The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Space, Walt Whitman, & Our Lives

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 4 of Poetry and Space, a beautiful, amazing, vivid, and very important lecture that Eli Siegel gave in 1949. “Anything,” he explained, “seen as permitting motion without any interference at all could be seen as space.” That description takes in all the various ways the word has been used and is central to the many feelings, good and bad, that people have about space. For instance, there is the feeling we have looking far out to the horizon. There is the assessing of whether a parking space is large enough for one’s car. There is the design question of how to fill that space on the wall, or on that web page. There is the use of the word to mean air, interval, vacancy, expanse—and more.

In this section Mr. Siegel speaks about Walt Whitman, and how enormous and rich Whitman’s feeling about space was. What he describes here has been said by no other critic. Nor is it in Eli Siegel’s many other great discussions of Whitman, though certainly it’s in keeping with them.

Space & Purposes

Offhand, the subject of space doesn’t seem to be the most urgent, doesn’t seem on a par with things people worry about—like love, money, and how to think well of themselves. Yet how we see space is connected with how we see everything. Space is, Mr. Siegel says in this talk, one of the permanencies—as time is, change is.

Though every person has a particular sense of space, our feelings about and purposes toward it depend crucially on what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the constant fight in everyone. This is the fight between our desire to respect the world and our desire to have contempt—to “lessen...what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”

Walt Whitman, because his desire to respect reality was so strong, welcomed the world in its untrammeled largeness, its infinite ability to include: that is, its spaciousness. But if we want to make ourselves big by looking down on what’s not us, we’ll be in some war with space: we’ll resent reality’s vastness and try to limit it. This war with space has hundreds of forms. It may take the form of an excessive effort to turn measurable space—perhaps acres of land or many square feet of real estate—into something that we can buy, own, make profit from; that is, we’ll try to make it subservient to ourselves. Or we may engage in the very popular activity of getting to a fake sense of space just for us in our own mind: get rid, in our mind, of happenings, people, facts, make them dissipate, wipe them out, turn them into undemanding blankness.

Space & the News

To provide contemporary footnotes, of a sort, to what Mr. Siegel is showing about space, I am going to comment swiftly on space in relation to articles from a single issue of a newspaper. I chose the New York Times of January 18, 2018 (I could have chosen any issue). And my purpose is not to comment on the rightness or wrongness of anything told of, but to point to space as having to do with whatever concerns us.

1) On the front page is an article that begins: “North and South Korea reached an agreement Wednesday for their athletes to march together under one flag at the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics.” And it describes the large, hopeful feeling expressed by people in South Korea about this joining. Space is here in a central way because, despite politics, there is a big and deep sense in Korea that the division into two nations is an artificial division of space. There is the feeling that the expanse of the Korean Peninsula is one nation, no matter how many years space has been falsified by a phony separation. Here space and the depths of people are inseparable.

2) In the same section is a related article. It reports that there may be a women’s hockey team in the Olympics composed of players from both South Korea and North. Along with that inseparability of feeling and space which is a nation, this article is about space in another big way: every sport, including hockey, takes place in space, and is a dealing with space in a particular fashion. As we move across ice, and cause an object to do so, we’re moving through space—and someone on an opposing team may want to impede that.

3) The front page also has an article on Mr. Trump’s proposed wall along our border with Mexico. Whatever such a wall might be, the proposal is an attempt to stop, curtail, block space. Again, inseparable from that proposed dealing with space are the intense emotions of people—in some instances, the very lives of people. However one may feel about the wall, that feeling in a big way is about space.

4) Another front page article has the headline “Hard Turn Left in Warm-up for 2020 Race.” It is about Democrats’ increasingly presenting themselves as progressive. What I point to for the present purpose is the phenomenon, so taken for granted, of using spatial terms, left and right, to characterize politics. The terminology is said to have begun in the early days of the French Revolution, when at a meeting the more progressive persons stood to the left of the king and the conservatives to his right. However that may be, the terminology continued, and not only in France. It would not have stuck if people didn’t feel unconsciously that, in some fashion, ethics and space are related.

5) In the Styles section of the January 18 Times we are told in large type: “It’s 2018, So Dress the Part.” And “the part” might include: “purple nails, shoes inspired by tropical fauna, and purses that look like whales.” Each of those things, while composed of matter, is also a dealing with space. To polish a fingernail is to see it somewhat as an artist sees that space which is a canvas, to be filled rightly. Both a shoe and a purse are matter that must have space within it: how else could a shoe accommodate our foot, or a purse hold our items? Then, purse, shoe, and fingernail each has a shape, which makes a division of that item from outside space. (And space is with them in other ways too.)

Space, then, stands mightily for the world. And Eli Siegel, in his great justice to reality, is beautifully fair to space.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Poet of Space

By Eli Siegel

The poet who, strangely enough, seems most to be the poet of space is Walt Whitman, of the neighboring borough. He just couldn’t leave the subject alone.

Whitman didn’t like the way the astronomers saw space, so he has a little poem about one, written in 1865, published first in 1867: “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” This is space in the most magnificent way:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

He doesn’t like what this astronomer is doing, making space look so tidy and oppressive, a little bit like, let us say, bookkeeping of the heavens—though bookkeeping has its uses, to be sure. You would think if Whitman didn’t like the astronomical lecture he might go off to a tavern. Oh, no. He goes looking at the stars in his own way: “I wander’d off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, / Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Whitman feels the astronomers can make space something else: they can make it so dull, and space is not dull—it is real, and the astronomers measure it before they really feel what it is. I think this poem is just. It does seem a little rude that Whitman should get up and walk out of this astronomical lecture. It is one of the few instances in a poem where rudeness is admitted.

