The Two Desires in History, & Now
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the amazing, great 1949 lecture Poetry and History, by Eli Siegel. He explains that within history—with all its vastness, and sometimes huge unclearness, and sometimes unendurableness—there is a structure. And that structure is an aesthetic structure, a poetic structure. The following central principle of Aesthetic Realism is true about history—about any single moment of history and about all of history taken together: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."
In this lecture, Mr. Siegel has been showing that history is the oneness of individual and general, freedom and order, the known and unknown, the personal and impersonal, the indefinite and the fixed. Seeing how that is so is profoundly thrilling, because it is a tremendous means of doing what we most long to do: to see with conviction, and feel with logic, that this world we’re in is not a mess, but is made in a way we can respect and love.
We print here too an article by Aesthetic Realism associate Michael Palmer. It is from a paper he presented this spring at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Having Your Way—What Does It Really Mean?” And central to it are two more Aesthetic Realism principles. It is a magnificent fact that these principles as well are true about every moment of history. They are the crucial means of understanding any person, in all of his or her particularity—from Cleopatra, to Napoleon, to you. These principles, stated by Mr. Siegel, are:
 Man’s deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis;  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. [Self and World, Definition Press, p. 1; TRO 247]
Mr. Siegel showed that those two desires—to respect reality and to have contempt for it—fight within every human being. The understanding of them is an emergency, because our contempt, which we see as a victory, is what makes us cruel, lonely, unintelligent about every aspect of our lives, increasingly less alive. For the first time in all the centuries, human beings can understand these two desires—because Eli Siegel explained them.
I say a little about them here, through a person in history, a queen. She is Marie Antoinette of France (1755-93). First I mention this, which needs to be seen with vividness: if it weren’t for human contempt, such a thing as monarchy would not have gone on for century after century. The idea that any individual had a hereditary right to govern other human beings was always sheer contempt. It is only because every person would like to see oneself as a prince or princess, infinitely superior to others, and able to tell them what to do, that monarchy was seen as somehow “natural.” And there are situations now that are taken for granted the way monarchy was 250 years ago, which are completely contempt too. One is the fact that some people are very rich and others poor. Another is the related fact that people work and someone else, who didn’t do the work, makes profit from them—takes the wealth their hard work produced.
We Come to Marie Antoinette
So we come to Marie Antoinette, famous in history, the wife of Louis XVI. Her grace, her beauty were written of glowingly, including by Edmund Burke. But she was hated by the people of France. In Thomas Carlyle’s The French Revolution, there are ironic sentences about her through which we can see some of the fight between the desire to like the world and contempt—a fight in everyone. They are in volume 1, book 2, chapter 1:
Meanwhile, the fair young queen, in her halls of state, walks like a goddess of beauty....The soft young heart adopts orphans, portions meritorious maids, delights to succor the poor, such poor as come picturesquely in her way; and sets the fashion of doing it....In her Duchess de Polignac, in her Princess de Lamballe, she enjoys something almost like friendship....
What Carlyle is saying—and so much, much else—is explained by Eli Siegel in his Preface to Self and World, as he describes contempt in its simultaneous ordinariness and cruelty. “The fact,” Mr. Siegel explains, “that most people have felt ... they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form.”
They Were Not Real
The Queen of France saw the French people “in a way that seemed to go with comfort”: they existed to make her important; they were not real in the way she was; the fact that people starved throughout France mattered much less than whether the gown she wore fit her correctly—mattered hardly at all. Meanwhile, right now most people do not see the depths of others as real: they do not see someone faraway, or on their street, as having feelings like their own. And a wife can do with a husband what Marie Antoinette did with the whole French kingdom: she can feel his function essentially is to make much of her, and to make their household comfortable; and she can feel that she is much more sensitive than he—she is fundamentally superior.
Carlyle indicates that this Queen would like to see herself as kind—as caring for what is not herself. The need to respect the outside world is so inescapable in everyone that we want to seem to go by it, no matter how selfish, unjust, and ruthless we are. So slaveholders in the 1850s would describe how compassionate the plantation system was. And factory owners who employed little children would contribute to charities at Christmastime. Therefore, too, Marie Antoinette wants to look kind and do good deeds—as long as they don’t interfere with her comfort or make her question herself. She arranges that selected orphans be taken care of; she “portions,” or provides dowries for, “meritorious maids.”
When Carlyle says she likes to help “the poor, such poor as come picturesquely in her way,” he is scathingly describing a fake oneness of opposites: a putting together care for what’s not herself and selfishness. The oneness is fake because the care isn’t real care. The real oneness of these opposites is to see that being fully just to people and things not ourselves is what takes care of us. To see this is the greatest need in everyone’s life; and Aesthetic Realism is the education that enables one to see it.
The “something almost like friendship” that Marie Antoinette had was, from one point of view, like most “friendships.” Right now, “friends” are making less of other people together; agreeing on how superior they, the “friends,” are; and going after enjoyment without being interested in what other human beings deserve. That is what Marie Antoinette did with Polignac and Lamballe. The Columbia Encyclopedia notes that in a “clique, led by Yolande de Polignac and Marie Thérèse de Lamballe, [she] threw herself into a life of pleasure and careless extravagance.” The three ladies encouraged each other’s lack of interest in and contempt for humanity. And so much of that humanity in France, Carlyle describes this way: “In squalid garret, on Monday morning maternity awakes, to hear children weeping for bread.” (That terrible yet beautiful sentence is from volume 1, book 7, chapter 4 of The French Revolution.) Carlyle felt what Aesthetic Realism makes clear: the only real friendship is the encouraging of a person to like and be just to the world.
And that is why Eli Siegel, in his complete, courageous honesty and love of knowledge, was the fullest friend to every person—as Aesthetic Realism will be forever.