The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Complaint, Honesty, & Shakespeare

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of the great 1966 lecture that Eli Siegel gave on complaint in poetry. In the talk he speaks about many poems, beginning with one of 4th-century-bc China. And we see that this matter, complaint, which people feel so personally, is of literature, culture: it is not just a misery—or triumph—of one’s own. Here I state again this historic fact: Aesthetic Realism has shown there is a criterion for distinguishing between good complaint and bad. Complaint is good, and can even be beautiful, when it arises from a person’s desire to respect the world, people, things. Complaint is bad, ugly, mean, when it comes from that most hurtful yet huge frequent desire in everyone: contempt, the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

This issue includes too an article by Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss. It’s from a paper she presented recently at a public seminar titled “Honesty & Deception in Love & Life—How Should a Woman See These?” The dishonesty Ms. Weiss principally tells about is that which is behind all spoken and written lies: the seeing of the world not as it is but as something that should make me important, show my superiority—as something about which I have the right to change any fact I please. The fundamental yet mainly unspoken dishonesty is the seeing of oneself as more important than any fact, any person, any happening—more important than truth itself. It’s the dishonesty of contempt, and is the way of seeing from which all lies come—including those so much around today.

Shakespeare & Honesty

The last poem Mr. Siegel speaks of in his lecture on complaint is Sonnet 66 of Shakespeare. He speaks about it briefly here—in its relation to the lecture’s particular subject and to the other poems he discussed. But I am very glad to look a little further at it now, to quote some of what Mr. Siegel said about this poem on other occasions, and to do so in regard to the second subject of this TRO: dishonesty. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was one of the greatest haters of dishonesty—and lovers of sincerity—in human history.

Eli Siegel’s lectures and writing on Shakespeare’s plays—including Hamlet, Othello, Julius Caesar, King Lear, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest—are definitive and magnificent in literary criticism. And so is his series, of 1950-51, on all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. In it he made clear that the “friend” Shakespeare talks of—whom scholars have been unable to identify successfully—is not a particular person at all. It is what Shakespeare treasured most: “art as trying to perceive reality and to respect it,.. .that in himself which poetically could be just to the world,” and the world itself seen truly, seen beautifully. That is what Shakespeare saw as his “friend,” his “love.”

You will soon read the whole of the 66th sonnet, because Mr. Siegel quotes it here. It begins: “Tir’d with all these....” And then Shakespeare gives, with speed and subtlety, thrust and delicacy, instances of what he cannot stand. And they are all instances of dishonesty: he tells about good made to seem not good, or weak; about meanness, cheapness, and stupidity presented as having grandeur. In a 1964 lecture Mr. Siegel, discussing the sonnet in another context, showed succinctly what the lines were about. I’ll quote him now, beginning with line 2. (Shakespeare’s lines are in italics, followed by Mr. Siegel’s swift comment, and occasionally my own addition in brackets.)

2) “As, to behold desert a beggar born.” What has merit is a “beggar.”

3) “And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity.” Nothingness is honored [dressed up showily].

4) “And purest faith unhappily forsworn.” Faith is worked against, betrayed.

5) “And guilded honour shamefully misplaced.” [The wrong things are honored.]

6) “And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted.” [What’s fine and pure is treated as though it were a prostitute.]

7) “And right perfection wrongfully disgraced.” What is good is not seen rightly.

8) “And strength by limping sway disabled.” Power is limping and disables strength.

9) “And art made tongue-tied by authority.” People can’t say what they truly want.

10) “And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill.” Folly, having a certificate, can control skill. [Persons who are foolish, but seen as intelligent, have power over those with true knowledge.]

11) “And simple truth miscall’d simplicity.” That which is simple is called naïveté or foolishness.

12) “And captive good attending captain ill.” [Ill will is running things, and good has been made its servant.]

Shakespeare could be dispirited, could be tempted to have a large disgust at the world, as he saw what contempt with its dishonesty could do—how it could try to hurt what was fine and good. And here I’ll say simply, restrainedly, I have been sickened reading lies about what in our own time is honest, beautiful, kind, true: Aesthetic Realism itself.

