From Here to Obscurity
NEW YORK-The room is three flights up in an apartment house at 67 Jane St. in the Village. On a lower floor you encounter two young women who guide you to the room.
A pretty, white-haired woman opens the door. "Hello, I'm Martha Baird," she smiles. "Eli Siegel is in on the couch. He hasn't been well, I'm afraid."
The interview has taken a year to arrange. At one point Siegel wanted a press conference with eight picked journalists. He is gun-shy about the press. All the people of his Aesthetic Realism movement-which sees wisdom for living in the underlying principles of great art-believe that he has discovered a new, and beautifully whole, approach to life itself.
The small room is filled chest-high with books. They are stacked by the thousands from wall to wall except for a narrow passage winding through the middle. "The Critique of Pure Reason," novels, children's books, dictionaries, textbooks-the reading material of a lifetime.
Eli Siegel, poet and philosopher, is 76 years old. The world has not yet beat a path to his door.
"I've lived in this room 40 years," he says. In the background, Martha Baird, who is his wife, and the two young women sit among the books.
Who is Eli Siegel, and what is Aesthetic Realism, and why do they say they have been treated as cruelly as ever a human being and an idea were treated in history?
It seems to begin with a poem.
Siegel, born in Dvinsk, Latvia, in 1902, came to this country at age 3, went to Baltimore, graduated from Baltimore City College and got a job as a printer and copyreader. And read everything in sight. (He remembers getting his first library card: April 5, 1911. The first book: a Horatio Alger.)
Soon after returning to New York in 1919, he wrote "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana," a dazzling 99-line Whitmanesque song to life and the world and the past and the sky. It begins:
He submitted it to The Nation in 1924. It was rejected. Yet the following year, it was selected as The Nation prize poem. Reaction was violent. Some critics loved it, others were outraged at its lack of conventional technique. It was reprinted, anthologized, translated. Then silence. Siegel was being snubbed by the academic establishment.
Suddenly, in 1951, the esteemed poet William Carlos Williams wrote a letter. He had read the poem, and it electrified him.
Siegel, he wrote, "belongs in the very first rank of our living artists....We are not up to Siegel, even yet....I say definitely that that single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world. I make such a statement only after a lifetime of thought and experience, I make it deliberately."
A reading was arranged at the Museum of Modern Art, and Siegel believed he was being accepted at last. But then, abruptly, Williams backed off. The more conventional critics disparaged the mix of profound thought and playfulness in Siegel's work, as critic Selden Rodman was to put it, "one moment as wise as Socrates and the next as crazy as Benjy."
Again, Siegel was dropped by the academics. And again he was discovered when in 1957 his first book of poems, under the "Hot Afternoons" title (Definition Press, New York, 1957), was nominated for the National Book Award. He was compared to Whitman, Sandburg, Thoreau, Gertrude Stein and even William Blake.
Then the gates closed in what Martha Baird calls "the great enthusiasm followed by the great retreat." It was suggested that Siegel was a one-poem poet. His name was left off lists, he was quoted without acknowledgment, he seemed virtually to vanish from the world of letters.
All this time, in relative obscurity, he was developing his ideas on Aesthetic Realism, supporting himself partly by reviewing books. He gave his first lessons on it in 1941 and gradually expanded it by word of mouth until today there are perhaps 250 serious students, mostly New Yorkers, though a few commute from nearby cities or even hold phone consultations from farther away.
What is Aesthetic Realism? In his deceptively simple, almost Euclidean language, designed to avoid the loaded word and the emotional context, Siegel celebrates "the constant oneness of esthetic opposites, as, say, the ocean which moves always and is what it is always."
There are two elements: oneself and everything that is not oneself, which he calls "the world." These two opposites must be brought into harmony: By liking the world, one can come to like oneself. If, on the other hand, one feels disdain, or what he calls contempt, for the world, unhappiness results.
"Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it," he says. Contempt can lead to insanity, according to Siegel. Sex can either "make the ordinary things of the world take on more meaning" or be "a means of ecstatic revenge on a world which we see as not having been good to us." Alcoholism "is a popular means of annulling dislike of the world through a certain flowing thing which can make the world seem friendly and on one's side," as are gambling and drugs.
The basic technique of Aesthetic Realism is the consultation with one of 14 trios of mentors. Students range from pre-teenagers to grandparents. Consultees are asked a series of questions, like, "What don't you like about yourself?" and are encouraged to examine themselves in the best Socratic traditions.
Sheldon Kranz, an early Siegel student, emphasizes "Always, the main problem of a person is seen as a fight between respect and contempt for what is not himself."
In brief, the Aesthetic Realism approach is gentle and supportive, asking that people try to truly know themselves and thus to like themselves and the world. It is a matter of bringing inner conflicts into harmony.
"How, after all," Siegel writes, "is one to be full of confidence in himself, and yet not the least bit narcissistic? How is one to be deferential, obliging, at times yielding to other people, without being the least bit dependent or inferior?"
Siegel's scholarship shines through all his writings (and by the way, he is still turning out poetry), and his talk glitters with references to Coleridge, Pound, Eliot, Hazlitt, Crashaw, Eugene Jolas, Dante and Allen Ginsberg, among others. In fact, his theories are closely connected with "the meaning of art itself, which describes strangely and pleasingly what the world is like."
"The academic establishment chooses to feel I don't exist," he says. Yet he can write this, in a poem addressed to Dylan Thomas: