Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

"Freedom Is with Imagination"
from a Nevertheless Poetry class conducted by Eli Siegel
Report by Paul Abel

     At the September 29th Nevertheless Poetry Class, Eli Siegel said he would discuss a matter that concerns both art and life: the idea of Freedom; and he called his talk, “Freedom Is with Imagination.”  “Man,” he said, “is not very noble on the subject of freedom.”  When things don’t turn out well, we want to think something outside us has caused us to do what we do.  When we like what is happening, we think we are the cause.”  In this class, Siegel continued his discussion of English poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge, saying, “Are we caused by what’s not ourselves, or is the cause of what we do ourselves? That is what Coleridge was interested in.”

     Siegel looked at an essay by Arthur O. Lovejoy, titled “Coleridge and Kant’s Two Worlds,” in which Lovejoy states that his purpose is “to consider whether it was freedom or its opposite that Coleridge’s reasoning established.”

     “Already,” said Siegel, “we have some notion of freedom.  If there is a theme you want to develop, as Lovejoy does, it has some control over you: you have to follow it.  Carlyle spent ten years writing the Life of Frederick the Great: nobody told him to.  A decision of ours may control us.”

     The Lovejoy essay is concerned with how Coleridge’s interest in the metaphysics of Kant affected his poetry and his life.  “Everyone,” said Siegel, “has a metaphysics, a way of seeing the world as a whole that affects everything we do.”

      Is there a way of seeing the world that will allow us to be free?  To live, it was said, you have to see the world as (1) useable, and (2) fairly entertaining.  “That is why Alexander the Great went after Asia: it was useable and gratifying.”  Then there is this question people have: How to make sense of the two kinds of gratification—the gratification of managing or controlling things; and the gratification of being taken care of.  This problem we have about the world is like a man’s problem about a woman, which Mr. Siegel phrased as, “We want to manage the same thing we want to cuddle up to.”  We’d like to be superior to the world, and we’d like to feel there’s something watching out for us.  Those two gratifications haven’t come together well.

     They have to do, though, with one of the biggest oppositions in philosophy: that of free will versus determinism.  Free will says, We are the author of our own choices.  Determinism says, Something outside us is impelling us.  Then people asked this question, “How can man, while acknowledging that fact that he comes from the world, is caused by what is not himself, claim any freedom?”  And an answer was found, by Kant and others: the Reason of man is the world itself in him.  If the world, which is our cause, is in us, we are free.  To feel the world working in us is the same as having Kant’s Vernunft, or Reason.  This affected Coleridge very much.

      Is there in art this kind of perception that is Reason or Vernunft—the using of the world in us?  The answer is Yes.  Wagner, Siegel noted, acted as if he were getting secrets from divine sources.

     It was at this point Eli Siegel described the two aspects of the word freedom:  There is the freedom having to do with cause—are we the cause of what we do; and then there is what people generally associate with freedom—not being stopped or impeded.  “The whole purpose of education, he added, “is for a person to know what he is talking about when he says, ‘I want to be free.’”

     The world itself has a problem with freedom.  If man is not free, is anything in the world free?  In Homer, there was a question about how free the gods were.  Then, Mr. Siegel turned to the Iliad of Homer, and read from the 22nd book about the death of Hector.  He used first the Richmond Lattimore translation of 1951, then the Alexander Pope translation of 1718.  This section of the Iliad has to do with freedom, he pointed out, and the two translations differ in freedom and control.  Lattimore uses a loose 6-beat line, Pope a tidy heroic couplet.  But Pope, with his control, noted Mr. Siegel, is really freer than Lattimore.  Motion, he said, is not the same as freedom.

      Achilles is chasing Hector around the Trojan Wall, and will kill him.  As Pope tells it, the two warriors run near a fountain

Where Trojan dames (ere yet alarm’d by Greece)
Wash’d their fair garments in the days of peace.
The gods discuss on Olympus what should happen to Hector and Achilles.  Here, as Lattimore tells it, is the result:
 But when for the fourth time they had come around to the well springs
 then the Father balanced his golden scales, and in them
 he set two fateful portions of death, which lays men prostrate,
 one for Achilleus, and one for Hektor, breaker of horses,
 and balanced it by the middle; and Hektor’s death-day was heavier
 and dragged downward toward death, and Phoibos Apollo forsook him.
     The problem of freedom and control that affected Hector is in a line of poetry.  Coleridge, said Mr. Siegel, had an unconscious desire to put freedom and order together in verse; and he fulfilled that desire greatly.  In his poem “Christabel,” Coleridge mixes the iambic rhythm, which goes from light to heavy and stands for order, with the trochaic, which goes from heavy to light and stands for freedom.  The similarity and difference, the lightness and heaviness, the continuity and abruptness, the freedom and control of the world are in these lines:
 The moon is behind, and at the full;
 And yet she looks both small and dull.
 The night is chill, the cloud is gray:
 ‘Tis a month before the month of May,
 And the Spring comes slowly up this way.
 This class was the careful inspection of a subject that has concerned the great philosophers of the world, and every person who was ever born.  I feel that through my study of Aesthetic Realism with Eli Siegel, I am closer to a real and true freedom.
                                               Paul Abel
                                                     October 1971

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