The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

About Books and Marriage

Dear Unknown Friends:

We conclude here our serialization of Reading Itself Has to Do with Poetry, by Eli Siegel. This 1972 lecture has his vast knowledge and scholarship at one with ease, humor, everydayness. And we see: reading as such is described—as poetry and all art are—by the 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.”

Using passages from the book Good Reading, edited by J.S. Weber, Mr. Siegel has been speaking about such opposites as randomness and plan, wandering and point. Now, much present though unstated in the section printed here, is the question How is the way a writer has seen and portrayed a character different from how we see people? Also: What makes a literary work immortal? Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that answers those questions.

The World Is There

Take the matter of characters: in every character that remains, that is big and has lasted, a writer has us feel the world itself, become ever so particular. There is, in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, the character of Natasha. She is a Russian young woman, like ever so many not in novels. But Tolstoy has us feel, pulsating in her, opposites that make reality: spontaneity and restraint; freshness and bitterness; courage and timidity; a tremendous and subtle for-and-against. And, Aesthetic Realism shows, this fact is urgent, because we need to see people, whether close to us or far away, not just “personally,” in terms of ourselves, but as having reality in them, with its vibrant and permanent opposites.

In this section too, through an alphabetical list from Good Reading, we feel something of the huge difference-and-relatedness among all literature. A work can be followed in a list by a work that seems utterly different—and yet they have literature in common: that is, each in its own way is fair to what the world is—the world in its largeness.

There Is Marriage

We include too part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman presented this month at a public seminar titled “Every Wife’s Unseen Battle: Do I Hope to Like Things—or Hope to Be Displeased?”

I am immensely moved as I comment on the two aspects of this issue: books and marriage. And I hope what I say now will be seen as not only personal. My gratitude to Aesthetic Realism is limitless for its teaching me that the purpose of caring for books and the purpose of caring for a person are the same: to like the world. It means everything to me to feel that my love of literature and my love for a person are parts of the same love.

As many readers of this journal are aware, my husband, Timothy Lynch, labor leader and Aesthetic Realism associate, died suddenly last year. Our learning from Aesthetic Realism that love depends on how much we want to know a person and care for the world through that person, made our relationship of twenty years kind, exciting, educational, proud, greatly interesting, beautiful. I am including in this commentary one of the poems I’ve written in the months since Timothy’s death—because it is about the fact that knowing a person and seeing him and the world itself as inseparable need never end. The lines bring together, I hope, the subjects of this TRO: literature and marriage. The person referred to in the 7th line is, of course, Eli Siegel.

So Loved
To Timothy Lynch

We have come to November,

The month of your birth,

And November is here without you:

November with its bright and dim leaves.

My being throbs with missing you,

And with love for you,

And for him whom we both love so mightily, so passionately.

Embrace me with leaves this November,

With bright and dim skies,

With the changing earth.

My hand is in yours,

And you are part of earth’s asking to be known:

You and it,

So bewildering,

So loved.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Literature: Always about the World

By Eli Siegel

Then in Good Reading we have this about reading a play:

If you read a play by Shakespeare or O’Neill or Edward Albee, think how the portrayal of one of the characters helps you to understand better someone you know. [Pp. 17-18]

I don’t think that’s very useful. There’s hardly a play I ever attended at which I didn’t hear someone say, That reminds me of Bessie. You read a play, get to a character—and let’s say a person doesn’t know whether he should order some more television sets to be sold: he’s like Hamlet. Then he starts brooding, and he’s like all the characters in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. He also insults women, and makes his wife nervous, so he’s like characters in Edward Albee. That is quite true. But the important thing is also to see where he’s not like a character in Albee. So this saying the character is like someone is too easy.

“Think how the portrayal of one of the characters helps you to understand better someone you know.” It shouldn’t be “someone you know.” It should be to understand man; and from the understanding of man, to be in a fairer situation toward the understanding of someone else.

Then we have this bit of interior acrobatics:

In everything you read, keep in the back of your mind what it means to your life here and now, how it reaffirms or challenges the things you were taught at home, in school, and in church, and how the wisdom you get from books can guide you in your thinking, in your career, in your duties as a citizen, and in your personal standards.

