The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Day & Night, Awake & Asleep—We Are Related

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish here the 3rd section of the magnificent Hail, Relation; or, A Study in Poetry. This 1972 lecture by Eli Siegel can be seen as illustrating the following sentences from the Preface to his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems:

Poetry, like life, states that the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things. Whatever is in the world, whatever person, has meaning because it or he has to do with the whole universe: immeasurable and crowded reality.

Mostly, people do not feel that the things they meet, the persons, the occurrences, are related to each other—let alone to millions of other things and people of now and the past. Therefore, they have a pervasive yet taken for granted feeling that most of reality is messy and dull. If we do not see things as related, we have to feel agitated and feel too an essential emptiness, absence of meaning.

Poetry: Our Friend & Critic

In this lecture, Mr. Siegel shows that poetry, real poetry, is always a graceful, intense, surprising, true dealing with the relatedness of things. Poetry is, therefore, a criticism of how we see; and it also meets our largest hope, shows us what we long for.

A poem that Mr. Siegel discusses in the section printed here is one of the most difficult and puzzling poems in American literature. It is poem 7 of Wallace Stevens’s “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.” And Mr. Siegel explains what it means. His greatness as a critic of poetry was in the fact that he saw and could show what made a poem beautiful (or not beautiful); and that he also could make clear what the poem meant, what the poet was saying. He understood truly what a poem was about, just as he understood people, the biggest and most delicate things in a person.

There is nothing I love more than the way Mr. Siegel spoke about poetry. And we meet some of that here.

All through the lecture, there is present that Aesthetic Realism principle which describes the fundamental relation among all things and people: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

How we see (and don’t see) our relatedness to what’s not us is the biggest matter in our lives. On it depends how well we learn; whether we are kind or cruel; in fact, all the things we are most concerned about in ourselves. I’ll comment on one of these.

Why People Can’t Sleep

Night after night, millions of men and women across America cannot sleep, or have much trouble sleeping. According to the CDC, about 9 million take sleep medications. The pharmaceutical companies reap huge profits from this nocturnal torment. And the various sleep therapies haven’t worked. Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which, understanding the aesthetic structure of the human self, explains the cause of sleeplessness.

We can begin to see the cause by asking: As people go to bed at night, is it with love for their relation to the outside world? Or is there the resentful feeling, “All day I’ve been meeting things that have the nerve to confuse me; people who don’t do what I want them to; a world which keeps giving me the sense that I’m imperfect and don’t know enough”? People have felt sleep is a time when they can finally get rid of the outside world, and have themselves pure, untainted by external things and people—which means unrelated.

There is a feeling, “Yes, I’m forced to be in some relation to things during the day—I have to meet people, smile at them, work with them—but all along there’s something in me that feels apart. At bedtime, my treasured apart-self can at last have free reign, be unencumbered.” This feeling is an aspect of what Aesthetic Realism identifies as the most hurtful, ugly, stupid thing in everyone: contempt. Contempt is the desire to make ourselves more by lessening what’s different from us.

Meanwhile, contempt is always in a fight with the deepest desire we have: to like the world, be ourselves through welcoming our relation to it. This fight is at the center of one’s inability to sleep. In Self and World, Eli Siegel explains:

In insomnia there is a...fight between that aspect of the personality which wants to use sleep as a means of dismissing externalities, and that self which wants proudly to recognize these externalities and to grow through them. [P. 337]

He describes that second, true self in a person he calls Ruth Darnton, who suffers from insomnia. He has the true self of Ruth say to her contemptuous self:

“You have made Ruth want to feel that her glory was in being able to see other people and other things as unimportant. You have made Ruth go to sleep as if sleep were a leaving of the whole world....You and I have to fight for Ruth. I don’t want her to sleep any more on the old terms....I suppose I’ll have to bother her. It’s too bad but Ruth can’t sink into a being who thinks that sleep is a time to put aside the very world on whose existence she depends; which represents her; and which is she.” [Pp. 336-7]

People can’t sleep because we have what Mr. Siegel has called an ethical unconscious. This ethical unconscious stands for the best and most fundamental thing in us, and it makes us dislike ourselves for being unjust, for having contempt. It can, as with Ruth Darnton, keep us awake if we want to use sleep contemptuously, to expunge our relation to things.

