The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Feelings, Facts, & What We Do with Them

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the third part of The Scientific Method in Feeling, by Eli Siegel. This great 1973 lecture begins with his describing the rift people make between feeling and knowing. It is a division men and women take for granted in their everyday lives, even as they’re weakened hugely by it and ashamed of it. Throughout the world and throughout the years people have seen their feelings as things they need not—and cannot—be exact about. Scientists too have severed knowing from feeling; they have seen feelings as essentially unknowable. But early in the lecture, Mr. Siegel says: “The purpose of the real scientific method would be to know a thing in the best way....The question is: can there be scientific method which isn’t at the same time fair to feeling?”

The disinclination to see our feelings exactly, be accurate critics of them, is as frequent as breathing. Yet the danger of not trying to see ourselves truly is gigantic. As Mr. Siegel once described in a lesson: if we don’t want to know ourselves we’ll misuse ourselves—in the same way that people have hurt themselves operating a big, powerful machine without wanting to understand how it works and what it is. To feel and to know are opposites, and this central principle of Aesthetic Realism includes them: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

How Alive Is a Fact?

In his lecture Mr. Siegel uses an anthology, the College Book of English Literature, to show that knowing and feeling are inseparable. At this point he has reached the Tudor period, which began in 1485. And as Mr. Siegel gives facts about that period, including specific dates, we see something beautiful, something that stands for him as educator and person: he presented any fact—including those that could seem dry or cold—in a way that had one feel the life in them, the electricity, even sometimes the humor. He did this not through any artificial means or clever additives. He had one feel the emotion, the meaning, in facts because he felt that meaning; and he stated any fact with such graceful truth about it and its relation to other facts, and with such fine prose rhythm, that a technical thing was reverberatingly alive.

Mr. Siegel speaks “technically” here at some length about the Tudors; and I believe the reason is to show what it’s the purpose of the lecture itself to show: that there is no datum, no strict fact, that doesn’t have feeling in it and that can’t make for feeling.

The Criterion

Fundamental to understanding what we feel is this explanation, given by Aesthetic Realism alone: Anything we do, including feel, is on behalf of either respect for the world or contempt for it. A feeling based on the desire to have contempt for reality is always ugly and hurtful. Feeling based on the desire to respect the world is strengthening, kind, and can be immensely beautiful. Meanwhile, there is subtlety in this matter. Take a very homely feeling: A person welcomes some chocolate cake into her mouth and feels, “This is delicious.” There is respect there, for an aspect of reality. However, her feeling pleased can swiftly become the feeling, articulated or not, “I’m in a mean world, and this cake soothes me against that nasty world, enables me to feel apart from it. Also, as I have the cake between my teeth and on my tongue, at last I have the world on my terms, submissive to me, designed to please me.” That is contempt. A different feeling, though, could accompany the “this is delicious” feeling: the feeling that the relation of intensity and soothingness or sweetness in chocolate cake is a means to value the oneness of these qualities anywhere—including in music, the spoken word, people. That feeling is respect.

Uncriticized Feelings, Personal & International

I mention now just a few of the feelings people have not wanted to look at in themselves, have not wanted to know. They’re part of personal life; but, since people running nations are people, all these feelings have also been present in a national and international field. There’s this frequent feeling, which, though it can seem quiet, is contempt all the way: the feeling, “A person who praises me is good, while anyone who questions or criticizes me is bad.” To judge the quality of a person, and the quality of truth, on the basis of whether he, she, or it makes us important is foul.

The chief reason people have not wanted to know their feelings is something Eli Siegel was the philosopher to explain: we would rather use ourselves than know ourselves, use that equipment which is we to go after making ourselves comfortable and impressive. If we were to look at our feeling, question it, see it truly, our ability to use ourselves for our own false glory would be much curtailed. To see that “a certain feeling of mine might be unjust” has been very distasteful: it hinders the going after what we see as our way. Also, a person can have a feeling that is very good—for instance, the feeling “No child should be poor in America!”—and not want to see the feeling clearly, with full vividness. The reason is: knowing this feeling might interfere with various notions of comfort and importance she has, because it would make her feel she should do something about the situation. And it would make her feel she should question her sense of herself as deserving much more than other people deserve.

A big aspect of feeling is wanting something. And what people have wanted is, again, in behalf of either respect for the world or contempt for it. People have wanted praise; a certain power; someone’s affection. Are we interested in knowing whether we want these in order to respect things more, or in order to have contempt? It could be either.

