Keenness and the Senses
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great, deep, surprising, kind, 1949 lecture Poetry and Keenness, by Eli Siegel. And in the present section, he speaks of keenness in relation to the senses.
The Columbia Encyclopedia describes the five senses as “faculties concerned with the receiving and conducting of external stimuli through the eye, ear, skin, olfactory organ, and the taste buds of the oral cavity.” They are, of course, in their everydayness, infinitely wonderful. They are objects of scientific and medical study; and of philosophic or epistemological study too, for what John Locke described in 1690 in his Essay concerning Human Understanding is still widely considered true: our knowledge, however complex, begins with what comes to us through our senses. Meanwhile, to every individual, these much studied senses are terrifically personal, inextricable from our own dear being. And I am grateful for the chance to write a little now on what Aesthetic Realism explains about these grand and intimate things: what their purpose is; and what huge mistake people make about them.
The fact that we are made in such a way that we can hear, see, taste, smell, touch, is evidence for this great principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Each of the senses is a means for us to make a one of those biggest of opposites: our self and the world.
I am now in a New York living room, and I am hearing traffic sounds. The world, in the form of the whir of moving automobiles and the louder sound of heavy trucks, comes within me and joins with what I am. I am able to have within my own mind the nuances of this world-thing, this sound—more muted as vehicles slow down and stop for a light, more intense as they move again. And there is the rather delicate put-put of a motor that needs repair. There are the sounds of people, talking, laughing, complaining, arguing; the sounds of their radios. There are the sounds of birds, footsteps, the gentle rattle of someone’s keys. I am describing only a few instances of how one of the senses, hearing, has the world merge with, get within one person—me—at 3:30 on a summer afternoon. I love the tremendous fact that it can.
And I love Aesthetic Realism for explaining that every sense stands for, and is a means to, the largest purpose of a person’s life: “to like the world on an honest or accurate basis" (Self and World, p. 1). To like the world, feel and know it accurately, is what we have our senses for. If we don’t want to honor that purpose, Aesthetic Realism shows, we will suffer. Also, our senses may undergo undesirable vicissitudes.
Contempt and the Senses
Eli Siegel is the philosopher who has explained the big fight going on within every person. It is a fight between whether to respect the world or have contempt for it. This fight concerns how we think, and it also concerns all the senses. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” He showed there is a desire in everyone to feel that this world—which we see, hear, taste, touch, smell, think about—is not good enough for us. Contempt is the feeling we’re important by looking down on things and people; that they exist, not to be comprehended and valued by us, but to make us comfortable and show how wonderful and superior we are. Contempt is the ordinary feeling that what is within us is essentially a different, and better, reality than what is outside us. And that ordinary contempt, is, Mr. Siegel so greatly showed, the source of every injustice, including racial prejudice and war.
Contempt uses the senses—those magnificent things given us not for contempt but for meeting the world with rich exactitude. There is the auditory sense. But one of the most frequent forms of contempt is the not listening as people speak—the putting on a show of listening while one’s mind is with superior company, the company within oneself. Further, as a person does use his ears to hear what others say, there most often is not full listening: the wanting to have another’s words really matter to one and to give those words the deepest thought possible.
People have wanted to get away from a world they see as too complicated and cold—in other words, from a world that demands thought and doesn’t just praise and soothe them. And so, without knowing it, they have been against hearing that world. They have wanted, really, the world to shut up: they have wanted things to reach them only mutedly, if at all.
How Should We See?
Then, there is that thing of infinite grandeur, the sense of sight. It has me, right now, see the leaves, abundant, dappled with light, on a nearby tree—and the shadows of those leaves too, moving as they move, on the white of a building. It has me see the screen of my computer. These things, not me, are of me now, through sight. But if we deeply don’t want the world interfering with us, soiling our purity, we will, without knowing it, be against all our senses, including sight.
