|NUMBER 1835.—November 7, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue, along with presenting, as always, instances of Aesthetic Realism and its understanding of the world, the moment, and our lives, I want to honor an anniversary: November 8 is the 34th anniversary of Eli Siegel’s death. I’ll do so by speaking some about who Mr. Siegel was and is. Everything he wrote is a means of seeing who he was; every lecture he gave is; every lesson. To show something of who he was to the very end, I am going to quote, later in this TRO, sentences from my notes of one of the last classes he taught.
Knowledge & Integrity
Eli Siegel was interested in every aspect of the world. And his desire to know made him the most thorough of scholars. People who attended his classes have commented on the fact that, whatever he spoke on—whether theatrical history, humor, the religions of the world, art criticism, philosophy, economics, American history, literature of all kinds—a listener would think, “Oh, this must be his field of specialization, his knowledge of it is so vast.”
And he founded a philosophy which 1) defines beauty; 2) describes the structure of reality; 3) explains the human self; and 4) shows the relation among all of these. A principle describing that relation is: “Self, the arts, the sciences explain each other: they are the oneness of permanent opposites.”
He identified that in the human self which is the source of every injustice, from a person’s making things duller than they are, to snobbishness, to lying, to racism and economic brutality. That thing, present in all of us, is contempt: the desire to get “an addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And contempt, he showed, is the continuous weakener of every person’s life and mind—though people wrongly think it makes them clever, comfortable, and important.
Mr. Siegel had, along with his knowledge, unwavering honesty. And he always had what Aesthetic Realism considers the most intelligent of purposes: good will, “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”
It is a simple fact, and an infinitely ugly one, that this combination in him of knowledge and integrity infuriated many people over the years. And some persons are still foamingly furious at it. So I’ll outline here the reasons for the anger.
A) If a person bases his or her sense of self on being able to have contempt—to mock and feel superior to anything and anyone—unless that person wants to change, he or she will resent Aesthetic Realism and its founder. That is because Aesthetic Realism as philosophy, in its respect for reality, is the greatest and most thorough opponent of contempt. Further, there is an inevitable respect which Aesthetic Realism and Eli Siegel cause in a person, as all greatness does, and various people have been livid that they themselves feel this respect. They have wanted to beat out and annihilate the cause of it.
B) Historically, many people have wanted to justify their own reprehensible motives and their dishonesty by feeling, “Everyone has cheap motives. Everyone lies.” Persons bent on such self-justification have felt Mr. Siegel’s integrity showed them up. This made them very angry.
C) People have been angry because they saw that they themselves need to learn from Aesthetic Realism: need to learn from it not just about one or two subjects but about so much—including about their own lives.
The anger, in other words, is a perverted tribute to how needed, big, and beautiful Aesthetic Realism is. Further, understanding that anger is a means to understand much viciousness in human history.
The Months Preceding
All this has to do with the events preceding the death of Eli Siegel. I have told of them many times, and shall do so succinctly now.
In the spring of 1978, doctors urged Mr. Siegel, intensely, to undergo surgery for a prostatic condition. He was very much against having the operation. The doctors said that without it he would die. Mr. Siegel’s wife, Martha Baird, sought the opinion of several of his students, and we all said rapidly that he should have the surgery.
I have written before about how shameful our response was. Speaking for myself: though I was frightened by the doctors’ dire warnings, I did not want to think—to ask, Why did Mr. Siegel say he would rather die than have this operation? I did not want to give respectful thought to the person I loved and respected most, whose own thought about people—about me—I saw as the greatest, most beautiful thing I knew. I and the others were shockingly, cruelly careless. We were careless because we too resented the size of our own respect for Mr. Siegel; because we resented the thoroughness of his ethics; because we resented our inability to feel superior to him. We got a certain unspoken triumph feeling we knew better than Mr. Siegel about his own health. Our triumph was, literally, deadly.
Reluctantly, Mr. Siegel had the operation, at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan. The surgeon—one of the doctors who had fervently urged it and had assured Mr. Siegel of its necessity and good effects—was Joseph De Filippi. He used a general anesthetic, uncustomary for such surgery.
So Mr. Siegel was made to be unconscious. And when he awoke his life was ruined. As the weeks passed, that became clear to him. In a letter to one of the recommending doctors, he called what had occurred “the operation so disastrous to me....I have lost the use of my feet.”
I and others questioned De Filippi. He admitted to us that he was angry at his respect for Mr. Siegel, and had been at the time of the surgery, and before.
During the summer and early fall of 1978, Mr. Siegel was in anguish, feeling how much his relation to the world he loved had horribly changed. He found it increasingly difficult to walk. He also, as time passed, was unable to hold a pen in order to write.
Yet even in his distress, his desire to be just to reality and people never waned. He gave classes, in which he spoke, for example, on Coleridge, Milton, Dickens, Dryden, the approaches of various historians, comic drama, prose style, the profit motive. He gave lessons to individual men and women, understanding and explaining the biggest matters in their lives. He wrote poems and issues of this journal—and dictated them when he was no longer able physically to write.
But he felt his relation to the world was weakening with each day. And the idea that he would be unable to give reality the full justice of feeling he thought it deserved, was unbearable to him. This was happening in one of the most glowing autumns I have ever known. Autumn was the season he loved most, and he spoke of its beauty. On November 8, Eli Siegel died. And the leaves were brilliant as they fell.
