The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Knowing, Feeling, & America

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the final section of the landmark 1973 lecture we have been serializing: The Scientific Method in Feeling, by Eli Siegel. It is about the opposites of knowing and feeling, opposites that have seemed to people to be at war within them. Today, as in other times, men and women have (though they may not articulate it) an abiding sadness, shame, anger because as they’re stirred with emotion they don’t seem to themselves to be logical, to be the same person who reasons. And when they go for careful reason, they feel they must be unstirred, lack warmth.

Aesthetic Realism magnificently—and logically—shows that knowing and feeling are aesthetic opposites: that 1) both are always in us in some way; 2) they can be beautifully, proudly one in us; and 3) it is our deep need to try to have them be. This is in keeping with the principle on which Aesthetic Realism is based: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In the lecture we’ve been serializing, Mr. Siegel uses passages from the College Book of English Literature to show the oneness of knowledge and feeling. In this final section he quotes from Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. And he shows that Spenser often deals with that aspect of knowledge which is people’s seeing that they lack it: that is, they know that they don’t know something. And there is, in Spenser’s characters, himself, and his readers, much feeling about this fact.

Mr. Siegel’s discussion of Spenser here is short; yet it is great both in terms of what it says about humanity, and as literary criticism. No critic ever spoke of Spenser this way before. And one of the things we can see is Mr. Siegel’s ability to describe the writing, the style, of an author with such accuracy and relish that his description is itself beautiful prose.

America Fundamentally

I am going to comment a little, in relation to America herself, on the Aesthetic Realism principle I quoted. I’m doing so now because, at a time of tremendous tumult and anger in this land, it is necessary to think about our nation fundamentally, centrally. Among millions of individuals at any moment in history, there are rightness, wrongness, and mix-up in what people seem to want for themselves and their country. In some instances the rightness is lovely, glorious; the wrongness hideous; the mix-up terrific. My purpose is not to comment on that, but to look in a beginning way at America as described philosophically, aesthetically, by the great principle I quoted. The United States is like a person: in order for a person to see what choices will enable her to be true to herself, what will make her stronger, she needs to see what she most deeply is, what she most deeply is looking for. And the seeing of this can bring her composure and clarity. So again, Eli Siegel explains: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Freedom & Accuracy; Freedom & Justice

These opposites are one in our Declaration of Independence, 1776. It states that the people of the American colonies intend to be free, no longer subject to England. But the document explains with care and detail why declaring freedom is an accurate, just response to England’s treatment.

Freedom is beautiful, necessary, a right—when it is at one with justice. But a notion of freedom which is not the same as accuracy and justice, is the beginning of all the evil of the world. Unless a person feels that justice to things and people is the same as freedom for himself, he’ll see freedom as the being able to put in motion any desire he has: “freedom” will be the going after whatever he thinks will please him.

That may sound not so bad, but it is hideous. The American Civil War occurred because persons of the South wanted to be “free” to own other human beings, to sell them, to do whatever they pleased with them. The Confederacy literally presented itself as fighting for Southern freedom—which it saw Abraham Lincoln and others of the North as trying to annul.

And there was the “freedom” to have child labor. Employers saw it as their right (part of free enterprise, after all) to have little children work in their mines and factories. They saw any attempt to curtail child labor as an impingement of their—the employers’—freedom.

I could certainly give other examples of the ugliness of severing “freedom” from justice and accuracy. But for now the point is: our dear America is looking for the oneness of freedom and justice. Mr. Siegel wrote, for example, in 1968: “Perhaps then we should change a well-known term to Free-and-Accurate Enterprise; or, perhaps, Free-and-Just Enterprise; or, even, Free-and-Beautiful Enterprise.”

Sameness & Difference

Sameness and difference are grandly one in the geography of America: so many different ways of earth—mountains, valleys, deserts, grasslands, tropical places, frozen landscapes, farmland, and land on which cities are built—make up the same nation. And the United States of America still has a population more diverse—arising more from more different parts of the world—than any other country has. Mr. Siegel wrote in his preface to Hail, American Development: “If the sameness and difference of America were to become musical, it would be poetry.”

Meanwhile, sameness and difference used against each other are the source of cruelty, and are cruelty. For example, all racism arises from seeing a person who seems different from oneself as only different. It is urgent now to try to have these opposites, so deep in America’s makeup, be one in how her people think about each other. Is a person different from me only different? How much is he or she like me too?

