The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Love—& How We Talk to Each Other

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing a beautiful, definitive lecture that Eli Siegel gave in 1964. In it, he discusses his 1930 poem “A Marriage” and how it preludes what Aesthetic Realism explains about love. With enormous pleasure and gratitude I say: Aesthetic Realism is that which makes clear what love really is, and also what the big interference is—the huge mistake people have made about love for centuries and are making right now.

The purpose of love, Aesthetic Realism shows, is “to feel closely one with things as a whole”—to like the world itself through one’s closeness to a person. And the mistake—the immensely popular mistake—is to use a person one says one cares for to get away from the world, lessen it, feel superior to it together.

“A Marriage” is a poem in 20 sections. It is musically sweeping and vivid, logical and throbbing. And our current issue has Mr. Siegel’s discussion of sections 2 through 5. He is showing that any two people, however alone together they may be, are always related to the whole world, and have the world in them. Even the troubles in marriage—for instance, the way two people can go from sweetness to rage—have their inexpungible likeness to outside reality.

Always There: The Opposites

Love and how it will fare begin with what the nature of the self is, and the nature of the world. And these are described in a central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” A person we see ourselves as caring for has the structure of the world in him: reality’s opposites. We may be taken, for example, by the way he is intense yet gentle. But intensity and gentleness are also in the way rain may fall, sunlight may come to us on a spring day; they’re in the music of Chopin, brightly colored silk, the sudden but friendly laugh of a stranger. We can’t truly love those qualities in a person we’re close to, if we spurn the world those qualities are of, and the people and things that have them.

The person we care for is related to the world in thousands of ways. He’s related to it, as I said, through reality’s structure, which is in him: he is a particular joining, not only of intensity and gentleness, but of surface and depth, logic and feeling, seriousness and lightness, and more. And he is infinitely related to the world because he is composed of all he has to do with—including the words he uses, which came from centuries of human beings; the subjects that interest him; the people he has known; the skies he has seen; the sounds he has heard; the stairs he has walked on; the food he has tasted; the material of his dreams; world events; mathematical calculations; every item ever mentioned to him. He is a particular arrangement of these, but he is these. And if we have contempt for the world, we have contempt for him. That is why the desire for contempt is the biggest interference with love. Contempt, the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world,” is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the ugliest thing in a person, albeit ever so ordinary. It’s the source of all cruelty, and is that in us which weakens our mind and life.

“Words in a Room”

I have said that a protagonist of the poem being discussed is A Word. Section 2 begins with the line “An auto going south, and words in a room.” And Mr. Siegel speaks about the fact that in marriage, people seem less and less able to talk to each other satisfyingly. There is huge pretense on this subject of how couples talk, use words together. On the one hand, each person would like to be hidden, contained, unshown, while having somebody’s devoted and flattering company. But on the other hand, people are ashamed of not speaking to each other with the desire to know each other, to show themselves, to learn about and value the world together. If two people are not hearing from each other words impelled by such a purpose, they inevitably resent each other and feel an aching emptiness.

It’s necessary to see that you cannot want to know a person if you’re using that person to get away from the world. The reason is: to know a person is to know how the world is in him, and how he sees the world. Eli Siegel explained (and the prose style of these sentences is ever so fine):

To know a person is to know the universe become throbbingly specific. It is always the universe on two feet, with two eyes, and an articulate mouth. It is the universe we want to skip.

What a magnificent fact it is that Aesthetic Realism, in showing a person that her deepest desire is to like the world, also frees in her the desire to know, really know, another human being. Aesthetic Realism enables one to see that knowing is the same as warmth. In the first line Mr. Siegel discusses here, the phrase “words in a room” has in its sound the oneness of warmth and largeness, tenderness and stirring mystery. That phrase and the poem as such have in their music the oneness of opposites that love is looking for.

In Aesthetic Realism lessons and classes, when Eli Siegel spoke to or about a person there was always, in his words and seeing, the oneness of the wide universe and a particular self. He wanted to know that person in his or her specificity—and he saw that person as related to everything. Sometimes he would show that the person having the lesson was in the midst of questions had also by a character in a novel, or by someone in history, or by a composer or scientist. This seeing of one individual, you, as related to all reality, is the basis of Aesthetic Realism consultations now.

To study with Eli Siegel was to meet the height of intellect, which was also the height of kindness. It was to experience the greatest success of “words in a room.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Two People & a Dramatic World

By Eli Siegel

We come to the second section of the poem:

An auto going south, and words in a room,

And outside, pink of May, white of June, brown of September, white of December.

