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  The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known
 NUMBER 150.— February 11, 1976
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

What Opposes Love?

Dear Unknown Friends:

     The history of the world and the history of literature tell us that love has been opposed by hate and contempt. Since hate or its resemblance, anger, is uncomfortable, persons have often done a great deal to change hate or anger into contempt. Contempt makes another person less important; while hate or anger, though it may express oneself and give one some sense of power, still is not reposeful. Contempt attacks another person and is both secret and reposeful, if that is what a person wants it to be. Yet anger, hate, contempt, grief interchange. What has occurred in the world tells us this; and, as I said, literature does also.

     The play in French literature that stands for the discomfort of love, the unsettlement of passion, is the Phèdre of  Racine, presented first in 1677. An early critic, Donneau de Visé, in his Mercure galant (1677), said something of the play and the noted heroine of the play, Phèdre, which later years have not refuted. Donneau de Visé said of Phèdre: "she detests her passion."

1.  Poetry Describes a Mind

Jean Racine, in his play of 1677, describes disorder of mind in a way that is, apparently, immortal; for the play Phèdre may at any moment again hold an audience in Paris or an audience elsewhere. Lines in the play tell sadly of what can happen to mind. These lines nevertheless are lovely in prosody, lovely in word sense. Oenone, talking of Phèdre to Hippolyte, says, delicately, powerfully:

     Un désordre éternal règne dans son esprit.

This line, translated, is:

     A disorder, eternal, rules in her mind.

     A play that has held the stage of the world for now nearly three hundred years can, with its lovely Alexandrines, hint of contempt as the cause of insanity. I quote four lines said by Phèdre with anger and uneasiness (I.3):

Que ces vains ornements, que ces voiles me pèsent!
Quelle importune main, en formant tous ces noeuds,
A pris soin sur mon front d'assembler mes cheveux?
Tout m'afflige et me nuit, et conspireà me nuire.

     La Champmeslé, Clairon, Rachel, and Sarah Bernhardt, noted French actresses, spoke these lines in varying centuries. I translate the lines into free verse, to give the sense of sputtering agitation within the stately, symmetrical prosody of Racine:

        All Bothers Me

How these vain adornments,
How these veils weigh me down!
What unasked hand,
Bringing things together,
Has taken the trouble,
On my brow,
To arrange my hair?
Everything saddens and hurts me,
And wants to hurt me.

     Earlier, Phèdre's nurse and confidante, Oenone, had described Phèdre as wanting to have people away from her. Oenone has said:

Elle veut voir le jour; et sa douleur profonde
M'ordonne toutefois d'écarter tout le monde.

She wishes to see the day;
And her deep grief
Orders me, though,
To tell everyone to leave.

2. This Is Phèdre

Phèdre has been sympathized with a long time. Some of the greatest French critics have admired how she felt and how she showed her feeling. A fine Christianity has been discerned in Phèdre. The anguished depths in her have been given nobility.

     Nevertheless, contempt is seeable in the 17th-century heroine and in the heroine of the Peloponnesus long before Christ was known. Greek mythology has ladies in it despising things of this world because of inward grief, disarray within.

     Phèdre has just been appareled by her handmaids. She despises the adornments she is wearing. She thinks her clothes or veils weigh her down. She feels some persons have been interfering with her body. Did she ask anyone to arrange her hair? Everything is planning to bother her. Phèdre, therefore, immortal in the play of Racine and everlasting in Greek legend, is yet like some vexed girl of Rochester, abruptly tired of life.

      When Phèdre tells Oenone to see to it that people are not near her, she is showing that contempt for humanity, quiet in everyone, but which may take an overt form if the outside world seems to be keenly inconsiderate of us.

3. Contempt in Phèdre

Early in Racine's play we see that Phèdre has contempt for herself because of her feeling for Hippolytus, the son of her husband by an earlier woman. And she does all she can to hate Hippolytus. She has him leave Troezen.

     Aesthetic Realism believes that every true feeling of love can be a cause of respect for ourselves. It happens often with love that we come to think our emotion is too large for the person causing it. The words emotion and large have to be looked at. We have to see that there are two things in us causing us to love another. The first is our desire to despise the world. We can use the loved person to make less the rest of the world. The second thing, the true cause of love, uses the loved person to make the whole world more beautiful.

     As Aesthetic Realism sees it, Phèdre felt that through being victorious with Hippolytus, she would have a victory over the world. In the play, Hippolytus is not given any great quality by the woman who is affected by him. Since in untrue love, what matters to us is the kind of victory over reality we may have by having a person do as we wish, we do not think well of ourselves because of our feeling. Consequently, Phèdre, while despising nearly everything else, despises herself. Her later jealousy of Aricie makes this ever so living.

