Aesthetic Realism and Learning, Part 2
By Eli Siegel
Words, Knowledge, Feeling
If one knows more, what happens to one’s feelings? Real knowledge always helps one’s feelings, because where feeling isn’t rich it is not complete, and the only way to have feeling rich is to get that material which is in learning.
To like life means to know it. If you “like” life without knowing life, you really are not liking life—you are liking something that has happened to you, which you want to call life, some incident. You might as well say that you like a tiger because all that you see of it is the fur; you don’t see its fangs. To like the tiger wholly would mean knowing the whole tiger. I’m not saying that life is a tiger; I’m saying that in order to like the world, we have to know what it is. The way we limit our knowing of the world is very big and very saddening. If people are afraid of wanting to know, their happiness is pretty wobbly.
People don’t look for emotion in as many places as they should. Words have a great deal of emotion, and languages can have emotion. Many persons go through college without ever realizing that Latin was actually used by angry, sad, hopeful people; that Latin, with all its conjugations and declensions, was used to express emotion in mornings, emotion in afternoons, and so was Greek; that Latin or Greek that took a particular form can do things to us now, can make us shiver with illumination.
The emotion as to Greek and Latin is in a poem by Edwin Meade Robinson called “Vale!”—which is Latin for “goodbye.” It is about the fact that for quite a few hundred years there has been a desire to do away with the study of Latin and Greek, and the desire has been pretty successful because they aren’t taught much now. Yet these languages were used to express feeling, and anytime we do feel something in another language honestly, our capacity for emotion is that much bigger.
In order to feel good, we have to feel much. You cannot really feel good if you are trying to feel a little rill, a little dripping that is safe. The human mind is not made for it. If the human mind wants to limit itself to a little rill, it will get it in terms of organic reproof later. To feel well or good is to feel much, not little. So whatever has been the emotion of other people, in whatever form, is one of the most necessary aspects of learning.
The poem is a strange assemblage of lightsome, pretty rollicking fast verse and old Latin phrases. These Latin phrases are very touching. It isn’t necessary to know Latin, but it is necessary to respect it, and to respect every language. We cannot know everything, but we can respect many things that, perhaps, we cannot know. There is a something about each language which is like perfume (to be a little fancy about it), and which therefore should be kept. For instance, in German we have a word, Sehnsucht, which is “yearning.” It is not the same in English.
There is a phrase, for example, from Virgil; it is tremendously charming. It makes one cry because it is so beautiful. You may not know any more Latin; but it is good to feel the possibility of such an effect: “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” (Aeneid 1.462). It means “These are the tears of things, and touch the mind of man”—but that is not “Sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.” So, looking at the Robinson poem:
Ay, Prof., you’re right! Those dogs have had their day;
Back to their shades let modern scholars send ’em.
Dry as their dust, let’s put ’em on their way—
Nunc est bibendum!
That means “Now let us drink” or “Now is drinking time.” When we think of people drinking thousands of years ago and saying, “Now is drinking time,” there is a certain extension of ourselves, the getting out of a little needless gate that we have. We get wider.
In former times, ’twas very well to be
Up in the classics. But we’re getting canny
As years glide past us—“Eheu, Postume,
—Which means “Alas, Postumus, the years are flowing by.” To think of people saying that in Roman times makes us feel the richness of the world. If we go through life without feeling the richness of the world, failure has occurred; because the purpose of life is to see what life is, and that is the same as seeing what the world is and knowing what it is about. Everything else is imitation.
“Great Pan is—never mind; ‘De mortuis / Nil nisi bonum! ‘” “Of the dead speak nothing but good.” In the Latin it has a poignancy, a tearful quality, which the English doesn’t have.
These phrases represent the honeycombs of feelings that have collected over the years, and if we respect man we respect these phrases. In respecting humanity, we have to see what humanity has been interested in. One interest humanity has had is putting the deepest and most common feelings into phrases that stand up, are rich and neat; in other words, are poetic. So learning would include the poetic, because learning is incomplete unless it is both factual and emotional.