Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. And we print portions of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Devorah Tarrow, from a public seminar of last month titled “Can a Woman Be Both Kind & Powerful?”
The lecture, of 1972, is about something which Aesthetic Realism—and, really, Aesthetic Realism alone—shows to be of the utmost importance in every person’s life. It is this: Do we want to see our feelings exactly, critically; or do we go on the notion that our feelings must be right, because they’re ours? The latter is more frequent by far. It is a form of contempt for the world and makes for cruelty, both ordinary and massive.
Mr. Siegel discusses a passage from philosopher R.G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art. He explains that Collingwood’s phrase “corruption of consciousness” means the use of one’s thought, not to see exactly, but to make oneself falsely comfortable and important.
Collingwood is writing mainly about art. Aesthetic Realism, however, is the philosophy which shows that the questions of self are aesthetic questions. It shows that art is not separate from what we, in our tumult and hopes and worries, are. Art has what we are looking for; it is how we want to be: “All beauty,” Eli Siegel explained in a landmark principle, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Horror & Art
The section of the lecture printed here is very short. Yet it is beautifully definitive about an immense subject: What makes a certain expression or presentation of ugliness, horror, the dreadful, the shocking, become art, and another expression of these be very much not art—be, in fact, hurtful? So much in today’s culture has the horrible, shocking, ugly—sometimes gigantically. These are often in films, music, the visual arts, and in how people communicate on the Internet.
In his lecture Mr. Siegel explains: “The large question is, What is your purpose in expressing horror? Is it to show what the world is really like, how things are related, or is it something else?”
Whether it is a film featuring violence, blood, and bodies made repulsive, or someone saying sleazy things about someone else online—the decisive matter in the field of ugliness is the one Devorah Tarrow writes about in a very different field, the field of love: What kind of power is a person after? Is it the power of respect for reality and people, or the power of contempt?
So let us look at an instance of the horrible. It is in one of the great poems of our language, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, of 1590. In book 1, canto 1, there is a creature, “most loathsome, filthy, foul.” The poem has allegory, and Spenser tells us the monster represents “Error”: that way of thinking, speaking, and writing which is dishonest. When a heroic knight tries to strangle her, the following happens—and allegory or not, this is as disgusting as about anything presented today. (Parbreak means vomit.)
Therewith she spewed out of her filthy maw
A flood of poison horrible and black,
Full of great lumps of flesh and gobbets raw,
Which stunk so vilely that it forced him slack
His grasping hold, and from her turn him back:
Her vomit full of books and papers was,
With loathly frogs and toads, which eyes did lack,
And creeping sought way in the weedy grass:
Her filthy parbreak all the place defiled has.
Well, what makes this beautiful?—because it is. The reason is not the symbolism, though that is interesting (and Spenser’s “Error” is related to the inaccurate thought that Collingwood and Mr. Siegel are speaking about). The reason this is beautiful is the form. That form exists—as form in the paintings of Bosch exists—because the artist wanted to be fair to the world itself; he respected, and even loved, the world itself.
The World Is Honored
To show this, one would need to describe how the very structure of reality, the oneness of opposites, is present musically in every line. But take the 7th line: “With loathly frogs and toads, which eyes did lack.” We hear dignity and strictness in the definite iambic pentameter rhythm (an unaccented syllable followed by an accented, 5 times), even as we hear too sound that sprawls and slops. Dignity is at one with sprawl. We hear definiteness inseparable from mess.
The 6th line, “Her vomit full of books and papers was,” is humorous and repulsive at once. It is certainly a oneness of the organic and the intellectual. It is straightforward and surprising. As sound, it is the disgusting made jaunty.
The Faerie Queene is composed throughout of 9-line stanzas with a particular form. Such a structure came to be called the Spenserian stanza because of the power with which Spenser used it. The 9th line is always longer than the rest—has 6 beats instead of 5. In the stanza I quoted, the 9th line is: “Her filthy parbreak all the place defiled has.” It is about vomit, but musically it has grandeur. There are wideness and wonder in the accented expansive vowels of pár, áll, pláce, defíled. The line is a oneness of wonder and disgust.
A huge difference between this stanza and so many presentations of ugliness is that Spenser’s purpose is not to appeal to people’s contempt for reality. It is not to evoke responses from people that weaken them. It is to respect the world through the ugly seen truly and widely, and thereby strengthen a reader.
