The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How Alive?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are honored to reprint a review by Eli Siegel. It appeared in the New York Evening Post Literary Review of May 1, 1926, and in it we can see something of the beginning of Aesthetic Realism. He was 23 years old then; and this short article about the critic Samuel Johnson is itself literary criticism that is important, big. Mr. Siegel’s writing here, his prose style, is wonderful—with its aliveness and exactitude, untrammeled feeling and precision, earthiness and grand intellect. For all the brevity of this article, the reviewer places, as I have seen no one else do, just what it is that makes Johnson “one of the great and permanent critics of the world.”

The approach to reality and beauty in the 1926 review is also at the heart of the philosophy Eli Siegel would found fifteen years later. We can see this fact through the second work in the present issue: an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Derek Mali. It’s part of a paper he gave this July at the public seminar titled “What Does It Mean to Bring Out the Best in People—and Do We Want To?”

The Interference in a Critic & Everyone

For example, Mr. Mali speaks about something Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy to show: the interference, in each of us, to our own happiness and intelligence is our desire to have contempt—“the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the stifler of our kindness and of our full aliveness. And further, contempt is also the fundamental interference with a person’s ability to be a good critic of art. Our contempt prevents us from seeing truly the value of a literary work—or anything. I learned about this in a magnificent Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago. Mr. Siegel was speaking about contempt as he described a “me” in everyone “that is the ugliest thing in the world”:

There is a me that says the best thing to do is be inaccurate about the rest of the world. It says, “That is good in this world which pleases me.” This has occurred in criticism and has made for some false judgments, many of them. It also goes on in life. The self is the one bad judge in the world—nothing else can go wrong—the narrow self that is not interested in the object.

Tepid or Alive?

One of the most frequent forms of contempt is something Derek Mali writes about: the desire to be not much affected by things and people; to keep oneself inwardly aloof, unhad; to meet reality with a certain tepidity—with part of oneself, not all of oneself. No one was more opposed to that way of being than Eli Siegel. He saw it as awful, as completely against what art, humanity, and the world deserve. In the 1926 review, we see him pointing to, and describing richly, the aliveness of Samuel Johnson—Johnson’s tremendous non-tepidity, his putting the fullness of himself into his judgments and statements.

Eli Siegel was the most exact of critics. He was passionate that the purpose of a critic must be (in Matthew Arnold’s words) “to see the object as in itself it really is.” And he was also passionate that the looking at and writing about art and ideas should not be tepid, academic, cleverly and snootily dull.

How alive do we want to be? How much do we want to feel? A person’s days and hours and opinion of oneself depend on how one answers these questions. So does the quality of criticism, and of art. Aesthetic Realism is the greatest force for the full aliveness of every person, and the true seeing of art. That fact is in the review of May 1926, and in the education taking place at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation now.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Dr. Johnson’s Critical Comment as
Alive Today as When First Written

By Eli Siegel


The Critical Opinions of Samuel Johnson. Arranged and compiled with an introduction by Joseph Epes Brown. Princeton: Princeton University Press. $7.50


Samuel Johnson had one of the toughest and best minds in the world. And if he blundered in his judgments of books he always blundered meaningfully, interestingly and, one may even say, importantly.

The criticism of Samuel Johnson needs to be known these days. His critical manner is rare now and shouldn’t be so rare. That is why Mr. Brown’s book, a compilation of Johnson’s judgments of literature from wherever they might be found, deserves a welcome greater and cheerier than most books do, particularly those which have birth in the less known and mustier parts of big libraries. And Mr. Brown’s book is, if any be, a book-made book, or a library-made one.

But roars, fun and mighty enjoyable things may come out of the very quietest parts of libraries. Does this sound libraryish? (it is Sam Johnson on [Charles] Churchill, the verse-satirist with the big mouth, of the mid-eighteenth century):

“No, sir. I called the fellow a blockhead at first, and I will call him a blockhead still.”

And this is criticism and this is manners, and this is Sam Johnson who is dead, who is in the literature of text books and who, souls of ours, is a classic! Oh, well, Churchill had called Johnson names and one may suppose, even though Johnson denies it, this had something to do with the “blockhead” business.

