The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Fitness, Chaucer, and Ethics

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue our serialization of the great 1949 lecture Poetry and Unity, by Eli Siegel. And we print, too, sections of a paper that photographer and Aesthetic Realism associate Len Bernstein presented this month at a tremendously important Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Mind & Body: Can a Man Use Both to Be Kind?” Mr. Bernstein spoke about something more worked at than ever before in history—physical fitness—and why, though a man’s body may be in top-notch shape, he can still dislike himself, feel dull, nervous, mean.

The basis of Aesthetic Realism is this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The chief opposites in everyone’s life, whether we are lifting weights or reading Paradise Lost, are Self and World. And Mr. Siegel explained what all the various therapists and counselors haven’t seen: the way we judge ourselves, however unconsciously, is an ethical and also aesthetic way—it is not on whether we have praise from others, career success, or fine muscle tone; it is on whether we are trying, with our thought and feeling, to be fair to the world. 

Mr. Siegel showed that the crucial reason for our not liking ourselves is that we have gone after contempt—“the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” This drive to make ourselves more through diminishing other things and people, is not only the thing that has us feel cheap, depressed, anxious; it is the source of all the unkindness that has ever been. 

The very current matter of exercise, of getting and keeping one’s body in shape, has to do with the subject of the lecture we are serializing: unity. We want to feel that this unit, our self, is substantial, powerful in individuality, distinctness, meness. But Aesthetic Realism shows that the criterion for exercise—for whether it will make us deeply surer or less sure, more whole or more inwardly at odds—is the same as the criterion for anything else we do: will we try to get to a snug and mighty sense of self through contempt for the world or respect?

Men and women throughout America, displeased with reality and themselves, have tried to get to composure and pride by concentrating on themselves physically. Our bodies should look as good and be as strong as possible. But if we find a satisfaction in kicking out the world from our mind and turning our own corporeality into the principal object of our fervent attention, we are really increasing that contempt for the world which caused us to dislike ourselves in the first place.

Fitness & Ethics, 14th Century

In the present section of Poetry and Unity Mr. Siegel speaks of a ballade by Chaucer, from his Legend of Good Women. So I use Chaucer, a little, to comment on this matter of body and ethics. Like every important writer, he was interested in the relation of the physicality of a person and the quality of that person’s thought. And in the General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales we find descriptions of how each of the pilgrims on the road to Canterbury looked, and what that person’s ethics or character was. The most muscularly impressive is the Miller. 

The work of a miller was to grind the corn, or grain; and as payment, or partial payment, the medieval miller would “tollen” take a fixed percent of the customer’s grain for himself. Chaucer tells us that this Miller was big in muscle and also bone—“Ful byg he was of brawn, and eek of bones.” That poetic line itself has weight, with those heavy b sounds in accented syllables. Meanwhile, in keeping with Aesthetic Realism’s great, true explanation of beauty: if the line did not have lightness too, a kind of skip, it would not be beautiful—would not be important, after 600 years. 

Chaucer’s Miller had such physical prowess that he always won the prize, a ram, at wrestling matches:“ At wrastlynge he wolde have alwey the ram.” Yet Chaucer wants us to feel that this man, for all his fitness, saw the world as something to beat out, have contempt for, get the better of; and therefore he used his body for that purpose. The following lines have charm and music; but they tell of an intense combat with things: Ther was no dore that he nolde heve of harre, / Or breke it at a rennyng with his heed.” This means: "There was no door he wouldn’t heave off its hinges, / Or break it at a running with his head.” 

Kinds of Power

In the following lines, Chaucer comments on the Miller’s mind, his ethics. I quote the Middle English, then translate: 

He was a janglere and a goliardeys, 

And that was moost of synne and harlotries. 

Wel koude he stelen corn and tollen thries.

“He was a loud talker and one who told coarse stories, / And they were mostly about sin and vulgarities. / Well could he steal corn, and take three times his due.”

There are various kinds of power in this world, and Chaucer was interested in them. There is physical power, and it can be used either to respect the world or not. There is the power of contempt, which can take the form of making the world disgusting and ridiculous, so you can look down on it: that is the power the Miller went for in telling vulgar stories. And he went after another popular form of contempt: taking financial advantage of people.

Then, there is what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the greatest power: to see and bring out the meaning in things. This power, of respect for the world, of good will, Chaucer describes lovingly in, for instance, the Parson, and the Clerk. It is what he as artist had—because to describe cheapness, like that of the Miller, with a grand accuracy is to respect the world.

In one couplet, Chaucer has us feel that the Miller, too, wanted the power of caring for the world, not just beating it. As the pilgrims head toward Canterbury, the Miller plays an instrument, the bagpipe. Doing so, he is using, at last and together, force and tenderness: “A baggepipe wel coude he blowe and sowne, / And therewithal he broghte us out of towne” (“A bagpipe well could he blow and sound , / And with it, he brought us out of town”).

Aesthetic Realism is knowledge that can enable every person to use both our minds and our bodies to be kind, intelligent, and proud.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


A Bringing Together

By Eli Siegel

There is an interesting problem of unity in a poem by Chaucer: the distinction of a person is accented by her being related to others. Chaucer praises a lady by showing how everybody in history and legend, including some people in the Bible, would really feel bad if she came. It begins:

Hyd, Absolon, thy gilte tresses clere; 

Ester, ley thou thy meknesse al adown; 

Hyd, Jonathas, al thy frendly manere; 

Penalopee and Marcia Catoun, 

Make of your wifhod no comparysoun; 

Hyde ye youre beautes, Ysoude and Eleyne; 

My lady cometh, that al this may disteyne....

