“People, Literature, Government”
Number 1998. February 6, 2019
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the final section of the 1975 lecture we have been serializing—a lecture by Eli Siegel great in the understanding of people, literature, and also government.
He speaks about the American writers James Russell Lowell (1819-91) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-62). Lowell wrote an essay criticizing Thoreau—sometimes rightly, sometimes in a way unjust to the large value of the author of Walden. Mr. Siegel comments on the essay in the process of showing something no other critic saw: that Lowell and Thoreau stand for a matter as tremendous as any in the life of every person—including every person right now.
The tremendous matter can be described this way: there is in each of us a feeling of ourselves as apart, as just us, with our own particular thoughts; meanwhile, we’re also a self that has to do in ever so many ways with ever so many people. And that self which seems just our own and our self that interacts with others can feel like two different selves.
These are opposites: the self as just one, for ourselves alone; and as many, connected with, really, millions of things and people. Everyone has and is both those opposites. Yet, Mr. Siegel shows that Lowell, in a big way, represents the self as many, as social—he “is one of the busiest persons who ever wrote a poem. He was ambassador to Spain and also to England, took part in politics”—while Thoreau “is a laureate of profound loneliness and separation.” What each of them was looking for, and we are looking for, is described in this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
The Rift & Contempt
The division in a person between a self within and a gregarious outward self has pain with it. It’s the pain (largely taken for granted) of feeling that the whole of you doesn’t act in this world, and that there’s a self you have that nobody sees. Meanwhile, this rift is also exploited by the person having it, through what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the most hurtful thing in humanity: contempt: “the disposition…to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
For example, a person can have a certain triumph in feeling, “I have a self I don’t show; I can be with people, charm them, fool them, manage them, and hide my purposes and thoughts.” And there is the feeling—not clearly articulated yet immensely frequent—that “the self I see as just mine is the most important thing in this world. I don’t have to see what other people feel—what goes on under my skin is what matters. In fact, I take care of myself by looking down on them. I judge people as good or bad on the basis of how important they make me.”
Government: A Oneness of Opposites
In this final section of his lecture Mr. Siegel speaks about Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.” He explains how and why Thoreau is both right and wrong about government, and this magnificent explanation is mightily relevant to our own time....Read more
The Right Of is edited by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, who is author of its commentaries.