Love—& the Mistake
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is a new installment of the great, stirring, immensely educating, historic, infinitely kind lecture by Eli Siegel that we have been serializing. (And I mean every adjective and adverb.) In that 1964 lecture he discussed his poem “A Marriage”—written 34 years earlier. The ideas in it, he said, are a prelude to what would be taught in Aesthetic Realism lessons. And they are a prelude to what people are learning about love in Aesthetic Realism consultations now.
The poem, one of the most beautiful in American literature, is composed of 20 sections. In this issue we have Mr. Siegel’s discussion of sections 12 through 18. (The whole poem is reprinted in TRO 1915.)
What is love? What is it for? And what is the big mistake people make about it? What is it that ruins love? People want the answers to those questions as achingly as they ever did. And they’re not getting them from the various mental practitioners, relationship counselors, articles, talk shows, and websites. The answers are in Aesthetic Realism. For instance, in issue 150 of the present journal, Mr. Siegel writes:
Love is a means of liking the world through a person....When we use a person not to like the world but to make ourselves important or successful, we are having contempt both for that person and the world.
...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.
That last sentence, eloquent and vivid, is classic. It explains with grandeur (also humor) so much of today’s social life, victories, and ensuing tears.
In the present issue of TRO, Mr. Siegel is showing that the big matter in love and marriage is: how do we encourage another person to feel about the world?
Everyone, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is in a fight between 1) the desire to like the world, see meaning in the world, see the world as a friend—and 2) the desire to have contempt for the world, feel we’re important because we can look down on what’s not us. The first desire is the deepest we have. It’s what impels a baby to reach toward light, to take in food, eventually to take in words. As we go after love, we do so with those two desires battling in us. In the issue of TRO I quoted from, Mr. Siegel explains:
We have to see that there are two things in us causing us to love another. The first is our desire to despise the world. We can use the loved person to make less the rest of the world. The second thing, the true cause of love, uses the loved person to make the whole world more beautiful.
Matthew Prior: Couples & Couplets
To introduce what Mr. Siegel says in the present TRO, I’m going to comment on a poem very different from “A Marriage.” It is by Matthew Prior (1664-1721) and is titled “An Epitaph.” Prior describes a couple who have an arrangement that is definitely (though he doesn’t use these words) against the world. The poem is satiric; it is funny. In 4-beat couplets, Prior tells how together husband and wife made the world dull.
A couple can tacitly agree that reality isn’t good enough to stir them. That is another form of something Mr. Siegel speaks of in the lecture: two people ratifying each other’s fear of the world. If we and a partner dislike the world, we’ll inevitably find it both uninteresting and fearsome. —Prior’s poem begins:
Interred beneath this marble stone,
Lies sauntering Jack and idle Joan.
The beauty of those lines is in the fact that Prior has made a one of a sloppy, who-cares quality and the neatness of the couplet. As the words lies sauntering and idle are placed here, they have, as sound, a kind of limpness, and convey a picture of two people inattentive to things. There’s a shrug of the shoulders in that second line. Yet the couplet also has grip: it is agog in its so-what-ness.
How little the husband and wife cared about what wasn’t themselves, is in the following lines:
If human things went ill or well,
If changing empires rose or fell,
The morning passed, the evening came,
And found this couple still the same.
Prior is musically making fun. But Jack and Joan are really not so different from most couples. In fact, two people can marry in order not to be affected much by reality’s happenings. People don’t put it that way, of course; but so many love-relations are based on the feeling, “I’m tired of being buffeted around and insulted by the world. You and I together will have a kingdom in which that nasty, confusing, unappreciative world can’t get to us—because we, darling, are better than all that!”
When you want the world not to get to you, you want it not to affect you. And that means you want to shrug it off, find it meaningless. So many couples, as the years pass, find the world dull. They don’t see that they’ve arranged things that way. The dullness makes, on the one hand, for a soothingness, and on the other for an awful emptiness.
Prior has a fine—also terrible—couplet about one way Joan and Jack have taken the meaning out of other human beings. This is about the leftovers from the couple’s meals:
They gave the poor the remnant-meat,
Just when it grew not fit to eat.
The goodness of those lines as poetry is in their musical relation of purring smoothness and fiercely critical sharpness.
There are these lines, about how Joan and Jack are apart from the feelings of the vulgar public:
Nor tear nor smile did they employ
At news of public grief or joy.
Prior wants you to condemn the couple’s way of being. Yet, again: to have a universe for just us two is what millions of men and women yearn for and consider to be love itself. And Prior, in all his keenness, does not see that two people, even Joan and Jack, loathe themselves and each other for diminishing the world—because what everyone wants unquenchably is to see reality as a stirring friend.
What Love Should Be
“A Marriage,” Eli Siegel has said, is about what love should be. And I’ll comment swiftly on just two of the lines from that poem, included here. They are in section 15, about traveling to see a loved person: “So many fields passed for the meeting of love, / So many flowers whizzed by for the meeting of love.”
Those lines have momentum. They throb. They are about the fact that, yes, in love we have selected one person from a universe of many things and people. But even as they tell of things passed by to reach the person, the lines, with all their motion, also linger lovingly in sound on those universe-things—“fields passed,” “flowers whizzed by.” Reality is caressed, as one person is honored.
The lines are beautiful. So is Aesthetic Realism’s way of seeing love.