The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Woman, Body & Mind

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to publish here one of the great essays of the English-speaking world. It is “The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl,” by Eli Siegel; and I surmise it was written in the late 1950s. While related to other notable essays—those, for instance, of Hazlitt and Lamb—in having prose that is powerful and graceful, charming and deep, “The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl” has done something different and more. Through it, women have felt, “This explains me! Someone understands what I feel. Something I couldn’t give words to but have been so distressed by, is described—and in a way that gives me hope!”

Without “giving away” what is in this work, I can say it is about the philosophic opposites of appearance and reality—as experienced by women every day. It is about the huge opposites of body and mind. And it is certainly a kind, rich illustration, in terms of a woman’s hopes, of this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

There Is the Title

I think the essay’s title is beautiful. Now that recent “politically correct” notions about language are becoming less dogmatic and crude, we can appreciate again the fact that using the word girl can sometimes be ever so respectful and kind. It is certainly both here.

In the title, the phrase Everlasting Dilemma, as sound, has largeness yet also a bobbing bewilderment. The two polysyllabic words rhythmically go up and down, the way one’s uncertain pondering on a problem does. Girl, as sound, has tenderness, an enwrapping quality. But as the title concludes with weight and delicacy on that monosyllable—we hear too in Girl a spreading yet firm vastness. And, musically, the sounds of r and l run through the title, joining the words to each other: “The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl.”

I did not expect to comment on the title as poetry. However, there’s rightness in doing so, because the way Eli Siegel saw people, saw women, was poetic—with poetic meaning also terrifically down-to-earth and exact. That way of seeing was present always in how he spoke and how he wrote. I’ll mention, for instance, a particular passage in this essay: No person reading about Doris Holton’s feelings as she walks down the aisle of a train ever forgets the description.

Women Today

The essay was written half a century ago. In these decades there have been big improvements as to how women have been encouraged to use our minds. Women today are certainly more able than once to be expressed in every field, from law to medicine to policing to government to space travel. Yet the dilemma Mr. Siegel writes of is with us still, as tormentingly as ever. A woman today may want to look as attractive as she can and also be as educated as she can—yet she does not see these two possibilities of herself as deeply coherent, of a piece, of the same unified self. She does not see them as having the same purpose.

Here I quote, with enormous gratitude, something Mr. Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago. It is about a matter connected with the “everlasting dilemma of a girl”: it is about the opposites of body and intellect. He was speaking to a man I had to do with then, who was confused by both me and himself, as I was. Mr. Siegel said:

In the field of corporeal expression or enjoyment, or sex, we hope to be proud and pleased at once. Ellen Reiss hopes to be proud about her manner of taking earth—in the same way as she would take the page of a book. The difference between the two things is felt by man and woman: I’m a different person making love from him or her who goes after knowledge. Do you think if Ms. Reiss could solve this problem of somatic expression and cerebral expression, you could? Do you think, then, that the fate of man depends on the fate of woman?

Aesthetic Realism makes possible, for both man and woman, what has eluded people for centuries. It makes possible at last the proud feeling that what we’re after as body and how we use our intellect go together, are an integrity.

Today in Aesthetic Realism consultations women are learning to make sense of the “everlasting dilemma,” which can be described this way: how can I use my appearance, and its possible large effect on a man, to be true to myself? In a consultation, among the questions a woman might be asked on the subject are these:

As a man is affected by your loveliness, is it only you whom he’s affected by? Is he affected by the world showing itself through you: is he affected by a certain relation of reality’s opposites, like curve and straight line, delicacy and strength, liveliness and calm, brightness and mystery?

If you wanted to look good, not to have a narrow victory—not to beat out other women or make a man silly—if you wanted to look good as a means of representing the world as takingly good, do you think you would respect yourself more? Would you be more able to respect a man for being affected by you? And would you see looking good as related to your desire to learn, and to be kind? You would see all these as means toward one purpose, your deepest purpose, a man’s deepest purpose: to be just to the world, to like the world itself.

In Three Poems

Accompanying the essay are three poems by Eli Siegel, related to it. They were written much earlier, around 1926 or ’7. I love these poems, and I’ll point swiftly to something in each. In the first, about a girl, Amoret, there is the line “The whole of Amoret”: that, the wholeness of a person, is what Eli Siegel was always interested in seeing; and what he was grandly fair to.

