We & the World Are Intimate & Wide
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the great lecture Philosophy Consists of Instincts, which Eli Siegel gave in 1965. The very basis of Aesthetic Realism is that we—at our most personal, our most everyday, our most confused, our most hoping, our most worried—are like the world that philosophy looks at, and like art. “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Mr. Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
The biggest opposites in our lives are me and all that’s not me, or self and world. And our constant battle, in everything we do, is about how we should relate these. In the lecture being serialized, Mr. Siegel describes the battle this way: should we try to know what’s outside us—or use it to make ourselves comfortable? And he shows that those two battling desires correspond to disagreeing approaches in the history of American philosophy. The approaches take many forms, but they always have to do with notions of fact and notions of value.
Kind or Hurtful: The Criterion
In the lecture, Mr. Siegel has been discussing passages about philosophy from The Cambridge History of American Literature, and he has come to a passage that mentions religion. His knowledge of religious thought, as of so many other fields, was vast, and loving. I know of no one who respected the various world religions more. That respect is present as he speaks briefly and somewhat playfully here.
Meanwhile, today there is more awareness than ever that religion can be used badly. We know that throughout history, people have killed in the name of religion; they have been brutes, and also snobs, out of supposed religious piety. Religion has been used for kindness and also for cruelty. Of course, most persons have a much stronger sense that other religions have been used for cruelty than that their own has been.
Mr. Siegel does not speak of all this in the lecture we’re serializing. However, the battle that he speaks of and identifies as the fundamental fight in everyone, is, in my opinion, the criterion for distinguishing a true use of that mighty thing, religion, from a false use. The criterion is: Is my purpose 1) to know, to see exactly, deeply, widely—or 2) to make myself comfortable or important without feeling I need to know?
The second is a form of contempt. And Aesthetic Realism has shown contempt to be the source of every injustice. It is “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” In terms of the battle outlined in the present lecture: as soon as we prefer comfort and importance to trying to understand, think, see, know—we are having contempt. Every great thing (like every minor thing) can be used either in behalf of respect for reality or contempt for reality. A notion of love can be used for contempt; so can a notion of patriotism—and of art—and of God. Some everyday ways people use religion for contempt are in the following state of mind:
“I am superior simply because I was born into this religion while others weren’t—that shows God preferred me. Further, since I go through certain procedures of devotion to God, I don’t have to try to understand and be just to the human beings and things in this world (even though I say God created them all). I don’t have to worry about whether justice, including economic justice, comes to people—because I’m in a superior realm; it’s me and the Lord.”
There has certainly been much written about the misuses of religion—which misuses go all the way from smugness to murder. Yet it has not been seen that every one of them comes from contempt. Whenever anything unjust is described well, however, one feels in some fashion the contempt that is in it. Take a very good satiric poem of Robert Burns, “Holy Willie’s Prayer”: the speaker (or pray-er) is an elder in a Scottish church. Burns has us feel the man’s conceit, his contempt for the rest of humanity, in the following stanza, as Holy Willie addresses God yet is really stroking his own “shining,” superior self:
I bless and praise Thy matchless might,
When thousands Thou hast left in night,
That I am here before Thy sight,
For gifts and grace
A burning and a shining light
To all this place.
Meanwhile: the religious thought that is beautiful and kind—of any time, any land—arises from that other source: the desire of a person to know and keep knowing, to see and feel reality—including human reality—with respect and fullness. I mention swiftly three such persons: St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274); a contemporary of his, Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273); and a person who died three years before Rumi was born, Moses Maimonides (1135-1204).
Poems Praise, Question, Criticize
In the present section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel also comments on the word law, which appears in the text he is using. I’m very glad to include in this TRO four poems of his related to what he says here about law, and to the tremendous opposites self and world.
The first was written in the late 1920s. This poem with a long title—“Of Her Who in Her Seeing Left Loved Things, Lovable Things, a Loved Thing, Lovable Thing, Lightly, More or Less Lightsomely”—is kind and critical. It is about the feeling: nothing should mean so much to us that we cannot manage it, have contempt for it. And the poem says that through this feeling we are untrue to ourselves. We go away from the best thing in ourselves because we want to go away from, diminish, be comfortably aloof from, what we value—it may be art, a person, a city, an idea. We can “leave” something geographically; but we also “leave” it when we want to be superior to it, be able to dismiss it or diminish it and have ourselves to ourselves.
Loving something truly is a terrific affront to our conceit. Valuing something mightily is an insult to our desire, described in the lecture, that we be a “law all for ourselves.” Eli Siegel’s criticism is ardent in this poem. The lines are lyrically, one could even say rhapsodically, logical; they are crashingly tender. He wrote the poem long before Aesthetic Realism itself came to be, and certainly long before I was born; but I thank him personally for it, because it stands for the beautiful fact that he fought all the time for the best thing in a person—in me.
“World, Wind, Leaves Talked To” is a poem of 1928. The leaves told of in it seem to be ever so free, doing “as they like”—and at the same time obeying some law of reality that has them do as they do. The poem itself is exuberant and exact. It is musically joyful and strict. It has Eli Siegel’s love of the world in it.
“Said One Golfer to Another” is of 1961. A central and constant form of contempt is simply to make other things and people less real than we are. We do not give them the fullness, the depth of feeling, we have. Expunging the full reality of others is part of making ourselves the one law that matters. In this poem, a certain sport opposes that contempt, that using of our self against the world. The poem is humorous, but in its sound it has width, depth, point, resonance.
“Poem of Love,” written in 1951, is satiric. It expresses a false and very prevalent notion of love. The “law” within that notion is: Love consists of a person’s seeing me not as I am but as I want him to see me. Love consists of having power over someone while I have myself to myself and can have thoughts (the “elves” in the last line) that no one—and certainly not the loved one—knows anything about!
“Poem of Love” presents the victory that the speaker—a woman—has in fooling, managing, and hiding from someone. But in the sound is also some of her emptiness, her pain.
Meanwhile, I’ll add—Aesthetic Realism explains what love truly is: the desire to know and like the world itself through knowing and being known by another person. That this desire is the means for love to succeed, is one of the greatly beautiful laws of reality.