Excitement, Byron, & the Trouble about Sex
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 3 of Poetry and Excitement, the magnificent 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing. Aesthetic Realism is based on the following principle, stated by him—which is the means, at last, of knowing what beauty is and what our own life is about: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In this lecture, Mr. Siegel explains what excitement is—that thing everyone desires, is mixed up about, and also fears. He describes how reality’s opposites come together in it.
In the present section, he looks at stanzas of Byron. And I can say as a person who knows the field: Eli Siegel is the critic who understood Byron, both the man and the poet, supremely—as Byron thirsted to be understood. It moves me very much to comment on some of that understanding as expressed in another lecture: Lord Byron May Yet Be Known, of September 14, 1969. What Mr. Siegel explained in it concerns excitement, and something which millions of people feel is the most exciting thing in the world: sex. I am quoting from the report I wrote of that lecture at the time—30 years ago.
Early in it, after reading a passage by William Hazlitt about Byron’s intensity and his desire to escape ennui, Mr. Siegel said:
That hints at Byron’s suffering. He wanted not to fall into himself in some dull and lessening way .... Byron opposed dullness in himself in two ways: through writing and through women. His big complaint is: after the ecstasy of love he was more in himself than before.
Byron never knew—as no person has before Aesthetic Realism—what differentiates the excitement that makes us proud and more alive, from the excitement that leaves us ashamed, dull, empty. Aesthetic Realism shows that there are two big drives in everyone: the first is to like the world, respect it; the second is to have contempt for the world—to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt, Mr. Siegel made clear, is “that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker” (Self and World, p. 362). His showing this, and identifying contempt as the source of every injustice, is a landmark in civilization. And the quality of our excitement, and the effect of it on ourselves, depend on whether our stir, thrill, ecstasy arise from a new respect for reality, or from being able to have victorious contempt for it.
The Two Excitements
When Byron “opposed dullness in himself” through writing, he was having the excitement of respecting the world. He describes that excitement musically, charmingly, in these lines from Canto 10 of Don Juan:
Why, just now,
In taking up this paltry sheet of paper,
My bosom underwent a glorious glow,
And my internal spirit cut a caper.
The excitement of sex can also be the excitement of respect. But very, very often, it is contempt. Very, very often it is the organic thrill of feeling that, through a person, reality is serving us, adoring us; we don’t have to think or be fair to anything: the puzzling, cold world has been defeated—it has become this person, this body, just quivering to please us. Byron didn’t know he was using sex to have contempt for a world he hoped to honor. He didn’t know that is why he felt agonized about love, and disgusted with himself.
In the 1969 lecture, Mr. Siegel read stanzas 120-127 of Canto 4 of Byron’s Childe Harold, and said that some of the greatest questioning of love is in them. For example, Byron writes:
Alas! our young affections run to waste,
Or water but the desert; whence arise
But weeds of dark luxuriance, tares of haste,
Rank at the core, though tempting to the eyes;
Flowers whose wild odours breathe but agonies.
Byron, Mr. Siegel explained, “is saying people use love to tamper with their vision of reality, and that makes the self displeased. He has described literally hundreds of times this ambivalence: something attractive with the force of dynamite can still be opposed by one. He saw that love could give one a sense of retrospective doubt—that perhaps one wasn’t so good to oneself.”
Byron Was Honest
There is today a tremendous pretense on the subject of sex. There is—on television, in the movies, in the advice columns—an effort to seem so at ease, and to have people feel there is no true, ethical reason for objecting to oneself after “successful” sex. Byron had plenty of “successful” sex. Throughout Europe, women were anxious to give themselves to this most famous and handsome of writers. He wrote jocularly in a letter in 1819, “I have been more ravished myself than any body since the Trojan war.” But Byron was trying to be honest about what he didn’t understand: about what the excitement of sex—what “something attractive with the force of dynamite”—did to him. He wrote in his journal, 1821: “Why, at the very height of desire and human pleasure,...does there mingle a certain sense of doubt and sorrow?” And there are a deep sadness and sourness—amid good prose style—in this, from his journal of 1813: “A mistress never is nor can be a friend. While you agree, you are lovers; and, when it is over, any thing but friends.”
Eli Siegel was the greatest, kindest of critics. And Byron would have loved him and Aesthetic Realism as I do for explaining, not only what poetry is, and what the self is—but what can make the excitement of sex respectful and proud. Mr. Siegel explained that the purpose of poetry and the purpose of sex have to be the same: to like the world. It is possible to feel that in being close to a person we respect immensely, we are close to the world, which this person stands for. It is possible to feel, in love at its most corporeal, that we are delighted wanting the world to affect us fully; wanting not to hide from the world; wanting to welcome it with all of ourselves; wanting to strengthen it and this person who dearly stands for it. The excitement then is sweeping and real!
Aesthetic Realism explains that the excitement of sex should be a means of seeing other things as exciting—a fact, a friend, an ordinary object—not of getting away from them. Humanity will thank Mr. Siegel for explaining this—and for giving the world the most exciting study there has ever been: Aesthetic Realism.