The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Complaint and Beauty

Dear Unknown Friends:

In his class of August 3, 1966, Eli Siegel spoke on complaint in poetry. And it is an honor to begin serializing that great lecture. In the opening section, published here, his text is a book he had been discussing for several weeks: The White Pony: An Anthology of Chinese Poetry, edited by Robert Payne. Now he is in the midst of looking at lines by one of the eminent poets of China: Chu Yuan, who lived from about 332 to about 296 bc. In some of Chu Yuan’s writing there is that huge thing in life, complaint, and as the lecture continues, Mr. Siegel will comment on poems by people who could seem quite unlike Chu Yuan but who also express complaint: for example, Emily Brontë, Lord Byron, John Milton.

What makes a good poem about complaint vastly and magnificently different from how we complain in life, is, Aesthetic Realism shows, urgently important for everyone. Eli Siegel is the critic who has explained the difference and why it matters so much—and I’ll say something about that later.

A Favorite Subject

Complaint is a favorite occupation in people’s lives. It may be expressed verbally, to another or to oneself in one’s own mind. It may take the form of a sigh, a groan, an expletive, a grimace. But complaint can go on from the moment one wakes up. It can take in scores of things: for instance, the traffic, and how somebody in the office looked at one—and also the feeling one isn’t loved enough, one doesn’t know enough, one is in a world that’s confusing.

Some complaint is beautiful. Every fight for justice began with complaint, and gave form to it. That is: achievements in such matters as civil rights, voting rights, the ability to unionize, laws against child labor and slavery, regulations against environmental pollution and against unsafe working conditions—these and more would not have come to be without authentic complaint, the feeling, “What is going on is wrong. Its wrongness pains me. I want something better!”

But mostly, the complaining that takes place in people’s lives is not beautiful, is not good. And often, while ordinary, it is very ugly. What distinguishes good complaint from bad, beautiful complaint from ugly? The criterion is something Aesthetic Realism alone explains—and humanity needs to know it. “The large fight,” writes Eli Siegel,

...in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now,...is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality. [TRO 151]

Complaint is an aspect of that fight in us between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt—to feel we’re important because we can look down on something.

There is a complaining that people feel driven to, feel they can’t do without, an impulse to feel rather constantly that the things one meets are unsatisfactory and somehow insulting. This desire to complain is contempt. A person might protest, “I don’t have a desire to complain—it’s just the appropriate response to what I meet.” But everyone needs to learn that there is an actual hope to be displeased, 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. And so this morning a man felt impelled to curl his lip, and sigh, and say with disgust yet a touch of triumph, “Geez—there are even more idiotic drivers on the road today than usual!” And a wife found herself just leaping at the chance to complain, “There—he left his socks lying on the living room rug again. No matter how many times I tell him, he doesn’t care. He’ll never change.” To something in us, to complain is to have a victory—the victory of feeling we’re superior to everything.

Meanwhile, we also have a huge desire to value what’s not ourselves, to respect, to be grateful. In fact, Aesthetic Realism shows, honestly to like the world is our deepest desire. And so, there is the fight.

Some Further Notes about Complaint

As Mr. Siegel shows in his magnificent lecture, the subject of complaint is gigantic. But here are several points about complaint in the daily lives of people.

1) You can meet something that should be objected to, and yet complain about it in a sloppy, inexact way, rather than accurately. This happens often.

2) A big reason people like to complain is: as you complain contemptuously you don’t have to think deeply. A certain kind of complaint is a wonderful way of evading thought—of evading the fact that there’s more for you to know.

3) To complain about something or someone can be a means of not having to question yourself, criticize yourself.

4) Complaint has been used by the ego as a means of feeling one doesn’t have to be fair to anything—because look how hurt one is!

5) One of the quickest ways of getting into a cozy team with someone is to complain to her about another person or a happening—or even the weather—and encourage her to complain. This kind of team goes on in domestic and social life very much. Within it is the feeling, “You and I are better than everything else—superior to the world, which has hurt both of us.” Yet the two people in this team are secretly ashamed of themselves and angry with each other—because their deepest hope is to respect the world.

6) People have worried about why they cannot stop complaining. The reason is: they haven’t understood the fight between respect and contempt in themselves.

7) Good complaint is always respect for the world. A good complaint is not just personal. Its purpose is not self-pity or self-glorification. It is a wanting to see truly—the thing complained of, oneself, and reality.

