The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Anger, Love, & Our Largest Desire

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of Eli Siegel’s 1946 lecture What Aesthetic Realism Is & Is Not, from his Steinway Hall series. As he presents what distinguishes Aesthetic Realism, we see its vast difference from other approaches to mind—of both then and now. We see too something I love: Eli Siegel’s beautiful extemporaneous prose—vivid, warm, incisive, graceful, alive.

He is describing the very basis of Aesthetic Realism, the principle “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Right now as in every year, people are in pain, quietly and fiercely, because opposites in them seem against each other. Mr. Siegel speaks about some of those warring opposites: our logic seems counter to our emotion; our desire for freedom does not go along with our desire for accuracy; our self as sensual seems at odds with our self as intellect.

As prelude, I’ll comment swiftly on opposites as tormenting as any in the life of everyone: anger and tenderness, or care. Both men and women are deeply ashamed of the way they’re angry. And they’re bewildered by how they can go from care for people to being furious with them.

A poem by the very good Irish poet James Stephens (1882-1950) stands for that rift. In “The Brute,” a man swings between yearning care for a woman and scornful rage. In the midst of the poem are these lines:

I begged, implored. . .

All the love I’d stored

Came gasping in a net

Of tangled pleading.

When the woman toward whom he was so humble says “No” to him, there is this:

But then with icy lips I cursed her there,

Eyes, nose and teeth and hair;

I damned her body, bones and blood—and then

She scuttled homewards like a frightened hen.

What Causes the Division in Us

Aesthetic Realism has identified the thing in us that divides our self. It is also the thing that makes us unkind, and ashamed. It is contempt: the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Dissevering, as it does, the most fundamental opposites—care for self and care for the world not oneself—contempt makes all the other opposites in us battle too, including anger and love. What will make them one is for us to have the purpose that drives every work of art: good will, respect for the world, the purpose to see reality truly and like it honestly.

Take those opposites of love and anger. Both can be impelled by either respect for the world or contempt. In caring for someone, either we feel this person’s goodness is a means of valuing all things and people more—or we feel that through making this person ours we can be superior to, manage, get revenge on, and at last get away from a world we despise.

Further, we can be angry with, or against, something in a person out of respect: because we feel that aspect of the person is not fair to the world itself and not good for him or her. Or we can be angry with someone as a means of despising the world, showing that it and the person are beneath us, punishing a world which has not given us our way.

When our purpose is respect, our care and anger are part of each other, inseparable, and kind.

The man in Stephens’ poem is furious out of contempt. A person whom he did the favor of needing had the nerve not to act as though he was wonderful! She committed the offense of not giving herself over to him! (And we’re all more like him than we may care to see: we feel we have the right to be angry if we’re not given our way.) Earlier, because his purpose in loving her was not to be just to her and the world, he was not at ease, graceful, proud of his care for her: instead, there was “gasping,” “a net,” “tangled pleading.”

The Answer Is in Art

Meanwhile, art is always care for reality. The poetry with which this man’s contempt is described is itself musical respect.

Take the poem’s final couplet, quoted earlier: “I damned her body, bones and blood—and then / She scuttled homewards like a frightened hen.” We feel the ugly victory the man has in scaring someone with his anger, his triumph in making the woman seem awkward and silly. Yet there is a respectful lingering and weight in the sound of the couplet’s first line, with its repeated slow bs, ns, and ds. Though the content is about damning, the music has the thoughtfulness the man didn’t want to give this woman; it has a resonance of depth and largeness.

The music of the couplet’s second line—the last line of the poem—trembles, shakes. It gets within her feelings, as the man did not want to do: it respects them by showing them as real.

And these lines, in their music, are a oneness of force and gentleness—opposites that the man in the poem has horribly divided, and that we too can painfully divide.

The only answer for the self is the aesthetic answer. That is what Aesthetic Realism showed in 1946—and proudly, greatly, kindly shows today.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


What Aesthetic Realism Is & Is Not, II

By Eli Siegel

The motto of Aesthetic Realism is “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.” If we see that what we are is that which both science and art are trying to explain, that the problem of a self is on the one hand like the problem that a person faces in writing a play, and on the other hand like the problem that a chemist faces in analyzing a substance or that an engineer faces in building a bridge—if we see that the self is an exactitude and a wonder, that it has in it simultaneously the problems of chemistry and the problems of surrealism, we realize how important it is to be interested in science and imagination at the same time.