We need to see now in keeping with a suggestion I heard Mr. Siegel give in Aesthetic Realism lessons, and which is given today in Aesthetic Realism consultations. It is to write a soliloquy of another person, trying to express the thoughts, feelings, hopes, fears of this person. A daughter (we’ll call her Eva) might be asked to write a soliloquy of her mother, Jill, at age 17; that is, to imagine Jill at 17, thinking to herself.

Eva had seen her mother as, on the one hand, a possession of hers—which means as too much the same as herself. On the other hand, Eva had seen Jill as too different from her: she had seen Jill as lacking the depth and fullness of feelings that she, Eva, had. But in writing the soliloquy, Eva came to see her mother as at once a distinct individual, with a full, vivid life of her own, and as being an equal in feeling—as having feelings as deep as Eva’s own.

The American people need to see each other in keeping with such soliloquies, and even write them about each other: about a person one is confused by, or a person one sees as very different from oneself. When you see that another person has feelings as real as yours, you cannot be cruel to him. You cannot (for instance) exploit him economically. You cannot feel it’s all right for him to be poor.

Self & World; or, a Person & a Nation

Aesthetic Realism explains that every person was born from and into nothing less than the whole world. A central question, immensely philosophic, also ethical, also urgently of-life-now, is: what should be the relation of each person to the world? In terms of a country, the question is: what should be the relation of each citizen and that country? What would it mean for a person and nation to be truly one?

We can think of two babies recently born, one into much wealth, the other into poverty. Each came equally naked into this world, into this nation. Each, now, is waving little fists, uttering sounds, wanting nourishment. Should both babies have the same right to this land, with all its possibilities and wealth? Is it un-American to have one child be crippled from birth by conditions of poverty that she did nothing to create, while another is surrounded from birth with more luxuries than she can ever use? These questions are American questions. They are about the oneness of opposites—self and world, a person and a land. And inseparable from them is the question Eli Siegel said was the most important for humanity: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

I have commented a little on three pairs of opposites that America, like every person and nation, is in the midst of. America, I believe, wants her citizens to see, to think, to be in such a way that these opposites are one. Aesthetic Realism has identified the thing in people which has made opposites be hurtfully against each other. That thing is contempt, the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” And contempt has made for every injustice.

In keeping with the lecture we have been serializing: This is a time for the American people to think as deeply and truly as possible, and to feel—about our nation and each other—as deeply and truly as possible. The means to do so is in that great American philosophy, the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Knowing That We Don’t Know

By Eli Siegel

The person who follows Marlowe in this book is someone born earlier. Marlowe was born in 1564, and Edmund Spenser in 1552 or ’3. Spenser didn’t live long (he died in 1599), but he lived longer than Marlowe did.

There’s more winding circuitousness and grace in the poetry of Spenser than anywhere else. You just feel that one landscape job got mixed up with another landscape job, and caves got mingled with tar and soot, woods got mingled with dells. What Spenser was like as a person is still not known, but his Faerie Queene is a great work and hasn’t been wholly described yet. I’ll read an example of the running about in graceful un-knowingness or uncertainty.

Spenser makes your not knowing what’s going to happen next look awfully interesting. He is a poet who honors what’s going to happen next?—what you don’t know. For instance, Una and the Red Cross Knight are in Book 1, and at one point an evil magician creates a false picture of Una—makes her seem bad though she is good. At another point the Red Cross Knight is deceived because a bad person, Duessa, dresses herself up to appear as a good person, Fidessa. There are other disguises, and it can be hard to follow them.

Getting Lost

So we have the first canto of Book 1. Very early the Red Cross Knight and Una get lost. More people get lost in The Faerie Queene than in any other book. Even in Byron’s The Island and Lara and The Corsair you don’t have so much getting lost, though you have people uncertain. And in Byron’s Don Juan you have people uncertain—Haidee and Don Juan don’t know exactly where they are; and there’s a shipwreck—but there’s not so much getting lost. In Spenser’s poem, though, it’s a maze, and you’re supposed to get lost to help along the poetry. The Hansel and Gretel motif is repeated with so many mutations.

I’ll read a fine stanza telling how Una and the Red Cross Knight become lost—and also the Dwarf. He is the most sensible person of the three, by the way. He always finds first how to get out of something.

Led with delight, they thus beguile the way,

Untill the blustering storme is overblowne;

When weening to returne, whence they did stray,

They cannot finde that path, which first was showne,

But wander too and fro in wayes unknowne,

Furthest from end then, when they neerest weene,

That makes them doubt, their wits be not their owne:

So many pathes, so many turnings seene,

That which of them to take, in diverse doubt they been.