The answer to sleep difficulties is not in pills or sleep clinics. It’s in seeing what relation truly is. It’s in seeing that the world, with all its puzzlingness and grandeur, is, as Mr. Siegel so kindly explained, the other half of ourselves.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Multitudinous Relation

By Eli Siegel

The thing that has gone on in all poetry is the trying to see what relations among things—words, sounds, meanings, colors—are possible. There is a series of difficult short poems by Wallace Stevens, poems of 11 lines, called, strangely, “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle,” “The Monocle of My Uncle.” Persons have wondered why it should be called that. I guess Stevens had in mind that the monocle is something that may see a thing partially yet more completely. Sometimes it is better, as with a watchmaker, to look with one eye than with two.

I’ll read one of these 11-line poems. What Stevens says in it is that always in the world there are two kinds of activities, two kinds of motions, and he hints that there is a relation between them. If you find you don’t understand this poem right away, don’t be alarmed.

The mules that angels ride come slowly down

The blazing passes, from beyond the sun.

Descensions of their tinkling bells arrive.

These muleteers are dainty of their way.

Meantime, centurions guffaw and beat

Their shrilling tankards on the table-boards.

This parable, in sense, amounts to this:

The honey of heaven may or may not come,

But that of earth both comes and goes at once.

Suppose these couriers brought amid their train

A damsel heightened by eternal bloom.

However it may be, it’s a good poem. I’m fond of both the mules and muleteers and the centurions. And as far as I’m concerned, the uncle can have his monocle as long as he wishes. I’ll try to say what the poem means.

“The mules that angels ride come slowly down.” It happens that in our bodies there are things that are going along slowly, and there are things that are going along fast. There’s motion of various kinds. For example, blood circulation is a little faster than digestion. And digestion is a little faster than just growing. There’s a whole coalition of speed and slowness, and semi-slowness, and determination, and hesitation. This is what Stevens is writing about.

In the first lines he says there’s a certain kind of motion that comes from afar. It’s slow and uncertain. This is the motion of mules being ridden by angels. “The mules that angels ride come slowly down / The blazing passes, from beyond the sun.” These mules are divine, but they’re still mules. They try to get to earth. And they show that they’re around, because their bells tinkle: “Descensions of their tinkling bells arrive.” That is very pretty indeed, and shows there’s such a thing as American poetry.

“These muleteers are dainty of their way.” They bring the message of the mules and the bells from heaven—and the sign that it is heaven is that angels are riding the mules.

However, there’s another kind of motion: “Meantime, centurions guffaw and beat / Their shrilling tankards on the table-boards.” The presence of the two kinds of motion is a little bit like the fact that persons argue at the stock exchange and then there is the mystery of calculus, higher mathematics.

Ever since centurions got into the New Testament, not understanding Christ, there has been a touch of showiness and assertiveness seen in centurions. You always think they are going to be a little stodgy and quite violent.

“Meantime, centurions guffaw and beat / Their shrilling tankards on the table-boards.” So you have guffawing and beating related to the dainty coming from on high of the mules with tinkling bells.

“This parable, in sense, amounts to this: / The honey of heaven may or may not come, / But that of earth both comes and goes at once.” That is: we’ve got the centurions and they’re making a lot of noise; but as to whether the angels are to get exactly where they want to go, or the mules are—that’s something else. “But that of earth both comes and goes at once”: that’s the centurions.

Then Stevens says: maybe we could solve this problem if the couriers—the mules—brought someone who would stand for beauty as seeable: “Suppose these couriers brought amid their train / A damsel heightened by eternal bloom.”

There are two kinds of motions, seen and unseen, and they are related. The motion of dishes being washed in a restaurant sink is related to the motion of the unconscious of some of the patrons in the restaurant. Stevens is very good at relation.

Music & a Person

Getting now to an older poem, by a contemporary of Shakespeare, Thomas Campion. Poetry older, newer, current, unfound—all these have to do with each other. One can see that if we say things have to do with each other, they are related. The poem of Campion I’ll read is “Follow Your Saint.”

Occasionally, a relation is asked for, as in the famous phrase “Stick with me, kid, and nothing will happen to you.” That’s a wished-for relation. Another wished-for relation is “Get out of here and stay in the other room until you’re called.” “Go fly a kite” is relation, but it’s hinted: go fly a kite so you can be in relation to the kite. “Follow your saint” is more polite.

Follow your saint, follow with accents sweet!