8) Good complaint is impelled by the hope to value things rightly: to like them and therefore to object when they can’t be liked. And so it is at one with—is a friend to—gratitude and praise. Good complaint is the same as kind criticism.

And There Is Poetry

The lecture we’re serializing is on poems about complaint. And as a means of placing Mr. Siegel’s discussion of them, I’ll comment briefly on the subject I love most in this world: the Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry. In the centuries of art criticism, it is Eli Siegel who has explained what art, including poetry, is. He showed that art is no offset to life, or decoration of it, or respite from it, but is the vital guide to how we want to be.

“Poetry,” he wrote, “like Art, is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” When a poem comes to be, it is because the writer has seen the subject—which may be anything, from a flower, to a war, to a kiss, to a feeling of his own—a certain way. He has seen it with so much accuracy, depth, width, relatedness, that he finds in that thing, feels in that thing, the structure of the world itself: the oneness of such opposites as intensity and ease, wonder and the definite, motion and rest. The result of this seeing, this finding, is that, as Mr. Siegel wrote, the words “take on a music, which is the poetic music.” All this is true about real poetry of any time, any place, any language. It’s true about the poems Mr. Siegel speaks of here, written in China in the 3rd and 4th centuries bc.

If the subject of a good poem is complaint, even if the complaint dealt with is a questionable or contemptuous complaint, it has been seen by the writer, and told of, in a way that is fair to the world itself—and so the lines have that decisive poetic thing: music.

The opposites in a poem are reality’s opposites, but they are also what our own lives are about: we are trying to put them together, and we have pain because they are not one in us. For example, the Chu Yuan poems Mr. Siegel looks at are a beautiful oneness of stir and order; of factuality and large feeling; of surface—something immediately seen—and depth. These opposites can trouble us very much in our lives. But in the poems they come, as one, across the millennia and show us: This is how you want to be, and can be.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Good Will for Feelings

By Eli Siegel

Art can be described as the showing of the utmost good will to what you feel. In terms of poetry, that means technically that whether a person feels bad or middling or very good, insofar as he’s writing about his feeling he tries to do the best job with it that he can. So there are poems that are very sad. And they have this in common with poems that are not sad: they have been dealt with as well as can be. This good will—the feeling that “I want, if I write about it or even look at it, to do the best job with how I feel”—is a central thing in art. That is why uproarious things have a high place in art, as do very sad things. There’s a feeling in the artist that whatever one’s state of mind, it deserves the best seeing one can have.

Good will consists of two things: one, to see the object in the best way one can; and two, to give it the value it deserves, in the best way. In our discussion of poems from The White Pony, we’ve come to something like that with Chu Yuan.

There Is Cheerfulness

In the series by him that I’ve been taking up, “The Nine Songs,” the last poem, a very short one, is cheerful. Since it’s called “The Sacrifice,” I’ll mention that sacrifice is based on the idea that the gods have some reason to be angry or displeased or to want something; they want some present. Sacrifice means something made sacred so it is fit to be given to the gods. And a good many people have stopped reading the Bible because there are so many sacrifices in it. There are sacrifices, also, in Homer. Every now and then there’s a sacrifice that is going to be offered to the gods; wine is poured for them, and the best viands are offered. What the gods are going to do with them, no one is told. There are some honorings of the gods that involve no presents; occasionally there can be simply a dance. These are rites. But in sacrificial rites, presents are given. In this poem called “The Sacrifice” we are not told of any presents; we can presume that likely something was given. It’s a very cheerful poem:

Now the rites are over, the drums are joined:

Among sweet-smelling herbs they dance in turn.

The lovely girls sing to a solemn measure.

In spring there shall be orchids, in autumn chrysanthemums

Lasting to eternity, forever and ever.

I have a notion this is more beautiful when the original is seen entirely.

“Now the rites are over, the drums are joined.” This could mean either that all the drums are being played at once, or the drums that were used in the rites are brought together. I’m not sure. I haven’t gotten assistance from any of the commentators on this point.

“Among sweet-smelling herbs they dance in turn.” “They” is people, I presume. And what with the herbs, we see another way of honoring the gods—incense, myrrh, the burning of spices. It’s good to think of herbs smelling sweet and dancing going on. This is one of the most gracious and pleasing lines in Chinese poetry.