“But wander too and fro in wayes unknowne”: that should be the motto of The Faerie Queene.

“Furthest from end then, when they neerest weene”: that is, they feel they are getting somewhere, but they’re not. They’re so confused: “So many pathes, so many turnings seene, / That which of them to take, in diverse doubt they been.”

This is the classical English stanza of uncertainty. And when you’re uncertain, it is well to know that you don’t know—as with Montaigne, who is supposed to have begun the scientific method when he asked, “Que sais-je?” (“What do I know?”) That hadn’t been asked just that way before. Cicero never asked it. There are lots of things he asked, but he didn’t ask, “What don’t I know?” or “What do I know?”

“But wander too and fro in ways unknowne, /... / So many pathes, so many turnings seene, / That which of them to take, in diverse doubt they been.” That’s also in Cooper’s novels. And when computers are at their worst, it’s what the person who is trying to manage the computer feels: the computer ran away with them; they don’t know where they are. But this is a fine stanza, and should be looked at.

The Ugly, Seen Beautifully

Another passage from The Faerie Queene is in the field of ugliness. Una and the Red Cross Knight visit the place where a dragon is, and, as with Marlowe, we have writing about books.

Though Spenser is seen as the poet of beauty, he has some of the ugliest things in the world; he can be seen as the laureate of vomit. He hasn’t been described that way—but he begins it in Canto 1. The knight is trying to defeat the purpose of the dragon, and we have this stanza about the dragon:

Therewith she spewd out of her filthy maw

A floud of poyson horrible and blacke,

Full of great lumpes of flesh and gobbets raw,

Which stunck so vildly, that it forst him slacke

His grasping hold, and from her turne him backe:

Her vomit full of bookes and papers was,

With loathly frogs and toades, which eyes did lacke,

And creeping sought way in the weedy gras:

Her filthy parbreake all the place defiled has.

Parbreake is an Elizabethan word for “vomit.” So you get the idea fairly early. The editors have a note (and these Catholic editors are quite courageous in writing it) that what this dragon is vomiting is “Catholic and other writings against Elizabeth.” Still, it’s vomit.

Evil Made to Seem Good

Then there’s a person who seems a simple old man, a hermit, but instead he’s one of the most wicked persons in this territory. He’s an instance of how, throughout The Faerie Queene, people are in disguise, and you feel somebody is good who isn’t. This is Archimago, who is a master of disguise. And Archimago, who appears to be a hermit not up to any mischief but is really one of the greatest scoundrels ever, also has books. There are these lines: “His feete all bare, his beard all hoarie gray, / And by his belt his booke he hanging had.” That is another slur, another questioning of books—because some awful people have them.

Then we have a lovely stanza; it’s neat and expansive. It describes where Una, the Red Cross Knight, and the Dwarf will be: the home of the old man who is really Archimago. (The phrase a little wyde means a little distance apart.)

A little lowly Hermitage it was,

Downe in a dale, hard by a forests side,

Far from resort of people, that did pas

In travell to and froe: a little wyde

There was an holy Chappell edifyde,

Wherein the Hermite dewly wont to say

His holy things each morne and eventyde:

Thereby a Christall streame did gently play,

Which from a sacred fountaine welled forth alway.

In Malory’s Morte D’Arthur you meet again and again these chapels and somebody there. And it’s all so sacred and tidy, you just want to be there and stay there.

But Archimago is somehow in charge of this hermitage. He doesn’t offer any refreshments. He seems to be so religious that he’s not given to that kind of satisfaction. So they go to sleep and then Archimago consults his books, plotting things from the books. After all, a wicked magician had to use the scientific method. He couldn’t get his demonic powers mixed up. He had to know which was which for the occasion. When you study the evil magic “sciences,” you still study. Also, there are certain sounds that magicians study. You’ve got to know which sounds are which. They all don’t make much sense, but they’re supposed to have the power of bringing forth the powers of the world. There are various magic books that Tolkien, for example, gets into his work. Even Thomas Aquinas has been given magic books. This is Archimago consulting the works that he has in the house:

...When all drownd in deadly sleepe he findes,

He to his study goes, and there amiddes

His Magick bookes and artes of sundry kindes,

He seekes out mighty charmes, to trouble sleepy mindes.

That’s what he uses books for.

Many Feelings

So on that distressing note, I guess I’d better end this talk on feeling and the scientific method, which is part of what education is. Education is present in the passages I read, which have to do with many feelings—Elizabethan, Tudor, Jacobean, and of now.