ONE CAN GO FROM CRITICISM TO POETRY
Report of a lecture given by Eli Siegel
by Miriam Weiss
In his essay of 1922, The Scientific Criticism, Eli Siegel described criticism as: “that action of mind, whose aim is to get the value of anything; and by value I mean size of power; and this power may be good or bad. It is clear that the value of a thing cannot be got unless the thing itself is known."
Mr. Siegel began his lecture of March 10, 1971, titled, "One Can Go from Criticism to Poetry”, saying:
It is affecting to think I'm continuing what I wrote as long ago as 1922. After all, criticism is about as old as reality itself. In fact, reality can be seen as the energetic criticism of nothing[ness].
This is so different from how I once saw criticism and how most people do--as tearing something down by exposing its flaws. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that honest criticism of a thing or person is the same as love. “A human being is impelled to be a critic”, Mr. Siegel said, and he continued:
Criticism is a telling of what we like and also a telling what is good.... In order to be a critic of any one field there has to be a living interest in things, which means the object of criticism, because everything is an object of criticism, a tablecloth, a bit of sand, everything you buy in a hardware store. In fact, you wouldn't buy it if you hadn't been critical of it.
He showed that criticism is also the most democratic thing in the world--it is about everything and goes on every moment of our lives. For example, criticism has to do with selecting just the right grade of sandpaper for a piece of wood, and criticism was the central thing in an article of that day's New York Times on the FBI which Mr. Siegel read in the beginning of this class. The FBI, said Mr. Siegel, "is the most ominous critical body in America--it's always looking for new subjects. A critic can be criticized", he said, something which could be seen in the article which reported that an FBI office was broken into and all the records removed by a group called "Citizens Commission To Investigate The F.B.I". Commented Mr. Siegel, "Investigation is a form of criticism. To have the FBI itself investigated is a sign of the limitless quality of criticism." And he asked:
What has the criticism of anything in common with the criticism of anything else? In what way is the criticism of a spider akin to the criticism of a symphony? Insofar as Aesthetic Realism is a criticism of people, the question is whether people are criticized on the same basis as anything else, and the answer is yes. A person asks, "Am I doing well that which I was made to do? Am I performing the inherent functions of selfhood adequately?" If he doesn't think so, he doesn't feel good.
I'm grateful I was seen this way in classes taught by Mr. Siegel. He always encouraged a person to "do well that which [he or she] was made to do", which is: to like the world and see value in it. And this included criticism of my cynical attitude that nothing was worth getting excited about. In one class he described what had held up my life when he asked: "Have you tried to get yourself into a state of uncaringness and you pretty well succeeded?" Studying Aesthetic Realism has made it possible for me to change and to have large feeling about what people and things deserve.
In this talk, to show further what criticism is, Mr. Siegel discussed a book which he described as "a casual container of reality's experiments" -- The Georgian Scene by Frank Swinnerton. The Georgian period was named after King George V and began in 1911 and ended with his death in 1936. Swinnerton, who was a novelist and critic, gives a picture of the time and discusses Georgian writers including Henry James, H.G. Wells, G.K. Chesterton, James Stephens, and William Butler Yeats. The book, Mr. Siegel said, "is written in a lively fashion and brings up the problem of criticism in many ways.
Swinnerton describes the many advances of the time including the wireless and telegraphy, and Mr. Siegel said, "In 1910 people became a little familiar with the flying machine. The Wright brothers were busy." And he continued:
Industry is always criticizing itself. Every automobile show is always criticizing the previous auto show. The auto show of 1910 was severe to the auto show of 1909. The airplane never rested; it always criticized its previous high points. The gramophone always insisted on being corrected.
He showed that people had a useful dissatisfaction as they worked to have machines be better and better and that this is like the criticism we have of ourselves. He continued:
There wouldn't be progress if a person couldn't look at what had been done before and do better. A person says, Yes, I may like this but I could do better. He looks at what he did yesterday and says--Can I beat that? Aesthetic Realism sees the human being, whether he knows it or not, as in a constant state of criticism, if it is only by saying, I can enjoy myself more Wednesday than I did Tuesday.
Swinnerton writes that the advances told of "were the result of earlier research, earlier experiment, earlier learning, and earlier irresistible movement towards the kind of world amid which we now live." and Mr. Siegel showed that criticism was fundamental in each of these terms--research, experiment, and science itself. "One of the critical terms of the world", he explained," is evolution. The Paleozoic period had no fretfulness and as far as is known, no neuroticism, and yet it changed. Criticism", Mr. Siegel continued, "is the restless , undying motion of life itself."