The Grandeur of Knowing—versus Contempt
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we begin a three-part publication of a great lecture by Eli Siegel on a tremendous subject. It is his talk of January 19, 1953, When Does Evil Begin?—the ninth in a series of lectures he gave in relation to Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw. From that series arose Mr. Siegel’s 1968 book James and the Children.
The Turn of the Screw has puzzled people very much. What was driving or affecting the two angelic-seeming children, Miles and Flora? Most critics have described them as ever so innocent, and the governess as bad. And for a long time there was the view that the mysterious evil taking place was of a sexual nature. Eli Siegel—in some of the most vivid, logical, subtle, thrilling of all literary criticism—made clear that the governess, who is also the narrator, is good, one of James’s very likable characters; that the story is definitely not about sex; and that Miles and Flora are impelled by that which Aesthetic Realism identifies as the impetus behind all injustice and evil: contempt. Contempt is “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” Reviewing James and the Children in Poetry magazine, Hugh Kenner wrote that it is “a reading so careful...and so candid it reduces most previous discussion to wilful evasiveness.”
Our Central Fight—at Any Age
The hideous Freudian approach to children is, fortunately, not much around anymore: children are no longer presented as having “polymorphous perversity.” Yet children have always confused adults, and been confused by them, because people don’t understand people. And today there is as much mix-up about children as ever. On the one hand, the trend is for children to be presented by the various “professionals” as not having badness or injustice in their own right—that is, any badness doesn’t arise from the child himself or herself. The implication is that if children act badly or are mean, it’s either because they’ve been emotionally abused in some fashion or because there’s something amiss with their DNA. On the other hand, there is now in America an intense concern about overt, widespread bullying, the fact that children can be brutal; many therapists are chary about explaining that through DNA and emotional abuse, but they won’t say plainly that they don’t understand the cause.
To understand any person—from oneself to a US senator to a co-worker to a child of five—we need to study what Aesthetic Realism explains:
The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now.... [It is] the beginning and most important fight in every mind. [TRO 151]
People of any age are not aware of this drama between contempt and respect—whether to look down on, despise, and manipulate people and things, or to want to know, understand, see meaning in the world. But the drama is going on in us all the time, and the choices we make about it are who we are and what kind of ethics we have.
Take, for example, another Henry James child, whom Mr. Siegel spoke about as a prelude to discussing the children in The Turn of the Screw: Maisie in What Maisie Knew. She is surrounded by adults who are selfish and whom she cannot respect. Yet, explained Mr. Siegel, “She doesn’t use it to hope to have contempt for everything.” With rich, new comprehension of that novel, he discussed many passages from What Maisie Knew, and he said about its young protagonist:
She doesn’t fool herself. She is a very knowing child; she is just as keen as Flora and Miles, maybe even a little keener. But she doesn’t [try] to get herself a bad glory, as Miles and Flora do....
In other words, Maisie was a critic, but she didn’t use her criticism...to spoil her notion of beauty, as the other children did....
Maisie represents art in a child: the desire to know....[She] is not given to the idea of power through aloofness. Miles and Flora, I think, are. Maisie wants to find out things....
The attempt in What Maisie Knew is to show the grandeur, the necessity of knowing....James saw a person who did not want to know as a villain—that’s what it came to....Maisie is the aesthetic ideal, in all her interesting and profound youthfulness. [James and the Children, pp. 5, 6,13,14,15]
The Beautiful Seeing of a Child
Some of the most beautiful writing about children is by Eli Siegel. For now, I quote one couplet from “Twenty-one Distichs about Children.” (The whole poem is in his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems.)
7. Children are not to be summed up.
A child may have a dirty face,
Who yet has thought of space—and space.
Through that couplet, both as statement and as music, we feel that a child, so particular, immediate, also imperfect and perhaps disorderly, has at the same time reality’s boundlessness and grandeur in him or her. That is in keeping with the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
I am a person who saw firsthand Eli Siegel’s magnificent knowledge about and kindness to children. As a little girl I attended with my parents Aesthetic Realism lessons taught by him. I have quoted from them before; but as a prelude to the lecture we’re beginning to serialize, I’ll quote a little from a lesson that took place when I was 6. I said I was angry at my grandmother, who could be very grouchy. And from the notes that my mother, Irene Reiss, took, we see that Mr. Siegel spoke to me about the importance of wanting to know, to understand the feelings of another person. He told me:
The first thing that is necessary to get along with people is to ask what they feel. Do you think people feel bad because they don’t know how the other person feels? Do you think your grandmother feels lonely? Maybe when she is not nice to you, she doesn’t feel so good herself. If she sometimes does the wrong thing, you should ask her if she feels good.
And there is this, about my mother:
ES. What happens between most mothers and children?
ER. They get into fights.
ES. If your mother does something you don’t like, ask yourself how she felt and why she did it. [You could say to yourself,] “If my mother is unhappy it’s not because she’s against me but because she is a person like everybody else and sometimes she thinks things are not going so well.” You could say, “I want you to use me to understand your problems better.”
Eli Siegel was teaching a little girl, me, about the opponent to contempt: what he called in a passage I quoted earlier “the grandeur, the necessity of knowing.” I saw, as child and adult, that the desire to know and be just was what impelled him all the time. It was magnificent. And it made for Aesthetic Realism, which all adults and children have the right to know.