Your Self: A Philosophic Drama
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we publish the second half of Aesthetic Realism Doesn’t Mind Being Philosophic, the great lecture Eli Siegel gave on September 19, 1946, at Steinway Hall. With grace and logic, he does something enormous. He describes what the human self is—the self that is our own, so particular to each of us, that walks down the street, goes into restaurants, speaks, dreams, can feel delighted and also awful.
He shows, in keeping with the lecture’s title, that the one way to understand our self is philosophically—what we are is aesthetic, described by this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We are trying to put together, in everything we do, the opposites that are the makeup of the world and the very structure of art: for instance, freedom and order, power and delicacy, assertion and yielding, wonder and everydayness.
And there are the biggest opposites in our lives, which Mr. Siegel describes in many ways in this talk: our individual self and the unlimited outside world. In the decades that followed he explained with vivid detail what he presents philosophically here: the thing in us that hurts every aspect of our lives—from love to education to our approach to money—is contempt, the feeling we make ourselves more through lessening what’s not us. Contempt has thousands of forms. It’s the source of boredom, and also of every human cruelty.
Lack of Feeling
To illustrate the philosophic battle in us that Mr. Siegel is speaking about, I’ll comment on lines by Sir Walter Scott. In the poem titled “The Dreary Change,” the author of Waverley, Ivanhoe, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Kenilworth, Rob Roy, and more, writes about looking at the Scottish landscape that had once stirred him mightily—and says that now he’s not moved very much. These are the first two stanzas:
The sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill,
In Ettrick’s vale, is sinking sweet;
The westland wind is hush and still,
The lake lies sleeping at my feet.
Yet not the landscape to mine eye
Bears those bright hues that once it bore;
Though evening, with her richest dye,
Flames o’er the hills of Ettrick’s shore.
With listless look along the plain,
I see Tweed’s silver current glide,
And coldly mark the holy fane
Of Melrose rise in ruin’d pride.
The quiet lake, the balmy air,
The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree,—
Are they still such as once they were?
Or is the dreary change in me?
Right now millions of people have the painful sense that they are not responding vividly to things, that they’re cold, unstirred—which means not fully alive. This ever so ordinary yet aching emptiness goes on, even as the person jokes, attends parties, visits interesting places. It can take the form Scott describes: this sight (often this person) once did so much to me; now it (or he or she) leaves me rather cold.
The Fight about Being Affected
Aesthetic Realism explains what nothing else does: there is a fight going on in every person between the desire to be affected resoundingly, deeply, multitudinously, indeed unlimitedly, by the world—and the desire to be unmoved, affected by nothing but ourselves. The second desire is contempt. As soon as something stirs us, we can’t be superior to it—it has power over us. And so, if someone we’ll call Jillian sees a grand sunset and does not feel agog; or if she hears great music and is not particularly moved; or hears a person speaking with fervency and precision, and is cool—two things have happened: while Jillian is pained by the smallness of her feeling, that smallness is also what something in her wanted and arranged.
People do not know how deep and pervasive is an actual desire in them to be unaffected. They don’t know they want to feel little as a means of feeling superior to everything.
Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) is one of the persons who most wanted to be affected by the world. Otherwise he would not have been able to come to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of characters who live because of how he felt them and told of them—for instance, Jeanie Deans, Jonathan Oldbuck, Dandie Dinmont, Meg Merrilies. He would not have been able to get within him and make vivid on paper thousands of happenings and landscapes. He would not have been able to feel the past with such fullness that he could make it alive in historical novels that have thrilled readers for two centuries.
Yet even in Scott there was a desire, which he did not know about, to be unaffected. He describes one of the results in the poem I am quoting.
We can meet, in our lives, things that confuse and disappoint us. And they can appeal to the desire, already in us, to say, “The way to take care of me is to feel not so much. I shall go into the castle of myself, where nothing will get to me. After all,” our contempt sneers, “the outside world was never good enough for me anyway.” Then, as time passes, we have the pain of, “Why aren’t I more affected? What has happened to me?” Our triumph is our defeat.
Because of how much Scott wanted to respect the outside world, have it do ever so much to him, he was more consciously horrified at having insufficient feeling than most people are. He also had a clearer notion of what insufficient was. To be “listless” in looking at the river Tweed! To see that ancient structure, Melrose Abbey, and meet it “coldly”! This, to Scott, was terrible. And so it is to the deepest self of everyone, though most people’s deep criticisms of themselves are not clear to them, not articulated; their self-criticisms take the form of such things as irritation, emptiness, agitation, and a nagging (sometimes piercing) sense of shame.
The Respect That Is Art
What Scott does in this poem constitutes tremendous good news—big, practical hopefulness—for every person: Scott uses his regret about feeling little to feel a lot. This poem, like every good poem, arises from and contains large and accurate feeling. Scott has used seeing his contemptuous coldness to have respect for the world.
There are these lines, which are at once heavy and soaring: “Though evening, with her richest dye, / Flames o’er the hills of Ettrick’s shore.” In their music, we hear the world as weight and the world as simultaneously terrific agogness.
And there are these lines: “The quiet lake, the balmy air, / The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree.” Scott is listing things that haven’t stirred him sufficiently. But there are a caress and an electricity in the way he names them. Each is excitingly alive. In this poem Scott has—and enables us to have—big emotion about the world as a oneness of intensity and fading, fullness and emptiness, thrill and vacancy.
The date of the poem is 1817. It is clear that in the years that followed, Scott was able to feel powerfully again: he wrote novels that matter in the literature of the world.
Meanwhile, the pain and shame about feeling not enough, being tepid, having things leave one cold, has been expressed by others too. Perhaps the greatest poetry on the subject is in Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” There has been grandeur about the pain of insufficient feeling, but the pain is real. It is dully, sinkingly real for people every day.
The poem from which I’ve quoted is not the greatest instance of Scott’s work. But it is art. And it is what Aesthetic Realism shows all art is, a oneness of opposites: an individual person taking care of his own individuality through being resplendently just to the world. That, as Mr. Siegel explains in the 1946 lecture, is what we want to do. How we can, is the beautiful study of Aesthetic Realism.