“A Woman, Literature, & Instinct”
Number 2027. March 18, 2020
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to serialize Instinct & Madame de Sévigné, an immensely stirring and kind talk of 1964 by Eli Siegel—a landmark in both literary criticism and the understanding of the human self. It is one of the many lectures he gave at that time on the subject of instinct. And what is instinct? In his Definitions, and Comment, Mr. Siegel defines it this way: “Instinct is desire not known or seen as an object.”
This lecture has, magnificently, two things I love about Aesthetic Realism, which are always in Eli Siegel’s seeing of people, situations, works of art: the lecture is rich in scholarship; yet it is so immediate, so much of life, so great in its understanding of a particular mind—that of Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, Madame de Sévigné. As Mr. Siegel speaks of this 17th-century woman, she is with us now, vital, breathing, wanting to know.
And amazingly, as he speaks of one person and what impelled her 350 years ago, he also speaks about centuries themselves as having instincts, embodying instincts. This relation among the centuries, art, and a particular person with feeling, unfolds in the course of the lecture. As it does, behind what Mr. Siegel is showing is this principle of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
That principle is about the instincts too: we desire opposites. For instance, we desire order but also excitement; we want the cozy and we want the vast; we want tremendously to feel—and also to reason, to have intellect. Moreover, we want, need, long to make these opposites one—though we don’t know it and, with pain ensuing, in a large way we fail at the job.
Then, there are the two instincts Aesthetic Realism identifies as constituting the big fight in everyone’s life. There is the desire for contempt: the drive “to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” This desire is the source of every human injustice and cruelty.
And there is that other desire which is the deepest thing in us, because it stands for the purpose of our lives. This is the desire to like the world honestly—to see the world justly, as the true means of taking care of ourselves. This is the instinct that has a baby reach toward light, be affected by her mother’s voice and by music, want to take milk into herself. It is the instinct that soon will have her learn, and become one with those things created by millions of people she never met: words. And this instinct, to be oneself through liking the world outside oneself, is the source of all art and all real kindness…Read more
The Right Of is edited by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, who is author of its commentaries.