This Has Been Done with Feelings

In our time the social media, which can be a field for kindness, is also a field for the sloppy and harmful thrusting of feelings that one doesn’t want to see with critical exactitude: “I have this feeling. It’s mine so it must be right. I can get it into 140 characters and spread it abroad in seconds and I don’t have to look at the facts, or possible results.”

One of the awful effects of severing feelings from a desire to know, is: people have thought they could create logic and facts to justify their feeling. This is called lying. It has gone on throughout the centuries and, as we have seen recently, it can be quite elaborate. We should use the seeing of it, in its ugliness, to see the importance of trying to be exact about our own feelings, including our desires. There is no real alternative: either we will want to see the facts about our feelings, or we’ll “create facts” to justify them.

For example, a boy, Clay, punches another boy in the face—and then Clay tells this phony story to inquiring adults: “I only did it because I heard him saying he would beat up my sister. Everyone knows he said it! Fifteen people heard him. And he was snickering when he said it!” And it’s all untrue.

Sometimes the created “facts” are told by us to ourselves, in our own mind. A girl, for instance, who feels driven to be against another girl, to be angry at and make fun of this girl, tells herself the following—which isn’t so: “Jenna is always showing off. She looks down on me. She wants to take away my friends. The way she smiles is creepy. Also, her family is strange. It’s right for me to hate her, and to wish she didn’t exist.”

Then—as we have been seeing—lying, creating “facts,” can be horribly extensive in its viciousness, geared to bring out the viciousness of many others. And all this falsification comes from the seeing of one’s own feeling as unquestionable, as supreme, as something to which everything else, including the truth, should be subjugated.

In this part of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about two poems. He is the critic who explained: “Poetry is logic and emotion brought together so well, music ensues.” And through the magnificent philosophy he founded, we can learn to do increasingly that vital thing which poetry, and all art, does: have logic and emotion inseparable friends in us.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Fact, Emotion, & the Tudors

By Eli Siegel

We come to a poet of Tudor times. The Tudor period technically, very technically, is from 1485 to 1603. And here we have an aspect of scientific method, an aspect I’ve loved from the very beginning: dates. As soon as I got a date clear, I said, At least we don’t have to fool around with that anymore. So the Tudor period technically—nothing could be more technical—began in 1485, because the first Tudor was the person who defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, sometimes called Henry VII. He isn’t dealt with by Shakespeare directly as king, but he does get into Richard III as Earl of Richmond. So, he was the first of the Tudors.

Then everything gets a little mixed up. The next of the Tudors is a person who was quite different, which shows you can’t go by the family. Henry VII is so different from his son Henry VIII. I have studied the life of Henry VII, and, after that time of going to England and defeating the Duke of Gloucester and getting the kingdom, he was quite careful—we find him carefully planning the having of North America by England through John Cabot. Well, his son is different; but Henry VIII is the second of the Tudors.

The third is a person who wasn’t on the throne long and had much to do with the Book of Common Prayer, but he was definitely king: Edward VI. And Edward VI was followed by the daughter of Catherine, Henry VIII’s first wife: Mary. “Bloody Mary” she’s sometimes called, because she took religion too seriously—she really felt that heretics shouldn’t be around. However, her cause is in history; it’s written of by Froude. She married Philip II of Spain. The idea of being married to Philip II—it’s like being married to the Escorial. There’s a good deal to be said. But she is the Tudor who preceded her half-sister (the mothers were different but the father was the same), and we have Elizabeth. She occupies a big part of the Tudor presence as royalty in England: 1558 to 1603. So, those are the Tudors. I’m glad you asked me.

Then, in 1603, about the time of Hamlet, came another family, called the Stuarts. They are also famous.

Poetry amid It All

The persons who were known for a while as the most important Tudor poets writing before Elizabeth were Wyatt and Surrey. They both had sad lives, and they both had great difficulty with Henry VIII. But they’re seen as part of the poetry of the Tudor times, which we’d better say is poetry from 1485 to 1558. That does not include the Elizabethans, though technically Elizabeth is a Tudor. Another poet of the Tudor period is Thomas Tusser, who wrote on agriculture. And there’s Stephen Hawes, with a long poem that I’ve quoted from. But in recent years the writer who has come to be seen as the most notable of the Tudor poets is John Skelton. There has been a big change in feeling. He was known, but now he is seen as an important poet. This book includes the most famous of his poems, a long poem about the dying of a bird, “Philip Sparrow.” It begins with Catullus’s poem on Lesbia’s sparrow, but the whole manner is different. And it has that swift meter that’s sometimes called skeltonics. It’s a meter with swift, short lines, and can have a very beautiful effect.

