|NUMBER 1833.—October 10, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to publish the lecture Instinct: Beginning with Shelley, which Eli Siegel gave in March 1965. It is one in a series on instinct. And through Aesthetic Realism’s great, immensely kind explanation of instinct, a certain quiet and sometimes not so quiet suffering of people can end.
That is, people have made a rift in themselves between what they see as “instinct” and what they see as thought, reason, intellect. Psychiatry, of both the past and present, far from healing that rift, has exacerbated it. On the one hand, people have seen instinct as something animalistic, which one is just driven by—which doesn’t go along with one’s care for logic or study. There is the sense that instincts are irrational, often lurid; and that though they’re inevitable, we cannot feel really civilized in having them. On the other hand, there is a tendency, very dangerous, to see one’s instincts as almost holy, justifying everything: you have an instinct; it must be right; just go by it.
What Instinct Is
In Eli Siegel’s Definitions, and Comment, there is a definition of instinct. It is beautiful, exact, and clear: “Instinct is desire not known or seen as an object.” I remember the happiness and relief I felt when I first heard Mr. Siegel explain that there is an instinct to reason, to be logical! Instinct is not at odds with thought: there is an instinct to become educated, an instinct to think deeply and widely. And this instinct to understand is no less primal and intense than the instinct for sex.
And instincts, Mr. Siegel showed, are not just the fierce, raging things Freud pictured. Instincts can be mild, fairly dull: there is an instinct to wipe a table; an instinct not to take a walk; an instinct to smile.
Aesthetic Realism explains too that there is a criterion for the goodness or badness, rightness or wrongness, salubriousness or harmfulness of any instinct and how we use it. The criterion is: is the purpose of that instinct, or of what we do with it, to have respect for the world or contempt? The fight between respect and contempt for the world is the big, constant fight in self.
There Is Love
In the lecture we are serializing, Mr. Siegel looks at that tremendous instinct Love. His purpose is to relate love to the other instincts, and to the structure of reality, which he has described in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” For example, he shows that love, with all its embraces, quarrels, yearning, triumph, sex, disappointment, arises from the primal opposites to and from.
In the lecture, while Mr. Siegel is certainly serious, he also has playfulness and humor (for instance, as he speaks about novels and the Brontës). He says of his approach:
I am trying to place love among the other instincts and give it no special popularity....
I am trying to point out...that every instinct has something to do with the most popular of all, love—also the most generous and lovely of all, and the most terrible. And in seeing how the instincts explain each other, how they are in words, how they are in things, we can see one—the most difficult to see sensibly—with perhaps more sense.
Though in this talk Mr. Siegel is looking at love in terms of instinct, Aesthetic Realism is that which explains the intricacies of love as individuals ever so personally and specifically experience them. It explains the love that confuses people every day, the thing people think about, exult in, and suffer over. It explains what men and women right now are after as they register on some Internet dating website. And it explains their mistakes.
In issue 150 of this journal, titled “What Opposes Love?,” Mr. Siegel explains that the mix-up people have about love arises from the fight we have about the world itself: the fight between respect and contempt. He writes, in prose I think is beautiful:
The only reason love is confusing is that it is a continuation of the confusing battle between a narrow like of ourselves and imaginative justice to the world. It is this battle which may take an unbearable form when love, with its powerful bodily help, sex, is ours.
Love, as Mr. Siegel shows in the present lecture, arises from the world. And it always has to do with the world: “The purpose of love,” he says in his book Self and World, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole.” That is why our desire to have contempt for the world, to have “a narrow like of ourselves,” affects love deleteriously and devastatingly—in thousands of ways.
Let’s take a woman who yesterday registered on a dating website in order to meet men. Emma thinks she wants to love a man—and with part of her she does. She is matched with Harry, whose photo and description look good. But Emma doesn’t know she is in a fight between caring for all things more through a man and using a man to get away from the world. She doesn’t know that, on the one hand, she wants Harry or someone to encourage her to find more meaning in all people; and on the other, she wants him to show her she is far superior to everyone and is right to look down on them and put them aside. She doesn’t know what Mr. Siegel explains in TRO 150, in his magnificent and earthy prose:
The answer, then, to the question: What opposes love? is: The narrow self opposes love, with its great continual treasure, contempt. Love is either a possibility of seeing the world differently because something different from ourselves is seen as needed and lovely; or it is an extension of our imperialistic approval of ourselves in such a way that we have a carnal satellite.
Because Emma has the same fight as to a man that she has as to the world itself, she wants to feel much about someone yet she also wants to feel little, be able to make him not matter at all. She wants to value a man very much—but she also wants to feel superior to him and make fun of him. She wants someone to have large meaning for her—but she doesn’t want to see him as a complete person, affected by a whole world outside of them; she wants adoration from a person she doesn’t want to work to comprehend, to know.
You can be matched online to the hilt, but if you don’t understand the desires for contempt and respect in you, there is bound to be trouble.
Two Thousand Years Ago
A person who lived in and near Rome over 2,000 years ago wrote about that trouble in musical and immortal Latin. He is Gaius Valerius Catullus. He has many poems about the woman who confused him terrifically—her real name was Clodia. But the mix-up about love, and the pain arising from the mix-up, have never been more succinctly told of than in this one, which consists of two world-famous lines:
Odi et amo: quare id faciam fortasse requiris.
Nescio, sed fieri sentio et excrucior.
I hate and I love: why I do so, perhaps you ask.
I do not know. But I feel it happen, and I am in agony.
Well, we know from other poems that Catullus thought Clodia was unjust to him. But I believe he was thirsty to be asked, in Rome or Bithynia around 56 BC:
Do you think you’ve had two purposes with Clodia? Have you wanted to use her as a means of seeing the whole world as larger and friendlier? And have you also wanted to use her as “a carnal satellite,” through whom you can have “imperialistic approval” of yourself? I know you feel she has been unfair to you, but might you also suffer because you have two purposes that don’t go together, and you are very much ashamed of one of them?
In one of your poems you say to yourself about Clodia, “Miser Catulle, desinas ineptire (Wretched Catullus, stop being a fool).” Can we feel we’re a fool because we don’t have a clear purpose we can like? Do you think we can come to hate a person we’re very drawn to because we have a purpose with that person that makes us ashamed?
As poet, Catullus had a purpose that was clear, authentic, and mighty: to be fair to the world, to love the world through the subject he was dealing with. That, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the purpose impelling all good poetry, and it is the purpose love needs to have. In the couplet I quoted, we hear as musical the structure of reality itself: we hear, in the Latin, strength and firmness at one with delicacy and trembling; we hear fierceness and gentleness together; we hear a composition of neatness and width, even as that width contains the unbearable.
Eli Siegel is the critic who understood both poetry and love. He would have had, I am sure, the deep thanks of Catullus—and also that poet who lived 19 hundred years later and is quoted in the lecture we are serializing: Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Instinct: Beginning with Shelley
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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