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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1860.—October 23, 2013

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Wordsworth& the Fight in Everyone

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 5 of Eli Siegel’s great 1963 lecture Romanticism and Guilt. Mr. Siegel is in the midst of speaking about the poet William Wordsworth, and describing, as no other critic did, a fight that went on within him. That fight is literarily important—it has to do with why some of Wordsworth’s poems are much better than others. But it corresponds to a battle going on right now in every person. And one of the contenders is the cause of guilt.

The Battle, & Art

“The greatest fight man is concerned with,” writes Eli Siegel, “is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151). From the desire to respect the world—from the desire to know it and give it justice—has come all art, and, mightily, that movement in art at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, romanticism. For example, as Wordsworth, in his 1800 Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, describes a new approach in poetry, we see him respecting what others had spurned, belittled, taken for granted: the ordinary. He wrote:

The principal object...proposed in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, throw over them a certain coloring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and...above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them...the primary laws of our nature.

Wordsworth showed in his poems: there are wonder, immortal value, and likeness to us, in a Cumberland beggar; a poor working person of rural England; a not so well dressed child; a rather sickly thorn tree. He wrote, at the end of one of the most important of English poems (and the word mean here means humble, shabby): “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

In the present section, discussing Wordsworth, Mr. Siegel speaks about a particular aspect of contempt. That aspect is the desire to think and behave conventionally, to go by what “the right people” seem to want. It’s the desire—not to meet reality freshly, not to find out what you yourself really feel—but to be safe and superior by being with what you see as impressive, and, in the process, keeping your deepest self aloof from everything. In both art and life, this going for, as Mr. Siegel puts it, the “institute” way, always makes for fakery and emptiness. It also always makes for guilt.

Aesthetic Realism is the body of knowledge that explains, for the first time in the history of thought, that the cause of guilt is contempt—contempt in any of its multitudinous forms. And contempt is the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” The cause-and-effect relation between contempt and guilt is magnificently inevitable, because the purpose of the human self is to be itself through being just to the outside world. Our guilt, arising from infidelity to that purpose, takes many forms, including nervousness, unsureness, “low self-esteem.”


A recent New York Times article is a means of seeing what contempt is, and how ordinary it is. The way of mind told of in “Love to Loathe You, Baby” (Sept. 22) is in a new milieu, that of the social media; but it happens to be the same ugly contempt people had 200 years ago, or 500, or 2,000. What author Teddy Wayne writes about is: why do some people keep reading the Facebook pages, or blogs, or tweets, of persons they can’t stand? What do they get out of it? The article begins:

Hate-reading: an unhealthy diet of social media posts that leave you satisfied but queasy.

The last phrase contains two adjectives that need to be looked at: satisfied and queasy. Just what is being satisfied in this “hate-reading,” this going after the reading of things that will confirm one’s hate? A question Aesthetic Realism alone asks, and discusses with scientific richness, is: Is there a satisfaction people get from disliking the world? Yes. It’s the satisfaction of contempt.

Then there’s the word queasy. Is the queasiness told of in this article a form of guilt? We read:

Zeke Farrow, 38,...virtually checks in on a friend with whom he had an acrimonious falling-out years ago. “I don’t know why else I’d go to his page except the hope that I’ll see something bad or narcissistic....It’s a joyous confirmation.”

So, doing what Mr. Farrow describes, you’re confirmed in your despising of someone. Why do you want that, seem to need that? The reason was given years ago by Eli Siegel in the following principle: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory through the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.”

In the Times article, the desire to affirm oneself by looking down on someone is presented as interesting. But it’s not presented as Aesthetic Realism describes it: as the source of all the cruelty in human life; and as that which weakens one’s mind and makes one loathe oneself.

The article is valuable in its noting a desire to dislike, and presenting it as ordinary. But there is this gigantic omission: the article does not give any indication that the hope to dislike is the shoddiest, most hurtful thing in the human self. That hope is entirely against art. An artist, dealing with something unlikable, sees it as having meaning, finds fresh value in reality through it; the artist does not want something to be bad, so he or she can feel superior. In the hope to despise, we’re with the person who beats up someone on the street; we are with every racist; we are with Nazis.