To be sure, Johnson isn’t critically violent all the time, but even where he is quietest one may be sure he is somehow stamping his foot as he has his say. Once people were not afraid to stamp their feet, when, as the eighteenth century so prettily had it, “they delivered their sentiments on literary topicks”; but we, timorous beings, stamp our feet as to literature not at all or weakly. Of course, it may be because we know more and better than the readers of the 1750s, say, but it may be, too, that we go at books less bloodfully and seriously than the readers of Johnson’s time.

It is because, whether stupid or not, bad mannered or not, Johnson lived his critical opinions and knew what he was talking about wonderfully and, besides, knew a very great deal about books, that he is one of the great and permanent critics of the world. Almost all that he wrote critically is of use today: even on Milton’s “Lycidas,” on Gray’s poems and on Donne; and he was never weaker than on these matters. And Johnson’s rather funny stupidities and his lovable brilliancies may be seen all by themselves in Mr. Brown’s book. Mr. Brown’s job has been thoroughly done and, as I said, though it was done in a library, it has the feeling of the prize-ring, the hot give-and-take argument and the real moving, beefy, warm, cruel and rather careless world about it. But then it has memorable and fine thought in it, too, for in it are Samuel Johnson and some of the very best things of a hundred and fifty or so years ago.

From New York Evening Post Literary Review, May 1,1926


To Bring Out the Best in People

By Derek Mali

When I began to study Aesthetic Realism at age 34, though I was a theatrical manager on and off Broadway, in many ways the world was not very vivid to me. My life changed dramatically when I learned that things I had put aside—including history, art, music, and people, their feelings and thoughts—could add to me the more I knew and tried to be fair to them.

A big mistake I made was: I assumed I knew what was best in myself. I felt the thing that distinguished me was that I was born into a wealthy home and was a superior person in a world populated with lesser beings, who should be ever so glad I existed and should be happy to be in my presence. Since it didn’t seem benevolent to show this superiority, I magnanimously tried to hide it so that my looking down on people would not bring out their peevish resentment. I adopted this attitude from an early age, and it gave me many years of pain.

What I’ve just described is contempt, which Aesthetic Realism defines as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” I have seen that this disposition, which seems to give a swift boost to our self-esteem and a foundation for our complacency, is really the cause of a person’s self-loathing. It also is the cause of all injustice between people, including racism, economic exploitation, and war.

As important as the first part of our title, “What Does It Mean to Bring Out the Best in People,” is the second part: “And Do We Want To?” I’ve seen there’s a fight in a person about this. If we have built a personality by feeling superior to people, why should we want to bring out their best? They might turn out to be better than we are, and where would that leave us? Besides, it takes a lot of energy to know and bring out the best in someone, energy that we could instead be expending on ourselves.

The Debate Began Early

As I was growing up I had the battle that Aesthetic Realism identifies as the central fight in everyone: between having contempt, and caring for people and the world around me. I liked some things a lot, mostly mechanical objects, such as my large-scale electric trains, and my Gilbert erector set. But I used our New York townhouse and my parents’ social connections, to find most things, as well as people, beneath me. I felt that, as my mother’s favorite son, I shouldn’t have to do too much, just remain bemusedly apart. While I smiled and was usually affable, I felt cold and out of relation to most people, including my family and my classmates.

As a teenager I came to have a large care for the theatre, but offstage was I ever lonely! My attitude—which is quite common—was that other people should serve me, cheer me up, not that I should exert myself in their behalf. Seeing my loneliness and boredom, my mother would sometimes urge me to call a friend or relative, but I didn’t want to. They should call me! And as to love: though I took many girls to coming-out parties, I saw a young woman as an attractive accompaniment, not as someone to know and understand. I wanted my dates to draw me out, but I wasn’t interested in knowing them, who they were, what they thought. I felt hollow and hopeless about love, but I stoically endured this feeling because, after all, wasn’t that the way things were? Only much later would I hear Eli Siegel’s beautiful definition of love, “proud need,” and begin to see that I really might need someone to be all that I wanted to be. But before then, I wasn’t proud of needing anyone because I felt no one was good enough for me.

It was when I attended my first class taught by Mr. Siegel—oh fortunate day!—that I started to learn what was stifling my life. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, he said:

There are only two ways of establishing a personality. One is to say, “I like the way I see the world and the relation of the world, therefore, to me.” The other is the furtive finding of one fault after another in the world and, with each instance, building oneself up....The debate goes on: Should I build up myself through what the world is not, or through how I see it?