Aesthetic Realism is both. It is all for exactness. (I have told people in lessons not to agree with me as yet, to get more facts.) And it shows that the world present in dreams, the strange world of reverie, of fever, of the unconscious, is at one with the study of philology, or mathematics, or physics. In its exactness, it tries to be so exact that it includes feeling. And in dealing with feeling, it tries to be so intense that it includes the exactness of knowledge.

The only other possibility is this: that the self is exact at one time but wants to be free at another. This may seem the right thing to do, but if we decide that the self which wants to know that 7 and 9 make 16 is a different self from the one that wants to be like a bird, we are really making for a fissure in ourselves. The self that at any one time might like a peach is the same self that would like to solve an algebraic equation.

Dr. Freud talks of dreams as being determined, the unconscious as being determined. At the same time, he hints that dreams are not logical. Aesthetic Realism, however, says the self is always logical and always imaginative. There is imagination in doing a mathematical problem and there is logic in an illusion. That approach to the nature of the world—the saying that what makes possible the building of a bridge is that which makes possible a poem, that what we find in chemistry is that which makes a good nonsense rhyme—is too much for the psychoanalysts to take. They all have a suspicion of art, of imagination. They may quote artists, but they talk of art as something which is opposed to science. And once they do so, they are affirming universal neurosis. Aesthetic Realism is the only approach that says that art, looked at completely, has in it the exactness of science, that the unconscious has to be seen as art—that is, as precision and freedom at once.

The Reconciliation of Opposites

Jung, for example, talks of the reconciliation of drives—but how is that reconciliation to be done? What does reconciliation mean? Are we going to have libido on the one hand and an interest in politics, in good deeds, on the other? Are we going to run away from libido to community service? If we are beings who want to assert our fleshly life and also want to be kind, if there is to be a reconciliation of fleshliness and kindliness, what is it to be like? The only way to reconcile them is to see that deeply we have the same motive in both.

Further, there has to be the seeing of how in, let us say, a Rubens painting a fleshly woman is made one with form, or in a Rousseau painting a tiger wandering through a green forest is made one with form. Art has put together the fleshly and the exact. And if ever human beings are going to do it, aesthetics is going to be the way. If a human being is to solve the conflict and be, to his liking, desirous of fact, desirous of truth, and at the same time desirous biologically to assert himself—if he is to make sense of his desire to be both energetic and symmetrical—he will have to find out that aesthetics is the only way of doing that. If we are going to reconcile flesh and spirit, as the Church Fathers put it, and if we are going to reconcile libido and social criticisms, as the psychoanalysts put it, that will be the way. As I say this, what Aesthetic Realism is is also being stated, because Aesthetic Realism is the only thing that says: art in its fullest meaning is what the world is about.

When we look at the world and feel that on the one hand it is free, it has storms, and on the other it seems to be so lawful, the planets go along in such a precise fashion, we feel the world is orderly and free at once. When we feel the world truly, we feel art itself. Aesthetics is the seeing of reality as at once free and precise, wonderful and exact, moving and resting, different and the same. That definition, however abstract it sounds, describes what the world is and is going after. Aesthetics does not change the world; it finds it.

Always Logic

Along with being different from psychoanalysis, Aesthetic Realism is very different from the inspirational people. It says the world makes sense because logically it can be shown that the world makes sense. It can be shown that what is discovered in a laboratory, when authentic, is at one with the truth presented by Nietzsche or William Blake or Spinoza or Hegel—because if anything in Hegel is true, it isn’t in conflict with anything discovered in a laboratory. The truth of the microscope is not at war with the truth of Fichte.

What Aesthetic Realism Includes

It may sound bumptious for Aesthetic Realism to say that it tries to be fair to the wholeness and variety of the self and the wholeness and variety of the world. It tries to be fair to the world as a waving banner and to the world as hydrochloric acid; to the world as studied with a microscope and as something imagined on the Eastern Plains in 2,000 BC.

Aesthetic Realism classes have discussed such matters as the meaning of profanity, the Pope as a man of religion and a man of politics, new ways of dealing with the soil, Aristotle, spiders, sports, articles in the Daily News. People who have come to Aesthetic Realism classes have seen how it welcomes painting, economics, past, present; how it tries to include all people and tries to be fair to the self as an entirety; tries to see goodness in William Green of the AFL and in religion; tries to see use in writing of long ago and writing of yesterday. It has a relation to chemistry. It has a relation to logic and to philosophy. Sometimes the relation of the infinite and finite is the only means of explaining a problem to someone; sometimes the relation of things in a chemical substance is used. Knowledge of chemistry sometimes is important to understand a dream. Aesthetic Realism acknowledges its relation to chemistry and says, from chemistry we can learn about psychology. It says the self is like the atom: positive and negative becoming one.