     Nor was Phèdre proud of her opposition to her feeling about Hippolytus. Contempt is subtle, profound, winding, variable in this tragedy of the 17th century; and in this mythological woman representing for the West the pains and turbulence of love; love's defeat.

     Phèdre had two displeasures: displeasure with the outside world for giving her a feeling she could not accept; and displeasure with herself because she had only displeasure with the outside world. The Greek writers of tragedy tried to have fate or the gods seem reasonable in how they gave pain to noted Hellenic men and women. I cannot say that these tragedians have been successful enough. Unless the working of contempt is seen in a suffering person, there will be a compassion clearer than the possible criticism of that person.

     Any love, Aesthetic Realism states, not used to like the world, that much has contempt in it. When we use a person not to like the world but to make ourselves important or successful, we are having contempt both for that person and the world. We also, though we may not know it, have contempt for ourselves.

     Shakespeare, in his Sonnet 29, counters Phèdre in a poetic, philosophical, and gallant way. He talks, in the last lines of the sonnet I have mentioned, of love as a way of seeing the world better:

Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven's gate:
For thy sweet love remember'd such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

4. Love: Seeing Better, Seeing Worse

Love has been described both as a great muddler and a great bringer of light. These lines are from James Hogg, a popular writer of the early 19th century in Scotland:

O, love, love, love!
Love is like a dizziness;
It winna let a poor body
Gang about his biziness!

So the fairly good Scotch writer of verse is with Racine and Phèdre and, I may also say, with Freud and others.

     As Aesthetic Realism sees it, the only reason love is confusing is that it is a continuation of the confusing battle between a narrow like of ourselves and imaginative justice to the world. It is this battle which may take an unbearable form when love, with its powerful bodily help, sex, is ours.

     Shakespeare was not steady; but he has said some things which might have been of use to Phèdre, could she have listened. Shakespeare was tormented by the same thing which tormented Jean Racine and Phèdre. Yet Shakespeare saw what, if Freud had understood, would have made the Vienna guide less sure of the meaning of repression. Shakespeare has these lines in his early play, Love's Labour's Lost (IV.3):

But love, first learned in a lady's eyes,
Lives not alone immured in the brain,
But with the motion of all elements
Courses as swift as thought in every power,
And gives to every power a double power,
Above their functions and their offices.
It adds a precious seeing to the eye.

     If I could, I would have had Sigmund Freud demurely repeat these lines at least once a week to some Vienna audience. When Shakespeare's words are understood, I think there will be found in them this: Love is a means of liking the world through a person.

     Is love personal knowledge enabling us to see reality better? In Dryden's Cymon and Iphigenia, which follows Boccaccio, a Restoration writer tells us how love increased knowledge and kindness. When Shakespeare says that love "adds a precious seeing to the eye," he opposes the contemporary gibberish about love as against knowledge. This dreary gibberish is not just contemporary. It was cared for in all times.

5. We Answer Ourselves

The answer, then, to the question: What opposes love? is: The narrow self opposes love, with its great continual treasure, contempt. Love is either a possibility of seeing the world differently because something different from ourselves is seen as needed and lovely; or it is an extension of our imperialistic approval of ourselves in such a way that we have a carnal satellite.

     I should like much to show where Phèdre and other plays of Racine point to love as a particular way of respecting, liking, the world; love as a deep friend to reality. That purpose must wait.

     Here, it needs to be said that when, as we learn from Oenone, Phèdre has not eaten for three days, the cause of her fasting arises from her disdain of reality; a deep, unseen contempt for it. It is hard to see the contempt that is there, in these two musical and grieving lines of Racine (I.3):

Et le jour a trois fois chassé la nuit obscure
Depuis que votre corps languit sans nourriture.

And day, three times
Has driven away dark night,
Since your body has dragged along
Without nourishment.

     We have said before that when a person in an institution does not want to eat, there is contempt for the outside world in this. Also when a person does not care what she wears or how unbecoming her garb is or how disorderly, she likewise is exercising her deep, uncomely likelihood of despising the world.

     Dear unknown friends, I see Phèdre as great; great as a person. I see the play Phèdre great as a play, with poetry better than that of the male poets I discussed last week.* I see Racine as one of the most musically profound persons who ever lived. Yet contempt nestles somewhere amid magnificence and heartbreak.

     If, dear unknown friends, contempt nestles amid magnificence and heartbreak, there, too, is where we should see it.

With love,                   
     Eli Siegel                     

*Note:  Ezra Pound, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot                 

© Copyright 1976 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation  •  A not-for-profit educational foundation

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1.  The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

2.  The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.

3.  All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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