I began to realize that at every moment I had a choice: either to respect things or have contempt. And as I began to see that opposites—such as strength and gentleness, coldness and warmth, the intimate and the wide—were in every person and thing I looked at or thought about, and in me too, I felt for the first time I was really connected to the world outside of me. There were results: I stopped being lonely; colors on the street looked brighter; food tasted better; and I became interested in the people I knew and the people I worked with. It was mathematical: as I had more respect for reality, I felt freer, happier, and more alive, and I liked myself much more. I was in process of seeing what the best thing in me was: my desire to like the world, be just to it, which I needed to be true to as much as I needed food and air. I understood the shame I had felt for years because I hadn’t cared enough for the world.

Today, through professional classes taught by Ellen Reiss, in my work as an Aesthetic Realism consultant, and through roles I’ve studied and performed with the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company, I have emotions that make me happy and proud to be alive.

And I’m so glad to be married to the woman I love, Sally Ross. She is an Aesthetic Realism associate and an educator who for many years taught biology in New York City high schools, using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method with superb success.

Early in our relationship, something still remained of my desire to have people do things for me while I was aloof. It became apparent to Sally, and she objected. When she mentioned this in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ms. Reiss asked me: “Do you think there’s a fight in every person between how much of a force one should be in one’s own right, and how much one should be lapped by the world and have the world serve one?” “Yes,” I said.

ER. Do you want more than you ever did to be an active force for good, to humanity and to a particular person? And at the same time can something in you think, This is not for me—I shouldn’t be an energetic force on my own steam, saying, “I want like anything to have another person better off”?

What Ellen Reiss described was true, and I thank her for it. I said: “I want to be an active force for good, to humanity and to a particular person!”

I love Sally’s care for knowledge and science, her energy and exactitude, and her passionate feeling that all people deserve to be seen and treated justly, including economically. My life with her is exciting and romantic. We’re in the midst of learning what it means to bring out the best in each other and other people, and as we do, our love grows.

The Education People Hope For

I am proud that, as an Aesthetic Realism consultant, my purpose is, with my colleagues, to bring out the best in a man.

There’s the young man I’ll call Robert Radcliff, who is in employment law and wants to see people treated justly. He often represents men and women who have lost their jobs or been dealt with unfairly because of the bad ethics and brutality of the profit system. This work stands for the best thing in him. Meanwhile, in his personal life he can have purposes that are less admirable, and they have mixed him up, hurt his relations with others, including women, and caused him to dislike himself.

In one consultation, he spoke about the woman he was seeing, Janet Friedlander, and said, “I have a big care for her, but I don’t think this is a longtime thing.”

Consultants. Is there anything amiss in the way you see her?

RR. I think I see her as someone to conquer. Then I cry to myself that I don’t have a deep relationship.

Consultants. Do you want a woman to have a large meaning for you? In your work you’ve been interested in having justice come to people. Do you have the same purpose with Ms. Friedlander?

RR. The same purpose? I don’t think I do.

Consultants. That’s the problem. Is the self of a woman real to you—does she have feelings that you need to understand?

RR. I haven’t challenged myself to do that.

Consultants.The question is: Can you have your way by really trying to know who a person is, and seeing it as exciting?

RR. I think I can. I see I’ve been too easy on myself.

In order to encourage the best thing in Robert Radcliff, his care for justice, we have given him various assignments—for instance, to read Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady; to write “Five Qualities I Want to Have Five Years from Now”; to write a soliloquy of his father, and “How Can I Encourage My Mother to Like the World?” He has written about the opposites of the known and unknown in Vermeer’s painting Officer and Laughing Girl. In the consultation from which I quoted, we asked him to write “What Qualities Does Janet Friedlander Have That Are Worthy of Being Cared for by Humanity?” He wrote, in part:

1) Janet has a very caring side to her. Her grandfather is ill, and she takes care of him on many nights and weekends. I have the utmost respect for her wanting to be there for him, and I do not fully understand how difficult that may be.

2) Janet will admit when she is wrong and is willing to hear criticism. I respect her for this and know this is a trait that others would care for as well.

When we saw him next, Mr. Radcliff told us, “That last consultation was a game-changer! Janet and I had dinner and talked. I expressed regret for how I’ve been with her. We have spent more time talking and getting to know each other. I feel more at ease. Thank you!”

Robert Radcliff is happily in process, learning from Aesthetic Realism what every person needs to learn: what it means to bring out the best in other people and oneself, and therefore be truly proud.