The second poem, “Doing Eye and Shoulder Things,” is about the large meaning, to be respected, in looks, in body—even as one is confused and troubled by these.

In the third poem, a woman, so particular, is walking. And she is quietly related to the world itself—the world in the form of moon, warehouses, the river Thames. In the music of the lines, one hears walking. In the music of all three poems there is that beautiful justice, firm and subtle, that Eli Siegel always gave.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl

By Eli Siegel

First he did praise my beauty, then my speech.
—The Comedy of Errors

Girls have always found it hard to know what they should be liked for. Of course, they have wanted to be liked for how they looked; but suppose they couldn’t feel that how they looked was the same as what they really were? Then there was something missing; and there were incompleteness and pain.

While girls have wanted to be liked “for themselves”—as men have, too—there has been that impelling them to be liked for something else. Both men and women have been in a general conspiracy to like each other for something other and less than themselves, while hoping to be liked for what they were. It seems as if both masculine and feminine persons have not relied on themselves, without some kind of arrangement preceding and standing for them. The married persons who can now say, “I am liked for myself” are, I’m afraid, not so many.

And so a girl in the 13th century “arranged” herself to have the most effect on a man. If successful, she could hardly think it was a victory for herself. If Delicia of the 14th century achieved the love of Hubert—for Delicia had so prepared herself, adorned herself, that the susceptible and ardent Hubert fell, as a small town falls to a large army—could not Delicia, in her 14th-century heart, ask, “Is it me, after all, whom Hubert desires? Is it the Delicia I know?” And if Viviane of Burgundy in the 15th century was courted assiduously and pertinaciously by Evald, overthrown by Viviane, could not Viviane be unsure as to what it was that so had conquered Evald, whether it was really she?

These Days

The doubts of Viviane of Burgundy five hundred years ago are like the doubts of Doris these days. Doris knows she can do things to men, when looked upon, but is it she, Doris, the very, the ultimate Doris, who is doing them? Is it perhaps an image of Doris, a visual representative of Doris?

Doris Holton has to meet the everlasting question of a girl. Doris is pretty, and she wants men to acknowledge it; and they have. She also has a pretty profound smile, mysterious at the corners of her lips, while still radiant. She has dignity. She also has studied successfully enough of the arts, the sciences, the humanities, to be among the educated. She has background and a manner. Yet Doris, for social achievement, chiefly depends on the way she visually adorns space: on the way she looks. She knows that the way she looks will affect Edward, or Nevin, or Les, or Van; or anybody nearly. But she is not so sure of anything else in her, with all her acquisition of the humanities, the arts, and the sciences. So she might mention Copernicus; so she might be intense momentarily about Goya; so she can show her appreciation of Tom Jones and Brahms. Yet it is on the way that she appears, on her effect as line, color, and femininity, that she depends. If she couldn’t, she would be desolate. The idea of losing her power visually to permeate is fearful.

Yet Doris is vexed. When she seems to be affecting gentlemen, when there is admiration in their eyes, the victory is not entire. Because Doris has come to ask, perhaps more than most girls, “Is it I that is doing these things, or perhaps just someone standing for me?”—her sense of social achievement is marred.

Doris, as I have said, is a bit unusual. The question she asks, however, is asked by all girls. Our biggest desire is to be liked or loved; and when we are liked or loved, we want it to be us. Therefore, if we know that we are liked or loved because there is a primal witchery in the symmetry of our bodies; a delicately formidable brightness in our deep and traveling eyes; a red, quiet richness in our lips; a meaningful accuracy in our walk—how well, how well this is—yet are these wonders ourselves, are these wonders Doris, the Doris of Doris?—the Beatrice of Beatrice?

What We Have to Feel

Girls, then, have to see their beauty as themselves before they fully, composedly appreciate the effect this beauty has. In order to appreciate a compliment, or any kind or intensity of praise, we have to feel, one, that it is ourselves; two, that we deserve it.

So far in history, girls haven’t gone around asking, “Do I deserve the praise that Wilfred gave me yesterday?” or, “Do I deserve that longing, disturbed yet approving gaze that Walter gave me?” That doesn’t mean the question doesn’t exist, and hasn’t. It has. Viviane of Burgundy, in the 15th century, somewhere asked it in good late-medieval French.

