The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

History, Poetry, & Our Own Selves

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 2 of the great Poetry and History, a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel. At its basis is this Aesthetic Realism principle—in which Mr. Siegel describes not only the crucial structure of ourselves, art, and reality, but how these three are fundamentally and beautifully related: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the lecture, Mr. Siegel shows that history is like a poem, and not metaphorically but actually. 

He writes in his Preface to Self and World: “Aesthetic Realism in 1941 first said that ... the useful way of seeing mind was to look upon it as a continual question of aesthetics.” And in his many lectures on history he showed that the way to understand the past, with all its tumult and pain and also goodness, was to see it too “as a continual question of aesthetics”—of opposites needing and trying to be one. In this issue, I will illustrate a little the tremendous fact that the intimate self of each of us is like history, because reality’s opposites—history’s opposites—constitute our own hopes, worries, problems, desires, thoughts. To do so, I quote passages from a college textbook, A History of Civilization, by Crane Brinton, John B. Christopher, and Robert Lee Wolff (Prentice-Hall, 1960), volume I.

Junction & Separation in Mesopotamia

The first passage is a sentence on page 20. It describes a vast stretch of time: circa 4000 to 500 BC:

Mesopotamia itself, though it later saw the rise of imperial “powers” like Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia, was in much of these millennia a zone of fragmentation, with individual city-states loosely held together by trade and political hegemonies.

Here we have junction and separation. We have city-states wanting to be separate, yet needing to be joined in some way. These opposites are some of the biggest in history; much of the early history of our own nation had to do with just how united the separate American states ought to be.

Meanwhile, every person is like a Mesopotamian city-state of long ago. We want company: we want to be joined with people, and joined closely to a particular person. But we also want to have ourselves to ourselves. All over America this week, men and women were like a person Mr. Siegel describes in Self and World: Hilda Rawlins. Hilda shuttles between being “tremendously agog and curious,” wanting “to see people, to talk to them, to have them near, near to her,” and being in the situation Mr. Siegel writes of this way:

Sometimes, Hilda has a corrupt and intense drive toward the unity, the purity of herself. It is then she doesn’t want to see anybody. She wishes to stay in bed. She is not interested in the events of the world, or in the events of her friends’ lives. [Pp. 114-15]

The Cause of Trouble, in Us & History

Mr. Siegel showed that the huge corrupter of the opposites in our lives and in history is contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” For example, contempt has us feel our junction with things and persons should be our taking them over and owning them. Just as Assyria in the 7th century BC could “join” with other states by conquering and subjugating them—millions of women right now are trying to own a man and (delicately or not so delicately) manage him. Women can feel that love, closeness, being joined to someone is equivalent to making him a dominion of one’s own, a province that exists to glorify her. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago, criticizing this tendency in me so that it could change, Mr. Siegel called it “psychical imperialism.” Men can have it too. In both sexes, it is contempt.

Our contempt can also have us feel that to be joined to other people, to have to do with them, is insulting to ourselves: we are too good for them. People think they want friends, love, non-loneliness, but don’t know they also don’t want these. Aesthetic Realism explains—and its doing so is great in history—we can feel more important being lonely: because if we feel related to people we lose our ability to feel superior to them, to feel we are a more sensitive, wounded universe unto ourselves.

We can see, then, the Mesopotamian city-states of about 2000 BC as a trembling study in separation and junction. We can see them wanting to be apart yet eyeing each other warily and feeling, as a man and woman can feel tonight: “I need something from you—goddammit! I need something from you—maybe hooray!”

The Aesthetic Answer

For us, and for any situation in history, the answer to the junction-separation problem is the aesthetic answer. It is the answer that is in music: notes come together, not to subjugate each other or to lose their distinctive personalities, but to add to each other, to bring out each other’s possibilities and fulness of individuality. Where human beings are concerned, the one way this necessary aesthetic answer will occur is through good will, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” (TRO 121).

I cannot comment on Mesopotamia without commenting too on what the United States is doing to the people who now live in that same land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Our treatment of the Iraqi people is a despicable relation of junction and separation. The US bombing of Iraq, which continues, is a junction, terrible and killing, of American things (bombs) with that land and its people. The US-led embargo of Iraq separates that nation from the things its people need for life itself, including medicines and food. And this is happening because persons in our government are contemptuously separate from the feelings of people—including the agony of Iraqi children with bodies crippled or malnourished because of what we have done. The determination to have the world run in a way profitable to US corporations, no matter how many human beings suffer and die in the process, is a hideous junction and separation: the managing and subjugating of people while being aloof from what they feel.

Charlemagne, Byzantium, Ireland

In showing how history has, centrally and always, opposites that are also our own, I go to Charlemagne. The authors of the textbook I am using write of him as “the great Emperor,” “the armed expansionist,” “the hero of romance.” Yet they tell us that this man who conquered so much of Europe also tried “to learn to write, and never succeeded at the ‘strange task,’ even though he kept writing materials under his pillow” (pp. 185, 188).

Charlemagne, then, was sure of himself and unsure: he could assert himself, and lead armies, ever so boldly, yet could have the humiliation and ache of feeling that he was inept at something he wanted to do very much. We are not Charlemagne. But we can put our foot down, act determined, get our way, see ourselves as much more able than others—yet also be so unsure, feel we have failed in some deep fashion.

