Sincerity with Words
Dear Unknown Friends:
As we continue to serialize Eli Siegel’s magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Words, I want to comment on a matter that has been in the news lately. It is the dispute about the flying of the Confederate flag above the South Carolina statehouse. I will be speaking about it in relation to words, and what Aesthetic Realism considers most important as to words: sincerity, honesty. But I’ll say immediately that I think the presence of that flag on a government building is completely shameful.
Sincerity or honesty with words is the using of words to show what you truly feel, not to hide and pretend; and the using of words to be exact about the world. Falsity with words—twisting and changing facts, using words to construct some picture convenient to one’s ego whether it is true or not—this goes on so much, in politics, the press, social life. People come to expect a certain dishonesty with words, and engage in it. However, they despise themselves for it, and despise others. This fact is beautiful. It is evidence for what Aesthetic Realism explains: the human self is inescapably ethical; our deepest desire is to like the world, be just to the world; and therefore, though we may be unjust hour after hour, it is impossible for us to respect injustice or respect ourselves for welcoming it. In his lecture Instinct Is Concerned with Truth, Mr. Siegel says this about the way people use words:
As soon as somebody seems to be careless with truth, we may admire his or her finesse, but we do have—and in this instance it is justified—a contempt. This never fails....If we feel he is against truth in order to be for himself, that loathing which is so much a part of society is there. [TRO 615]
Eli Siegel’s own sincerity with words was constant. I have said this before, and it makes me very happy to say it here. I was his student since my early childhood; it was my honor to know him for 30 years. There was no person more eloquent, and I never heard him utter an insincere statement or phrase or even have an insincere tone. About whom else in all of history could this be said? Many, many people, including persons of the press, resented his sincerity, as well as his enormous knowledge. But his tremendous, unbroken honesty with words was the most beautiful, graceful, powerful, and the kindest thing I know. It is permanent in Aesthetic Realism. And I speak not only personally in saying: Eli Siegel enabled me to love words and to want to use them with integrity; and this is one of the huge reasons why I love him.
Mr. Siegel showed too that poetry is honesty. It arises from an intense, deep, wide desire to be fair to the object. The sincerity making for a poem is so full that in one’s words the structure of the world itself is present: “Poetry,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “...is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual. ”
In the present section of Poetry and Words, Mr. Siegel is explaining that all the happenings and intricacies of grammar arose from a desire in people like the poetic desire. They arose from the desire to feel and show reality truly. He speaks about inflection—which Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines as “the change of form that words undergo to mark such distinctions as those of case, gender, number, tense, person, mood, or voice.” Inflection differs in different languages—but in every language, he explains, it arises from a feeling in people about the world as at once continuity and change.
Words and the Confederate Flag
Various words are being used these days as a means of showing why the Confederate flag should adorn the South Carolina capitol. Among them are heritage, sacrifice, sentiment, honor, and the long-wept-over phrase “the Lost Cause.” According to the January 18 issue of Long Island Newsday:
Nearly 50,000 people marched to South Carolina’s statehouse on Martin Luther King Day to demand the banner be taken down.... [But] supporters say the banner is a symbol of the state’s heritage and honors Confederate soldiers killed in the Civil War.
Newsweek magazine (Jan. 24) tells us: “An army of Lost Cause sentimentalists is fighting back, claiming the flag is a symbol of Southern 'heritage.'” It notes that a presidential candidate called the flag “a ‘symbol of sacrifice.’” And the candidate is quoted in the Washington Post (Jan. 17) as saying, “I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. None of them owned slaves. I believe they fought honorably.”