Chaucer’s lady comes, and Chaucer says, Absolom, you’d better be ashamed of yourself, though your hair was praised so much in the Bible. This lady is more meek than Esther—no comparison! And although Jonathan had a love for David stronger than death, this lady is better than Jonathan. 

Through all these differences there is a relation, a unification of the lady with all these people in legend. “My lady cometh, that al this may disteyne.” Disteyne means to make dim. She is the one who seems to sum them all up because she unifies them all, makes them look not so good.

...And Polixene, that boughten love so dere, / And Cleopatre, with al thy passyoun...” The lady, just because Chaucer knows her, brings them together, and makes them look unimportant: My lady cometh, that al this may disteyne.” That is a way of making a difference and also a bringing together.


Mind, Body, and Kindness

By Len Bernstein

There is a deep hope in men to feel our inner thoughts and outer appearance can have a good effect, have others better off. But a frequent mistake is to equate building up our minds and bodies with feeling superior to people. And I have seen that when a man has contempt, no matter how many pounds he can lift or facts he accumulates, he feels lonely and unkind. 

What Will Have Us Like Ourselves?

While I was a fairly healthy American boy, I told myself the reason I felt awkward and self-conscious was that I didn’t have an impressive physique. Like many boys growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, I was affected by advertisements on the back of comic books for the famous Dan Lurie bodybuilding course. There was always a photograph of Lurie, with his powerful build and good-natured smile, and I felt if I could look that way, I would feel good about myself. Yet as I worked hard to get my body stronger and more flexible, I didn’t feel good-natured. And at home with my parents and sister, I used my newfound power to act like a sulky potentate, moody and surly. The idea of wanting to exercise to have more feeling for people, to be kinder, never crossed my mind.

At 15, when a karate school opened above the local ice cream parlor, a friend and I went to see what it was about. With awe, we watched Sensei Ohara perform kata; and I enrolled the next day. I didn’t know it, but along with the appeal for me of promised strength, I was affected by the power and grace with which the teacher moved. In a kata, one movement can include both a powerful lunge and also a fluid curve. The body contracts and expands, stamps and glides, as you move across the floor. And as the kata concludes, you have to return to the very spot from which you began, with a bow of humility. I was being affected by opposites I hoped to put together in myself; and this was the best reason I had for caring for karate.

But the pride I felt performing katas didn’t last because I used karate to distinguish myself falsely. I thought earning a black belt at 19 would impress people and bring me confidence; but as years passed, though I worked out more and more, I did not feel at ease. In TRO 1002, Ellen Reiss explains:

The popularity, in our time, of exercise, and fitness centers, and jogging, comes in part from the terrific human desire, organic and eternal, to be in motion (like rivers and sparrows and gazelles and the earth itself), as well as from the desire to have a healthy body. Meanwhile, people have too often worked out and run in order to evade the deepest oneness of rest and motion they are looking for: honest thought about themselves and the world. People have been afraid of that motion which is though—that going into the meaning of things, that precise exploration and mental energy—and also that lingering on what a thing is and means.

I was afraid of “that lingering on what a thing is.” I saw people as two-dimensional, and often practiced my techniques by staging imaginary fights in my mind with persons I passed on the street. I found it harder and harder to talk to people or look them in the eye. After four years of rigorous physical training, I felt even more separate from people, and more than ever did not like myself.

In an Aesthetic Realism class some years ago, when I commented that I found myself constantly looking in the mirror to see if my physique was in good shape, Ellen Reiss said to me something men everywhere are aching to hear: “The big question is, What is our power? You can ask, ‘Is it to create a sensation when I walk in a room; or to see the world as truly and as beautifully as I can, and also see and affect people’s lives as well as possible?’”

I Learned about Love

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that good will—which Mr. Siegel described as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful”—is the crucial thing in love. But men have instead used women as I did: to glorify ourselves.

When I was taken by a woman, I turned on the “charm,” using little terms of endearment, buying “thoughtful” gifts. I would stare soulfully into her eyes; but I wasn’t interested in her depths, nor did I feel I could touch a woman and be kind, until I learned from Aesthetic Realism the difference between respect and contempt, between wanting to know a person and patronizing her.

While I’d changed a great deal through my study of Aesthetic Realism, I still had, more than I knew, aspects of that contemptuous attitude to women. For instance, I was troubled, and my wife was too, by the way I would call her “honey”so often, sometimes three or four times in a single minute. And often it happened when I wasn’t feeling just warmly towards Harriet, but was annoyed or angry. In a class discussion, when I mentioned this, Ellen Reiss asked me, “So, why do you think it is wise, as Hamlet said to Ophelia, to 'nickname God’s creatures’?”

I didn’t know, and she explained, “All nicknames are metaphors; it’s interesting. The main thing is, is it respectful? One can [respectfully] use terminology that’s tender and playful. But two people can call each other ‘snooks’ and despise each other. Do you think it can be a substitute for love: you make much of a person while really saying that person belongs only to you?”

Through this discussion and others, I saw that much of what I had taken to be love was really the diminishing of another person; and that was why, with all my endearments, I had felt distant from my wife. It was clear she wanted something truer—and so did I! I got what I hoped for, plus much more, in studying Aesthetic Realism. When I look into Harriet’s kind eyes or hold her in my arms, I feel closer to her thoughts, and to the wide, various world she has to do with. Instead of feeling insulted by her relation to the world and people, as I regret I once did, it excites me and makes me kinder! I represent men everywhere who will feel enormous gratitude to Aesthetic Realism.