The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Honesty, Nations, & Poems

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue serializing a 1966 lecture by Eli Siegel important for the life of everyone. It’s on poetry of complaint. And at the point we’ve reached, Mr. Siegel has discussed poems by Chu Yuan of 4th-century-bc China, Thomas Wyatt, Emily Brontë, and Byron. Now he speaks briefly, but beautifully, definitively, and very kindly, about a poem by John Milton.

We publish too part of a paper by actor and Aesthetic Realism associate Carol McCluer, from a recent public seminar titled “Honesty & Deception in Love & Life—How Should a Woman See These?” In America today the matter of honesty-or-deception is more a subject of discussion (and outrage) than it ever was before. And, as I wrote recently, that fact in itself is very good. For there to be a hubbub about untruthfulness, a conscious intensity about it, can be a preliminary to something that has been so much lacking in people: a real love for truth.

Honesty & Falsity Centuries Ago

I am going to bring together the two parts of this TRO by saying something about honesty in relation to the Milton poem that Mr. Siegel discusses. That poem deals with Milton’s blindness, and Mr. Siegel comments by way of background: “It is said that he could have avoided going blind in 1652; but he wanted to answer Salmasius, who had attacked the English people for what they did as to the king.”

The English Civil Wars (1642-51), and the overthrow of Charles I, can seem very far away. But they have to do with something America and humanity need to be honest about now. And John Milton is one of the persons in this world who most tried to be honest. The history of the time is intricate, and I am not discussing the happenings of then with any specificity. But they are part of what Mr. Siegel spoke of as the biggest, most fundamental matter of our own time: To whom should a nation, with its land and wealth, belong? To whom should the world belong? In the 17th century in England the matter took the form of: Which should be supreme—a king or Parliament?

By 1640, King Charles had come to be loathed by the people of England. He imposed huge taxes on them (unauthorized by Parliament), taxes that made them poorer and poorer, hungrier and hungrier. One cannot say the Parliament of then represented all the people, but it represented them more than did Charles I, who saw the people of England as creatures to do his bidding, beings whose lives existed for his aggrandizement. When his wishes were opposed by Parliament, he dissolved Parliament. He infuriated English men and women by quartering troops in their towns—German mercenary soldiers whom he hired with tax revenues.

In 1642 civil war began. In 1645 Charles was imprisoned. He refused demands for a constitutional monarchy, and in 1649 he was executed for treason.

A Commonwealth was declared, with Oliver Cromwell as Protector. Much can be objected to in Cromwell. But the fact that Parliament became the supreme power, and remained so even after monarchy was restored—that is part of what Mr. Siegel described as the force of ethics working in the world.

The Dishonesty That Milton Fought

After the overthrow of Charles I, a noted European scholar, Claudius Salmasius, wrote a lengthy document condemning the act—describing it as sacrilegious, brutal, hugely hurtful to all of Europe. This brings us to the statement by Mr. Siegel quoted earlier. Milton had lost all vision in one eye and was told not to strain the other, which was very weak. But he felt, burningly, that the elaborate, impressive, seemingly learned lying of Salmasius had to be answered—and answered point by point so that all who had read Salmasius’s 12-chapter Latin document could see it was a lie. So Milton answered it, chapter by chapter, statement by statement, in Latin, and sacrificed his little remaining eyesight to do so.

Milton’s Defense of the English People is passionate, fierce, eloquent, learned, sometimes humorous, always logical. Sometimes he speaks of Salmasius’s motives in lying, and describes those sleazy motives vividly. He writes of what he himself is presenting, “These reasons prove very fully, that the people are superior to the king,” and says, “The safety of the people, and not that of a tyrant, is the supreme law.”

All this is about honesty. It’s about honesty as to Who should own a nation? Mr. Siegel put the matter, too, in terms of this all-important question: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” The character of each of us today depends on whether we want to be honest about that question. The persons who think America should be owned chiefly by a few individuals and that it’s right to use others for one’s personal profit, are like the persons in Milton’s time who thought there should be a king, with millions beneath and serving him. Kingship was the mode of governance for centuries—yet it was always based on a lie about what the human self and reality are. So is seeing people in terms of profit.

John Milton wanted to be honest about England and people. And he is one of the great poets of our language because he had, too, that full honesty which, Aesthetic Realism shows, makes for poetry: the seeing of one’s own feeling and the world itself with such a desire to be just that one’s words are musical.

