Words and Our Lives
Dear Unknown Friends:
It moves me very much to begin a new century with the serialization of Poetry and Words, a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel that is at once great, exact, warm, and amazing.
No subject is more important than the subject of words, both for our personal lives and for what will happen nationally and internationally. What kind of words do we—each of us as an individual person—want to hear, from the leaders of nations and from people close to us? There is no longing larger in us than our longing to hear words that come from real sincerity: words that are exact and deep. There are no disappointment and fury bigger than the disappointment and fury that exist because people do not hear such words. And how do we use words, both to others and as we think to ourselves? Our character, our life, our opinion of ourselves depend on our honesty with words.
I am tremendously glad to say, in the year 2000: Eli Siegel was the greatest friend to words. No one used them with more integrity, and with more beauty. I never heard him use words to flatter, as people so often do, or to evade, or to impress. His sentences, spoken and written, had might, charm, beauty of construction. And always they were just, magnificently just, to the subject they were about—including when that subject was a person, was oneself. I could say very much about Mr. Siegel’s integrity with words. It was the most beautiful thing I know in this world. And the lecture we are serializing is an instance of it.
Words are evidence for what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the biggest desire of the human self: to like the world. The fact that human beings thousands of years ago wanted to name the items and aspects of reality, was a love for them. Words are a means, perhaps the richest there is, of getting the world into ourselves: we can have within us knowledge of another person’s feelings, of a happening 300 years ago, of what a certain plant is like—all through words describing these. And through words, what is within us can go out to the world and be known there: we can tell about our thoughts with words, so our thoughts can get into the thoughts of someone else. (This is happening right now: words are bringing my thoughts to you.) Through words, our self and the world become of each other.
Aesthetic Realism shows what has not been understood elsewhere: the way we use words is governed by how we see the world. The various troubles people have about words—inability to read, difficulty in writing, dyslexia—these come from dislike of the world. A person who sees the world deeply as an enemy will be in some unconscious war with that enemy’s representatives, words. If he wants to protect himself from and conquer the outside world, he may not welcome words—which stand for it—into his mind. Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of this fact is one of the reasons public school teachers who use the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method have such monumental and continuous success in relation to words: they have enabled students, whom others couldn’t, to read, write, and really care for books and words.
The Mystery of Sameness & Difference
The principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism is the means of seeing what words are:
“All beauty,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” A crucial question in the study of linguistics—though it is not put this way—is What is the relation of sameness and difference between a word and the thing the word stands for?
The fashion in the last decades has been to say, as the linguist Saussure did, that there is no intrinsic sameness between the word (the “signifier”) and the thing it represents (the “signified”); that the connection is arbitrary—there is no underlying relation between the sound shrimp and the small crustacean, or between the sound whale and the massive seafaring mammal, or between the sound hurry and what hurrying is. Aesthetic Realism disagrees with that fashion. The fact that college linguistics departments may not understand why persons centuries ago felt a certain sound was right for a certain thing, is no reason for saying the word and thing are not deeply related, with all their obvious difference.
How many other sounds were tried—for a shrimp or a whale or the act of hurrying—which didn’t last, because people didn’t feel they were right? Then someone said “shrimp”—and others wanted to repeat it! That was because they felt it fit. And plainly shrimp, with its little vowel, feels more like the object than the heavy sound shroomp. Whale, with its wide vowel, and spreading consonants, seems closer to that large object than, for instance, a sound like kip would be. Hurry, as sound, has a rapidity, a closeness to the activity named, which the more leisurely sound ramble does not. What I am saying of English is true of every language. For instance, in other languages the word for whale has various likenesses with the animal: expansiveness is present in the German Wal too; and there are heaviness and fullness in the French baleine and the Spanish ballena.
In his Definitions, and Comment, Mr. Siegel writes:
One of the important mysteries of the world is the relation of the sound mountain to the thing mountain....Words can be said to be the results of a successful love of objects. Once a word sticks to an object, as in a language, there is a relation of word and object like the best in love, from a logical point of view.
I think that last sentence is beautiful; and it is true. The fact that there is some fittingness, however hard to discern, however mysterious, between words come to by human beings and the world those words tell of, makes one respect both humanity and the world more. It makes one feel the world is wondrous yet warm.
The Misuser of Words
Yet words have been used too with ugliness and cruelty. People have used words to give a false impression, to belittle and smear others, to aggrandize themselves, to lie. That goes on quietly every day. Aesthetic Realism explains what impels every use of words to falsify, from a child’s fibbing to the propaganda of Hitler. It is contempt, which Mr. Siegel identified in the following great principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”
Words—our words, politicians’, the press’s—will be either in the service of the desire to be fair to reality, or in the service of the feeling, “I can change any fact to suit my ego. Whatever doesn’t give me my way, whatever doesn’t make me look good as I see it, is my enemy—and I can use words to hurt it. I can use words to justify myself for anything. The facts should bow to me, not me to them—and I can use words to make them do so.” I have just described the ugliest state of mind in the world. Everyone has some of it; and the most important thing about us is how much we are against it.
I said earlier that there is no greater longing in people’s personal lives than for the hearing of a certain kind of words. This longing is bigger even than for sex. People long to hear someone using words to show who he truly is. They long to hear someone using words to find out who they truly are. The thing in people that wants to hide and pretend and have contempt makes them also afraid of such words; but the longing is there nevertheless. Aesthetic Realism is the education that can enable such use of words, such conversations, to be in people’s lives. As we begin to serialize Poetry and Words in this new century, I thank Eli Siegel for enabling me to love words. I thank him for putting into the kindest words in the world what humanity most longs to know.