What Is Brightness? or, Justice to Words & Reality
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing a lecture that Eli Siegel gave nearly seven decades ago, in 1949. It is Poetry and Brightness, and in our last issue I called it “amazing and beautiful.” Mr. Siegel shows that the idea of brightness is fundamental to the biggest matters that concern humanity, which means the life of every one of us.
In the present issue, we see him speaking about brightness in relation to religion, love, what the self most deeply is, and what can be called economic justice—a just ownership of the world.
A Poem Translated, & Brightness
There is, here, his discussion of a poem by Charles Baudelaire: “Hymn,” first published in 1866. Mr. Siegel translated this poem for the lecture we’re serializing, but in the 1960s he did another translation of it, which he included in his 1968 collection of poems, Hail, American Development. It is this later translation that you will be reading in the discussion here, because, while the 1949 version was very fine, I consider the later version one of the great translations in world literature.
Reviewing Hail, American Development in the New York Times Book Review, Kenneth Rexroth wrote that Eli Siegel’s “translations of Baudelaire and his commentaries on them rank him with the most understanding of the Baudelaire critics in any language.” I certainly agree with that. And I’ll say a little more about the matter of translation—a subject I love—because the quality of a poem’s translation has to do with what the lecture we’re serializing is about: brightness. Can the radiance, the vibrancy, the vital firmness-and-nuance of thought and sound that are in every true poem be conveyed—brought to us, living—in another language? Most translations fail at this.
There is no finer translator than Eli Siegel, and not just of Baudelaire. In Hail, American Development alone there are translations by him of Homer, Basho, the Hungarian Endre Ady, an anonymous poet of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Catullus, Henri Michaux, La Fontaine, the Spaniard Quiroga Pla, Simonides of Ceos, and more. Eli Siegel’s greatness in this field has to do with two opposites that were one in him. There was 1) his desire, and ability, to know, to be comprehensively exact, to see truly and deeply, to be fair to the object—in this instance, what another writer was saying. And 2) this desire to know was at one in him with the desire to feel, to be rightly affected without limit—by the original poem, by that composition of words as music which is real poetry.
The big impediment in translating poetry is also a debilitating impediment in life itself—and it has to do with brightness too. That is, a person’s ability to know and feel truly is choked by the desire to impress, to show how brilliant one is, to shine in superiority. You have to love words, really love words, to translate well; and conceit, the desire to put oneself forward, to wow with one’s brightness, interferes with the love of words as it does with the ability to love anything. With Eli Siegel, that contemptuous desire was simply not in operation: it was magnificently absent—as he looked at poetry, at every subject, and as he spoke to people.
Victor Hugo, Too
This is not the place to take up the lines in Eli Siegel’s translation of “Hymn,” compare them to the original French, and show why they are beautiful, though I would love to do so. I also think that his translation here of a stanza by Victor Hugo is beautiful—glowingly musical and firm—though it was, he indicates, a somewhat swift translation, done for the occasion of the lecture.
The Hugo stanza is from his poem “Lux” (“Light”). In that poem is some of Hugo’s passionate anger at the unjust way that France and the world have been owned: for the profit of a few people. He who wrote Les Misérables saw and said that this unjust ownership of the world has taken brightness away from people—has made their lives bleak with suffering. And in the stanza Mr. Siegel translates, Hugo says that this brutal way of having the world will change, and instead, that brightness which is justice will be.
Love and Brightness
Baudelaire’s “Hymn” has to do with the tremendous subject of love; and also, Mr. Siegel explains, with the deepest thing in self. The subject of love, of course, interests people, bewilders people, attracts, consumes, angers, troubles, sweeps people today as much as it ever did. So I’ll say a little about the fact that in Aesthetic Realism there is the explanation of love which people long for. And I’ll do so in relation to brightness.
“The purpose of love,” Eli Siegel writes in Self and World, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole.” To like the world through knowing it, Aesthetic Realism explains, is our deepest desire. And that is what love is for: to see, through closeness to another person, the world itself as profoundly interesting, valuable, to be understood, cared for. This is the same as using a person to see the authentic brightness—the aliveness—that is in things.
But what usually happens is that two people have both found the world pretty dull, dreary (with some interruptions, of course), and even darksome. The two people go toward each other with the feeling, “You (because you make much of me) will provide the brightness in this unlikable world.” That is the great mistake about love. It is the reason two people who once felt all aglow about each other become resentful, bored, angry, and ashamed. Instead of feeling, “Through this particular person I want to be more just to the meaning that is in things and people, see in them more of the pulsating, glowing, reverberating life they truly have,” a couple most often uses each other to have the outside world even dimmer, as they make a world that’s only for themselves. Yet in doing so, each betrays the deepest hope in oneself and the other: to like that outside world.
There has been this phony and perilous notion of romance, which is a horrible relation of brightness and dimness: “We two can resplendently make all else recede into the shadows.” The supposedly romantic idea “Let’s make the world go away” is an obliterating of the brightness in things. It is contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And contempt, which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the source of all cruelty and the weakener of every life, is the big interference with love.
Knowledge as Light
Knowing has long been seen as connected with light; Mr. Siegel speaks of that fact in his lecture on brightness. And in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism, he showed that to love a person is to want to know that person, understand that person; to love is to be very happy feeling the job of trying to know is never over. These sentences in Self and World are about love, knowledge, and non-brightness:
Love is in exact proportion to accurate knowledge. To say that love—as many have intimated—is based on mystery, dimness, blindness, blurriness, though it may sound fetchingly “romantic,” is really to do away with the true mystery, the true expansiveness, the true grandeur, the true intensity of love. [Pp. 184-5]
For two people to try to know and value the world together—and try to know each other as representatives of that world—is the greatest romance there is. I am grateful without bounds for having learned this, and for being able to live it.
Soon you will read what Mr. Siegel says about Baudelaire’s “Hymn” in Poetry and Brightness. Now, I quote a little from the note to his translation in Hail, American Development:
Critics have not sufficiently asked how Baudelaire, while doubtful of women in other poems, a savage questioner of them, should have written a poem, Hymne, as praising of women as Spenser ever was, or Shelley in Epipsychidion, or Petrarch in some sonnets, or Dante in the Paradiso. The utmost that can be said for a woman or for women is in the five quatrains of Baudelaire beginning with A la très chère, à la très belle….Baudelaire [says he] has his taste for eternity made keener by a woman. She makes existence deeper, sharper, more inclusive.…Sunrise, too, is in Charles Pierre Baudelaire, and the sunrise is a lady—in this Hymn. [Pp. 163-4]
As you will soon read, Baudelaire writes that this woman “fills my heart with clearness.” We love a person who encourages us to see clearly, justly, all things and people. That is what Aesthetic Realism itself does, and will do for humanity in all the coming centuries.
I see Baudelaire’s first two lines as describing too this greatest of philosophies: “To the very dear, to the beautiful one / Who fills my heart with clearness.” And I use Baudelaire’s fourth line to say of Eli Siegel, who founded Aesthetic Realism and was always true to it: “Hail in immortality!”