Ourselves—& What’s Around Us
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the third part in our serialization of the 1951 lecture It Still Moves; or, The Novel, by Eli Siegel. He shows what the novel is, must have—whenever and wherever it is written. He shows what makes a novel beautiful, and why that matters. And as he does, we are seeing some of the meaning and richness—also urgency and cultural might—of this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In the present section, Mr. Siegel speaks about the elements of character and environment, or place, in the novel, and the relation between them. Certainly, ever so many commentators on the novel have discussed those elements. But he is the critic who saw what no one else did: that character and place in fiction are forms of the biggest opposites in the life of every person: self and world. Both a character in a novel and all of us are meeting the world at every moment. And the world takes the form of other people—but, very much, it takes the form of place: what surrounds us, where we are.
Because of his seeing—so fully and gracefully—that the technical opposites in art are in people too, as Eli Siegel speaks about character and place in a novel, something occurs that does not occur in discussions by other critics: we feel that the subject is also ourselves. We feel that what’s being explained is kind to us; that opposites at war in us can be one—because they are together page after page, with much diversity, in a good novel. All this makes for a warmth and thrill as Eli Siegel discusses environment in the novel. And his beautiful seeing of this subject represents how he was on every subject, including all the arts and sciences.
Now, from Life to Novels
To help place what you’ll soon read about the novel, I’ll quote, from the book Self and World, Eli Siegel writing about the constant situation in everybody’s life. Again: the “duality” he describes can, in a novel, become those literary elements character and environment:
There is a deep and “dialectic” duality facing every human being, which can be put this way: How is he to be entirely himself, and yet be fair to that world which he does not see as himself?...
We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it. We have to be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves. [P. 91]
People have loved reading novels, but haven’t known that they were seeing, chapter after chapter, a self meeting what’s not oneself and having to do something about it. In what one does about the there, in how one meets it, are both a) what a particular character in a novel is like; and b) who we are, how our own minds fare. And again: the there may be other people, but it’s also, very much, the environment. Jane Eyre, for example, is trying to answer the question of how to “be entirely [her]self, and yet be fair to that world which [s]he does not see as [her]self.” So is Harry Potter. So is Don Quixote. So is Strether in Henry James’s The Ambassadors.
In meeting what is not ourselves we each have the fight Aesthetic Realism identifies as the central battle in humanity: between respect for the world and contempt. Every novel illustrates this fight in some fashion. Contempt is “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” It is, Eli Siegel showed, the source of every cruelty. It’s that in us which interferes with our lives and minds. Novelists have not known about contempt as the weakening, unkind principle in humanity, yet they have illustrated it, sometimes with much subtlety—and style. Now, through Aesthetic Realism, the novels of the world can truly be a means of understanding and criticizing contempt in ourselves.
Poems about Novels
Eli Siegel wrote poems on many, many subjects. And included in this issue are three of the poems he wrote about the novel. One can feel in them his love of what the novel is, his respect, and also his humor.
1) “Voilà, The Unknown Is in Novels” was written in 1952 and appears in his collection Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. He says of it in a note: “An attempt is made to be fair to the midst of the novel.”
As this poem mentions some of the things that are in novels, the way these things are mentioned is different in each instance; there is a different rhythm, a different music. For example, there are tautness and an abruptness in the 6th and 7th lines: “Two men grappling, / And a bottle falling.” Yet some softness is in the sound of those lines too, a sense of subtlety. Meanwhile, there’s a very different quality in other lines—like the delicately chipper music of “A tree welcoming a parasol, / A parasol welcoming a duchess,” and the foreboding, ethically rich sound of “Two souls glaring, / At each other’s hateful mystery.” In keeping with the author’s note quoted above, we are in the “midst” of the novel, and we feel that “midst” as music. In each vivid instance mentioned, we feel too the strange, the mysterious, “the unknown.”
2) “No Reader Attending,” a poem of 1961, appears in issue 728 of this journal. It is about novels that no one reads now or hears of, because they haven’t made it through time. What a subject! The poem certainly has humor, and factuality, but there’s a touch of poignancy too. I could say a lot about the wonderful technique of this poem, including about the nature of the rhymes, rhythms, line lengths—all of which help make for a feeling of matter-of-factness and suspense, depth and jauntiness. The poem tells us that within forgotten novels the characters have emotions—but that there’s also emotion in the fact that their feelings aren’t read about, aren’t seen, by anyone.
3) “A Lady Sails the Sea” is published in Hot Afternoons, and I am guessing that it was written in the late 1920s. The poem shows that the same person who can be exceedingly distressed by danger in life can get delight reading about danger in a novel. (Mr. Siegel has mentioned that the title he gave to the novel she reads was affected by Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 “sensation novel,” Lady Audley’s Secret.) In the four long free verse lines of this poem, we feel the traveling motion of the ship the woman told of is on, and also the motion of her feelings as they stir and reach.