Space, Matter, & Our Own Emotions
Dear Unknown Friends:
It is an honor to begin serializing Poetry and Space, a lecture Eli Siegel gave in 1949. It is great in its literary criticism and its kind, rich understanding of people.
Space, of course, is part of the physical world. Yet we have feelings about it all the time. Those feelings can have joy with them, and ease; also agitation and even terror; and much in between. Space, as Mr. Siegel explains, is in all art. It can be seen as having two opposites: one is time; the other, perhaps even more fundamentally an opposite of space, is matter. And this principle of Aesthetic Realism certainly includes space and matter, space and time: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Mr. Siegel says that in this talk it’s not his purpose to deal extensively with how people “use space,” what we do with it in our thoughts. Yet he does explain very much about those thoughts: he makes sense of things no one else has been able to, and he does this as he deals with poetry, including poetry by Shakespeare and Whitman.
Anger Is about Matter & Space
The principles of Aesthetic Realism itself are the means to understand that rich, intricate, fierce, subtle array of feelings each individual has about the opposites of matter and space. Every person, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, has, all the time, an attitude to the world itself, and this attitude to the world is present in everything we do and every emotion we have, including about space and matter. For example, in another lecture Mr. Siegel spoke about those opposites in relation to anger—the kind of anger that’s unjust and hurtful. “Wherever there is anger,” he said, “we feel there is an obstruction to what we want to do,” and matter, being physically obstructive, can stand, to us, for a world that obstructs us, interferes with our desires, gets in our way. If we dislike the world, he explained,
to have to deal with matter constantly, to have to walk on it even, let alone bump into it, is displeasing, outrageous, humiliating, undesirable, angering. Space is looked for....That is why certain pretty terrible people called pyromaniacs like to burn up places. They think that in changing the world into space they are conquering. A good way of symbolizing anger is: I’ll pulverize you; I’ll smash you to smithereens! If you crush something indefinitely, you change it into space.
...So space, being seen as nothing, would be the one non-angering thing. Anything that is looked on as an interruption is seen as insulting, because part of us can’t take the idea that there can be an interruption to ourselves. And that which we live by, or matter, is a big interruption. [Poetry and Anger, TRO 962]
In those sentences, Mr. Siegel is explaining why a person today can smash his fist against a wall, break a window—even damage an electronic device by using one’s fingers on it with undue forcefulness.
The sentences also explain an attraction that has been a source of enormous grief. It’s because a person dislikes the world, feels it to be obstructive—something impeding, shackling, weighing one down—that drugs and alcohol can have a potent allure. Through these, one seems no longer bogged down, but in space. Even the idiomatic terms getting high and flying stand for a certain escape from obstructive matter into that space in which one’s ego can loll and gambol, where one is not beleaguered by the need to recognize the existence of anything.
Contempt or Respect—the Battle Is There
How we feel about space and matter has mightily to do with that fight which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the largest in everyone’s life: the constant fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it. Let’s take a dramatic trouble of mind, which Mr. Siegel refers to swiftly in this first section of Poetry and Space: the fear “of being closed in,” or claustrophobia. What I’ll say about it is not meant to sum up its cause; but through Aesthetic Realism, which describes the self as fundamentally aesthetic and ethical, we can see the following:
A person may feel the world of happenings, people, things to understand—the wide world outside her—is not good enough for her. She has contempt for it, and feels a cozy enclosed world she can make within herself, where she can get rid of people and things and be regally immured, is far superior. But unknowingly she hates herself for that choice—because her largest desire, the purpose of her very life, is to like that unlimited outside world. Unless she can criticize herself clearly for the choice she made, she’ll punish herself painfully for it. She may use a symbol to do so—be terrified of closed-in places. When she’s in or near one, she feels panicky, desperate for space. The reason is: these physical situations symbolize the fake, contemptuous victory she has gotten in her mind—the victory of closed-in superior apartness.
A less dramatic approach to space and matter is in the popular phrase “I need my own space.” Certainly there can be value in being alone—if one uses being alone to be fair to the people and things of reality. But the phrase “I need my own space” usually has a tincture of scorn with it—for example, as a wife uses it in relation to her husband. What she means is, “Having to be so much aware of you, affected by your presence, doesn’t take care of me! You are obstructive. I have to get rid, for a while at least, of you—and humanity.” This approach (often recommended by therapists and counselors) does have in it a big failure of self: the failure to feel that being vividly aware of what’s not me is the same as caring for myself.
America: Matter & Space
As our nation today is in the midst of so much tumult, it moves me to say that America, topographically and deeply, is one of the most beautiful joinings of matter and space that have ever existed. America is matter as land, including mountains, plains, and the earth that has become city streets; it is matter as buildings, growing things, items manufactured, items used, human beings with bodies; and all these have space within and around them, including that space which is within blue sky. The oneness of matter and space, Mr. Siegel pointed out, is in America with an immense variety-in-unity that is unsurpassed. And this is one of the reasons he wrote in a poem: “America is the poetry of topography deep in time.”
To whom should the matter and space which is America, and the matter and space which is the world, belong: to only a few people predominantly, or to everyone? This is the insistent question of our time. And the authentic answer to it is given by Mr. Siegel in his book Self and World:
The world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs. [P. 270]
An aspect of all people’s right to “liv[e] in a world truly theirs” has to do with an ever so fundamental oneness of matter and space: a home. All architecture is clearly space and matter, and a home is. It is shameful that in this beautiful land more than half a million men, women, and children do not have a home at all, and millions of others live in “homes” that are wretched and demeaning. That will change when the economy of our nation is based on respect for people and for the American land, instead of what it’s now based on: contempt, seeing a person in terms of how much profit can be made from her or him.
Space and matter, then, are about justice. They are about the feelings of every person. And they are in all art. Eli Siegel was fair to these—justice, people, art—always. And in the paragraphs that follow, we meet some of that fairness now.