A Class about Art & Life
Now, from my notes, I’ll quote sentences from one of the last classes Mr. Siegel taught. It took place on October 16, 1978, in the midst of his agony. In it, he spoke about “the most sustained feminine novelist in the English language: Jane Austen.” Relating her to other writers, placing her quality, he described central opposites in the novel, which are also huge matters in people’s lives. Even in my somewhat sketchy notes, we see Mr. Siegel’s grandeur as critic. We see his desire, and ability, to be just to a person and beauty, no matter how much he himself was enduring.
“Everything that exists,” he said, “shows a possibility of excitement and repose.” That is so, he said, in the technique of a novel; and there, one aspect of repose is something Jane Austen has been seen as having: charm. Mr. Siegel explained:
Two qualities that have to be looked at in the novel are excitement and charm. What is charm, and how does it affect one? Beauty is not the same as charm. In charm there is something more personal. There’s something intimate, exquisite, subtle—unforgettable in the sense that it penetrates you. Thomas Campbell’s poem “Hohenlinden” wouldn’t be called charming. Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me” would be called charming.
“Every person,” he said, “in seeking happiness, is seeking both excitement and repose.” And in relation to those opposites, he commented on a complaint often made against Jane Austen:
The chief objection to Jane Austen was that there are no thrills in her work. Yet in Pride and Prejudice there is passion. This would confute the idea that Jane Austen had no passion. There is a relation between the characters of Jane Austen and the characters of Shakespeare. There are scenes between Darcy and Elizabeth that approach the tragic scenes of Shakespeare.
Throughout the class, Mr. Siegel was speaking about those huge opposites in our lives, excitement and repose, and various forms they take in the novel. “Thrills” and “passion” are aspects of “excitement.” So is what he described in the following statement of critical judgment: “There’s a certain kind of impulse, strength, passion in Pride and Prejudice that is not in the other five”—that is, the other novels of Jane Austen, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Mansfield Park, Persuasion.
A Writer Is Related
I’ll quote some sentences now in which Mr. Siegel spoke about ways Jane Austen is related to and different from other writers. All those ways have to do in some fashion with excitement and repose. And I’ll quote, too, sentences pointing to certain lacks, ways she could have seen better. But, first, here is a sentence I love for its style: “Jane Austen wrote about stupid ladies, but never about wicked ones.” —Mr. Siegel said:
I don’t think Jane Austen was the best literary critic. She doesn’t seem to care enough for poetry; for other kinds of prose, like the essay; for history. The way she spoke in favor of the novel and not so much in favor of other kinds of literature, shows a limitation of mind. In her letters there is an unawareness of all the possibilities of literature. [Yet] an interesting thing about her is her esteem for Samuel Johnson and his style.
It would be good to have a comparison between [Emily Brontë’s] Wuthering Heights and Northanger Abbey. You don’t feel Jane Austen was ever attracted by a storm. A person interested in life should see not only teacups but storms.
There is Treasure Island; the position of Stevenson in literature is quite safe. The delicacy of his writing can be compared to Jane Austen’s.
Before I continue, I’m impelled to say: this is an amazing comparison. It is likely the first time Robert Louis Stevenson and Jane Austen have been related as stylists. Their novels are so enormously different. And yet, as Mr. Siegel points out, there is indeed delicacy—a different delicacy—in both of them.
How Henry James has been seen is an instance of the vicissitudes of literary taste. Jane Austen doesn’t have anybody traveling abroad—so the character of Strether [in James’s The Ambassadors] is rather distant from Jane Austen.
Tolstoy has his largest book on a subject Jane Austen avoided. [That is, war.]
An author must have something in common with another author, if it’s only to have the pages numbered. There are sentences in the work of Anaïs Nin which could be found in the work of Jane Austen.
It would be well to take some of those “sensation novels” which affected Shelley so much and compare them to the work of Jane Austen.
Now, sentences about something in Jane Austen that hurt her, which Mr. Siegel saw through her work and, likely, through her letters:
The sarcasm of Jane Austen at times was out of hand and not in her full control. Sarcasm, at least personally, went too far in Jane Austen. I think that in her thoughts, sarcasm went further than should be. There is a good deal of respect in Pride and Prejudice, but the contempt for other people is at times not exact.
The last passage I’ll quote has Mr. Siegel’s large, warm, precise esteem for Jane Austen. He said:
She preceded photography, but her work has been called photographic. She had an eye that saw within, without, and around.
This is Eli Siegel in the fall of 1978, as he himself was suffering so much, very shortly before his death. So many of the sentences I quoted are themselves beautiful as prose. They themselves have that oneness of opposites which makes for beauty: they are astir and calm; strong and delicate; powerful and charming. They stand for who Eli Siegel was.
So does the portion, which follows, of a lecture this journal is currently serializing. It is of 1965. Instinct: Beginning with Shelley is one of many lectures on instinct Mr. Siegel gave at that time. In it, he uses as text the essay “On Love” by Shelley. Percy Bysshe Shelley and Jane Austen, though contemporaries, are as different as two people can be. Eli Siegel was richly fair to both of them—in my opinion, thrillingly, definitively fair. And like both of them, he is immortal.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Instinct Is about Seeing & Love
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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