The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Intelligence, Words, & Our Largest Hope

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the lecture Intelligence Is You and More, which Eli Siegel gave fifty years ago and which is new and definitive now. In it, with depth and kindness, great intellect and humor, he is explaining what intelligence truly is. There have been so much pain, cruelty, and confusion around this subject. There have been noxious feelings of superiority, and also of inferiority, and often the same person has both.

This lecture is a rich illustration of the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Intelligence, Mr. Siegel is showing, always has to be fair to two opposed things. For instance, it has to be practical, deal efficiently with a problem before one—and also care for the largeness, the majesty, even the mystery of the world. Real intelligence, too, is both logical and daring. And it is care for self at one with generosity.

The Friendliness of Words

A very affecting matter recently in the press has to do with the meaning of intelligence. A headline in the New York Times (June 24) describes it this way: “Pediatrics Group to Recommend Reading Aloud to Children from Birth.” The article notes: “Reading...is viewed as important in increasing the number of words that children hear in the earliest years of their lives.”

Words and reading, of course, are immensely related to intelligence. But the question is: how and why? According to the Times, the reason the American Academy of Pediatrics gives for its recommendation is that “reading to children enhances vocabulary and other important communication skills” and will “help children succeed once they get to school.” That may be true. But there is a much bigger, more beautiful, also more urgent reason why a person, young or older, should feel what words are, care for them, see reading and books as friends.

What intelligence is depends on what the largest purpose of a human being is. And that largest purpose, the purpose of our lives, is, Aesthetic Realism explains, “to like the world through knowing it.” There is no bigger, fuller way that the world can come into a person than through words.

Every word (whether a simple word like tree or a complex word like coruscation) is an arrangement of sounds: an arrangement standing for something in the world. And through these arrangements of sounds—and, later, of shapes as letters—the world in its multitudinousness and specificity can get within us, and also be used by us to think intimately and to express our thoughts. These words, which will become as much our own selves as our blood, are things we share with millions of other people. And they were come to by people we don’t know, hundreds and even thousands of years ago. For these reasons, every time a child or anyone learns a word, that person is liking and knowing the world.

This is why a child’s uttering her first word—whether it’s Mama or cookie—is not just cute. It’s a tremendous triumph, because it is a oneness of the biggest opposites in her life: self and world. It is a most magnificent reciprocity. It is the having of something outside her become the child with the child able to tell about that thing at any time.

The big failure of children is the same as the failure of adults. That failure, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to dislike the world, have contempt for it—see it as something to get away from, look down on, fool. To have contempt for a world we were born to value is not only ugly but stupid. Meanwhile, every person somewhere feels that to look down on things is smart.

A child’s being read to will not, of itself, stop her contempt, because the desire to have it is huge in everyone. But as a parent reads to the child we’ll call Ada, the girl feels, at least, that the parent isn’t just focused on her and making her the biggest cutesy-wootsie princess in creation, superior to everything. In other words, as the parent, Paul, reads to Ada, he is not making the awful yet ordinary parental mistake of having a child feel the world isn’t good enough for her. Nor is Paul making the other parental mistake of dismissing Ada, putting her aside. As he reads to her, Ada, even at a month old, feels in some fashion that Papa is caring for the world and her at the same time, and that Papa and she are both giving attention to reality, seeing it as important.

The Hope That Is Met

The finest essay that I know on reading is “Books,” from Eli Siegel’s Children’s Guide to Parents & Other Matters. It is, among other things, an essay about intelligence—and not the narrow “intelligence” of being able to get good grades. I’ll quote several sentences. When someone reads to a child, even a very small one, what the child is, in some way, mightily hoping will be met in her, encouraged in her, is what these sentences describe:

Every time you read a book, someone else’s feelings meet yours, and mix with yours.... Some people can’t read books. It’s likely that people who can’t read books can’t have their feelings affected much by other persons, either, and, for that matter, by things generally. These people think that they have “themselves,” so why do they have to read books very deeply? They are wrong, because if they know how to read books, their “selves” are a lot more....Life in its widest form and its deepest comes to a person when he is able to feel life through words.

