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Being a Description of the World

By Eli Siegel


Intelligence is the ability of a self to become at one with the new.

     Every self is surrounded by otherness: what is different from it. There is a way, however, of taking otherness dully for granted, of diminishing it, of acting as if we had seen it. The new is properly otherness thought of as not having been seen before. 

     We are afraid of the new and we want it. When a person is afraid of the new, something in him wants to make it less, and less sharp, and less strange. Intelligence should be judged not only by how much we can manage what is around us, but by the scope of what we wish to see as new, and as something we want to deal with.

     It follows that if we have already diminished the new in our minds, we have so far gone against intelligence. To want the new, to want to be at home in it, is a measure of intelligence in the most thorough sense.

     It is apparent that there is a relation between our desire to see the new and our ability to deal with it. When there is intelligence, the new is seen as friendly; and we want the friendly to be more and more, once we see something as friendly.

     The world is indefinitely capable of the new; and if in any way we object to this, we have that much curtailed intelligence. To find what is new in the world, we must be interested in it itself. And this means we must be interested in the old, too; because being able to see novelty in the old is part of the job of seeing the new. If we are ready to meet the new in the new, we have found the security, the friendliness, of the old.

     Where intelligence is insufficient, there is a restlessness about the new, and a too great dissatisfaction with the old. When a person is after novelty excessively, it's because the old has not been adequately seen.

     Intelligence, therefore, sees surprise in the customary, and the orderly in the astonishing. It looks upon the world as a thing of grace, asking for grace.

     Intelligence means learning; learning is a taking by the self of the new with a love for the old. When the old is loved, and therefore seen, the new is likewise loved and desired to be seen. For everything that's old was new: for each of us the most routine things of now were once new. And if by our continuing in something, dull satiety ensues, it's because we haven't been fair to the old, by not seeing it also as the cause of the new; as new, likewise.

     When a person adapts himself to a situation, he is making something other like something always of him, intimate. We adapt ourselves to the new, and we adapt ourselves to the old.

     The greatest newness is at birth. The baby having nothing old to go by, doesn't seem surprised. Those who think about the baby may be more surprised. Existence is taken for granted by the baby, even though existence is surprise itself.

     As the child goes on, what it has lived through becomes a means of its seeing, apprehending, being affected by what it hasn't lived through. If there is largeness and sharpness in the child's meeting new happenings, there is intelligence in the child. For intelligence is a way of being fair to experience. Intelligence, then, by its very nature, is a kind of justice. Are we fair to the old? Has it affected us as it should? Adequately? Have we lessened it? If we haven't, we have been intelligent; and we have been just. Seeing the new that is now old adequately, makes for seeing the new that is not old adequately. Intelligence has to do with a love for the happening, as fact. We want, when intelligent, to make the fact beautifully ours. And we love, however vaguely seen, the oncoming new fact. We love newness, for everything we are so familiar with now was once new.

© 1945 by Eli Siegel

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