The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Contempt or Respect: The Battle in Everyone

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish here the conclusion of the 1949 lecture Poetry and the Unconscious, by Eli Siegel. Throughout this amazing talk, he speaks about the 19th-century English poet James Thomson as a means of showing what the largest matter in the self of every person is. This is literary criticism of supreme greatness. It contains unprecedented and true understanding of who we are. And its prose, spoken prose—rich with kindness, exactitude, and joy in knowing—is beautiful.

What Mr. Siegel is describing in this final section, he put as principle in the following statement:

The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now. [TRO 151]

I’ll comment a little on that fight in relation to something much talked about in recent weeks: the matter of sexual harassment in high places, with various eminent men being accused of dealing with women in uninvited and unwelcome lewd ways.

Mr. Siegel described contempt as the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” He identified contempt as the hurtful thing in the human mind—immensely ordinary yet the source of every injustice, including the most vicious. Clearly, if a man sees a woman as something he can grab and deal with as he pleases, he is having contempt. And the fact that this horrible, centuries-old way of using people is being publicly objected to, is a very good thing. It is in behalf of humanity’s being civilized.

At the same time, there is something long considered a human right, the honoring of which is central to the difference between a just society and a brutal, fascistic one. It is the “presumption of innocence,” the idea that a person should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. That is a legal term, but it is about everyday ethics too, the way we think and talk. A woman should definitely be able to say, if something cruel was done to her, “This happened!” And some of the men recently accused have admitted their guilt. But we have to see that the making of accusations by persons is not the same as those accusations’ being true. And if we act as though it is, we ourselves are having contempt for truth.

So two things should be obvious: 1) the loathsome corporeal behavior should not be permitted; 2) a person should not be considered guilty unless shown to be—whether we like the person or not.

What More Should We Do?

We need to see—to learn from Aesthetic Realism—what contempt itself is. We need to see how contempt is behind all sexual harassment. And we need to use those instances of untrammeled contempt to understand and be against contempt as such.

We have, Aesthetic Realism explains, an attitude to the world itself, and every person we meet is a representative of that world different from us. Either 1) we’ll want, through a person, to respect the world more, see value in it—which means we’ll want to understand the person, see him or her as real, having feelings as existent as our own—or 2) we’ll want to be victorious over a world we dislike by asserting our supremacy over someone, which includes feeling we should be able to deal with him or her however we please. That second way is contempt. It is present in all racism. It’s present in economics based on using people for profit. And it can be present in the field of sex.

While certainly there is a large difference, it’s important to ask: can there be a way of seeing in the most seemingly accepted situations that is related to the way of seeing in the most reprehensible? For example, take the scornful pleasure someone gets looking down on a co-worker, feeling that person’s taste is far inferior to one’s own. Is this disdainful relish in any way like the contempt in racism: the fake self-esteem of feeling one is superior to a whole race?

And in the field of body: can a man and woman, married 20 years, approach each other’s bodies with ill will, feel (without articulating it) that they’re running the world through each other and having a victory over each other? Then afterward, though neither may say so, they feel uncomfortable, duller, irritable, quietly ashamed—because the way they used each other is not what the true self of either wants. Of course: they are consenting adults and what took place between them is certainly not equivalent to the unwanted grabbing that’s now told of so much and that simply should not be tolerated. But if we don’t want to understand contempt at its most everyday, we will never understand it at its most virulent and even illegal.

We always dislike ourselves for our contempt. That is because our deepest desire, the purpose of our lives, is to be ourselves through honestly caring for the world not ourselves. And it should be seen that every man who misuses a woman is disgusted with himself for it. He despises himself, even as he may try to justify himself and go on with his cruel behavior.

This Is What We Need

What people and our nation need in every aspect of our lives—from economics to bodily expression, from education to love—is to see that respect is more thrilling than contempt. We need to see that the desire to know a thing or person is more powerful and exciting than feeling it or he or she is subservient to and run by us. Aesthetic Realism makes clear: art shows that respect and knowing are power and excitement. And Aesthetic Realism is the education in how to see the way art sees. It is beautiful, longed-for, successful education, and I love it with all my heart.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Contest in Self

By Eli Siegel

We find, toward the end of Thomson’s “City of Dreadful Night,” in section 20, a very interesting contest. There was something Thomson was aware of, the deep thing in ourselves that wants to be like conceited stone. Here he calls it the sphinx. An angel is against this sphinx, and a warrior is against the sphinx, and the sphinx does not lose. —Thomson is sitting “weary on a pillar’s base” at a “great cathedral”:

...Before it, opposite my place of rest,

Two figures faced each other, large, austere;

A couchant sphinx in shadow to the breast,

An angel standing in the moonlight clear;

So mighty by magnificence of form,

They were not dwarfed beneath that mass enorm.

