Words, Sex, and Kindness
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the great lecture Poetry and Words, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. And we publish “Kindness and Sex,” part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism associate Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman presented this month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar.
There is more interest now than there ever was in the way couples use words—in how men and women communicate with each other, and often don’t communicate so well. Some of the most popular books of recent years have been on that subject. Meanwhile, people still feel that sex is very different from what a sentence is, what a word is, even from what a good conversation is. People still see sex as beyond words—as driving, inarticulate, and magical.
I love Aesthetic Realism for its understanding of both words and sex, and for showing the relation between them. This principle, stated by Eli Siegel, is the basis for understanding how words came to be, how people use them; and also how people are in sex, with all the victory, confusion, anger, and shame attending: “The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151).
Words, Mr. Siegel has shown, are respect for reality. Words exist, grammar exists, because people wanted to like the world: to get its items into their minds, find a structure in it (grammar is a structure). And the trouble people have about communication does not come, as current books indicate, because women and men are different. It comes principally because people don’t like the world. They therefore don’t want to use words to understand a person who represents that world, or to show the depths of themselves to such a person. Contempt, the desire to “be for [one]self by making less of the outside world,” is the chief thing wrong with conversations. And contempt is the thing wrong in sex. Here are questions I am very grateful to ask, and some statements, having in them Aesthetic Realism’s magnificent understanding of both words and sex.
Are You Joined with the World?
1. Anytime you hear a word—read a word—say a word—think a word—are you joined with the world, because an instance of the world is within you? That is, a table is in your mind, within your being, the moment you hear the word table. And is sex like that: should we feel that as we are very close to a particular representative of reality whom we value, reality itself is more of us? The purpose of love and sex, Mr. Siegel has shown, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 171). And I thank him with all my heart.
This great principle of Aesthetic Realism, true about every instance of reality, is true about both words and sex: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The questions I just asked were about the largest opposites in our lives: self and world.
2. Then there are the opposites which we can call symbol and thing symbolized. That is, just as a word stands for the thing it names—does the body of a person stand for the person? And should our closeness to the person’s body represent, therefore, a desire to be fair to that person’s very self, a desire to see the person truly?
3. There are the enormous opposites freedom and accuracy. Are words used well when a person feels through them he can express himself freely, in a way that pleases him—and at the same time he wants to be accurate with them, just to other things and persons? Has massive and everyday evil come because people separate these opposites?: they use words “freely"—to change the facts, to be inaccurate and unjust—in behalf of some purpose or picture that pleases them. And is sex too about freedom and accuracy, release and justice, pleasure and respect? Will we be proud about sex only if our pleasing and being pleased by a person is the same as our respecting that person, our wanting to be just to that person?
4. We are in the midst, always, of surface and depth. Words strike us first as surface: they come to our ears, or we see them on a page. Is it beautiful when a person uses words to show the depths of himself, what he deeply feels? Is it ugly (though so frequent) for a person to use words not to show his feeling but to hide—to put on a verbal display as a means of keeping his inner self unknown? And is sex beautiful if a person uses those things of surface which are body and touch with the hope to show who he really is, to be truly known? Is it ugly (though so frequent) to go after various bodily effects with a person while not wanting that person to know the depths of yourself?
The Moment, and More
5. There are the moment and all time. It is beautiful that a word we may use this minute fits us, this very moment. Yet that word was made, likely, hundreds of years ago, has a long, long history, was used by millions of people we never met. Sex, too, certainly has to do with the moment. It is ever so immediate. Yet we need to feel that a sensual, ecstatic moment will look good to us ten years from now; that it is a means of our whole life’s being stronger; that it is good for other people, including people we have not yet met, because it makes us fairer to them.
Because of Eli Siegel’s constant courage and honesty, Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy fair to culture at its largest, and human life in all its confusions and hopes.