So the American Academy of Pediatrics tells us that a child even a few hours old can be affected by being read to. This is evidence that the desire to like the world through knowing it is an instinct as primal as the desire to breathe. The honoring of that instinct, that purpose, is the biggest intelligence. And there is nothing that encourages a person’s intelligence more than that great, kind education Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Moment & Eternity

By Eli Siegel

Walter Pater can be seen as one of the proponents of the philosophy of beautiful presentism: the idea that the only thing you’re sure of is the moment. What has happened, has happened; what will be, you can’t be sure of. You have the moment. We find this certain kind of intelligence in Pater’s Conclusion to The Renaissance, of 1873. He tells people how to use their lives: Don’t miss any emotion or experience. That is stupidity. That is unintelligent. And when this first appeared it worried many people. The passage, quite well known, begins:

To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life. In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits: for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world....While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion, or any contribution to knowledge that seems by a lifted horizon to set the spirit free for a moment, or any stirring of the senses, strange dyes, strange colours, and curious odors, or work of the artist’s hands, or the face of one’s friend. Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us...is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.

This brings us to two aspects of intelligence. One is Carpe diem, or Seize the day, Seize the moment. The other is Think of eternity. They are an important example of opposites in intelligence—and they are important because we have to think in those terms. We do think of some possible extravagance of the moment in relation to what may be later; we are like squirrels here. But we also want to be like grasshoppers. A squirrel and an ant know how to collect. A grasshopper is a being given to the light, the merry. So, looking at the Pater passage, we should see it in relation. Nobody has ever lived more than a moment at a time. However, we do have in our minds more than a moment, always. The past never leaves us, and some sense of the future is with us. The moment, however, is where we are.

Pater is relating the moment to aesthetics, as he understood aesthetics. “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” This is true. To have a dull moment is for the person having it to be a failure. It is interesting that Pater—the delicate, sensitive, antennae-having Pater—should use the phrase “success in life,” which could just as well be put out by a bank’s journal. “Success in life”: here is where Pater and the Bowery Savings Bank are looking at the same subject.

Separate & Also Continuous

“In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits.” This brings up another problem: should we see things in themselves, separate, or should we relate them, see some continuity? If you eat a strawberry and think that your teeth may be worse five years from now, it is a way of being unjust to a strawberry. A strawberry wants to be seen for itself and not in terms of putative teeth. However, we do have associations, and persons sometimes can’t enjoy a glass of water because they think that someday they’ll want to take an ocean voyage and, who knows?, they might be drowned. Pater would say this is a way of being unintelligent and not going after success in life: life is a succession of successful moments—and each moment for itself! Moments, too, want to be individuals.

“In a sense it might even be said that our failure is to form habits.” That could be questioned. Some habits are pretty good. If a person, for example, has a habit, as H.L. Mencken did, of answering nearly every letter, it can be seen as pretty prudent. Mencken answered every letter and therefore made fewer enemies. Yet it could be said that answering every letter cuts into one’s chance to know Sanskrit. Habits can be good; habits can be otherwise. A moment can be good and a moment can be otherwise.

Pater had a habit of very carefully looking over everything he wrote. Other writers, as soon as they wrote something, would, if they could, give it to the printer and never see it again. Pater was patient. He looked at each word, heard the cadence of every phrase. He had that habit; he was like Flaubert. Can it be called bad, as such?

There are some persons who get up when they please, and others who get up promptly at 8:12. Neither habit is the only good one, and there’s some stupidity in both. Others could be mentioned: Napoleon is said to have had a habit of sleeping only four hours. Maybe if he had slept more, Waterloo would have been different. Who knows?

The World Is Sameness & Difference

...for, after all, habit is relative to a stereotyped world, and meantime it is only the roughness of the eye that makes any two persons, things, situations, seem alike.

Our intelligence depends on the way the world is. If things are only different, then it would be unintelligent to try to see them as the same. But if things are the same and different, then it would be intelligent to honor both sameness and difference. So Aesthetic Realism says that it is good to do as Pater does here, honor the difference of things: Ah, that moment—how different from any other moment! Another moment: Ah, that moment—so different from any other moment! Then another ecstasy, another rapture, all in different gowns and all distinguishable. This is hard to believe, because, in my study of the joyous history of man, one rapture is a little like another rapture. If—in other words—you enjoy an olive, it takes on a little of the joy of drinking cold fresh milk on a hot day. And the rapture of eating veal cutlet is somewhere related to the rapture of ambrosia. And the rapture of lamb chops is somewhere related to the rapture of champagne, let alone other raptures.