Mr. Siegel has described the fact that people can get a triumph shutting their eyes and making everything disappear. They can look forward to wiping out everything at bedtime as their eyelids close. And there is hardly anything more frequent than to look at things and not really see them: to look at a face or bit of sidewalk or the shape of a fruit, and not see the wonder it has, the mystery, the meaning. Every time we see something and make it flat, dull, take away its meaning—we are really declaring war on the sense of sight. We can want to be blind to what things truly are. We can want to look at things, Aesthetic Realism explains, and find them insignificant—because that way our ego feels it is the biggest thing in the world.
Contempt, then, can want to dismiss or annul the world. It can also want to grab. Every sense can be used to grab reality disrespectfully: you can look at something for the purpose of making it yours, not for the purpose of understanding it, and people have looked at other people that way. But two senses which people have used eminently to grab with are taste and touch.
The fact that we can have in us the taste of a peach is beautiful. It is a means of having the sweetness and delicate tang of the world join with one and please one. It’s a means of knowing the possibilities of the world, and liking them. The taste of a peach, after all, says the world can be peachy. But let us say a person uses the taste of a peach to feel, This world is lousy, but as this peach comes to my tongue and pleases me, I can forget about other things; I don’t have to think; I’ve got something that just exists to make me feel good! That person would be using taste to grab something, not know it; and to grab, manage, and dismiss the world itself—through a lovely comestible.
The Purpose of Touch
And there is that most primal sense, touch. The great purpose of touch, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to know. But people have touched things disrespectfully often, because they have disliked and wanted to conquer the world. One can touch objects limply or too roughly, because one is scornfully aloof from and at war with the world those objects represent. Children have touched toys and animals grabbily, with the same imperialistic purpose nations have had in grabbing land from other nations: this should be mine, to do with as I please; I can have power over it and don’t have to respect it.
And in the tremendous field of love and sex, people have touched other people as a means of feeling the world is at last succumbing to them, doing their bidding. Yet here too, touch—Aesthetic Realism shows—was meant to be for liking the world, for knowing: it should represent our great desire to know honoringly a person who stands for the world. It should represent our hope to be close to the world itself. I love Aesthetic Realism for showing this, and enabling touch to be, in all its ecstasy, richly proud and kind.
Meanwhile, contempt has employed all the senses in the hope to find the world disgusting. “To see the world itself as an impossible mess,” Mr. Siegel writes, “...gives a certain triumph to the individual” (Self and World, p. 11). The olfactory sense has certainly been used that way. The word sniffy is idiomatic for contemptuous. And “it all stinks” is equivalent to “it’s all contemptible.” The person through whom, many decades ago, my parents first heard of Aesthetic Realism, was someone who had only been able to smell bad smells. This changed as she learned from Aesthetic Realism that she had a hope to find reality unworthy of her and her nostrils—and as she learned about her deepest desire, which she had betrayed, the desire to like the world.
One of the questions I think science of the future will study is this: if we have contempt for the world—contempt that takes in our senses—can we hurt those senses? Can we make them weak, dull, and even—as Mr. Siegel describes in the present lecture— wrongly sharp, askew?
Here, however, are sentences by Eli Siegel; they are about all the senses, and are some of the most beautiful prose in English. He is writing, in Self and World, of the very new baby whom he calls Joe Johnson:
He will find out that black is different from white; that purple is different from pink; that milk is different from furniture; and that his father is different from his uncle. He will find that when snow falls, it sounds different from when a dish falls. He will know his own voice is different from the voice of his mother. He will distinguish the rain from the water coming out of the faucet in the kitchen-sink. He will smell leaves, milk, and garbage; he will distinguish the taste of oatmeal from orange juice. He will touch walls, flowers, chairs, noses, toes, and himself; and he will come to know that these things “touch” differently. [Pp. 217-218]
Through Aesthetic Realism humanity can know and take care of the purpose for which our very beings were made, and so we can be our true selves at last.