I think that’s too much to keep in the back of your mind. You’d get your mind off your reading. I thought of quoting from an essay by Virginia Woolf, one of the livelier things she wrote, in which she said pretty plainly, When you read anything, be sure you don’t have a purpose. Well, that’s not the whole story either.

To sum up, what you read is both the measure of your intellectual level and the means of raising it to the utmost of your capacity.

That sentence has the opposites in it: what you read shows what you are and also what you can be. And is and can be are present in the structure of a poem too.

There’s a list of “100 Significant Books,” which is as good as most lists, and can be objected to. Something that can be noticed is that the simplest Greek is still around: Aesop’s Fables. “The Fox and the Grapes” is immortal; and the story of the fox who found his tail incomplete, and “The Wolf and the Lamb”—they’re immortal. And there’s a reason for that.

The listings are alphabetical, so under the heading Ancient Times, Aesop follows Aeschylus. Aristophanes follows Aesop. Aristotle follows Aristophanes. Then there’s the Bible and then Confucius. We have Lao-Tsu following Homer. In the list for Middle Ages and Renaissance, Mohammed follows Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. I think that’s a wonderful relation.

In the 19th Century list there’s Dickens. And there’s been change about which novel of his is most popular. For awhile, people felt Pickwick Papers was most representative. Then it was David Copperfield. Then the rage was Our Mutual Friend. Then, for a while, Hard Times. The rage now is Great Expectations. And it, representing Dickens, is followed in this alphabetical list by The Brothers Karamazov (Dostoevski). We have a lovely duality: Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is followed by Goethe’s Faust.

Sinclair Lewis is here, under 20th Century, but not with Main Street or Babbitt: it’s Arrowsmith, which shows that medicine is going places.

Later, John E. Hankins writes on Greece. This sentence is about mind in its diversity:

Greek genius was assimilative, interpretive, and self-expressive. [P. 30]

Which means it didn’t mind learning, because if you start assimilating you can ask, When am I going to do something?—but it seems Greece didn’t worry so much about that. We’re also “interpretive”: Herodotus did some interpreting. And Greece was “expressive.” So we have the three activities of mind: “assimilative, interpretive, and self-expressive.”

This, then, has been about reading. And when we look at the processes and surprises and also organization of reading, it will more and more, as I have said, look like poetry.


The Hope to Like—or Be Displeased

By Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman

One fall evening as I was making a deep dish apple pie, I reached into the cabinet for my flour sifter, but it wasn’t there. “Did someone move my sifter?,” I yelled out in displeasure. Since there were only two cats and one other person in the apartment—it had to have been Bennett, my husband!

Early in our marriage I often found myself pointing out things I felt my husband did “wrong” in the house (most of which weren’t wrong at all). Though that seems ordinary, it’s a manifestation of a huge drive in people, a drive that causes tremendous pain in marriage. Aesthetic Realism is very kind in describing this drive to be displeased, and enabling us happily to criticize it in ourselves so we can change. “There is an actual hope to be displeased,” writes Ellen Reiss,

because one feels more important being displeased by things than grateful to them: when you’re displeased, you look down, feel superior; when you’re grateful, you look up, have respect....To something in us, to complain is to have a victory. [TRO 1948]

Aesthetic Realism explains that every person has two warring desires: to respect the world—see meaning in things, value in people—and to have contempt, make less of something or someone and falsely elevate ourselves. These two desires are in a woman before and after she marries.

The Battle

When I was 17 I traveled from New York to Billings, Montana, to study art and music in college. I was swept by the beauty of the American West. But I took to Montana a feeling I’d come to early, that the world was a messy place. I saw my parents care for each other, then argue; and with my five younger brothers, our home had much confusion. Instead of wanting to understand my family, I used what I saw to be scornful and build a case against the world and men. Later, I felt if I could get a man to make a lot of me and take me away from the world, that would make me happy.

This attitude was with me when I met Luke, a geology major. I was affected by his energy and his interest in science. But I didn’t see him deeply, as having full, rich feelings and hopes. I remember thinking not about who he was but about what I’d wear to get him to adore me. Yet though I seemed victorious I became increasingly displeased, and this relationship ended painfully, as others did afterwards. The solution, I thought, was: not to need a man. I got harder and colder, and didn’t think real love existed.