“The lovely girls sing to a solemn measure.” That proceeds with the goodness and pleasantness. And maybe we get to the result of the sacrifice in the next line: because of the rites and the herbs and the dance, orchids will come in the spring and chrysanthemums in the autumn. “In spring there shall be orchids, in autumn chrysanthemums.”

“Lasting to eternity, forever and ever.” The gods have been pleased, and China will go on; and spring will be with orchids to show itself, autumn will be with chrysanthemums to show itself, and this will go on for eternity. With all the change in China, I have a notion there are still a few orchids there, and I feel there likely are a few chrysanthemums. And I have a notion also that they are appreciated.

Complaint Has Variety

As we get to the next poem in The White Pony, a long one by Chu Yuan from “The Nine Declarations,” we get to another phase of poetry, a very important phase. A good deal of poetry is complaining. Some of it is outright. Some of it is harder to see. But since to live is to want to complain and to live is also to be thankful, it is to be expected that there be poems of joy or thankfulness and poems of complaint.

The word complaint is in the title of one of Shakespeare’s poems that is as little known as any, “The Lover’s Complaint.” And of course the Psalms are largely complaint. Hymns can have complaint. Shakespeare’s sonnets are largely complaint. A good deal of present-day poetry is complaint. Many things can be complained of, and to. Complaint is in some of the greatest poetry of the world, and it’s present also in some of the least necessary verse or poetry.

Occasionally when you complain you want to show how unrelenting you are, and you do nothing but complain. Even if hope is possible, if consolation is possible, you shut the window. There is poetry like that: Nothing can help me. There is poetry of misery.

Then, there is complaint but also a saying proudly, I can take it! In this field, Emily Brontë is preeminent. Emily Dickinson is very good too, although even when she seems to be proud you get a notion there’s still something sad. But when Emily Brontë complains and then reassures herself that she’s still Emily Brontë, that settles everything: the complaint is nullified, liquidated, dissolved. There is something of this complaint and also pride in Chu Yuan’s poem from “The Nine Declarations.” The first section is less obviously complaining:

This is the beautiful dress

I liked best in my youth;

Now that I am old

I like it no less:

My headdress touching the cloud,

Shining long sword in my hand,

Bright pearls decorating my back,

Precious jade hanging from my belt....

Chu Yuan says that though he has changed from his youth, there is still something he has. What he wore then he still has, and can wear it now: “This is the beautiful dress / I liked best in my youth; / Now that I am old / I like it no less.”

It’s like a man pretty on in years putting on a pirate suit he wore as a boy. “My headdress touching the cloud, / Shining long sword in my hand....” So this was worn years ago—the headdress, the sword, the pearls, the jade—and it’s worn now.

The next section is both complaining and reassuring. If you take the first lines, it’s complaint; but the last lines certainly make things even:

In this covetous chaotic world

No one understands me—

I gallop at full speed

Though they pay no attention to me,

Having harnessed my chariot,

A blue dragon and a white one.

I go with the emperor Shun

Traveling through the Jade Garden.

I mount the K’un-lung Mountains,

I eat pure flowers,

I am as old as heaven and earth,

I compete with the sun and moon in brilliance.

There are forlornness and great self-assurance here.

The first two lines are a complaint of the world. “In this covetous chaotic world”—that’s pretty bad for the world. And that complaint has been recurrent: the world is confused and rapacious. “In this covetous chaotic world / No one understands me.”

In the next lines Chu Yuan seems rather silly. He says he gallops full speed though no one gives him any attention. You might say, Why not stop?

Getting Self-Assurance

Then he shows he’s an official of the kingdom: “I go with the emperor Shun / Traveling through the Jade Garden. / I mount the K’un-lung Mountains.” The traveling with Emperor Shun seems to be an offset to the earlier sadness and humiliation.

“I eat pure flowers.” That’s a strange way of boasting. It should be compared to I eat fire for dessert. See which one has more self-assurance. “I eat pure flowers”: I think this is a wonderful way of giving oneself assurance.

“I am as old as heaven and earth.” That is in the religious field. In the East the self is seen as being as old as anything. But it has a vulgar way of seeing itself as new, thinking it was just born—which is the greatest vulgarity you can have in the East.

“I compete with the sun and moon in brilliance.” When in the same stanza a person can say, “I gallop at full speed / Though they pay no attention to me” and then say, “I compete with the sun and moon in brilliance,” he has gone very far from one thing to something different.

We shall see other complaints and also consolations in the rest of this poem, which is one of the most important in Chinese literature. It should be known with as much particularity as possible.