from the wide unlimited world into which all of us were born.
This desire is part of contempt: A person—we’ll call her Keira—feels the world outside her is not good enough for her. It’s something that pains her and dirties her, and when she can go home to her carefully arranged apartment, she can shut the door on everything and everyone, and be queen of a contracted world.
Coziness is a form of tightness, and, certainly, there can be a good coziness: you can respect mountains, and humanity, and encyclopedias even while you’re in a warm kitchen with tea simmering, or while you pull the blanket to your chin and go to sleep. But so often a person, like Keira, uses the cozy to despise the wide world that confuses her and to feel that at last she has rid herself of it. As she watches television or eats a bowl of ice cream (both wonderful things), she makes so much of life, with its puzzlingness, no longer matter. She is running her confined universe. Day after day, Keira goes through the tightness, the triumphant contraction, of contempt. She does not know that this is why she so often feels stifled, agitated, and deeply unsure. The human self is ethical, and says, If you make less of the world, you will pay for it; one way is: you will feel profoundly ill-at-ease.
Meaning Is Missing
A certain unfortunate diffusion is also in people’s lives. That is, a person can go forth, from one activity to another, yet not be fully present in any of them. Take another representative person, Jason. He goes to work, to his children’s soccer games, to visit friends, watches television, takes vacations with his family. Yet, though busy, he has a quite steady feeling of emptiness. He tells himself he's “spread thin.” But the real problem isn’t the activities; it’s that Jason doesn’t see a meaning in them: he has not used them to try to respect the world and people. For all his seeming expansiveness, he too has had contempt: he has taken part in many things but has had an unconscious victory in not letting any of them affect him fully. Through them all he has kept something of himself untouched, aloof—superior to whatever he has met. And his triumph has also been his painful emptiness.
Those artistic opposites of tightness and diffusion are ours in many other ways. But they are also opposites present in the history of nations. There has been very often the contemptuous tightness which is chauvinism: the feeling, We, just we, of this nation, are the chosen, the best; rightness is ours alone; real goodness is ours alone. And with that ugly contraction, that exclusivity, there is often the horrible spreading and diffusion which is conquest: we have a right to go forth and do whatever we please to other nations, including attack and subjugate them. That too comes from contempt.
What We're Looking For
What is the tightness and diffusion every person is looking for? In The Opposites Theory, an artist Mr. Siegel speaks of as joining those opposites in his poetic technique is Walt Whitman. But in the content of Whitman’s poems too, in his actual statements, there is the oneness of opposites people and nations urgently need. And I learned about its importance from Mr. Siegel. An example is at the very beginning of “Song of Myself.”
Whitman says: “I celebrate myself and sing myself.” Here is the self, tight, concentrated on itself, affirming itself. But what happens right after? Whitman says: “And what I assume, you shall assume. / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” That is diffusion: the saying, I am not only myself, I am not only here: I extend infinitely—I am there; I am you!
We need to feel we are ourselves, through being interested, widely and deeply, in what’s not ourselves. We need to feel that as we care for ourselves we care for everything. That is aesthetics; that is intelligence; that is authentic patriotism; that is really taking care of ourselves. And what it means, and how it can take place for people now, is the study of Aesthetic Realism.