The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

History and Children

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Poetry and History, a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel. The large, warm, exact way of seeing history which is in it, and which is central to Aesthetic Realism, is in keeping with this principle, on which Aesthetic Realism is based: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the present section of the lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about the opposites of the fixed or definite and the unplaced, the unknown, in history.

We print here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled “What Do Children Really Want from Their Parents?” All through history, parents have not known the answer to that question. Children have been born, grown up, had children of their own, without parents knowing what their children most wanted from them. And parents have not understood, either, the biggest mistake they were making with their children. The paper by Mr. Blaustein is courageous in its honesty.

I am very glad, now, to quote from two poems by Eli Siegel. Both appear in his book Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. And both bring together children and history.

I think “Dear Birds, Tell This to Mothers” is one of the most compassionate poems ever written. It has compassion and grandeur. Here are the first 14 lines; and a child is shown to be like history—literary history—in the last of these lines:

Fly, birds, over all grieving mothers.

Tell them, if they know more,

They will grieve less.

Tell them that the children they grieve for

Are as mysterious as the God they pray to;

For God’s way is in them.

Tell them that the children who came from their bodies

Have come from so far away,

And from so much;

And that these children

Are going for so much

Of Hell and Heaven, dark and light—

That mothers can be as away from them

As from lost lines in the early poetry of France....

There is so much to say about this enormously musical poem—including the fact that the second and third lines have in them what Mr. Siegel believed to be so about everything in a person’s life: “Tell them, if they know more, / They will grieve less.” Most people feel that the more you know, the more painful you will find things. But Mr. Siegel loved knowledge passionately and completely.

How Wide Is a Child?

The central matter in this poem is also the central, unrecognized matter around every crib or playground: how wide is a child?; how much of the world is in her, including history? Aesthetic Realism explains that every child has to do with the whole world—nothing less. She is related to every happening of humanity’s past, every fact of science, even every bird or flower. For one thing, it will be possible for her to have these in her mind. And she has in her the structure of the world itself, the oneness of opposites: she is a particular drama of reality’s repose and tumult; surface and depth; pleasure and displeasure; simplicity and terrific complexity.

Parents, this poem says, need to see their child as very close to them, yes; but also as being just as strange, unsum-up-able, unhad by them as “lost lines in the early poetry of France.” That phrase itself by Mr. Siegel is, musically, both so tender and so gracefully wide.

Aesthetic Realism shows, what a child most wants from her parents is that they encourage her to like the world—this world to which she is infinitely related. If they don’t, no matter how much of a fuss they make about her, she will feel deeply rooked.

The Parental & Human Mistake

Mr. Siegel is the person of thought who has explained the source of every injustice, whether international or personal. That source is the desire for contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Everyone goes after contempt—but it is always completely ugly. The huge mistake of parents is to use a child to have contempt for the world by seeing her as superior to the rest of reality. This is also contempt for the child; because in making the child too good for an unworthy universe, the parents have really made her small: they have taken away the biggest, most beautiful thing about her—her relation to the world and her thirst to like reality itself.

Another poem in Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems is “Night in 1242.” This poem shows that two children and what they did on an ordinary day are part of history—as much as Napoleon or Caesar. It begins:

In 1242 people looked at the sun.

Let’s have some fun,

Said Jane Terrell to John Hodge in 1242.

Jane was so little, John was so little, in 1242.

So they tried to pull off some branches

from a tree, a tree that was near them....

In these lines we see that the matter-of-fact, presented musically, has wonder. I love the line “Jane was so little, John was so little, in 1242”: there is such tenderness toward these children—and there they are, in the 13th century; we feel the distance of the world as time is with them. They are far, and so near. They are little, and given such respect.

Eli Siegel is the educator who articulated the deep hopes of children, and who stood up most fully for what children really want. It moves me tremendously to say he did that with me. I am looking at notes of an Aesthetic Realism lesson my parents, Daniel and Irene Reiss, had when I was two years old, and I see these words of Mr. Siegel:

You don’t bear a child to have a possession, but in order to have that child like the world....Ask her, “Ellen, do I make you like other people or do I make you dislike them?”...Do you think in some way you encourage Ellen to grow up a snob? She doesn’t want that from you. She wants to be known and understood and not coddled and to be a snob.

Eli Siegel was the person who most respected children—and adults. Because of his honesty, knowledge, and courage, he has made it possible for people of any age to meet each other’s hopes.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


History: Fixed and Unfixed

By Eli Siegel

William Wordsworth is a poet who accented the unknown in history—that which could not be placed, the unfixed, the roaming. Where he does this most noticeably is in the poem “The Solitary Reaper.” It is a very good poem. It is about a girl heard singing, and seen, in the highlands of Scotland. The first four lines of the third stanza are part of the beautiful quotability of English:

Will no one tell me what she sings?—

Perhaps the plaintive numbers flow

For old, unhappy, far-off things,

And battles long ago.

From one point of view, the past is our unconscious. It is a large thing going towards us—it is unknown, but we cannot get away from it. It charges against us; it invades us subtly and sometimes outrageously. It has to be known, though it has to be seen as unknown.

