We are glad to publish here an excerpt from a 1952 lecture by Eli Siegel.
Map to Happiness
By Eli Siegel
The first necessity in being able to get what we are after is to see what is already good that has come our way. Most people, because what they get is not what they think they are after, can’t appreciate what they do get. I think modesty is the beginning of wealth. Real self-criticism is the beginning of wealth. We don’t know what we want, and if something comes along that we want, we may not be able to see it. If we have the modesty to think that, then we are more after what we want in a way that will please us.
I have tried to show that in these simple, bare lines from Keats’s “La Belle Dame sans Merci” there is richness:
O what can ail thee, Knight at arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the Lake
And no birds sing!
If people could get to the rhythm between simplicity and richness as we find it in art, there would be less complaining.
I say to persons: “In everything that has ever happened to you, there has been something you have wanted.” I say this without exception, only in some instances it is much harder to see. Nothing happens that is entirely what we don’t want. Therefore, your job is to find out what you did want in the thing that happened. How to see this is the study of Aesthetic Realism. But it can be seen.
There are two possibilities: we can meet something with the feeling that it isn’t entire, but still we can use it for what we want—we can say, “Well, this is something good”; or we can say, “Well, this may be good, but it isn’t wholly what I want, and therefore I’ll be disappointed.” There is a choice. If a person is modest and sees the richness in modesty, he can say, “This has something that I want. If I see it truly and fairly, it will be the means of seeing more of what I want.” Aesthetic Realism recommends that there be this richness and modesty. Otherwise, not seeing a representation of the ideal in the real that we meet, we will always miss the ideal.
The ideal is the understanding of the real, by which I mean that everything has something of the ideal in it. The artist finds this; and everyone can be for it, as such. If we see the ideal in the real again and again, the being able to see that in general is the same as having the ideal. The ideal is the real, only it has to be seen modestly and richly. This is the map to happiness. It doesn’t have all the inns and tavern keepers, but it is the map. It is not a hard road; it is the road that everyone has wanted to follow. It is a hard road not to follow.
Every person has had some bad experiences. Would you like to forget them entirely? Is there something in each experience, a certain X or W, that you would like to have remain? At least, you cannot say that you would like it entirely to go. That means there is something in every experience you would want to cherish. That is the ideal. We treasure our past because it is a little bit like a lot of slag with some gold in it. It is painful to us, but we feel we wouldn’t want it to vanish, because then we wouldn’t get the one thing of value.
If we look at the meaning of this, we can see why the most terrible experiences are remembered; we can see why people talk about their operations so much. The feeling that one has suffered is important. People don’t do it in a graceful way, but they are proud of all their suffering. There is something in us saying that every experience has to be refined. There is the dross that vanity puts there, but when that is taken away, what is the meaning of the experience? The reason Aesthetic Realism accents the past is because the past has an infinite possibility of being better seen. There is no limit to how well you can see the past. People do put limits on things, and they say, “I’d like to forget all that.” The bad part of them does want to forget it. Of course, we can’t have the past in its actual state. It would be like saying, “Eat a cow.” Who wants to eat a cow? But the cow presented as a cutlet is something that many people eat. This is a big subject, so don’t rush yourselves. If it takes years to know this, it is worthwhile. It is something that people haven’t known.
The principle that deeply every experience is seen by us as something valuable, has to be understood. Ordinary perception cannot do this, because to see something valuable in an experience that is very painful is certainly hard. But in retrospect, after we have gone through an experience, we do treasure it, without knowing it. That is why, in art, a painful experience is sometimes so much more interesting to read about than a pleasant one. And the principle which is in art, is also in a person. Of course, we can take painful experiences on the stage or in a novel better. But does the principle apply to persons as such? That is much harder to see. At a certain time, we treasure our painful emotions as well as our pleasant ones, and somehow they become one, which is why the novelist has to write about both.
There is a poem of Wordsworth, “The Solitary Reaper,” which has lines having to do with this:
Will no one tell me what she sings?
Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow
For old, unhappy, far-off things,
And battles long ago.
A tragic happening takes on a quality which gives it more meaning. The question is: Is it by evasion, or is it by seeing more true meaning? Is it by the absence of truth or getting more truth? That is a mighty question, because if we are going to get to something good by leaving out many things, then it would be very bad.