The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Keenness and Being Affected

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel of tremendous importance in the understanding of art and the mind of everyone: Poetry and Keenness. And we print here too part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Dale Laurin, an architect, presented this April at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "What Makes a Man Truly Strong?" 

Aesthetic Realism is based on this great principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Opposites that war in people—without their seeing or understanding this war—are the self asserting itself and the self being affected. I am grateful to comment now on a big aspect of that war: the feeling that to be keen is not only different from being affected, stirred, moved—but that in order to be keen about things we should not let them affect us very much. Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that shows the complete incorrectness of this feeling! 

Everyone wants to be keen. And in his lecture Mr. Siegel explains—with richness and clearness and subtlety and power—what keenness is. It is always a cutting through the surface of things, a getting at what they really are. However, the notion of keenness people walk around with has been made corrupt by that force in us which tends to corrupt everything—by that which Mr. Siegel so greatly identified as the source of all injustice: contempt, the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." 

To be keen is, of course, not to be taken in. But people don’t know they have a desire to see the world as something tricky, repulsive, out to hurt them—so they can feel that they’re superior to everything and that the only thing they should care for is their precious self. This desire, a phase of contempt, has men, women, and children feel that anything looking good must be a phony, and they in their keenness won’t be taken in by being deeply affected. People’s contempt has them feel day after day that to be unmoved is to be keen: that for things and people to affect you is for them to have power over you, tell you what to do, and if you’re keen you won’t permit that but be unmoved by them and manage them. 

Meanwhile, people despise themselves for feeling cold. They are pained by an emptiness within, a sense that life is dull, an inability to love someone. But they don’t see that this emptiness, dullness, inability really arise from what they’ve taken to be their "keenness": the self-monition, "Be cool to things; know that they’re mean and fake and you’re too good for them." 

Aesthetic Realism magnificently shows that while people can go on the deep assumption that this contempt is the keenest thing in the world, it is really the stupidest. Mr. Siegel showed that the deepest desire we have is to like the world through knowing it. It is through being affected by things accurately, through seeing what they are, that we are able to be larger—become ourselves. 

The Stupidity of Contempt

Of course, it is possible to be moved inaccurately, be moved in an ugly way. But it happens that to be unaffected is always ugly and inaccurate, because we were born to find meaning in the world, and the world has it. As we are "keenly" aloof, we’re not only deeply dead but (to use an unfashionable word) retarded, unable to have things get within our minds and make for stir and composition there. As we are determined to ferret out fakery while ignoring value, and sometimes ferret out fakery that doesn’t exist, we are not keen but dumb: to see a thing as our ego prefers and not as the thing is, is as stupid as saying the earth is flat or Boston is a pleasant tropical city in the heart of South America. Further, rooking ourselves of what we were born for—to like the world honestly, be just to it, find meaning in it—is not keen, but idiotic; yet millions of people who think they are keen are doing just that. 

Keenness and John Gibson Lockhart

A person important in the history of periodical criticism, or reviewing, is someone who can be used to study the fight in every person between true and false keenness. John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854) had true keenness, which is the desire to cut through superficiality and see and feel as fully and accurately as possible what a thing is. But he also had, with terrific notability, the false keenness people go after, of making the bright, scathing, ever so effective statement, while not feeling and seeing truly the thing he was commenting on. A critic, Mr. Siegel has explained, "makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling." Lockhart was so sharp and stinging a critic that he was called "The Scorpion." Yet in various instances—one monumental—he was quite wrong. It is generally agreed now that he is the author of the 1818 review of John Keats’s Endymion in Blackwood’s Magazine. And we have in that influential review a kind of brilliance and keenness which was the same as a vast inability to feel and see the value of Keats. 

Lockhart was the son-in-law of Sir Walter Scott, and his 1837 Life of Scott has been called the greatest biography in English after Boswell’s Johnson. He was impelled there by a powerful desire both to be exact and to be affected deeply. He wrote on German literature, and he translated, with feeling, old Spanish ballads into English. Yet, as the 5th edition (1985) of The Oxford Companion to English Literature tells it, "In 1817 he began [in Blackwood’s] a long series of attacks on, in particular, Leigh Hunt, Keats, and Hazlitt, castigating them as the low-born ‘Cockney School of Poetry.’" The attacks included Keats’s Poems of 1817; then in 1818 Lockhart reviewed Endymion. Here are some of the sarcastic, clever, oh-so-keen sentences from that review. (The "malady" Lockhart refers to is Keats’s feeling he could write poetry.) 

To witness the disease of any human understanding, however feeble, is distressing; but the spectacle of an able mind reduced to a state of insanity is of course ten times more afflicting. It is with such sorrow as this that we have contemplated the case of Mr John Keats....He was bound apprentice some years ago to a worthy apothecary in town. But all has been undone by a sudden attack of the malady....For some time we were in hopes, that he might get off with a violent fit or two; but of late the symptoms are terrible. The phrenzy of the "Poems" was bad enough in its way; but it did not alarm us half so seriously as the calm, settled, imperturbable drivelling idiocy of "Endymion."

At the conclusion of the review, Lockhart advises Keats to resume his former occupation: "Back to the [apothecary] shop Mr John, back to ‘plasters, pills, and ointment boxes.’" This was written by a person enamored of how "keen" he could be. But because Lockhart couldn’t be affected, couldn’t see value where value existed, yet felt that to sneer was astute, he wasn’t keen but ugly and ridiculous. 