Then there is Shakespeare’s quiet final couplet—about his feeling that what he loves is more important than the dishonesty that so disgusts him. This is so in our time too: a way of seeing the world that has truth, grandeur, meaning is more powerful than sickening lies. And such a way of seeing the world—beautiful and honest—is in Aesthetic Realism. William Shakespeare once seemed so much less important than many of the high-placed fakers of his time; and the fact that he has grandly outlasted them—the fact that persons who once seemed powerful, if they’re around at all now, are around as footnotes to his works—is evidence that real sincerity is much more powerful than lies.

Poetry Is Honesty

So this TRO is about complaint, dishonesty, and poems. Authentic poetry, Eli Siegel showed, is always honest—even if it seems to express something wild or false. It comes from a person’s seeing reality, and the immediate subject, and his own feeling with such a passionate desire to be fair to these, that the structure of the world itself is in his words. That structure is the oneness of opposites. And we hear it as poetic music. We hear, for example, the oneness of rest and motion, wonder and matter-of-factness, smoothness and roughness, expansion and tightness, the immediate and the far, the tactile and the abstract. “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Eli Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Aesthetic Realism is the great, logical, immensely kind, thrillingly effective study of that principle.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Two Poets & Complaint

By Eli Siegel

A great complainer and great giver of hope is Arthur Hugh Clough. It hasn’t yet been computed whether Clough is better at complaining or at hopefulness. He’s a master at both. He has written one of the great inspirational poems, his “Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth,” with its final line “But westward, look, the land is bright.”

I am dealing with him today in his strict complaining capacity, in which he is an adept. The poem of his I’ll read is one of the dreariest poems in the language. Shelley wrote some of those, and just kept away from consolation. The Clough poem is “My Wind Is Turned to Bitter North”:

My wind is turned to bitter north,

That was so soft a south before;

My sky, that shone so sunny bright,

With foggy gloom is clouded o’er.

My gay green leaves are yellow-black,

Upon the dank autumnal floor;

For love, departed once, comes back

No more again, no more.

A roofless ruin lies my home,

For winds to blow and rains to pour;

One frosty night befell, and lo,

I find my summer days are o’er:

The heart bereaved, of why and how

Unknowing, knows that yet before

It had what e’en to Memory now

Returns no more, no more.

That is sad enough for anybody. It has some of the sadness of Tom Moore and Edgar Allan Poe. It is quite honest. There can be such a feeling in man, and a good deal of it is in poetry.

Shenstone was the first to say that the saddest words in the language are no more. And in Poe’s “The Raven,” which is a complaint poem, each stanza ends with “nevermore.”

Variety in Complaint

Complaint has its dimensions and its structure. Shakespeare is very good at complaining. I’ll read a complaint poem of his that lists the things one might not like and then gives, in the very last line or so, the reason for feeling good. The consolation is sure abrupt.

In complaint poems there may be no consolation at all: there are some, like the Clough poem, that just go to the end that way. Then, in some complaint poems, there are consolations that say, You can bear this anyway. There are poems that use heaven as a means of consolation in various ways. And there are consolations that consist of your suddenly finding that everything you said was silly. Then there are consolations saying, This is all very bad and still what you may have in your favor may increase. There are consolations that are so grudging that you think, almost, you should be bleak entirely. This Shakespeare poem is sad but has a brisk consolation, a reason for not complaining anymore. It is Sonnet 66:

Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry,

As, to behold desert a beggar born,

And needy nothing trimm’d in jollity,

And purest faith unhappily forsworn,

And guilded honour shamefully misplaced,

And maiden virtue rudely strumpeted,

And right perfection wrongfully disgraced,

And strength by limping sway disabled,

And art made tongue-tied by authority,

And folly (doctor-like) controlling skill,

And simple truth miscall’d simplicity,

And captive good attending captain ill:

Tir’d with all these, from these would I be gone,

Save that, to die, I leave my love alone.

Poetry Can Criticize Us

The poems I have read in this class are different, but they’re all in the field of complaint. Complaint in poetry is a great field, and there are two reasons for knowing it: one, it adds to our feeling for poetry; two, it may be a critic of our own complaint.


Honesty versus Contempt

By Miriam Weiss

I am one of the luckiest people alive because, in Aesthetic Realism, I met the comprehension I was looking for. I learned that my deepest purpose is to like the world, see meaning in what is not myself. And I learned about contempt, the desire “to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself,” the most weakening emotion in every person.

As a young child I liked many things: seeing fireworks in the night sky, listening to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Suite,” eating food from different countries, for example. And I adored the Beatles. But because I didn’t know about contempt and how to criticize it in myself, I used the fact that things and people were confusing to be deeply scornful: to see the world as an enemy I had the right to look down on, change the facts about, and get away from.