The Two Satisfactions

Humanity won’t be truly sane until we are studying this question, asked by Aesthetic Realism: Is there a war going on in each of us between the desire to see value in the world and the desire to despise the world? In the Preface to Self and World, Eli Siegel writes, with eloquence and clarity:

There are two means, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, of bringing some satisfaction to ourselves. The first is, the seeing of something like a sunset, a poem, a concerto, which can stand for the world and which pleases us through what it is: its structure in mind, time, and space. This is the aesthetic victory, which is the most sensible of all victories. The other victory is our ability to depreciate anything that exists. To see the world itself as an impossible mess—and this is often not difficult at all—gives a certain triumph to the individual.

That last sentence explains, among much else, the “hate-reading” going on via the social media.

The Times article quotes a writer, Katie J.M. Baker:

“I usually hate-read alone, late at night.... When I finally walk away from my computer, I feel like I’ve just binged on a butter-sogged bag of popcorn...: I’m slightly nauseated, but still can’t help licking my fingers for more fatty flavor.”

Ms. Baker’s statement is useful, because it’s evidence that a person is disgusted with herself for having contempt. Meanwhile, the reason she hasn’t been “able to swear off the habit” is: she doesn’t see the real, satisfying alternative to that victory of depreciating. Without Aesthetic Realism, people largely have not seen that respect for reality is thrilling, is self-expression, is glamorous, and makes one important. Respect has seemed dull to persons, contempt exciting. Yet respect as thrill and self-expression is behind, and pervades, every instance of art.

The article cites at length a Dartmouth academic in business administration, Alexander H. Jordan. He advises people to have contempt for others. And his recommendation of the sleaziest and stupidest thing in the human self is made to sound impressive. Jordan advocates what he calls the “emotion-regulation strategy” of “look[ing] down on other people,” and says: “Some research suggests that downward emotional comparisons can improve people’s well-being.” What that means is: you’ll feel superior if you can see somebody else’s life as a mess. One doesn’t need a Dartmouth adjunct assistant professor to encourage this “strategy.” People have been engaging in it for thousands of years without him. It’s part of contempt: that which always causes self-dislike, and also interferes with one’s intelligence, cripples one’s ability to love, stifles real self-expression.

Wordsworth Had Respect

As we approach part 5 of Romanticism and Guilt, I’ll quote a passage from “The Old Cumberland Beggar,” of 1798. The man Wordsworth describes in this poem could so easily be looked down on—used to make oneself feel superior. And the writer could have used this beggar, in his poverty, feebleness, unseemliness, to “see the world itself as an impossible mess”: to have the contemptuous feeling, Look at the disgusting world that permits this to be! But that is not what Wordsworth does. Here are lines from the poem’s beginning—about the man eating scraps and dropping bits of them for the “small mountain birds”:

I saw an aged beggar in my walk;

And he was seated, by the highway side,

On a low structure of rude masonry.

·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·

And, from a bag

All white with flour, the dole of village dames,

He drew his scraps and fragments, one by one;

·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·

He sat, and ate his food in solitude:

And ever scattered from his palsied hand,

·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·    ·

the crumbs in little showers.

For now, I’ll say only: These lines of blank verse are undecorated; but in the sound of their music are dignity and wonder. This is respect—the respect that reality, including the reality of a human being, deserves.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Spontaneity, Artifice, & Wordsworth
By Eli Siegel

I said earlier that Wordsworth could be two ways. And one way could make for trouble; it could generate guilt. It is important to see what that means.

Wordsworth lived from 1770 to 1850, and his collected works begin in the 1780s. In 1842 he published a series of sonnets, the first one of which is quoted a good deal, while the others are pretty well forgot. Wordsworth was ethically disturbed. He was also artistically disturbed. Right or wrong, he felt there was something artificial going on in England both in ethics and in art. In the Globe edition of his collected works, edited by John Morley, we have the sonnets of 1842, and this note by Wordsworth about the first:

I was impelled to write this Sonnet by the disgusting frequency with which the word artistical, imported with other impertinences from the Germans, is employed by writers of the present day: for artistical let them substitute artificial, and the poetry written on this system, both at home and abroad, will be for the most part much better characterized.

We can feel Wordsworth’s irritation there.

