What Love—and Strength—Really Are
Dear Unknown Friends:
It is an honor to print an introduction that Eli Siegel wrote in 1973 for a public seminar presented by Aesthetic Realism consultants, “Why Does Love Change to Something Else?” Accompanying it is part of a paper by consultant Derek Mali from a seminar of this spring, “What Makes a Man Truly Strong?” And I am tremendously happy, as preliminary, to comment a little on this fact: Aesthetic Realism is that which explains at last, with grandeur and infinite practicality, the bewildering, thrilling, tormenting subject of love.
I begin by quoting William Butler Yeats, musical and pained on the subject Mr. Siegel writes about here. In the last lines of “Adam’s Curse” (1904), Yeats says:
I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:
That you were beautiful, and that I strove
To love you in the old high way of love;
That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown
As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.
Yeats is immortal in world literature, and the woman this is likely about, Maud Gonne, used herself courageously to help Ireland become free. Yet those two notable persons knew no more than a couple right now in Brooklyn why a certain lovely, happy feeling should change to weary-heartedness, irritation, bitterness. They did not know what Aesthetic Realism explains: Love is liking the world itself through a person. “The purpose of love,” Mr. Siegel writes, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 171)
To love a person is to want that person to be in the best possible relation with the whole world—other people, books, ideas, work, his or her past. To love a person is to use knowing him or her to be fairer to every other human being and thing. This purpose of love is the same as what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the purpose of our life and the deepest desire we have: to like the world. Yet our deepest desire has competition from another desire; and that huge competing desire is the thing that interferes with and ruins love. Mr. Siegel has described it this way: “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.”
The relation of Yeats and Maud Gonne was intricate, and is part of culture now, because Yeats wrote poems about it. But even though he could write, “And when you sigh from kiss to kiss / I hear white Beauty sighing, too”—and feel that through Maud Gonne the largeness of the world was close to him—other statements of his make it clear he also could want to use a woman for contempt, to put the world scornfully aside. He could want her not to care for the world, but to make much of him. For example, in his Memoirs he writes this about the interest which made her kind and valuable to so many Irish people: “I came to hate her politics, my one visible rival” (Macmillan, 1972, p. 63). And I say swiftly but carefully too: Maud Gonne was not much interested in comprehending how Yeats saw the world—including Ireland and poetry.
Yeats and Gonne made the same mistake as the Brooklyn couple I referred to. Stacey and Jim of Flatbush have seen love as a chance to get away from a world they find messy and displeasing. They have tried to make a separate world with themselves superior to everything. Now they are angry with each other, feel empty and drained, and don't know why. The reason is, while they seemed to be making so much of each other, they were really insulting, betraying, and damaging one another: they were taking each other away from the chief goal of their lives—to like the world.
The Same Trouble in Russia
I go to another 20th-century poet, this time of Russia. Anna Akhmatova wrote about painful love—love that changed to something else—in St. Petersburg, Sevastopol, Kiev. These lines from an untitled poem of 1911 are about her marriage to the writer Gumilev. They describe two people who had thought they loved each other, angry, giving it to each other, including through mean sarcasm:
...“Why are you pale today?”
—Because I’ve made him drunk
On bitter misery.
How can I forget? He went out, reeling,
His mouth twisted in torment.
I ran down, not touching the banister.
Panting, I cried, “It was only in fun,
That’s all! If you leave I’ll die!”
He smiled, quietly and horribly,
And told me, “Don't stand in the wind."
Equivalent, Mr. Siegel explained, to the desire to like the world, is good will—which he described as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” He showed that good will is no soft thing but a fierce necessity. To love a person is to have passionate good will for that person. But if we dislike the world, if we have contempt for it, we will not have good will for a person we are close to. We may “adore” the person, give our body to that person: but we will deeply see that person as someone to manage, use to make ourselves important, and also punish. What is going on in this very good poem is what, in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel once described to me in a beautiful and terrible phrase. He said that I and a man I was close to were going after “a kind of ruthless sculpture” with each other. “When people suffer,” he said, “they don't know how imperial they are.”
A Victory over the World
Anna Akhmatova hoped more than most people to like the world. But she too could see love as a means of getting a victory over the world, making it succumb to her. So “love” in Russia, 1911, as in America now, could be “ruthless sculpture”: a contest for power between two people. “Love” could be the thrill of putting a person in a tumult while looking down on him. And one can have this contemptuous power both in giving someone ecstasy and in making him unsure and miserable.
What Akhmatova says she meant “in fun” was likely some clever, sneering battery of remarks aimed at humiliating her husband. Then she sees how pained he is, and she feels awful. But now, seeing her in a tizzy, he has a victory, and his cool statement at the end is meant to show her how little her turmoil affects him. This kind of contest is going on in homes right now, between people who thought they loved each other. And the reason is, we will want to lessen and humiliate another person if we see the world itself as something to be against. —Meanwhile, Anna Akhmatova has described her own confusion and ill will with such fullness of honesty that authentic poetry has come to be.
Poetry Has What Love Needs
There is nothing I am more grateful for than this tremendous fact, which Eli Siegel was the critic to see and teach: all poetry has what love needs. The reason is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” All good poetry arises from a person’s using a particular instance of reality the way we should use a man or woman we love: to see truly the world itself. The structure of the world, the oneness of opposites, is what we feel and hear in every good poem.
Take the last line of Yeats I quoted: “As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” There is a rich, delicate, graceful curve in the sound of “As weary-hearted”—along with burden and misery. There is rotundity, a feeling of full circle, in the sound of “hollow moon”—along with vacuity. The line is beautiful because it is a oneness of the fullness and emptiness, weight and lightness, anguish and grace of the world.
Aesthetic Realism makes true love possible, and is the knowledge humanity most needs.