Doris Holton once walked down the aisle of a train and was aware that the men on the seats were looking at her. Doris, even as she was honored, felt insulted. She did not feel insulted because the men in any way “went too far.” They didn’t at all. Never did the seats of a train contain a more decorous group of observant men than did this car. Doris felt insulted because there was something with her, something of her, even, which was having an effect on people; but it wasn’t she. And, gods and fates, why couldn’t it be she?

It would, perhaps, be hard for men to realize that as they gaze at a walking girl, the girl somewhere can honestly be distressed by it. However, she can. If a girl has something of her, a belonging or manifestation of her, praised in such a way that the rest of her, the whole being of her, is diminished, she can feel disappointed and resentful. The resentment of women that arises from the triumph of a representation of them, and not the whole person, does exist; and is brought to bear on uncomprehending men, in some way or other, every day of the amorous year.

A Great Necessity

Both men and women are at fault here. There has not been a sufficient desire to see each other completely. We have chosen to see another person in a way that suits ourselves. A great necessity is the making one of the phases of a human being. Doris Holton, for example, wants to feel that her body, and its effect, can go along with what she knows of art, and Utilitarianism, and American literature; and also with her very deepest thoughts about herself, and life and death. She cannot well survive without looking beautiful, and affecting men this way; yet, in the clearest depths of her mind, she would like all of herself to affect a man (or, for that matter, her mother, or anyone) in a way making her feel honest, unhidden.

The fact that with girls, beauty’s victory may be the girls’ defeat, has been seen in some fashion since people have thought. Women have always protested, if incompletely, at men’s seeing their beauty or their immediate attractiveness apart from what they were as selves. Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing are girls wanting to be seen, tinglingly, as people: as people who are feminine; and beautiful in the right way. Romance in the deepest sense swings from the beauty of form and color to the beauty of the way a girl is and sees. There is that deep romance in Shakespeare. In the novel, Beatrix in Thackeray’s Henry Esmond is a girl impelled by the universe as alluring in herself, to dazzle and sway men. We can see, though, that she resented men for going along with her too much in this; for, even, asking her to get them into crises of admiration.

The novelist who, perhaps, has most expressed the girl’s dilemma is Henry James. He has been most aware of a girl’s double intention to please and pervade visually, and to be understood, honestly comprehended as a person. A girl, then, wants to be beautiful and to be beautifully understood. A girl wants to be beautiful, to see beautifully, and to be thought of as beautiful.

A girl, however, has found it most difficult to be effective as a beautiful feminine being and yet, honestly, to go after being thought of beautifully. First, she had to see her own intention as beautiful. That wasn’t easy.

A Choice

Girls, then, have had to make a choice between being seen as beautiful and nothing more, and insisting that the way they be seen be beautiful too—a way they could respect. To ask for the second implied that a girl like the way she saw herself, and the way she looked at things. So far, the dilemma hasn’t been solved. It can be if the girl can see all of herself as an indivisible but rich one, and insist that someone else see her that way.

Love, though, hasn’t reached this point as of now. Art and the amorous haven’t made a one yet. We must hope that art and the amorous, a beautiful girl and a beautiful ethics, a person beautiful to look at and a beautiful way of seeing, be together amiably someday. If they aren’t, suffering and incompleteness will continue; if they are, love will be more that than ever, and beauty will triumph at last.


Three Poems by Eli Siegel

Amoret, Body and Gown

Amoret, she that morning,

Blithely thought of a new gown,

A gown of 1716.

1716 had gowns,

1716 had Amoret,

The whole of Amoret.

The ill-known Amoret, now,

Was known by busy aunts in 1716.

The caring for Amoret, her body, her life, was rather intense, by mother and aunts in 1716.

So she now thinks of a new gown,

The soft-bodied, hard-bodied Amoret.

Let Amoret, with her body and gown, go on.

Let the pretty, important, considerable Amoret be seen, thought of, and let her go on, change, go on, change.

Doing Eye and Shoulder Things

When eyes of evening,

And shoulders of evening,

Get real powerful,

And take feelings mightily,

Shattering sweet repose,

Destroying quiet thoughts,—

These eyes, these shoulders,

Then

Are, as this world bids them,

Are, as this world made them,

Doing eye and shoulder things,

Working on mind quite properly,

Intensely, intensely though.

But then,

In an eye and shoulder way.

Walk, Girl, in London

Walk, girl, in London.

The moon will soon be out.

The warehouses now are still.

The Thames is dark and slow.

Walk, girl, in London.

Girl looking so and so, so beautiful.