Space, Matter, Good Will, & the Whale
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great 1949 lecture Poetry and Space, by Eli Siegel. It is an opulent, surprising, living illustration of the principle on which Aesthetic Realism is based: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Space and its opposite, matter, are aspects of the physical universe. And they also represent desires of our own. They have to do with our own confusions, hopes, happiness, mistakes. Space and matter are related to other opposites that are always part of us, opposites that need to join well in us and so often do not: for example, lightness and heaviness, emptiness and fullness, mind and body.
Earlier in the lecture Mr. Siegel gave this definition of space: “reality thought of as not having any weight at all.” And he continued, “Anything seen as permitting motion without any interference at all could be seen as space.”
In the present section, Mr. Siegel speaks about a poem of pre-revolutionary America. Its author, John Osborn (1713-53), is as unknown today as Mr. Siegel describes him as being in 1949. That is so even though the early anthology from which Mr. Siegel reads about him can now be found online—in that recent aspect of space, cyberspace. I respect and love the way Mr. Siegel speaks of Osborn. Using the little information had about him, Mr. Siegel sees him deeply and so kindly, with beautiful comprehension. Osborn, there in Cape Cod and on the Atlantic Ocean of long ago, is real, his tumult and hopes understood. And Mr. Siegel describes both the meaning and the poetic value of a poem that otherwise would be lost in time.
That poem is “A Whaling Song.” In this lecture Mr. Siegel is not looking at it in terms of economics and industry (whaling was a major industry). Yet today, because of what is happening in our present world, I think it right to comment a little on the trade referred to in the poem. What Eli Siegel made clear in his Goodbye Profit System talks of the 1970s not only explains our economy today—it also enables us to see something important about that activity which had so much meaning and also cruelty with it: whaling.
“Ethics Is a Force”
Mr. Siegel showed that history has now reached a point at which an economy will succeed only if it is based on good will: the honest answering of the question “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Economics these centuries has been based principally on ill will: it’s been based on the idea that the world and one’s fellow humans should be seen in terms—not of justice—but of how much personal profit one can extract from them. This motive, the profit motive, is the impetus behind profit economics. And yet in our time, Mr. Siegel explained, “the conduct of industry on the basis of ill will has been shown to be inefficient.” The reason is that “ethics is a force” working in history. He described hundreds of instances of the force of ethics, from laws against child labor, to laws mandating a minimum wage, to workplace regulations so that people not contract industrial diseases or be maimed by machinery. I’m speaking about this tremendous matter now because an aspect of ethics as force is: there has come to be more of a feeling that the living creatures who share the earth with us should be protected; that they should be seen justly; that there is such a thing as what an animal deserves.
For centuries, the hunting of whales had its necessity, or something like necessity. The whale, with its mighty body, provided so much. For certain peoples—for example, the Inuit—it provided a food on which their very lives depended. For them and others, oil from the whale’s body provided light when burned in lamps. In time, people found that oil from the whale could lubricate machines and be used in the making of soaps, paint, varnish, even some textiles. From a particular oil, spermaceti, one could make candles of fine quality. “Whalebone,” or baleen, from the grand creature’s mouth, was amazingly strong and flexible, and could be used for some of the things now made of plastic. Some persons, even as they hunted the whale, saw it as a deep friend because it gave one so much. And various indigenous people considered the whale, whose body they used, to be not only friendly but sacred.
Meanwhile, for most of the earth’s people the killing of those great mysterious creatures is no longer a necessity: items obtained from whales can be gotten in other ways. There came to be an intense feeling in men and women of many nations that whales must not be slaughtered, and agonizingly slaughtered, in order for certain people to make big profits from their bodies. The whale population was being depleted; and besides, those flesh-and-blood majestic creatures should not be made to suffer so unnecessarily. The protests against the hunting of whales, and the ensuing international ban on commercial whaling, are an instance of ethics as a force.
Yet various entrepreneurs are evading those regulations and massacring whales every day in behalf of profit, because in some places there is a demand for whale meat as a high-priced luxury food. As in every field of economics, the fight is: the ever-growing insistence that reality and life be treated justly, with good will, versus the determination of various people to use anything they please for the personal aggrandizement of themselves and their friends.
Good Will: Substance & Meaning
Good will itself is always a oneness of opposites that are like matter and space: it is a oneness of substance and meaning, solidity and wonder. If we have good will we see a thing or person as real, existing as solidly and definitely as we ourselves do. And simultaneously, we see in him or her or it that intangible but immense thing which is meaning, which goes wide and has no end.
There is a poem about a whale in which this good will has become large music. It is a very early poem by Eli Siegel himself, written in 1922 and published in his book Hail, American Development. We reprint it, and sentences from the author’s note about it, after the present section of Poetry and Space.
In the nine lines of “The Whale” we hear, we feel, the largeness of that animal—and its motion. And we feel, even, its thought. In these beautiful lines with their statements-as-music, the ever so tangible fact is the same as tenderness and wonder.