“The Common Air”

In “Song of Myself” Whitman has much about space. Was he taken by it! This is from section 17:

These are really the thoughts of all men in all ages and lands, they are not original with me,

If they are not yours as much as mine they are nothing, or next to nothing.

This is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is,

This the common air that bathes the globe.

The import of these lines is: Whitman saw his thought as the most common thing in the world, no matter how few people knew about it; he felt thought was space, and was the most to-be-met-with thing in the world. Space is the most democratic thing in the world, and things themselves are democratic.

Whitman says that thought is space. This has been said philosophically, and it is true. Thought doesn’t come out of anything: thought shows itself. To say that thought comes out of something which isn’t it or which doesn’t have it, is false both to a real materialist and to an idealist like Hegel—because if matter can make thought, then somewhere thought is in it; and also, if thought existed as reality, as Hegel said, then thought didn’t come out of matter. Thought is shown by matter, and matter is employed by thought. The notion that thought, that the way people think, comes out of something, as a little thing comes out of a box—that thought comes out like a jack-in-the-box—is not true.

Whitman says that his thought “is the grass that grows wherever the land is and the water is.” The reason he was so much taken by grass is that grass is the vegetation that is next to space. It is light but it is also discernible; it isn’t too tenuous. And the waving of the grass in the wind was space become seeable.

He says that thought is “the common air that bathes the globe.” And air is space taking one step.

Another example of Whitman on space is in section 33 of “Song of Myself.” He shows that he is everywhere. If you are everywhere, you are everywhere in space. That was easy for Whitman—he was just everywhere. He has a big list of all the places he is at. Oh, he is at festivals, at a brook, near a rattlesnake. The beginning lines of this section, which is one of the longest of “Song of Myself,” are as follows:

Space and Time! now I see it is true, what I guess’d at,

What I guess’d when I loaf’d on the grass,

What I guess’d while I lay alone in my bed,

And again as I walk’d the beach under the paling stars of the morning.

My ties and ballasts leave me, my elbows rest in sea-gaps,

I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents,

I am afoot with my vision.

He guessed at this when he was lying in bed, and as he loafed on the grass. He must have had many useful times!

He says “I skirt sierras, my palms cover continents, / I am afoot with my vision.” This means that the world is just as inseparable from himself as he is from the world, and because the world is present in him he is present in all the world. Then he gives all kinds of instances which prove that he is in all space.

So a good question to ask is, how much space are we in? Some of it? All of it? Three quarters? Sixty percent? How much? If there is more space than we have thought about, we still must be in it. We can’t be in some space; we must be in all of it.

Then He Is Mighty

Another example, this time with motion. This is the last section of “Song of Myself”:

The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me, he complains of my gab and my loitering.

I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,

I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.

The last scud of day holds back for me,

It flings my likeness after the rest and true as any on the shadow’d wilds,

It coaxes me to the vapor and the dusk.

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,

And filter and fibre your blood.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

He is ubiquitous; he is everywhere. And he seems to mean it.

Some of the greatest lines in the world are in “Song of Myself.” I very often have been jocular about Mr. Whitman. But when he comes to himself, doing everything his self wants for that time, then he is mighty. And he has the space quality with his Americanism in the famous line “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”

The Joy of Going through Space

In his poems Whitman is often a seabird. Very often he is interior, just being quiet, but he wants to be a seabird. And a poem, a pretty popular one, that shows the joy of going through space is called “To the Man-of-War-Bird”:

Thou who hast slept all night upon the storm,

Waking renew’d on thy prodigious pinions,

(Burst the wild storm? above it thou ascended’st,

And rested on the sky, thy slave that cradled thee,)

Now a blue point, far, far in heaven floating,

As to the light emerging here on deck I watch thee,

(Myself a speck, a point on the world’s floating vast.)

Thou born to match the gale, (thou art all wings,)

To cope with heaven and earth and sea and hurricane,

That sport’st amid the lightning flash and thunder-cloud,

In them, in thy experiences, had’st thou my soul,

What joys! what joys were thine!

This is some bird! —Whitman, though he is pretty encyclopedic, definitely doesn’t deal with time in the same way he does with space.

Another example of Whitman’s wanting to see space as having happening in it is a poem called “The Dalliance of the Eagles.” Two eagles meet in the air, greet, go through a little affection, and then go away, each in his or her own right. This was written rather late, in 1880:

Skirting the river road, (my forenoon walk, my rest,)

Skyward in air a sudden muffled sound, the dalliance of the eagles,

The rushing amorous contact high in space together,

The clinching interlocking claws, a living, fierce, gyrating wheel,

Four beating wings, two beaks, a swirling mass tight grappling,

In tumbling turning clustering loops, straight downward falling,

Till o’er the river pois’d, the twain yet one, a moment’s lull,

A motionless still balance in the air, then parting, talons loosing,

Upward again on slow-firm pinions slanting, their separate diverse flight,

She hers, he his, pursuing.

That is love in space.

Whitman saw America as space, and he felt that there could be no great poetry unless it was fair to the Alleghenies, the Rocky Mountains, the plains, all the states. In poetry today, the movement against space is very prevalent, because people are scared of space. This poem of Whitman is a little rude:

Others may praise what they like;

But I, from the banks of the running Missouri, praise nothing in art or aught else,

Till it has well inhaled the atmosphere of this river, also the western prairie-scent,

And exudes it all again.

This is really the feeling that space must be present. The “running Missouri,” “the atmosphere of this river,” and the “prairie-scent”: it is all a praise of matter uninterfered with.