Art versus Ill Nature
Dear Unknown Friends:
Eli Siegel wrote the work printed here, “With Acting in Mind,” on January 27, 1961—the same month that he wrote “Remarks on Acting” and “Acting,” published in issues 1585 and 1531 of this journal. The ten points that comprise “With Acting in Mind” are about the very fabric of acting—they’re technical—yet they’re also about the feelings of everyone, actor or not. And the writing’s style is beautiful; it has charm and depth.
The tenth point, titled “The Putting Out of a Cigarette,” is a poem. When Mr. Siegel wrote it, cigarettes were simply part of daily life and therefore, as he says, were much in plays. They were not seen as the hazards to health we now know them to be. In this poem, which I love, we feel at once something ever so immediate, ordinary, specific—a cigarette’s being put out—and that grand width which is the history of drama. We hear the two in the poem’s music.
There Is Ill Nature
Also in this issue of TRO is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Robert Murphy, from a recent public seminar titled “Good Nature & Ill Nature in a Man: What Are They & Which Is Intelligent?” Ill nature does not seem an earthshaking matter, yet it is. It affects people enormously. The grouch, the sulk, disgust, irritability, annoyance abound—in homes, offices, educational institutions, halls of government. And people are disgusted with others’ irritability, are irritated meeting others’ grouchiness. You can’t be disgusted, annoyed, touchy, sulky, grumpy, etc., and at the same time thoughtful about other people. With ill nature goes meanness. With meanness goes cruelty. There is an inextricable relation between everyday ill nature and cruelty.
Most people do feel they’re ill-natured, and they quietly despise themselves for it. They may try to blame others: “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t get so annoyed!” They may tell themselves, after a few decades of being ill-natured, “I guess this is just how I am; it’s part of my character.” Yet no matter what they tell themselves, people are ashamed of their ill nature. And they don’t know what causes it.
This TRO, then, concerns 1) art, here represented by acting, and 2) ill nature. These come from what Aesthetic Realism shows are the two desires at war in every person: to respect the world, and to have contempt for it. Ill nature, whether in a high school student or a politician, comes from contempt. Art comes from respect. Though there has been a tendency to say artists are more ill-tempered than others, it’s not so. And if an artist is grouchy, the grouchiness comes from a source completely different from the source of his or her art.
An Unseen Hope
Mr. Siegel described contempt in the following landmark Aesthetic Realism principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” The fundamental explanation of ill nature is in that statement. As people wonder why on earth they’re so testy, grumpy, sullen, they don’t see that it’s because they get something out of it. They don’t see they have a hope to feel the outside world is an annoyance; objects and happenings are interferences; people are crude, stupid, and mean—because if reality is not good enough for them, it means they are superior. They’re royalty in an unworthy world.
A wife right now is annoyed with her husband: “See—he did it again! He left his shoes in the middle of the living room! Also, he forgot to put out the garbage!” Accompanying her displeased feeling is the smug sense that she’s better than he is. The fastest way of feeling we’re okay, indeed ever so good, is to be irritated with someone else.
Meanwhile there is art, which may describe ill nature but which never has it. Art arises from the converse of contempt. It comes from the tremendous desire to see value in the world, to show reality as having meaning and form. The art feeling, then, is the contrary of irritable, grouchy feeling. Art is always the truest good nature.
Coleridge Was Interested
A person deeply interested in good and ill nature was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). In the second chapter of his Biographia Literaria, writing about the “supposed irritability of men of Genius,” Coleridge says that the greatest artists are good-natured. He himself was one of the kindest people in literary—or any—history. And he was troubled that he could have a state of mind not fair to things and persons.
Yet Coleridge didn’t know what contempt is, how it worked in the human self and made for ill feeling and injustice in thousands of forms. Mr. Siegel loved Coleridge, and in Aesthetic Realism he explained what Coleridge wanted so much to know. For example, in the poem “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge describes himself as being, for the time, ill-natured—he is left cold by the beauty he sees. He says:
And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!
Even Coleridge, with all his depth and knowledge, didn’t know that there is a hope in people to be unaffected as a means of feeling that the only thing of real value in the world is ourselves. A person who is an artist can unknowingly feel that he has, through his art, given too much meaning to other things and that he can even the score through ill nature or non-feelingness—make himself supreme. Coleridge, I believe, was susceptible to this, but it is part of his grandeur that he very much didn’t want to be.
“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a poem mightily about contempt and respect. I quote the following lines, because they stand for that which Mr. Siegel showed to be the deepest desire of a person, the thing in the human self which makes for art, the thing against contempt and ill nature: the desire to like the world. Here the world is represented by water snakes, which the Mariner sees when he is greatly ashamed and angry; through valuing them, he changes:
O happy living things! no tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware.
And there are these famous lines toward the end of the poem:
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
Through Aesthetic Realism, we can understand the fight in us between the desire to care for the world and the desire to have contempt. And that means that art and kindness can win in humanity at last.