Sex, Nature, & the Decisive Criterion
Dear Unknown Friends:
One of the biggest reasons humanity needs to study Aesthetic Realism is that people don’t know what it is in them that weakens them, interferes with their intelligence and happiness, has them be cold and unkind, has them dislike themselves; and they also don’t know what the best thing in them is—that which makes for strength, largeness of mind, kindness, pride. In terms of history and culture: people do not understand what in the self has made for “the best that has been known and thought in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it; and what in the self has caused the brutality present throughout the centuries—has caused what Burns called “man’s inhumanity to man.” The explanation is in Aesthetic Realism. And it is in the great 1950 lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing, Aesthetic Realism and Nature. Never before had nature been talked of as it was that evening fifty years ago.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the thing in us which weakens our minds, interferes, often ruinously, with every aspect of our lives, and makes us mean is our desire for contempt: the desire to get “an addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The best thing in us, the source of all kindness, intelligence, and art, is the desire to respect reality, to like the world honestly. We are using everything we meet—whether a lake, a movie, an article of clothing, an embrace, a happening in the news, or garbage on the sidewalk—either to respect the world, or have contempt for it. As I tell of this explanation here, I feel with new wonder its might, its grandeur. This knowledge, presented by Eli Siegel, of our two defining purposes, is as much a turning point for civilization as the coming to be of the alphabet.
Sex and the Internet
Let us take a matter that seems so unlike the subject of the present lecture. An article in the New York Times of May 16 had the headline “Cybersex Gives Birth to a Psychological Disorder.” “Fully a third of all [Internet] visits” the article informs us, are
to sexually oriented Web sites, chat rooms and news groups....Experts in the field say that the affordability, accessibility and anonymity of the Internet are fueling a brand new psychological disorder—cybersex addiction—that appears to be spreading with astonishing rapidity and bringing turmoil to the lives of those affected.
The so-called “experts” do not say, because they do not know, what causes this misuse of sex—in fact, what makes it misuse. Technology may bring into one’s home or office a certain kind of temptation (to use an old-fashioned word). But technology did not create that in a person which is appealed to, and impelled, or compelled.
The thing that makes the use of another’s body wrong—be it in a brothel in the 14th century or through images on the Web in the 21st—is the same thing that makes the use of anything wrong, including, as Mr. Siegel describes here, a blue sky, leaves, clouds. Also, what would make sex right is the same as what would make one’s enjoying clouds, sky, leaves right.
People want to be pleased. And the question, Aesthetic Realism explains, is: will it be through respect for the world and other human beings, or through contempt? With sex, something so explosive, so comprehensive takes place as to one’s body, that there is the opportunity to feel you have made the whole world something that exists to please you. There can be a feeling of having the world at last on one’s own ecstatic terms through another human being. The complexities of reality and people have been annulled; you do not have to think, try to understand anything. Through someone’s lavish intimate attentions, through someone’s seeming to give himself or herself over to you utterly, you make insignificant all those people who confused you, and turn the world into a fleshly servant of yourself.
It is this contempt to which “cybersex,” and pornography as such, appeal intensely. Meanwhile, people can also have contempt through the most customary sex in the sanctity of the marriage bed. The only thing ever wrong with sex, Mr. Siegel explained, is the contempt and selfishness in it. And the two big questions about cybersex, and any sex, are: 1) Are you respecting the person whose body you are looking at or thinking about or dealing with; or are you having contempt for that person? 2) Do you respect the world more through these sexual thoughts and happenings, or do you have contempt for it?
The only real answer to the allure of contemptuous sex is for people to see knowing as tremendous pleasure; to see respect for reality as luscious. While people don’t like the world, they will want to have the world punished and serving them—through sex, likely, and other means: perhaps through food, greed, the managing of other human beings, in the family and out. For cybersex to be a draw no longer, people also need to see what Eli Siegel describes in his great essay “Obscenity Weakens; Art Strengthens”:
A person having a choice between weakening himself and being pleased in some accented way, would, if he saw the matter clearly, choose not weakening. We are for sex very much, but we are for not being weaker even more. [TRO 900]
People need to see that sexual conquest via the Web weakens them—and not only because, as the Times indicates, it interferes with their marital lives. They need to see it weakens them because it is sheer contempt and against what their minds are for, and therefore it makes their minds less whole, less keen, less deep, less organized, less alive.
Sex Can Be Respect
Aesthetic Realism is magnificent in explaining that sex can be respect for the world—as listening to music can be, and admiring the flight of a bird can be. The reason sex, or anything, is right, can be found in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The largest opposites in our lives are self and world. And Mr. Siegel was speaking of them when he explained in passionate, logical sentences that I love:
There is only one thing that is immoral in the world: liking oneself too much and the outside world too little....Once you feel what is owing to yourself is more and what is owing to other people is less, you can rob people’s purses, tell lies, keep back things that would do good to people, start wars.
Sex has had this disproportion, but doesn’t have to. Sex can be a means of feeling one is taking care of oneself lavishly through finding value in what is not oneself: the world, as represented by a person one respects and treasures. Sex can be a means of saying, “This is a world I don’t want to keep away from, hide from—it is a world I want to give myself to fully. This is a person—and a world—I want to know richly, and be known by richly.” And then, sex is kind, and proud.
—We go now to Aesthetic Realism and Nature. Eli Siegel himself loved nature. And he has been speaking about a person whom he respected, the writer Richard Jefferies (1848-87), and explaining the deep trouble in his life, which no one else understood. Jefferies, Mr. Siegel shows, unknowingly used his ardent care for nature against people—to care less for them, not more.