“While all melts under our feet, we may well catch at any exquisite passion.” We come, here, to a proverb: We only live once. And, Make the most of the moment. This is wise, but it is not the only wisdom. It is not the only intelligence.

“Not to discriminate every moment some passionate attitude in those about us...is, on this short day of frost and sun, to sleep before evening.” Yes, it is right to distinguish things, to see differences. Meanwhile, we can’t help thinking that the breakfast of cereal we enjoyed in 1903 is a little bit like the breakfast of cereal in 1898. Why not be honest about cereal? Still, it would be good to say that there was a something about the 1898 cereal that was a little different from the 1903 cereal.

We have to see relation and we have to see difference. The time of Pater, the Victorian time, was said to be besotted in sameness, lost in homogeneity. I am not agreeing with that entirely. But whether Pater was addressing this time or not, to tell people that differences should be seen is intelligent. It is not all of intelligence. Intelligence has a way of not being all intelligence. The intelligence of the carpenter is not the same as the intelligence of the dressmaker.

Rapture & Conduct

To instance this double approach: People have said things like, “Life is short; therefore, while you are alive, enjoy every moment. See that every 15 minutes has its grandeur!” The other way is: “Since life is short, we had better use this life to prepare for another. Life is short and dismal and we should make the most of it because there is another.” And here, making the most of it means conduct. In intelligence, there are many wise things said about conduct and many wise things said about rapture. Who doesn’t want to exemplify good conduct? Who doesn’t want to exemplify rapture? Do we have opposites here? Since the Babylonians, who were given either to a rapture or astronomy, we have had this kind of antagonism.

Pater represents a delicate, sharp paganism. And paganism is thought to have seen only this world—although when we read the pagan epics we find Charon and Styx and another world. Virgil deals with another world, and Homer has something of the kind. But generally speaking the pagan looked about him and said: “These fields are for me to enjoy. These fields are for me to have happy happenings in. I do not care so much to be redeemed, and I’m not sure there is a Redeemer. I’ve heard that some people say there is a Redeemer, who was born in, of all places, Judea. This may be so, but what was good for my grandfather in the way of a Redeemer is good enough for me.”

Theory & Beauty

With this sense of the splendour of our experience and of its awful brevity, gathering all we are into one desperate effort to see and touch, we shall hardly have time to make theories about the things we see and touch.

Pater is not aware that a theory can give pleasure. There are some theories that are true. There are some theories that are true and pretty. And there are some theories that, I am bold enough to say, are true, pretty, and rapturous. A theory can delight. I know a person who studied Newton’s describing of the idea of gravity, and he began glowing with pleasure: “Ahh, what a theory about inverse square of the distance! Did you ever see such a lovely phrase? It takes you away from the customary world—inverse, distance, squares! And just when you expect something to go on, it changes! And it’s gravity!” So Newton was seen as a rapturous benefactor of mankind.

There are other theories that have in them a kind of beauty. In fact, the more successful a theory is, the prettier it is. The falsely pretty theories are not successful—a pretty theory, but not true. A pretty theory and true is the theory that made the grade.

What we have to do is to be for ever curiously testing new opinions and courting new impressions, never acquiescing in a facile orthodoxy of Comte, or of Hegel, or of our own.

It is quite clear that Hegel is not a rabble-rouser, nor does he affect the sensitive. The sensitive and the “rabble” are both dismayed by Hegel. Hegel doesn’t bring delicacies, doesn’t bring the brilliant gustatory delights of the East, or the charm of French symbolism. He does bring a kind of reasoning which repels the hoi polloi and also repels the sensitive. Hegel is not a person who wrote a series of sonnets to the peacock. Still, Hegel is on the side of intelligence. Intelligence is manifold, and in its manifoldness always has Kid This World and Battling That World.

Intellect & Experience

Philosophical theories or ideas...may help us to gather up what might otherwise pass unregarded by us....The theory or idea or system which requires of us the sacrifice of any part of this experience,...has no real claim upon us.

A large question here is, What can experience be? Is intellect an experience too? There is a delight in intellect, which is an experience, and can be related to the experience that Keats wrote about of crushing a strawberry on his palate and having the good result last as long as it could. —So Pater, while being important, disagrees with some people who have also been called intelligent.