Then, so fortunately, I came back to Long Island, where I learned of Aesthetic Realism. And as I studied it in consultations, I learned that our deepest purpose in life is to like the world honestly—and that this same purpose is the basis for real love.

When I met Bennett Cooperman, I was very much affected by his acting and singing in performances at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, and I respected the fact that he was a good friend to many people. Bennett wanted to know me: he was interested in how I saw things. And because of what I was learning, I had a real hope that I could care for a man in a way I’d respect myself for. I was, for the first time, trying to know a man, not conquer him. But at a certain point, I began to feel very agitated talking with Bennett. I wanted to understand my tumult, so I spoke about it in a class for Aesthetic Realism consultants and associates.

“As you talk with Bennett Cooperman,” Ellen Reiss asked me, “are there two hopes you have: one, to respect him, and the other, not to?” She asked if something in me “would like to slam the phone down on his ear and say ‘You’re not worthy of my respect!’” Yes! And she continued, “It may be right to think a person is not worthy of your esteem, but it’s never right to hope for it....You have a chance to really respect yourself at this time.”

I was so glad to see my ugly hope that Bennett would not come through—because now I could be deeply and truly affected by him! I respect and am moved by Bennett Cooperman more each week and year we have the pleasure to be together.

The Understanding Marriage! Class

In this class, which I’m honored to teach with Anne Fielding and Barbara Allen, my fellow consultants of There Are Wives, marriage is a subject of wide, cultural education. Eli Siegel’s comprehension of the human self has made that possible. And in a recent class, we took up the following statement from his lecture Mind and Disappointment:

Many people...don’t want to be pleased by anything;...on the one hand, they complain that they are disappointed, and on the other, to be disappointed is their triumph. [TRO 789]

Speaking self-critically, one woman in the class, whom I’ll call Lydia Ivers, gave this example: before she goes outside she can worry she’ll be either too cold or too hot and is always looking for the right coat; she’ll ask her husband’s opinion—then be displeased with him. She said:

I can get disappointed without fail. He can say he’s not me, that my way of meeting temperature is different. I say, “Can’t you put yourself in my position?” The other end of it is: I’m walking down the street and I’m hot and shouldn’t have worn this coat and he didn’t tell me not to! I want to stop this.

It’s important to note that Ms. Ivers felt to a very large degree her husband had wanted to know her and encouraged her care for the world. We asked: “Is there gratitude for that?” And: “Do you think in some way you are queenly, and your subject should take care of you?” Yes, she said.

There Are Wives. And he should in some way make right your relation to the world?

LI. Yes.

TAW. Now, whose job is that?

LI. It’s my job.

TAW. Should his purpose be to encourage you to value things truly—or is his job to outfit you for your travels outside?

LI. Definitely the first!

TAW. Once we’re displeased, the question is, What do we do with it? Do we want to see if we’re right, or do we nourish the displeasure, exploit it, and use it against seeing what we value in a man? We need to have good will, which Aesthetic Realism describes as the hope to have another person stronger and more beautiful.

LI. Thank you very much!

There Is Juliet

I’ll mention another discussion in an Aesthetic Realism class, through which my education in love continued. After Bennett and I were married, though I was very happy, I felt that I could see and respond to my husband even more fully, and that something was stopping me. Ellen Reiss explained that I was in the midst of the question “whether loving someone is the same as taking care of yourself.” And she suggested I study these lines from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and ask whether Juliet was smart or not. Juliet says to Romeo:

My bounty is as boundless as the sea,

My love as deep; the more I give to thee

The more I have, for both are infinite.

ER. What do you think of that?

MN-C. It’s beautiful.

ER. Do you think it’s smart?

MN-C. I don’t think I’ve felt that.

ER. Is it necessary to feel it’s smart? People have felt Juliet was sincere.

Then Ms. Reiss read these lines of Juliet:

Come, gentle night—come, loving, black-browed night,

Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die,

Take him and cut him out in little stars,

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night.

Ms. Reiss explained: “Juliet feels Romeo is good for the whole world. These words are saying, This person makes the world more beautiful.”

As I studied the lines and what was said in the class, something big changed in me. I saw I was stronger, was taking care of myself, in having large passionate feeling for Bennett Cooperman. I am deeply stirred by him, including by how he is a kind critic of me, and I know that through Aesthetic Realism, marriages can flourish as never before.