Power, Kindness, & Our Feelings
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 3 of the great 1972 lecture The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. And with it is an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll—the first section of a paper she presented this month at the public seminar titled “Can a Woman Be Both Kind & Powerful?”
The lecture is about something people do every day, usually don’t think about, and when they do think about it, generally consider it smart. But it is actually, Aesthetic Realism shows, a massive cause of self-weakening, pain, and cruelty. It is the right people give themselves to see their feelings any way they please; to assume that because they have a certain feeling the feeling must be right; to lie about their feelings, even to themselves.
Mr. Siegel discusses a text he sees as important: a passage from philosopher R.G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art. Collingwood writes about what he calls “corruption of consciousness.” And early in the talk, Mr. Siegel describes what that phrase and the passage itself are about:
We are the custodians of feelings, we are the custodians of ourselves, and we can think either that we should meddle with what we see or that we should try more and more to look upon our feelings as an explorer would a wilderness, trying to be just to it.
I think that is a beautiful sentence. And the meddling with what we see, with the facts, including those about our own feelings, is what Collingwood means by “corruption of consciousness.” It is a fundamental aspect of that which Aesthetic Realism identifies as the most hurtful thing in every person: contempt for reality.
Meddling with Herself, Power, & Others
The subject of the lecture is very much connected with what Ms. Driscoll writes about. To show something of how, I’ll comment on an early poem of Tennyson: his “Lady Clara Vere de Vere” (1833).
Clara Vere de Vere is a young woman of a wealthy family, with an aristocratic lineage. She likes having a big effect on men whom she sees as below her station: young farmers, or yeomen. Her technique is, after the man is smitten, to turn up her nose at him. The poem is spoken by a person whom she is now trying to affect—but who is critical. It begins:
Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Of me you shall not win renown;
You thought to break a country heart
For pastime, ere you went to town.
At me you smiled, but unbeguiled
I saw the snare, and I retired;
The daughter of a hundred earls,
You are not one to be desired.
· · · · · · · · · · · ·
Lady Clara Vere de Vere,
Some meeker pupil you must find,
For, were you queen of all that is,
I could not stoop to such a mind.
Clara Vere de Vere is after power. And how we go for power, our feelings about it, what kind of power we’re after, is one of the tremendous matters that people do not want to look at, and have lied about.
People haven’t known what Aesthetic Realism explains and Ms. Driscoll writes about: that there are two kinds of power and a means of distinguishing them. Nevertheless, we can be quite sure that Lady Clara did not want to see plainly what she was after with men: the power of making a person foolish about her, and of triumphantly looking down on him for seeming so foolish. With or without the social class aspect, that is what many men and women are going after right now: Can I affect a person, instill some big feeling in him or her, while being not so affected myself? Can I have the thrill of making someone foolish and weak over me? You can call it flirting, but, as Tennyson felt, it is ill will and contempt.
Had Clara Vere de Vere wanted to see what she was after, she could not have continued going for it, because her purpose would have looked so slimy to her. That is the chief reason people don’t want to be clear about their feelings: to do so would cramp their ability to have what they see as their way.
As the speaker in the poem describes Clara truly to herself and says he’s not taken by her, he is having good power and is kind—because to stop a person from succeeding in an ugly purpose is kind. And he has a good contempt for her, because it comes from respect for the world and humanity:
You sought to prove how I could love,
And my disdain is my reply.
The lion on your old stone gates
Is not more cold to you than I.
This poem has lines that thrilled people—and should thrill now. They say no person has the right to be considered superior from birth. We all have the same source—the most venerable heritage—here described as Adam and Eve:
Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,
From yon blue heavens above us bent
The gardener Adam and his wife
Smile at the claims of long descent.
There are lines describing how the bad power Clara is after, and does not want to look at, weakens her:
I know you, Clara Vere de Vere,
You pine among your halls and towers;
The languid light of your proud eyes
Is wearied of the rolling hours.
That is so today. Contempt that people don’t want to criticize makes their lives dull and heavy. It brings them misery.
The Greatest Power
The speaker in the poem says something that Aesthetic Realism sees as not one bit sentimental, but as logical and tough: the only nobility, the greatest power, is good will:
Howe’er it be, it seems to me,
’Tis only noble to be good.
Kind hearts are more than coronets,
And simple faith than Norman blood.
Tennyson is an artist. The lines of this poem are musical: they are a beautiful oneness of severity and gentleness, sharpness and wonder. The poem has that wide, deep, vivid honesty about the world, which is art—and which, if we’re to be happy, needs to be the aim of our lives.