How much more there is to say about this tremendous subject of horror and respect! But for now I’ll say: Aesthetic Realism is that which makes sense of it at last.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Emotion & Art
By Eli Siegel
Note. Mr. Siegel is looking closely at a passage from R.G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art.
When Collingwood says, “What we recognize as definite kinds of bad art are...corruptions of consciousness,” that is criticism of a sort that sounds different from much other criticism.
The Two Interferences
Bad art is never the result of expressing what is in itself evil, or...in a given society a thing inexpedient to be publicly said.
Every person secretly is governed by his own ideas of comfort, and also by what the public thinks or what is expected of him. There are two hags around us: one, our own fears; the other, our fear of displeasing people. One can be called the hag of convention, and the other the hag of the bad inner life—but they’re there.
Every one of us feels emotions which, if his neighbours became aware of them, would make them shrink from him with horror: emotions which, if he became aware of them, would make him horrified at himself.
That has somewhat changed, because lots of emotions that once would make people shrink with horror are stated. But the question still is whether there’s “corrupt consciousness” there—because the purpose of saying these things of horror can be to impress and show that one is of the avant-garde. The avant-garde has also become a kind of convention. Homer had no notion of an avant-garde—if he had, he’d likely have faltered a little in his Greek.
It is not the expression of these emotions that is bad art. Nor is it the expression of the horror they excite.
If you have any emotion and you want to see it as it is, and your purpose is to show it as it is in relation with all other things, then I think Collingwood would say that is not corrupt consciousness, no matter what the emotion is. The two things that would make for corruption are: one, that you want to use your emotion to make yourself more comfortable and more impressive to yourself than is accurate; and the other, that you want to impress other consciousnesses. The public consists of consciousnesses taken together.
On the contrary, bad art arises when instead of expressing these emotions we disown them, wishing to think ourselves innocent of the emotions that horrify us, or wishing to think ourselves too broad-minded to be horrified by them.
The large question is, What is your purpose in expressing horror? Is it to show what the world is really like, how things are related, or is it something else? Here, of course, we have the matter of good will and liking the world very much present. The true purpose of expressing horror would be the showing of horror in such a relation that the world could fare well anyway. But horror can be used in a narrow and false way. One can exploit the ugly and horror. A great deal of it is being done now.
Power Can Be Good or Bad
By Devorah Tarrow
In a letter once, I wrote to a man: “Since the day I met you, I’ve been forcing you to love me. It makes me so ashamed.” I felt, as women do, that there was something wrong with how I was with a man, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know what made me feel I had to “force him” to love me. But I knew I had done that again and again—and I didn’t know how to change. Just a year later, I began to learn what Eli Siegel explained in an Aesthetic Realism class:
Every person is troubled by the drive towards good power and the simultaneous drive towards bad power. The way that good power can be distinguished is through asking the question: “If this desire of mine were to be successful, and if I were to have power over this person, would the world look better and would the person himself or herself be stronger?” Any power that a human being has over another that doesn’t make the person it is exerted on stronger and the world in which the power takes place look more beautiful, is bad power. [TRO 1146]
My idea of power was to get people to do what I wanted and make a lot of me. When I began to learn there is another power much more pleasure-giving and fair, my life changed. I’m happy to give evidence for the fact, stated by Mr. Siegel, that “the being able to be kind is the highest power.”
Two Types of Power in My Life
I remember a spring day when I was hanging out with other young people from our middle school. Suddenly some boys came up to me and my best friend, Mary, and started mocking her. “Why are you with her, Dev,” they said to me—“she’s a nothing. Come with us!” I was angry, fiercely defended her, and yelled at them to leave us alone. They did, and Mary was grateful.
I felt I’d been kind, and was proud. At about that time I met Dave Riley, whose thoughtfulness I liked. I remember the proud feeling I had as we helped each other do homework, and also began to date. But I didn’t know what distinguished that feeling of power through kindness from a very different one—when I saw a look in a boy’s eyes that said I’d had a big effect through my body. Having such an effect is not necessarily bad. But I used it to be unkind: to tease a person and feel I had him under my power. Soon I broke up with Dave to go out with another young man, who I thought was cuter and more popular, and who praised me more. Dave wrote to me: “You’ll do anything to have a boy by you. But you better wise up before you lose everybody’s respect.”