“Philip Sparrow”: Emotion & Exactitude

A girl, telling how fond she was of the sparrow and how close she would have him to her—as in the poem of Catullus—tells how active he was. This is poetry of a salient kind. There’s feeling in it. The scientific method would include examining how the syllables fall, how many are in a line, how the rhymes occur, how a word is used. The management of this line, the swift skeltonic line, is hardly to be seen anywhere else. It’s not the same as the eight-syllable line of Butler, because there’s more uncertainty in it. —This is a description of the sparrow finding little living things he was interested in:

Sometime he would gasp

When he saw a wasp;

A fly or a gnat,

He would fly at that;

And prettily he would pant

When he saw an ant;

Lord, how he would pry

After the butterfly!

Lord, how he would hop

After the gressop!

And when I said, “Phip, Phip,”

Then he would leap and skip,

And take me by the lip.

Alas, it will me slo,

That Philip is gone me fro!

That’s swiftness. And it is poetry. You have a feeling of breathlessness in saying the words. For example: “Sometimes he would gasp / When he saw a wasp.” This is part of phonetics, and phonetics is a science. How do we use our throat?

“Lord, how he would pry / After the butterfly! / Lord, how he would hop / After the gressop!” (Gres-sop is grasshopper.) You have various kinds of motion. It happens that every leg of the centipede belongs to scientific method. You can’t miss one.

Then, another part of the poem. What kind of souls have beings other than man? Does the sparrow have a soul? And pigeons have been thought about. It’s so easy to take pigeons collectively and not individually. It’s one of the easiest temptations. The writer, in talking as the girl, hopes that the Lord will save the sparrow’s soul:

Good Lord, have mercy

Upon my sparrow’s soul,

Written in my beadroll!

The beadroll is a very fine Catholic custom, a list of all the persons you’re supposed to pray for. Philip Sparrow is included in this girl’s beadroll.

There is a relation of cause and emotion. As soon as we deal with cause, we are in the scientific field. When we ask what a thing is, that’s scientific. When we ask what the cause of it is, that’s scientific. What it can do, which is the effect, is science too. And that can be asked about feeling. It can be asked about poetry. It is quite clear that the lines of John Skelton had a different effect from that of the long sentence by Sir Thomas More I read earlier, about Richard III. Why? Skelton and More are pretty near exact contemporaries. Skelton is older.

A Favorite Subject

There are Wyatt and Surrey, and they are still being studied. They are important and both are poetic. Thomas Wyatt is the older person. He’s given the dates 1503-1542. And a favorite subject of his, as of many poets, is one’s worries. Worries are ever so popular in poetry. The purpose of poetry is to make the worries seem pretty and yet honest.

A famous poem of Wyatt is “My Lute, Awake!” He says when he writes this song and sings it, his work will have been done and he’s not going to do it anymore:

My lute, awake! perform the last

Labor that thou and I shall waste,

And end that I have now begun;

For when this song is sung and past,

My lute, be still, for I have done.

This is workmanlike poetry, but it’s poetry.

Then, a stanza that has science in it, and also a certain kind of comparison. When we look at the tides going against rocks, we can have a feeling. There are many places in the New York neighborhood where we can see that; Rockaway has a lot of it. You go at four o’clock in the morning and watch the waters going against the shore, and you can get a feeling of tragedy and uselessness. And if you see the water against the rocks on, say, the coast of Scotland or California, a feeling can be had. Wyatt writes about it. This is as good a stanza as any he wrote:

The rocks do not so cruelly

Repulse the waves continually,

As she my suit and affection;

So that I am past remedy,

Whereby my lute and I have done.

“The rocks do not so cruelly / Repulse the waves continually.” One can see the rocks impelled by something they don’t know. But one can see also the rocks being cruel repelling the waves.

That stanza was enjoyed in the 16th century. In 1554 the work of Surrey and Wyatt appeared in Tottel’s Misellany—and Shakespeare seems to have been very aware of Tottel’s Miscellany. There is enough to show that these lines gave a certain pleasure. Why do they give pleasure? They are well done and there is so much quiet motion in them.

The poems of Wyatt and Surrey had been wandering around in manuscript, and then in 1557, which was in the time, to get back to her, of the reign of Mary, the people had a chance to get a look-see in Tottel’s Miscellany. And they liked this.

So that is a stanza of Wyatt, and it’s a good stanza. It’s done so carefully that science is simply redolent.