Keats, in one of the best-known poems in English, the Ode on a Grecian Urn,” represented history as immortal in a fixed way. It is different from the Wordsworth poem—poetry and history are now being seen in complementary ways. Keats has seen the Grecian urn, and he feels that what happens on the urn will go on forever. I read some lines:

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,

Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,

And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

What little town by river or sea shore,

Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,

Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?

And, little town, thy streets for evermore

Will silent be; and not a soul to tell

Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

Keats is seeing the town—it is remembered. At the same time, he sees its stillness, its quietness. History should present the unfixed, the ever-moving, boundaryless quality of reality; and the warm and present and fixed quality. So Keats and Wordsworth have done an important job together.

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What Children Really Want

By Bruce Blaustein

What a child wants from his parents is for them to encourage his largest, deepest desire—which Eli Siegel showed is to like the world. In his definitive chapter The Child,” from Self and World, he explains, Children are really desperate to see the world as pleasing; and their desperateness is part of a wise hope.”

Aesthetic Realism, too, explains the interference to this deepest desire, in people of any age: it is contempt, the giving of less meaning to the world or anything in it ...as a source of false, ugly attainment” (TRO 135,140). I know firsthand how crucial it is for parents to study these two desires in ourselves and our children.

When our son, Michael, was very little, my wife, Lauren Phillips, and I were excited and moved to see him look for the first time at a mobile or a pussycat; listen to the sound of a fire truck; watch the sunlight coming through the window. We felt new wonder about the whole world. But unfortunately, like many new fathers, I quickly turned the wonder of seeing a child grow, into glory for myself. When I thought several other children at the park weren’t walking as soon as Michael was, I took this as a symbol of his superiority—and mine—and hoped other parents would notice.

How Should a Child See People?

A father is usually much more interested in his child’s esteeming him than in that child’s being fair to other people, objects, animals. Increasingly, I acted as if Michael were a little prince—showering him with gifts and praise, telling him repeatedly, even when he did something ordinary, how wonderful he was. A child should certainly be praised when he deserves it, but I was excessive, and this had a bad effect on Michael. It encouraged selfishness in him, and made him agitated.

Once, when Michael was three and a friend of ours came to visit, he asked if she had brought him a gift (it was around Christmastime)—then became angry that she hadn’t and told her to leave. Lauren and I were mortified; and Michael was ashamed. But I came to see that I had encouraged this contemptuous attitude to people.

When I spoke about the occurrence in an Aesthetic Realism class, a question I am very grateful to have been asked by Ellen Reiss was: Are you interested enough in having Michael feel the world and other people exist for him to be fair to?” This is one of the most emergent questions for parents. Ms. Reiss also asked me if I gave my son the message that other people were not too important but that he was very important because he was mine. I said yes. And she continued: Do you want to have something that belongs to you that is magnificent and will show you are magnificent? A child can lap it up with one part of himself, but he also hates it.” That is what was happening.

I regret to say I had wanted to be the only one to have a good effect on Michael, and I had, in fact, encouraged him in various ways to think less of his mother. Once, when Lauren disciplined Michael for a just reason, I said to her in front of him, Do you like your tone of voice?! He’s just a child!” I wanted Michael to see me as the kinder, more understanding parent, and wanted him to feel, You and I have each other—we don’t need anything else.”

But when a parent sees a child as someone to make him important, he’s not really interested in who the child is—he makes the child’s insides deeply unimportant. This fact is illustrated by something that occurred once when I was in Germany on a business trip for my job in the fashion industry. I called home to talk with Lauren and Michael, and he began to tell me about a disagreement he had had with his friend Tony. But my mind was wandering and I became restless, saying Uh huh, uh huh.” Michael asked, Don’t you want to know what happened? Don’t you care what I feel?”

Through the discussion in the class I referred to, I also understood why, when I would suddenly withhold praise, Michael would frantically ask, Dad, are you okay? You sure, Dad?” By encouraging him to feel that my approval was more important than his being fair to the outside world, I was confusing him. As I studied what I heard in that class, something big changed in me!

All Children

A crucial question for parents is this, which Aesthetic Realism asks: Does your interest in your child have you more interested in all children? I respect and am grateful to Lauren Phillips, both as a mother and as a teacher at PS 7 in East Harlem. She has come to have a beautiful anger that in a nation where there is such wealth, there are children who are hungry, poor, and homeless. Lauren is passionate as she speaks about the third grade students she teaches—and about what they deserve. And Michael has said he likes to hear her speak of them. The Aesthetic Realism teaching method, which Lauren uses, is bringing out their desire to learn, even in the midst of the horrible conditions they endure!

Michael is now 9, and has been studying Aesthetic Realism himself in consultations and in the monthly Learning to Like the World class for young persons, which he loves. He is learning how to see people and objects with real justice—to see their meaning. And he has told Lauren and me that he is glad he can talk about himself to us, because he feels we want to learn along with him, and that his questions and his hopes are like ours, not so different.

I have learned—and it makes me very grateful—that the biggest satisfaction for a father is to feel he has encouraged his child to like the whole outside world.