Upon the cross-hilt of a naked sword

The angel’s hands, as prompt to smite, were held;

His vigilant intense regard was poured

Upon the creature placidly unquelled,

Whose front was set at level gaze which took

No heed of aught, a solemn trance-like look.

And as I pondered these opposèd shapes

My eyelids sank in stupor, that dull swoon

Which drugs and with a leaden mantle drapes

The outworn to worse weariness. But soon

A sharp and clashing noise the stillness broke,

And from the evil lethargy I woke.

The angel’s wings had fallen, stone on stone,

And lay there shattered; hence the sudden sound:

A warrior leaning on his sword alone

Now watched the sphinx with that regard profound;

The sphinx unchanged looked forthright, as aware

Of nothing in the vast abyss of air.

Again I sank in that repose unsweet,

Again a clashing noise my slumber rent;

The warrior’s sword lay broken at his feet:

An unarmed man with raised hands impotent

Now stood before the sphinx, which ever kept

Such mien as if with open eyes it slept.

My eyelids sank in spite of wonder grown;

A louder crash upstartled me in dread:

The man had fallen forward, stone on stone,

And lay there shattered, with his trunkless head

Between the monster’s large quiescent paws,

Beneath its grand front changeless as life’s laws.

You will remember that in a poem I read earlier, which Thomson wrote in the last year of his life, the angel—the Seraph—won. Here, the angel doesn’t win. And the warrior doesn’t win.

This is a description of the constant battle. The sphinx is mysterious and seems to be of stone, and cannot be budged. The angel tries and does not succeed. Then the warrior tries. And the sphinx seems to say, I’m too deep for both of you. Thomson extricated his unconscious, saw there was a battle.

Contempt Can Take This Form

Looking at the lines: “Two figures faced each other, large, austere; / A couchant sphinx in shadow to the breast, / An angel standing in the moonlight clear.” Now, Thomson is the sphinx too. Thomson wanted to be mysterious to everyone; he wanted, with the bad part of him, to have the knowing leer unseen. He wanted to be one of those mysterious, composed cynics who could look at everything and say his secret would never be known—he is beyond all this. The sphinx is the complacent mystery, which does attract. And the angel is saying, Look here, sphinx, you are deep—still, get into motion! The fact that the sphinx is “couchant” (which means lying down, as a cat does) shows its complacency.

“Upon the cross-hilt of a naked sword / The angel’s hands, as prompt to smite, were held.” So the battle in Thomson is expressed by the sphinx and the angel with the sword. The angel’s “vigilant intense regard was poured / Upon the creature placidly unquelled.” Which means one part of Thomson, the angel, is interested—has a “vigilant intense regard.” But the other side is “placidly unquelled”: that is the sphinx. No wonder, trying to be a sphinx, Thomson had a bad time with ladies.

“Whose front was set at level gaze which took / No heed of aught, a solemn trance-like look.” This is what contempt desires: not to be concerned by anything, to be in a constant trance, to be set, not to move, to be like stone. And that’s what you have in this sphinx. Ah, quelle victoire! What a victory!

“And as I pondered these opposèd shapes / My eyelids sank in stupor, that dull swoon / Which drugs and with a leaden mantle drapes....” Thomson is aware that at this time he doesn’t want to see the fight clearly—because he doesn’t want the sphinx to win and doesn’t want the angel to win. So he gets weary—which has been a common trick. People can have a fight in themselves and try to settle it with sleep.

“But soon / A sharp and clashing noise the stillness broke, / And from the evil lethargy I woke.” He knows the lethargy is evil. His not looking is one reason the angel loses.

The angel “lay there shattered.” And: “A warrior leaning on his sword alone / Now watched the sphinx.” The angel represents a getting of height, which is also like depth, to meet the depth of the sphinx. However, a man, a warrior, is substituted for the angel. There is some fast work at this time: the angel is defeated, but one doesn’t see whether it’s by the warrior or by the sphinx, because there seems to be a tie-up. At any rate, the warrior displaces the angel.