Contempt is against honesty: it is a false dealing with reality. By the time I had my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, my contemptuous way of seeing had taken a toll on me: at age 18 I was tired, dull, and very unsure of myself.

Dishonesty about People Begins Early

Growing up, I felt ill-at-ease with people and was always at a loss for what to say. I saw this as embarrassing and inconvenient, and blamed fate for giving me shy genes. Later, when I was older and young men didn’t come running I blamed it on their poor judgment. But as I began my study of Aesthetic Realism, I learned about a choice I had made that interfered with my relation to people. My consultants spoke to me about one of the first people in my life. “Do you think,” they asked, “if you felt that your father was really worth understanding, it would help you with other men?”

I thought I owned my father: I thought he existed to praise me and protect me from the world. I wasn’t interested in his feelings, didn’t think of him as having hopes, confusions, mystery. A result was: I felt other people, too, should just see me as wonderful, without my having to think about them and be fair to them. Through what I was learning—including through assignments I was given—I began to change the untrue and mean way I saw my father. I was asked, for instance, to write an inner monologue of Conrad Weiss, and a one-act play about the first time he met my mother, Sarah. My parents loved the effect Aesthetic Realism was having on me.

How Much Should We Be Affected?

I had based a lot of my importance on feeling superior to girls whom I saw as silly for what I considered running after boys. The truth was, I felt I was too good to show that anyone mattered to me very much. However, that didn’t stop me from being wounded when boys I liked showed the bad taste of overlooking me, and I chafed seeing friends go steady and get ID bracelets instead of me.

In one consultation, when I acted forlorn that a man didn’t “return my interest,” I was asked this—an eye-opener to me:

First of all, have you clearly shown you’ve been affected by him? You think you practically have taken out ads in all the newspapers and shouted it from the tallest buildings, but another person would say, “This lady is not so certain.” He may think you’ve noticed him but how much he’s convinced that you are affected by him is something else. You’ve not convinced yourself.

I’ve learned that honesty is a beautiful wanting the center of oneself to meet the center of something else. That can be heard in the definition by Mr. Siegel: “Honesty is the whole desire of the self to have pleasure by seeing what it is and what other things are.” But until I began to study Aesthetic Realism, I deceived myself by thinking that something bad would happen to me if I met the world foursquare on its terms. This statement from Mr. Siegel’s lecture Aesthetic Realism and the Past described me:

Children...are now deciding whether they are going to like things entirely or whether they are going to like things forty percent, forty-five percent, whether they are going to put overcoats around them. [TRO 439]

I didn’t see that I got a debilitating triumph keeping myself under wraps as I met people and things, and that doing so affected everything in my life, including love. For instance, when I was seeing Jun, a Japanese film student who had a part-time job working at an ice cream shop on St. Mark’s Place, I was so infatuated with the picture of him caring for me that actually interacting with him was secondary. Often when my family ate out, on the way home I’d ask my father to drive past where Jun was working so I could get a peek at him. I was appalled when my parents suggested that I get out of the car and do the honest, normal thing: say hello. I preferred to spy on him with the satisfaction of thinking he was mine. Obviously—that relationship didn’t fare well.

In one Aesthetic Realism consultation I spoke about a dinner I’d had with a young man, Doug Williams. I had been lively and witty. But later, I told myself I had been insincere and tried to lure him with what I mockingly called a stand-up comedy act. My consultants asked, “Do you think it’s really possible that you can have an honest effect on a man, and that maybe you did?” And here are some of the other very important questions that followed:

Do you feel somewhere that people don’t deserve for you to give your best to them—and therefore even if you give something of your best, you’ve got to change the facts and tell yourself you were insincere? Which would you like to represent you: the somewhat assertive, humorous, and also deep self that can be present when you talk to a person—or your inward broodings? At this dinner, were you untrue to the broodings, and took that as an equivalent of being insincere? Do you think if you saw yourself as a social success in some way you’d see yourself as an inward failure? Do you base some picture of yourself on feeling you cannot succeed with people in social situations?

“Yes,” I said, “I think I have.”

This understanding made it possible for me to change and have a new, truer sense of myself.

And I am very grateful that because of what I learned, I was able to love a man, Joseph Spetly, and to marry him and feel what a privilege it is to know and learn from how he sees the world.