Then, there is this swift sentence about Byzantium from the 4th to the 11th century:

The long-continued Byzantine success in war was due not only to good armies and navies but also to sound diplomacy. [P. 220]

Armies and diplomacy correspond to opposites in everyone, opposites that are stymieing people right now: Shall we act, or shall we reason? Shall we be forceful, or more on the side of gentleness? Should we do something immediately, or should we favor process, try to work something out?

Finally, we can look at two sentences about the invasions of Ireland and find other opposites, huge opposites everyone is in the midst of, and usually unclear about:

When the Northmen descended on the coast at Dublin in 840, the Irish were perhaps even more helpless against them than were the English and the French....Finally, the Northmen were absorbed into the texture of Irish society. [P. 194]

This is about power, and those opposites at the basis of power: affecting and being affected. The Northmen affected Ireland by invading her. But in time, they became part of Ireland, they were so affected by Ireland as to be “absorbed into” her. Our lives consist of how we affect people and things and are affected by them. Contempt has us make awful mistakes about these opposites, including the mistake of not wanting to be affected, and of wanting to affect in a vanquishing fashion.

No person wanted more to be affected by the world than Eli Siegel did. His desire was always, and beautifully, to know. And so he gave passionate and immortal justice to the world, past and present; to art; and to the very depths of people—including all the people who will be.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


A Relation of Facts

By Eli Siegel

A person who has written very interestingly on the poetry which is history is that rather sober but still bright and lively person Thomas Babington Macaulay. In an essay on William Temple, he hints at history as art and poetry. Macaulay did not follow through with this idea entirely; still, some important things are said. Macaulay felt that everybody could belong to history.

He is reviewing Thomas Courtenay’s Memoirs of the Life, Works, and Correspondence of Sir William Temple for the Edinburgh Review, October 1838. And in doing so, he talks about the relation between Temple and Dorothy Osborne and the love letters which passed between the two:

He appears to have kept up a very active correspondence with his mistress. His letters are lost, but hers have been preserved; and many of them appear in these volumes. Mr. Courtenay expresses some doubt whether his readers will think him justified in inserting so large a number of these epistles. We only wish that there were twice as many.

Macaulay is saying that if two people could express themselves truly, they wouldn’t have to be Members of Parliament, let alone counts or dukes or duchesses—they would just have to be people. When people stand for themselves, they become historical. It is not the fact that a person has a title or has got into the blue books of the time (that is, the collections of noble names); it is the fact that he had, in being himself, something to do with all people.

What Makes an Event Important?

Macaulay goes on:

That an historian should not record trifles, that he should confine himself to what is important, is perfectly true. But many writers seem never to have considered on what the historical importance of an event depends .... An action for a hundred thousand pounds is in one sense a more momentous affair than an action for fifty pounds. But ... a cause, in which a large sum is at stake, may be important only to the particular plaintiff and the particular defendant. A cause, on the other hand, in which a small sum is at stake, may establish some great principle interesting to half the families in the kingdom.

This is the principle of form. That is, if there were a case dealing with the free press in a small town, and this case brought out principles, it would be much more important than a case having to do with hundreds of thousands of pounds. We find here that history asks for that relation, that significance, that having-to-do-with other things that art and poetry ask for.

Then, in poetry we find a relation between the third word and the fifteenth word, the first line and the fourth line, the fourth line and the seventh line. A poem is an intricate but true aggregate of relations. History can be seen that way too, because history, while it points to the individual as if he were a single word, also tries to show where he has to do with other individuals and situations of the time; where he has to do with institutions. This interaction of institution and individual is like the interaction of the poem as a whole and the single word. Further, in the individual there are things corresponding to letters and syllables. 

If we see a poem at its best as a tremendous and true organization of single things, so related to other single things that powers, which they by themselves would not have, do come to be, we can likewise see history that way. If we place things that really did happen where they have meaning—because they are shown to have concerned other happenings—everything takes on a new power.

Suppose we said: In April 1865 Abraham Lincoln walked down the street, and— as someone noted in a letter—a little boy was annoyed because he saw this big man walking, and ran as if he didn’t like it. Now, the running of the little boy, in itself, is not important. The fact that Lincoln walked, which he did do sometimes, is not so important either. But the fact that there is this little boy running across his path, as if he were hurt; the fact that Lincoln is in April 1865, the last month of his life; the fact that there is the relation between the meditative and tall Lincoln and the running and displeased little boy; all in some big relation to the event on the 14th of that month, when Lincoln was shot at—all this makes something which is true.

History Is Which?

The question is: Is history an artistic relation of facts, or is it an assemblage of confused entities? It can be seen either way. When one looks at history, one comes to see the junk pile of destiny. It is a most disorderly, tumultuous, without-any-thread aggregate of flotsam and jetsam, time and space. Then, however, we have to see some idea of cause. If we look closely, we do get to an idea of cause, though maybe that idea is never sufficiently satisfactory.

How did it all come to be? Why should there be a Roman Empire? Why should it stop in such and such a time? Why should there be a Middle Ages? Why should there be a Charlemagne? Why should there be a Cromwell? What made Napoleon? Why should there be an Austria doing so much mischief in the mid-19th century? All these questions can be looked on as unexplainable, unanswerable. And they can also be seen as having to be—that is, having to have, and having, an answer.

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