|Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue, we begin to serialize Aesthetic Realism and Nature, by Eli Siegel. I think this lecture, which he gave nearly 50 years ago, is some of the greatest literary criticism, some of the greatest prose, and some of the greatest comprehension of the human self anywhere. Lovingly and with might, Mr. Siegel discusses important instances of writing on nature; and as he does, he describes and opposes a hurtful fight that has been in people: the using of "nature" and human beings against each other; the seeing of country and city as different worlds; the playing off of placid brook against people shouting at a subway station. This playing politics with reality is a form of contempt. And later in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism he defined contempt as "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it" and showed it to be "the greatest danger or temptation of man."
Mr. Siegel is the philosopher who saw that the deepest purpose of every human self is to like the world — and that means the world in its fulness. A baby being born right now is being born into the whole world, and we were once that baby. We were not born to choose some segment of the world and use it to look down on other things, to find them unimportant and unfriendly. Yet that is what people do. A woman uses her fondness for her child to have a contempt for other children: she sees them as far less valuable. A man uses his care for antiques to have contempt for things modern. A man uses his interest in science to feel that persons who care much for art are silly. A woman uses her interest in French literature to feel she doesn’t need to worry about whether people get paid enough and children get enough to eat. A man uses his interest in social causes to feel he doesn’t have to read books. A woman concentrates on the man with whom she is close and makes other people into unimportant shadows.
This putting aside much of the world can occur partly because the world is hard to make sense of. But it also occurs because we get a triumph looking down, quietly despising, making the world smaller than it is — with us, in some fashion, the center or manager of it. We can use things lovely in themselves to make less of other things. We can use care for a daisy — or care for a symphony — to make insignificant what a striking worker deserves; and then, Mr. Siegel has explained, we are unfair to the daisy or symphony too.
What Happens to Our Mind
He showed that in lessening reality, though we may feel we are soothing ourselves, we are really making our minds duller. In using one aspect of the world against other aspects, we are doing that which makes us feel unsure, nervous, empty, cold, and which even makes us brutal. After all, many a lady in England, 1845, felt that she could be interested in her darling child yet not interested in the children who had to labor in factories and mines.
In one of his earliest published works, "The Scientific Criticism" (Modern Quarterly, 1923), Eli Siegel, then 20, wrote: "Man’s mind was made to know everything." Two decades later he wrote that what was then called "guilt feeling" and is now called "low self-esteem" arises from "separation of oneself from reality as a whole" (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 52). In showing that our inner distress comes because we have betrayed our largest purpose, and that this purpose is nothing less than to be fair to the world in its fulness — Eli Siegel was showing the true dignity of humanity. We cannot, of course, be equally interested in every aspect of reality; but we should hope to be just in some way to everything that is, and not get a smug triumph dismissing things and people. And there are some things — the feelings of other persons — that we should be using everything in the world, from a sky to an equation to a ballet, to care about. Aesthetic Realism is the education that teaches one how.
Eli Siegel gave the lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature, as he gave all his lectures, extemporaneously. He spoke it, and not from notes — the only notes Mr. Siegel used were those indicating passages he planned to discuss and the pages on which they could be found. I say this now, because when one sees the sentences by him that appear here, with their tremendous style, their vividness, their grandeur, their logic, their humor, their passion, their grace, and when one realizes that they came from him spontaneously, one gets some sense of who Eli Siegel was. He himself was the greatest oneness of the "natural" and the cultivated: no person was more learned, but because he was completely sincere, his expression always had the freshness of April leaves.
And there is his seeing, in this part of the lecture, of the writer Richard Jefferies (1848-87), who is not much talked of these days. As the lecture continues, Mr. Siegel will discuss passages of his. But we find here a person understood, centrally and exquisitely understood — as Eli Siegel understood people: to one’s ever so particular depths. He describes, with vividness, the value of Jefferies as writer — has you feel it. And as he explains what troubled Jefferies, how Jefferies weakened himself, you respect this writer more, not less. That is what happened whenever Mr. Siegel spoke of a person. And it is altogether different from that biographical mode which one constantly meets: the revealing of some noted person’s weaknesses in such a way as to encourage contempt for him or her.
How Things Tell of Each Other
I quote now the principle, stated by Eli Siegel, which shows how all the aspects and items of reality are related, are of each other — which shows what an irritable co-worker of yours and a leaf in twilight have in common: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." A leaf at twilight is in motion and at rest on the tree; and the irritated co-worker, while quiet in her chair, has a stir in her mind, even a commotion in her mind — as that leaf can twist about in the wind. The leaf at twilight is definite yet mysterious, there yet not clearly seen. And isn’t the co-worker, Janet, that way too: there, in the office, yet not understood? The leaf is particular and related: just itself, but connected to branch, tree, earth, sky, other leaves. And Janet is just herself yet related to so much; and she thirsts to have that relation deep and graceful. So, as Eli Siegel shows here, leaf and Janet should be used in behalf of each other. In Aesthetic Realism, he taught how we can use the world itself proudly and justly — including on an afternoon in spring.
— Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Once more people are going to go out into the country, and be on the hillsides, and in the grass, and hear the birds, and look at the insects, and watch the sky; and they wonít do it really, Iím afraid, with any love for what those things represent, and they wonít do it with any deep wisdom for themselves. So far, nature has been used too much to hate people with, and to be against oneself.
The reason is that people are much more troublesome than an elm tree, or an oak tree, or a beach, or mountains, or a squirrel, or a woodchuck, or an opossum, or a gazelle, or a giraffe. And therefore, since people are so troublesome, there is a tendency to use nature on vacations not for the purpose that nature was intended for, to understand people with, but to say, "Well, all my relatives give me a lot of trouble, but if I lie face-down on the grass, I don’t have to think about them." That is a dangerous business. And one goes back home more divided than ever. I have a notion that many people now in the sanitariums of the country got a good reason for going there because they had already practiced on vacations. They practiced getting away from all things, and then they went further.
Nature is not to be used that way. And man is nature. And New York City is nature. Any person who thinks that New York City isn’t nature should ask, Where did it come from? Did the mind of man suddenly make a halt? Is there any big division between the minds of, let us say, a blue jay or a bluebird and man? And is there much difference, really, between making a city and building a nest? Isn’t it all the same world? But there is a tendency on the part of people going on vacations to say that the world of the city is a great nuisance, but the world of the blue jay, and the snake even, and the hummingbird, is the world that’s really on our side. Well, since there is this division, nature is used in a bad way.
Nature is defined by Aesthetic Realism as the way the world goes about being itself and changing. Aesthetic Realism sees man’s mind as nature at its highest, but as a continuation of all that went before. And if you don’t like the way your in-laws behave, you don’t like nature, because in-laws are just as much nature as hummingbirds are. If you are going away from in-laws to hummingbirds, you’re going from one aspect of nature to another, not from something called in-laws to something called nature.
But many persons will go on vacations to get away from the things that they have to meet, and that they meet sadly. And it is done in a perilous fashion. Instead of saying, "If the same world that made all these beautiful things about me — the mountains, and the streams, and the breeze — made the people who bother me in the city, maybe therefore the people who bother me in the city have some of the qualities that all these nice things have," the tendency is to say, "The world was good up until the time man came around, and then he made it bad." Much can be said against man, but he didn’t make the world bad, because if man is bad, he was made by the world, and so the world is bad. The tendency to use a dog against people, or flowers against people, or birds against people, or mountains, or valleys, or ocean, or beaches — Aesthetic Realism says definitely, with the utmost logic, The hell with it! It goes on without people knowing it, and it does make for a great deal of trouble.
It is because man is nature that he should be known. It is because man, with all his difficulties, is nature most aware of itself that he should be respected. And of course it’s much easier to deal with a dog than it is with a man. A dog is a person who is to be respected, but it so happens he cannot be a competitor of yours the way a human being can. Therefore, it is likely that he will not show some mean things.
But there is a feeling in many people’s minds that nature and man are in some kind of contrast. And unconsciously, they are used to divide oneself.
In talking about the Aesthetic Realism viewpoint to nature, I want to use what I see as some important texts. Aesthetic Realism, first of all, is entirely for nature. I myself have written perhaps a couple of hundred poems that deal with nature in all aspects; and I’m sure I wouldn’t have written them if I didn’t care for it. But the misuse of nature, the saying that the city is not nature and the country is, is a lie. The city is just as much nature, and came out of the instincts of man. But, as I was saying, in order to show this, I want to use some texts.
There Is Richard Jefferies
One of the very greatest writers on nature is Richard Jefferies. I care for him a great deal, and I think his writing is decidedly important. When he writes about nature, it’s like a person striking a match in the dark. You suddenly see light where you hadn’t expected it. He is very vivid. He is neatly dynamic. He can look at grass, or at a stem of a flower, and make you see things you never saw before. His love for nature was a true thing; it was an intense, an incandescent thing. Still, it seems that he was looking for something more. In perhaps his best known book, The Story of My Heart, there is a preface (at least in this edition), and his friend, who was also his publisher, C.J. Longman, writes of him as follows:
What He Couldn’t See
And there is this in his life: he was born pretty poor, and he felt a good deal for the agricultural laborer of England. He was a socialist. And then he began to hate the way things were owned in England so much that he yearned, as William Morris did, for a more rural and pleasant world where people didn’t have to work in factories, and didn’t have to have their lives wither through machines. That aspect of him was good too. But he couldn’t see that his hate for the industrial world was a love for the possibilities of the world as a whole. And naturally, as he looked at the grass in summer, it seemed much more lovely than children going to work in a factory. But he didn’t want to say that the evil of children working in factories, or an agricultural laborer working for just enough food to keep him alive on an English estate — that these phenomena came from the same world as a bright green and red insect darting around a hot rose. He was greatly troubled because he could not put the good and evil of the world together.
That is the biggest job. And whenever we go to a place and we say, "Oh, this is so nice — the blue sky and the green grass, those are very nice — but when I get home, and I have to meet all those questions, and all those demands, that isn’t nice," we are doing what Jefferies, it seems, did.
*(London, 1891), p. vi.
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Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
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