Surrealism & Everyone

For example, Aesthetic Realism is interested in surrealism. There is an attempt on the part of many people to welcome the over-abundant, the strange, the beyond-the-boundaries, which exist in the mind itself. I talked last week about how even in the businessman there is a jungle world that he may not want to see and things corresponding to surrealism are in his mind. Since surrealism puts the nature of a watch together with a human body, and uses such phrases as “the white-haired revolver,” “the fur-lined teacup,” “the mechanical angel,” since it dares to say things like that out loud, and since this saying corresponds to the desire to integrate the known with the unknown—where surrealism is at its best, Aesthetic Realism is at one with it. However, where surrealism is against the world in its orderliness, Aesthetic Realism says surrealism is no longer good art. While surrealism sees a watch in a woman’s abdomen as good, Aesthetic Realism says that a watch, even if it isn’t in a woman’s abdomen, is still wonderful, and the abdomen is still wonderful.

The wonder of surrealism is not greater than that of a self. Each of us can remember a forest, a lake, a sky, or a mountain. As each of us walks along, we have in us a picture of a mountain, or maybe a concert. That is no less wonderful than anything Dali does. Aesthetic Realism is for the wonder that lies in the prosaic fact, and also for the wonder that persons can arrive at by taking prosaic facts and jumbling them in a furious manner.

Knowledge in Its Fullest Meaning

Learning is like eating: if we learn something, it means something that wasn’t ourselves has come to be ourselves. To accept that is the biggest job that the conscious and unconscious have. The being able to look at a black box and say, “I have looked at it. It is now part of me,” stands for the most wonderful aspect of self: that it is what it is by becoming what it isn’t. This is not a trick. It is learning.

When we eat something, what wasn’t ourselves becomes ourselves. Does this process stop with biology? Does the self as a whole want to assimilate what it isn’t? Knowledge should be associated with self-preservation. If we don’t want to know—if we don’t want to make things ourselves which aren’t ourselves—there is going to be trouble. This accent on knowledge in its fullest meaning distinguishes Aesthetic Realism.

Bohemianism, True & False

In the syllabus you received there is a mention of bohemianism. Bohemianism has been used in various ways. Ladies everywhere in America—staid ladies of the DAR—say, “It’s the gypsy in me.” Everyone would like to feel that he is not tied down, but at the same time there is scorn of bohemianism. The same problem exists in bohemianism as in surrealism: a person who tries to be free at the expense of the precise and the factual, who says, “Down with intellect! I don’t want theories; I have a soul!”—that person doesn’t represent true bohemianism.

The bohemian may want freedom so much, he thinks the fact has to be spurned to get it. Then there is the person who fears freedom so much that even when it is sensible he wants to eviscerate it. He says the free is not the truth. The bohemian can say the truth is not in the free. Both ways make for trouble. We should see that the bohemian is in all of us: it is that part of us which feels that in routine we should have something outside of routine.

Aesthetic Realism says that art is sensible, that a person may have done disorderly things in his life, but where he has made for art he has come to proportion and exactness. The work of Baudelaire or Toulouse-Lautrec is scientific where it is art.

The authentic aspect of bohemianism represents something that housewives want, bishops want, businessmen want: it represents their desire to feel that they can be respectable and orderly not at the expense of the strange and wonderful.

The Purpose of Aesthetic Realism

It is the purpose of Aesthetic Realism to complete the self by having it see that the world which is not it is necessary for it. The feeling of general discontent, of general depression, which comes to people comes from this fact: we who are very close to ourselves are also related to planets and to all times and to Julius Caesar, but we have accepted a rift between the two. There is a fight between the desire of the self not to be afraid of what isn’t it and the desire to say, “All right, I’ll know it a little; I’ll try to use it to get prestige or fame.” That fight, which makes for disturbance, is what Aesthetic Realism tries to organize. It says that no self can be at ease until it likes itself, and no self can like itself until it is trying to know the world and likes the knowing of it.

To like yourself truly means you are at one with what isn’t yourself. That is the general purpose of Aesthetic Realism. And the liking of oneself and the world at the same time is the situation we find in art.

The desire of a self to be at one with itself and with the world is the big matter in the life of everyone. The things that such persons as Adler and Jung write about are incidental to the problem of: how can I be fair to myself and to everything else at the same time? The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to organize the fight between those desires, and teach people how to make beautiful good sense out of it.