“All beauty is a making one of opposites,” Eli Siegel wrote, “and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” This principle is the basis of Aesthetic Realism, and one of the magnificently honest statements of all time. The chief opposites in honesty are self and world: one needs to feel that being just to the outside world takes care of oneself. Aesthetic Realism is the study of why it does. It is the study through which people can truly prefer—truly love—honesty.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Milton: Complaint & Courage

By Eli Siegel

One of the hardiest complaints and also consolations is by Milton. Milton wrote a very famous poem about his blindness, the sonnet that begins “When I consider how my light is spent.” But there is another poem about his blindness that is less known and has in it some of the hardiest feeling with complaint. It is the sonnet “To Cyriack Skinner.”

Complaints begin with many things. There’s something Wyatt begins with, something Emily Brontë begins with, Lord Byron begins with. Milton is different. Cyriack Skinner is said to have been a pupil of Milton; anyway, he was a friend of Milton. And it seems that in 1655, when this sonnet was written, Milton had been blind three years. It is said that he could have avoided going blind in 1652; but he wanted to answer Salmasius, who had attacked the English people for what they did as to the king. This is “To Cyriack Skinner”:

Cyriack, this three years’ day, these eyes, though clear,

To outward view, of blemish or of spot,

Bereft of light, their seeing have forgot:

Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear

Of sun, or moon, or stars, throughout the year,

Or man or woman, yet I argue not

Against Heaven’s hand or will, nor bate a jot

Of heart or hope; but still bear up and steer

Right onward. What supports me, dost thou ask?

The conscience, friend, to have lost them overplied

In Liberty’s defence, my noble task,

Of which all Europe rings from side to side.

This thought might lead me through the world’s vain mask,

Content, though blind, had I no better guide.

It seems that Milton felt this. Something of the feeling is in Paradise Lost, which he had not begun to write. He had to write that in the time of Charles II. But he is writing this poem in 1655, in the Cromwellian era.

“Cyriack, this three years’ day, these eyes, though clear, / To outward view, of blemish or of spot...” In other words, Milton doesn’t look as if he were blind. “...Nor to their idle orbs doth sight appear / Of sun, or moon, or stars, throughout the year, / Or man or woman.” That surely is dark enough.

But then we have him say, “[I] still bear up and steer / Right onward.” Bear up is a phrase used of a ship that does well with the winds. We use that phrase now. It means go ahead, not just endure. This is not one of Milton’s great sonnets, but it is poetry. “What supports me, dost thou ask? / The conscience, friend, to have lost them overplied / In Liberty’s defence.”

So that is John Milton complaining, apparently, but then so interested in strengthening himself, in consoling himself, that he writes some of his most staccato lines, with phrases like “nor bate a jot” and “Right onward.” The lines are like the tap dancing of destiny.


Honesty, Deception, & Love

By Carol McCluer

When I was 14, growing up in suburban southern California, I wrote in my diary:

I’m such a traitor I can’t believe it. I say to all my friends how much I miss Brad and how I can’t wait until he gets home from North Dakota, then I turn around and flirt with every boy this side of the moon!

Like girls the world over, I was seriously interested in conquering boys and thought subterfuge was required. But I was impelled to “tell it like it is” in my diary. Aesthetic Realism, in its kind, scientific comprehension of the self, explains that the fight between honesty and deception arises from the essential conflict in everyone: between contempt for the world and respect for it.

In an issue of TRO, Ellen Reiss writes:

There is only one reason people feel they have to fool another person in order to be loved....The reason is, their purpose with that person is something they are not proud of; and so they feel that they do not deserve to be loved and that if they showed themselves truly they would not be loved. [TRO 1194]

She describes that false purpose in “love.” It’s a form of contempt: the feeling, “‘I should find someone in this cold, unappreciative world who will adore me unquestioningly and make me more important than everything else.’” And she explains: “[We] need to have that purpose which Aesthetic Realism shows is the only real love: to like the world through a person, and be a means of that person’s liking the world.”

I’m eternally grateful that the girl who wrote the diary entry I quoted studied the knowledge that makes for honest love and happiness!

The Ordinary Deception

I associated the word deception with intense situations, like being unfaithful to someone, or being a secret agent, or a politician. But Ms. Reiss explains that it’s also very ordinary:

The horribly constant deception is the feeling in people that the value we choose to give something is the value it really has. This deception...also becomes the feeling, “...A thing is ‘good’ if it makes me important and ‘bad’ if it doesn’t praise me sufficiently or makes me uncomfortable in some way.”