So we have words here. And we need to ask, as we should ask about our own statements, Are these words being used to show what is true, or to obscure what is true? What needs to be said straight is that if there had not been the desire to maintain slavery, there would have been no Confederacy and no Confederate flag at all. The Confederacy arose from something completely hideous: the feeling in persons that other human beings should be their property, to be dealt with any way they wished. The reason the Southern states seceded from the Union in 1861 was to be able to preserve slavery, and that’s what it comes to, whatever history you read. For example, the Columbia Encyclopedia (2nd ed.), in its entry on “secession,” describes the two explanations given:
Some hold that fundamentally the South became convinced...that the powerful North would, sooner or later, destroy its social and economic system. [Other] views emphasize the psychological and racial factors—Southerners were determined to retain “white supremacy.”
But what was the “social and economic system” the South fought to protect? The encyclopedia says it was “an economy and a social order largely founded on Negro slavery and the plantation.” South Carolina might just as well display a bullwhip and auction block at its statehouse, because these and the Confederate flag stand for the same thing. I heard Mr. Siegel on more than one occasion speak with passion about those words used so poignantly by Southerners: “the Lost Cause.” That “Lost Cause,” he said, was slavery, and “the only good thing about the cause is that it was lost.”
We use words, then, either in behalf of our ego or in behalf of truth. And it happens that the use of words against truth arises from the same thing in self that racism and slavery arise from. Eli Siegel identified and explained that thing, the source of all injustice: it is contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Slavery is a rather thorough lessening of persons different from oneself as a means of self-increase. But to use words to twist the facts is also to lessen what is different from one—truth itself and maybe other people—as a means of heightening oneself.
In his January 17 Washington Post column, even Jonathan Yardley, who writes with intensity that the flag should come down, at a certain point uses words somewhat carelessly about a big ethical matter. He writes:
Yes, beyond doubt many men fought bravely and honorably for the Confederacy, and some of them (Robert E. Lee being the most notable example) fought out of loyalty to their home states rather than out of any passion for slavery.
You cannot fight “honorably” in behalf of something that is entirely dishonorable. To say one can is like saying Germans fought honorably in the cause of Hitler. And some German soldiers likely “fought bravely”—but the bravery was in behalf of subjugating and annihilating human beings; it was bravery in behalf of gas chambers. And the bravery of the Confederate soldier was bravery in behalf of a black child’s being torn from her mother and sold. Further, for Southerners to fight “out of loyalty to their home states” was a deeply ugly thing. It was like a German soldier’s fighting out of loyalty to the Fatherland when the Fatherland was Nazi. If the battle of our “home state” or country is ugly and unjust, to engage in that battle is to be for injustice too. If our first loyalty is not to truth, justice, and humanity, we may act “sentimental” as anything, but there is something sleazy about us. Robert E. Lee looked handsome on his white horse, but the battle he was fighting was so that slavery could continue in his “home state,” Virginia.
In our discussion of sincerity and words, we come to that word heritage. When protesters in South Carolina last month carried signs that said “Your heritage is my slavery,” it was important. Heritage is a word that can be used to make an ugly thing look somehow noble. If your grandfather was an embezzler, you can try to make him look like Robin Hood and call it your heritage.
And we have sentiment: sentiment in itself is neither here nor there in terms of its value. Some people in Germany feel sentimental about how important Hitler made them. Their sentiment does not justify the flying of the Nazi flag. Sentiment can be contempt with moisture around its eyes.
As to sacrifice: if you sacrifice your life in behalf of something filthy, it is very sad; but one shouldn’t honor the symbol of the filthy cause.
Every day, people use words in their own minds to make their selfishness and contempt look right and noble. A woman who wanted to run a man’s life, says to herself when he has shown his displeasure, “How could he do this to me! I sacrificed myself for him! I gave him everything!” A boss whose workers are striking for a decent wage, says, “They're all greedy—never satisfied! They don't appreciate all I’ve done for them! Didn’t I give them a fruitcake last Christmas?”
Some of the greatest use of words in America was by Julia Ward Howe, as she saw slavery being fought at last: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord,” her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” begins. Americans are looking for a glory now: the glory of sincerity, of truth being loved. They will find it in Aesthetic Realism.