He had the constant question, Do these things I’m writing come from me, or has something taken over? It is interesting to see him worried about this even when, it must be said, he had succumbed to what he feared: something did take him over. In his writing of that period, every now and then one can see what he himself has, shown in the English sentence, in the English verse line. Then there is somebody else: an insincere institute that took over. That can happen with anyone. This first sonnet in the 1842 series is one of his few later poems that are often quoted:

A Poet!—He hath put his heart to school,

Nor dares to move unpropped upon the staff

Which Art hath lodged within his hand—must laugh

By precept only, and shed tears by rule.

Thy Art be Nature; the live current quaff,

And let the groveller sip his stagnant pool,

In fear that else, when Critics grave and cool

Have killed him, Scorn should write his epitaph.

How does the Meadow-flower its bloom unfold?

Because the lovely little flower is free

Down to its root, and, in that freedom, bold;

And so the grandeur of the Forest-tree

Comes not by casting in a formal mould,

But from its own divine vitality.

This is a quite good poem in behalf of spontaneity. It says: Don’t arrange your feelings—poetry is not tile setting or solitaire or domino work or shell adjustment; it is something else!

Do We Want to See What We Feel?

Wordsworth is sarcastic: “A Poet!—He hath put his heart to school, / Nor dares to move unpropped upon the staff / Which Art hath lodged within his hand.” He is saying this false poet has to use a staff—he cannot depend on his own feelings.

“Must laugh / By precept only, and shed tears by rule.” This is funny, and shows that Wordsworth has some humor. “Shed tears by rule”—Wordsworth doesn’t like that. He feels this is the kind of poetry that is going on. There were various persons then who stood for it. They have been around all the time. There was Henry Hart Milman. He was quite good at that kind of writing. Also, Samuel Rogers could be used. And there were much worse people.

“Thy Art be Nature; the live current quaff, / And let the groveller sip his stagnant pool.” Convention, when the wrong thing happens to it, is the same as stagnation.

Wordsworth, writing this sonnet, has some of the feeling he had years before: Go out precisely, go within precisely, and fully!

The Problem Went On

William Wordsworth had a constant fight between spontaneity and art. He wrote more sonnets than any of the major English poets, but he was always given to thoughts about spontaneity. The problem was not settled.

You can feel guilty because spontaneity takes you over—because spontaneity is very often a polite word for sloppiness. And you can feel guilty because the other thing—coolness and arrangement, artifice—takes you over. The romanticists at their best solved that problem for a while: the unerring was the spontaneous. That is so in all poetry which doesn’t make for guilt.

However, elsewhere in that 1842 group of sonnets, the style of Wordsworth when he’s an institution is exemplified.

In the fourth sonnet, he’s worried about how people are now talking about the French Revolution. He was worried all his life about the French Revolution—he didn’t know what to make of it. In The Prelude he had statements about it that are wonderful; but it happens that man feels guilty because he doesn’t like enough the best that’s in him. What is best is not liked best or liked longest. So the sonnet I’ll read now is Wordsworth when he is arranging. He’s trying to be angry, and he doesn’t know about what. The indignation here is unrooted, and it doesn’t affect one very well. This has the title “In Allusion to Various Recent Histories and Notices of the French Revolution”:

Portentous change when History can appear

As the cool Advocate of foul device;

Reckless audacity extol, and jeer

At consciences perplexed with scruples nice!

They who bewail not, must abhor, the sneer

Born of Conceit, Power’s blind Idolater;

Or haply sprung from vaunting Cowardice

Betrayed by mockery of holy fear.

Hath it not long been said the wrath of Man

Works not the righteousness of God? Oh bend,

Bend, ye Perverse! to judgments from on High,

Laws that lay under Heaven’s perpetual ban,

All principles of action that transcend

The sacred limits of humanity.

As poetry, this is pretty useless. It can hold its own with some of the greatest works that have appeared in the Toledo Blade. I am not going to comment closely on these lines. But just what’s happening in them—it’s like a kitten looking at the French Revolution and taking it out on the rug. It’s an exceedingly disorderly poem.

So We Feel Guilty

Spontaneity and artifice, or control, are not managed well enough by any of us. The lack makes for guilt. We do want to be a oneness of spontaneity and control, and if we’re not we think there is something lacking. To have something lacking in us, and to think we have something to do with the lack, is to have guilt. black diamond

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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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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