“The sphinx unchanged looked forthright, as aware / Of nothing in the vast abyss of air. ”But the sphinx is just illimitably complacent. Again, what a defeat of the interested enemy! What a victory!

“Again I sank in that repose unsweet, / Again a clashing noise my slumber rent.” Which means that Thomson doesn’t really want to see this battle as it goes on. He sees the results: “The warrior’s sword lay broken at his feet.”

“An unarmed man with raised hands impotent / Now stood before the sphinx, which ever kept / Such mien as if with open eyes it slept.” Such a noble sphinx: it sleeps, but its eyes are open.

Thomson goes into his stupor again; then there is another crash, and he sees that the warrior “lay there shattered, with his trunkless head / Between the monster’s large quiescent paws.” The warrior has now become part of the sphinx: the man is with his head between the monster’s paws. There’s a surrender.

At the end of this section Thomson says of the sphinx: “I pondered long that cold majestic face / Whose vision seemed of infinite void space.” The sphinx, the complacent thing in a person which doesn’t want to be known and uses the mystery of the world to justify its own hiding—that has won.

Those stanzas, from “The City of Dreadful Night,” express a phase of Thomson, which occurred.

But again: the other Thomson, that was so gentle, that was so sweet, that wanted to find people so beautiful, so kind, can be read. And here is how he can sound:

My Love o’er the water bends dreaming;

It glideth and glideth away:

She sees there her own beauty, gleaming

Through shadow and ripple and spray.

Oh, tell her, thou murmuring river,

As past her your light wavelets roll,

How steadfast that image for ever

Shines pure in pure depths of my soul.

So in Thomson’s poetry we have the things in self.

The Self Has Tricks

Thomson was aware of the fight going on in him between freedom and the desire to limit himself. He expressed it in terms of the angel and the sphinx. But then he expressed it as an aesthetic problem. In the first section of a poem called “Art” he writes as follows:

What precious thing are you making fast

In all these silken lines?

And where and to whom will it go at last?

Such subtle knots and twines!

I am tying up all my love in this,

With all its hopes and fears,

With all its anguish and all its bliss,

And its hours as heavy as years.

I am going to send it afar, afar,

To I know not where above;

To that sphere beyond the highest star

Where dwells the soul of my Love.

But in vain, in vain, would I make it fast

With countless subtle twines;

For ever its fire breaks out at last,

And shrivels all the lines.

What is this about? Thomson tried to get himself a patterned life. It was a miserable life, but it seemed to have pattern and symmetry, and he used this idea of an unattainable love to justify his conceited security. The biographers have misunderstood his life.

He writes of how he wanted to present trimly his love situation: tie it up in “silken lines.” He’d send it “beyond the highest star / Where dwells the soul of my Love.” There are fun and satire there: he knows he’s doing some complacent mischief.

Then, he could use love to express something else that was going on in him. Poem 3 of “Art” sounds like Freud, but really isn’t:

Singing is sweet; but be sure of this,

Lips only sing when they cannot kiss.

Did he ever suspire a tender lay

While her presence took his breath away?

Had his fingers been able to toy with her hair

Would they then have written the verses fair?

Statues and pictures and verse may be grand,

But they are not the Life for which they stand.

Thomson here is representing honestly an evasion of his own. He knew that when he wrote of misery, he wasn’t writing just because he wasn’t kissing. And he also was aware there was that in him which didn’t want to kiss. Thomson was aware that he could use the inability to kiss to stand for the inability to take life. He knew that he could not take life constantly, and showed this inability to take life constantly as an impossibility of kissing the girl he wanted. It is an honest trick, honestly presented, for the poem; but in his life, deeply it hurt Thomson. He was a trickster in being honest. That is an interesting thing: in his life he could use deft, adroit procedures in order to stop being wholly honest; but the procedures themselves could be expressed honestly.

James Thomson Is Both

We find in him a person trying like anything to enjoy life, having those joyful times on the Thames. That is in “Sunday Up the River.” He even writes about the joys of a cigar, lustily. And yet there was the other thing. The battle in him was fierce. The battle was always unconscious.

Thomson was trying to take the deepest thing in the unconscious—the desire to be related and also an individual and be joyous about both—and use it to make a one of isolation and relation, individuality and love. That was the deepest thing in him. But that unconscious in him, he could not take as a person.

Therefore we have his poems, beautiful poems about misery and joy; but Thomson, I am afraid, never had himself.