Though I felt bad, I didn’t wise up; I saw it as my right to get what I wanted. As the years went on, I craved that feeling—that a man was weak for me, and that through sex I’d had the ultimate power. Increasingly, I felt my life was divided: between my studies and my working for civil rights—for which I respected myself—and love, where I felt very painfully that I did not and could not respect myself.
Then, on a double date, I thought I’d finally found The One. He was smart, and good-looking in a darkly intellectual, deeply morose and (as I saw it) very hip way. And he seemed to need me desperately for so much—from cleaning his apartment to managing his social life. But there came to be awful fights, coldness, silences. Neither of us could understand what was wrong. After a year we knew it was over, and I was devastated.
It was my good fortune that at that time I learned of Aesthetic Realism. And in a class I heard Eli Siegel explain: “To conquer reality is the most stupid, loathsome, bourgeois thing you can do. It’s not to be conquered—it’s to be seen,...known.” I had gone after conquering.
Real Kindness: The Greatest Power
In another class, when I said I wanted to understand why I was so distressed about men, Mr. Siegel asked: “Have you used people to glorify yourself?”
DT. To glorify myself?
ES. Yes. People don’t want to say, “The reason I suffer is that I use people to falsely glorify myself.” You’re suffering, Ms. Tarrow, the harvest of not liking what you’ve wanted from people.
He explained that the power every woman truly wants “is a making one of opposites: being fair to yourself and fair to everyone concerned.”
I was seeing something new. I’d seen kindness as something “good” or virtuous but not as powerful. “Kindness,” Mr. Siegel writes in his definition of the word, “is that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased.” “ Rightly pleased,’” I asked myself—“what does that mean?” I saw that to be kind wasn’t to get or give the pleasure of conquering someone, the pleasure of contempt; it was to have and encourage the pleasure of respect. I began to ask questions about people. For example, I recently found a list of questions I wrote out to ask a man: “Do you want to be good for another person’s life, a woman’s life? What do you most care for? Do you hope to be kinder and closer to other people? What criticism do you have of yourself? What are you proudest of?”
I was in a new world—a world I wanted to know and be good for. “Kindness is accuracy,” Mr. Siegel wrote, and that’s what I now wanted in love: to use my mind the way I did as I studied sociology or the sciences—to be accurate. Sometime later, as I began to date Jeffrey Carduner I said to myself, “I want this man to like himself!” I wrote in my journal: “If I can encourage Jeff to be stronger and better—and that means to like things more—I will be stronger. And I can finally feel good in myself. I am so happy!”
And I am so glad that Jeff and I married. I’ve seen that wanting a man and myself to be fairer to the world and other people makes for real love, and makes me proud, self-respecting, and happy.
A Woman Becomes Kinder & Prouder
When a young woman from Italy, whom I’ll call Sonia Donato, began to have Aesthetic Realism consultations, we met a person who had travelled extensively, spoke four languages, and smiled readily. But when we asked her what she had most against herself, she said with intensity and pain: “Sometimes I’m very harsh—and then I regret it.”
Consultants. Many people feel that. They’ll say something—then ask themselves, “What did I say that for?!” But does your feeling bad show that ethics is working in you?
SD. Yes, I guess so—I never thought of it that way.
A person Ms. Donato had had harsh thoughts about was her stepfather, Alfredo. She told us tearfully: “When I was a child, he made me feel I’m not good enough. I’ve been trying to prove all my life that I’m as equal as the rest.” Her stepfather had been strict, and, as often happens in some cultures, he had very wrongly considered her less important than her brothers. We asked, “Do you think you saw him as representing a world that was against you?”
SD. Oh, yes, yes!
Consultants. But were you accurate in your thought about him?
SD. I’m not sure.
It was important for Ms. Donato, while critical, to see her stepfather more deeply. So we began to discuss this Aesthetic Realism principle: “Every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself or herself.” We asked, “Do you think, for example, that you are trying to make sense of how you are gentle but also harsh, even tough?”
SD. Yes, I am.
Consultants. Do you think your stepfather also wants to make sense of gentleness and toughness in himself?
SD [surprised]. Oh....Maybe so!
In the comment to his definition of kindness, Mr. Siegel writes that in order to be kind we need to see “ourselves as like other people, while humbly recognizing that there is otherness, too.” That is what Sonia Donato was beginning to do. It is why, after a visit home, she said, “I feel much kinder to my stepfather.” And she told us, “I don’t feel desperate like I was before. I feel I’m on the right track now. Thank you for being so helpful to me!”