Aesthetic Realism and Hope, Part 2
By Eli Siegel
Poems Disagree about Hope
Hope sometimes can be tremendously cheerful and sincere. This is “Chartless,” by Emily Dickinson:
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet I know how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
Any person who says he can take the fact that there is no sense to this world, and it is just one big mess of time cabbage, isn’t sincere. We have to feel that there is sense to this world. And sense to this world is what Emily Dickinson means by God.
If a person gets up in the morning, feels very cheerful, and says, “I don’t know why I’m cheerful. I’m just cheerful—it’s silly,” I’d say to him, “If you can be cheerful and it looks good to you, there is a reason you don’t know making you cheerful. Don’t say it’s silly. You’d better study and get that reason; otherwise it will die out on you.”
The way we hope has to be accurate. An honest little hope is better than a dishonest big one. The next poem is an honest little hope. It is by Robert Herrick, one of the most delicate poets in English, who lived from 1591 to 1674—”To Electra”:
I dare not ask a kiss,
I dare not beg a smile,
Lest having that, or this,
I might grow proud the while.
No, no, the utmost share
Of my desire shall be
Only to kiss the air
That lately kissed thee.
This has good sense. It very often happens that a person, being able to touch the hand of another, feels a greater triumph than having complete possession of that person, because the hope does not lie only in the acquisition. The hope lies in a certain inward arithmetical arrangement of space and time.
In poetry, too, there has been a great deal about how all hopes are false, and how people hope for things which they can never get. This is “Eldorado,” by Poe:
A gallant knight,
In sunshine and in shadow,
Had journeyed long,
Singing a song,
In search of Eldorado.
And, as his strength
Failed him at length,
He met a pilgrim shadow—
“Shadow,” said he,
“Where can it be—
This land of Eldorado?”
“Over the Mountains
Of the Moon,
Down the Valley of the Shadow,
Ride, boldly ride,”
The shade replied,—
“If you seek for Eldorado.”
The only way to make sense of this world is to say that one can be honestly pessimistic and honestly optimistic, and then, in seeing them both together, something good can occur. That is why we can get pleasure, in the same fifteen minutes, from the Emily Dickinson poem which is so cheerful, and from the Poe poem which says that a knight traveling all his life looking for Eldorado cannot ever get it. The world is an endless supply of both good and bad. Aesthetic Realism says that the good and bad can be seen as so together that a goodness arises from their junction.
Hope and Accuracy
In art there has been a constant disposition to put together hope and accuracy. There is an interesting popular American poem which hopes a great deal, and then laughs at the hopes. If we want to be fantastic and say tomorrow the streets will flow with cream, and all the bad governors and the bad senators and the bad Americanism of certain newspapers will be down the sewer–oh, very cheerful! We can have a good time hoping for it, but we still can keep our senses and know that the bad Americanism in those newspapers will likely appear tomorrow, and the next day. Once we see our hopes accurately, they can be a source of pleasure now. So this poem hopes a great deal and laughs at itself not in a sneering way, but in a pretty honest way. It is “The Big Rock Candy Mountains,” and is about hoboes. Hoboes, very often, didn’t find happiness in their married life, so they went wandering around the country. They felt they could find security only in insecurity.
… In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
There’s a land that’s fair and bright,
Where the handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night.
Where the boxcars all are empty
And the sun shines every day—
Oh, the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees,
The rock-and-rye springs where the whangdoodle sings,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains ….
This takes some ideas of people—of having the world very easy and everything soothing them-but it makes fun of them and externalizes them. There is nothing secret. Every time we have a hope, the test of its goodness is, would we be able to state it to people who could understand it, and do we hope people will understand it?
These hopes, of course, are silly; but the beautiful thing about this poem is that the person who made it up knows they are silly and he puts them straight. He does not just have a secret conference with himself. Every person who gets into a mental institution is a person who has hoped things without being able to know what those hopes are, or wanting to know, and who has been very secretive about things that he or she has been looking for.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
You never change your socks,
And the little streams of alkyhol
Come trickling down the rocks.
This is a picture of joy. But it’s done honestly, and there is a certain deep laughter going on. There’s no harm in hoping in this fashion; though any poem, of course, can be misused by the wrong reader. If a mother, for instance, wants to think of her son as Julius Caesar for a moment, it’s all right. It will give her fun. And I think that every woman for fifteen minutes a year should think of herself as Joan of Arc. It will help—for fifteen minutes.
There’s a lake of stew and whisky, too,
You can paddle all around in a big canoe
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains.
We do hope for a world with no impediments, easy and nice, but we also hope for a world where there is impediment and confusion. Would you like to have a world where there was no confusion at all, there could never be any confusion, and you’d have to spend the rest of your life with no confusion? We can do a lot of kicking, but suppose it were said that you would be in a world where you couldn’t kick at all because there would be no reason to kick and your possibility of kicking was forever denied? Oh, you’d feel so lonely about that kicking. The idea of aesthetics is to put together a world which you resist and a world which you hope for. Aesthetic Realism is a making one of obstruction and ease.
Once we can mix up our hopes and fears and see a composition arise from them, we are sensible. Hope by itself and fear by itself are just boring and awful, but an agreeable mixture of the sort the world can provide is very nice. We have the deeps and shallows; we have level ground and we have the heights. Aesthetics is a way of taking the depths, the level ground, and the heights and showing they are all necessary for one person. Therefore, in the process of hoping sensibly, aesthetics cannot be missed.