As a child I had an energetic desire to see value in the world in various ways. I loved playing outside, climbing the orange trees in our backyard. I loved school and was an avid reader. When I was in 4th grade I went on a trip to the San Bernardino Mountains with my friend Joanie’s family, and wrote down things I always wanted to remember: the cabin we stayed in, the German chocolate cake we ate, feeding squirrels, swimming in the lake, and watching blue jays and robins.

But as time went on, I felt increasingly, as Ms. Reiss describes, that things were good if they made me important and bad if they didn’t. It seemed easy to charm people—my father in particular. The oldest of four children, I wanted fiercely to be the most important person in his life. I would arrange to have cozy conversations with him, in which I would whine and weep about my mother’s (supposed) unfair treatment of me, and he would console me. I had absolutely no desire to know who my father was, and didn’t feel he really wanted to know me. I regret the way I flattered him, and used him to think I was the most sensitive, alluring jewel ever created.

In high school I expected boys to see me with the same adoration my father had, but, shockingly, they didn’t. I had a huge crush on Dane Sumner and invited him to the Sadie Hawkins dance. When he turned me down I remember feeling, I will never again as long as I live be so stupid as to show that I like someone!—better to present a lovely picture of myself, and let them come panting to me. I made a decision early—not wholly consciously, but definitely—to go for deception.

I went after fooling and conquering men by acting innocent and sweet, then transforming myself and setting the stage for amour with candles and music. There was nothing wrong with the candles and music; there was something wrong with my motive, which was to have a big effect without wanting to know the man and be known. And it made me feel empty and cheap.

At one point after I began working professionally as a singer, I did a cabaret act in which I told raunchy jokes between songs. One night my parents were in the audience and I was nervous, but said to myself defiantly, “This is who I am and if they don’t like it, too bad.” Yet I didn’t know who I really was and I had begun using drugs, trying to numb the pain I was in. I felt my life had gone off the rails with no hope of ever getting back on.

I Learn about the Power of Honesty

In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked: “Did you feel when people praised you, what they liked was you?” The answer was no. I had lapped up the praise but felt something big was missing. My consultants asked me: “Do you think you got such power out of fooling the world, you’ve come to depend on it?” “Yes.” “Which would you rather affect people with,” they asked: “honesty, or magic McCluer charm?” When the choice was described, I saw I had a chance to change my purpose. “Honesty!” I said, and my heart soared.

Just before I began studying in Aesthetic Realism consultations, I had been seeing a man, Grady Dutton. He had a passion for the saxophone, and it had irritated me—I felt the time he spent practicing could have been spent with me. He had recently broken off our relationship, and I was hurt and angry. My version was: “Grady deceived me. He didn’t stick with me, and didn’t tell me what was going on.” My consultants asked: “Do you think he felt you wanted to know him?”

CMcC. I don’t know.

Consultants. Were you more interested in comprehending him, or having him care for you?

And they explained the difference between the desire to get certain information about a person and a real desire to know him: “Often a woman can be interested in ‘knowing’ a man so that she can have him care for her more efficiently.” However, they said, “The idea of knowing him as a good thing in itself, whether it has anything to do with her or not,” has not seemed attractive. The first described exactly the purpose I’d had with Grady.

And I was learning about how much I had contempt for the possibilities in a man when they asked me: “Do you think men are really capable of being honest, of valuing the depths of another human being—maybe even being a useful critic of you?”

CMcC. Yes. Maybe. I’m not sure.

Consultants. Most women think what men want most is sex, and men can think the same of women. Aesthetic Realism says what every person wants most is two things, which are really the same: to be known as we truly are, and to see the whole world fairly.

I was wowed and exhilarated by this! As I continued having consultations, I saw that love is a subject of study as much as theatre history is, or mathematics. I was given assignments: to read, for example, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, to learn about true and false love from great literature. I studied and annotated the chapter “Love and Reality” in Self and World, by Eli Siegel. And—I’m so glad to say—I fell in love with and married Kevin Fennell, Aesthetic Realism associate, singer, and critic of music, notably rock ’n’ roll.

The more I studied Aesthetic Realism, the more I came to feel strongly that Eli Siegel was the greatest instance of honesty in a person, because his desire to know and be fair was so large.

I once said in a consultation, “I don’t see what pleasure I would get if I were to be honest with a man.” The answer is something every person in the world should know, and so I’ll end with part of it:

You would feel that a man really cared for you and he was right, and that you respected his reasons and didn’t have to worry that it would go up in smoke. There would be the feeling of the whole world being present as you and another person were for each other. And you would have one of the greatest pleasures this world can ever provide.