The fight in Lockhart is a fight in everyone: between the keenness of wanting to see and feel the meaning of things, and that contemptuous "keenness" which is really unintelligence and disability. Because Eli Siegel’s purpose was always to see truly, he was the keenest, kindest, most accurate critic—of both art and life in all their fullness. This keen, deep, alive seeing is immortal in Aesthetic Realism. But it was there, day after day, in the sentences he, as person, spoke—the most beautiful thing I know in the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Beyond Surface

By Eli Siegel

A poem which expresses distrust and is a keen poem is by Shakespeare, from As You Like It. It says, Don’t trust anybody, man or woman. And it gets in the wind as keen or sharp, and talks about biting and bitterness—keen words: 

Blow, blow, thou winter wind, 

Thou art not so unkind 

As man’s ingratitude; 

Thy tooth is not so keen, 

Because thou art not seen, 

Although thy breath be rude. 

Heigh ho! Sing, heigh ho! Unto the green holly: 

Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly....

—which is a way of saying that you can trust the green holly and like it, because it is cold and warm; but you shouldn’t trust people. The meter of this poem, except for the bit of metrical burlesque, "Heigh ho! Unto the green holly," is very sharp and keen. Wherever we go beyond surface, there is the feeling of keenness. There is a passage also having to do with keenness, which many commentators have wondered about, in King Lear. Towards the end of the play, Lear says to his daughter, Let’s get away from all this, and let’s just keep on looking and seeing beyond what is seen most often: let us be keen. It is a strange passage. It shows the desire of people to see into the heart of things without their own hearts being known—which is a bad kind of keenness, because keenness should always be desired as reciprocal. Lear is talking to Cordelia: 

Come, let’s away to prison: 

We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage 

................................................................. 

and hear poor rogues 

Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too, 

Who loses and who wins; who’s in,who’s out; 

And take upon’s the mystery of things, 

As if we were God’s spies: 

The word spy itself is keen. As I said, the letter p, as sound, has a keenness to it which b doesn’t have, because b is softer. It is interesting that the sound sp could have to do with speculation and spectator, words having to do with seeing. This desire to be a spy is part of keenness. But then, it means you don’t want to be affected keenly, so there is an incompleteness. To spy on things lovingly is good. To spy upon things without wanting those things to reach us, to unearth us—that is bad. The general idea in this passage is: Let’s spend our time looking into the world so sharply and knowing it so deeply that we don’t have to go through all this; by keen perception we can avoid difficulty—by keen perception with ourselves untouched—and we become God’s spies. 

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True Strength in a Man

By Dale Laurin

I am grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that the ability to affect and be affected accurately, deeply by the world and people is what makes a man truly strong. But there is another notion of strength men often go by. "To feel," Ellen Reiss writes in TRO 1019, "that others are less than we; that we can be impervious to anyone or anything and laugh off anybody; that we can mold facts and persons to suit ourselves—people take to be strength. But this contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, is the massive weakener of humanity and every individual." 

As a boy, it was through art that I was most deeply affected by reality, and expressed myself through it in a way that made me happy and proud. For five years I attended classes—first in drawing, then painting, design, and sculpture—at the local art museum. They took place each Saturday morning—the one morning my mother didn’t have to coax me out of bed; I bounded out! 

One of the assignments I loved doing was an in-depth study of a fruit or vegetable. I chose the pepper, and for weeks studied peppers inside and out: the smooth hills and valleys of their outer skin; the firm yet translucent inner flesh; the cave-like chambers containing seeds and space. I tried to give form, through charcoal, paint, and clay, not only to their appearance, but their texture, aroma, even their taste. Through wanting to be affected, I was able to have an effect—to get to new, deeper expression—that made me strong. 

But I also had the other notion of strength. Though I acted shy, inside I felt I was better than all my classmates, and my parents. I regret to this day how ashamed I was of my parents on the occasion when I received a scholarship to continue my art studies in a pre-college program at a nearby university. They had supported my studies and my father had driven me to and from class every week; yet I—cheaply and ungratefully—felt so embarrassed by what I saw as their cultural inferiority that I didn’t even introduce them to my teacher. 

In my puffed-up self-importance, I felt cowardly, not strong. I felt more and more separate, immune to the feelings and full reality of others. 

"How do you see affecting and being affected?" Eli Siegel so kindly asked me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson I was honored to have in 1978. I said, "I think too much I’ve wanted to affect and not be affected." And I learned that when we don’t want to be affected truly, we can’t affect another truly either. Mr. Siegel asked me a question that is now the source of my largest happiness and gratitude: "Can you be deeply affected by a person and stronger?" "Yes," I said. "And you’re looking for that in the woman I mentioned?" The woman was Barbara Buehler, a city planner and Aesthetic Realism consultant-in-training, whom I had begun to date. Yes, this was what I was looking for; and I found it! I love Barbara’s keen mind and passionate desire that the people of America be seen respectfully and live in decent homes. What I have learned from and about her in our happy marriage of nearly 18 years makes me stronger! 

I love Aesthetic Realism for showing that true strength comes from wanting to know and be fair to the world and people. It is because he had this purpose always that Eli Siegel and the education he founded are unparalleled in their kindness, beauty, and ethical might.