Haste you, sad notes, fall at her flying feet!

There, wrapt in cloud of sorrow, pity move,

And tell the ravisher of my soul I perish for her love:

But if she scorns my never-ceasing pain,

Then burst with sighing in her sight and ne’er return again!

 

All that I sung still to her praise did tend;

Still she was first, still she my songs did end;

Yet she my love and music both doth fly,

The music that her echo is and beauty’s sympathy:

Then let my notes pursue her scornful flight!

It shall suffice that they were breathed and died for her delight.

Campion was a composer; he had very much to do with music. Painters, writers, poets, musicians have said, “Where has my inspiration gone? Where is Katie, the inspiration of my heart? Where is it gone?” One can see this poem as something of a comment on the Shakespeare sonnet I read earlier, because it is quite clear that the person spoken to is a woman but also Campion’s feeling for music.

“Follow your saint, follow with accents sweet!” That is: you can have some musical accents, but try to see what the meaning is—which is the saint. The saint is both musical possibility and a woman.

“There, wrapt in cloud of sorrow, pity move, / And tell the ravisher of my soul I perish for her love.” A word used in Elizabethan times, and also used by Pepys, about music is ravishing. Music is ravishing.

“But if she scorns my never-ceasing pain, / Then burst with sighing in her sight and ne’er return again!” That would mean that Campion perhaps is not able to get to this music. Mozart always succeeded. We’ve never heard of any of the failures of Mozart. He was too busy to have any failures. But it’s likely there were some things he wanted to do that he couldn’t do, or get to.

“All that I sung still to her praise did tend; / Still she was first, still she my songs did end.” The phrase “still she my songs did end” has a mingling of music and social life. “Yet she my love and music both doth fly, / The music that her echo is and beauty’s sympathy.” What does it mean to say that his music is her echo?

“Then let my notes pursue her scornful flight! / It shall suffice that they were breathed and died for her delight.” So, could a person feel he is in a relation to music and also to a person, and blend the two: I have two goddesses—the implication of chords and herself ? Whatever these lines may be, they’re about relation.

This Can Be Close to Us

There can be a relation of pain. In a pretty well-known poem of Burns, a Scottish girl has lost the person she cares for in the Battle of Culloden, of 1746. It was fought by the representative of the English king, the Duke of Cumberland, who was seen as quite cruel, and Bonnie Prince Charlie (Charles Edward Stuart). The Scottish Jacobites lost. This was an important battle: it was the end of the Stuarts, definitely. But the battle was in relation, as a battle often is, to a girl. A woman might have said, about another battle, “The Somme is history to others, but the loss of my marriage to me.” Things are related differently: “It may not mean anything to you, but I can’t tell you what it means to me.”

Well, this is Burns, and “Lament for Culloden.” The “cruel lord” here is the Duke of Cumberland; he was called “Butcher.” And Drumossie moor is another name for Culloden.

The lovely lass o’ Inverness,

Nae joy nor pleasure can she see;

For e’en and morn she cries, “Alas!”

And aye the saut tear blin’s her e’e:

“Drumossie moor, Drumossie day,

A waefu’ day it was to me!

For there I lost my father dear,

My father dear and brethren three.

 

“Their winding-sheet the bluidy clay,

Their graves are growing green to see;

And by them lies the dearest lad

That ever blest a woman’s e’e!

Now wae to thee, thou cruel lord,

A bluidy man I trow thou be;

For monie a heart thou has made sair,

That ne’er did wrang to thine or thee.”

Along with losing the person she loved, there was also a father lost, and brothers. But somehow what remains in readers is: “And by them lies the dearest lad / That ever blest a woman’s e’e!” All because of the battle, and because Stuart and Hanover were fighting.

So we have a relation which is a big thing and was shown in two world wars: that what can happen in a part of the world you’re not interested in can get very close to you. However, the large thing in the poem is still the way words, sounds, are related.

“Their winding-sheet the bluidy clay, / Their graves are growing green to see.” These things are related—winding-sheet, bloody clay, graves growing green: these are elemental things, but they are part also of a relation of sound.

As with an Orchestra

Many things, then, can be related at once. An orchestra is an example of that. And a poem is always an orchestration. There’s no poem without orchestration. There’s an orchestration of, among other things, sounds, visual things, tactile things, and meanings. And orchestration can be considered compact and multitudinous relation.