In the world in which sex is, and love, there are also colors. There’s also mechanism, and speed. “An auto going south”: a hundred years ago, autos were not related to love at all, because there were no autos. But about 1904, we could have a fetching little narrative called “The Studebaker Romance,” or “A Cadillac Heartbreak,” or somewhat later “A Willys Night Episode.” Vehicles are a part of social history. This was made very apparent in Oklahoma with “Surrey with the Fringe on Top.” You can also have love in anything that floats. But there are those articles of transportation that seem to have properly two people, like a fairly small auto, or a rowboat, or surrey. In the last 50 years, ever so many short stories have gotten the auto into them in relation to love.

“An auto going south, and words in a room.” This represents the two things in the world. “An auto going south” is something speedy, like a line; “words in a room” are more enclosed and less speedy. But those two qualities, which we see in poetry and in art, are present in the relation of two people. And if they are not seen there rightly, there’s going to be something missing, with the consequent trouble.

“...and words in a room.” As people know each other and are married, they learn less and less to talk to each other. The problem of sex, as sex, has been fairly well solved. That is, it’s something which, everyone knows, is gone after more than even the presidency. However, it does happen that people also want to talk to each other. Persons’ eyes may flash at each other while they don’t think one another worth listening to. There is this strange desire to talk to each other and not skimp, not leave out too much. But as time goes on, much is left out. And when something is included, it’s included in terms of an outburst—when people are candid, they are usually barbaric.

The World as Color

“And outside, pink of May.” The colors have had much to do with love. A journal that is quite popular, Brides, does show that brides are still given to color. They prefer white and pink.

I have a notion that pink was present in Rome. It’s hard to think of Julius Caesar meeting pink, but there’s no reason to think that a sky didn’t have some pink and that there weren’t flowers near the River Tiber that had some pink. Even Caesar, in the intervals he must have taken from the job of conquering the world, must have looked at those flowers.

Well, pink is quite old and also is very contemporary. It’s a study in both ineffable purity and ineffable lewdness. Then, “white of June.” White has been associated with a bride for years. There’s been an attempt to have a bride dressed in brown, but somehow it doesn’t succeed.

I’m mentioning this because color is present in the world, and it does concern people. There have been quarrels about colors. I don’t know the statistics, but I’d say that about 12 percent of the married people in America quarrel by the end of the third year of their marriage on what color to use in painting whatever they’re going to paint. Meanwhile, colors go on. They arise from something deep. It does seem that color couldn’t exist without light and space. And light and space have established tenure for a long time. They’re simply here.

In this poem I am doing that which I have put forth in another way in Aesthetic Realism lessons: showing that when people know each other they also know an observed world—a world that is in them.

There is section 3:

In a widely tumultuous sky, a darkening sky, going out, dark on all sides, for miles, somewhere in the sky sweetly luminous air; quietly shining stillness somewhere amid strange thunders; and after strange thunders the meaningful careless calling of an unperturbed bird.

Vanishing of black, smoky train into softly-white, million-flowered field; disappearance of weighty smoke and heavy cinders into delicate summery shimmer.

We Are Like This Too

“In a widely tumultuous sky.” A sky can be tumultuous, as people can. For some reason the sky can be such a bright blue, or sheerly luminous, and it can also be tumultuous. This is a way of things. One of the purposes of modern art is to show there is no sheerly smooth surface. Every surface, however sleek, however unctuous, however dazzling or superficially chichi, is something that can have tumult in it.

The word tumultuous has been used by, say, Sinclair Lewis, and by many other novelists: “At this moment Roderick felt, as his wife was by the dresser, that there was something tumultuous going on in her. He felt he could not avoid it, because he knew that whenever Alicia decided to be tumultuous, nothing on earth, particularly himself, could stop it.” One feels a tumult impending, even as the hairbrush is used: that has been in American novels. So there’s “a widely tumultuous sky, a darkening sky”: the world can be seen as threatening.

“...somewhere in the sky sweetly luminous air.” One obvious thing is that when the sky is peaceful and has friendly blue, it is that sky which has also had billowing ominousness. So in the sky we have a picture of how people can be. We know that a smile can take place in a woman who has been most unbearably angry. The reason may not be good, but it can happen. We can simper and we can bellow, and skies have shining stillness and they have thunders.

“And after strange thunders the meaningful careless calling of an unperturbed bird.” One would like to be like a careening—or, as they say in baseball, a cavorting—bird, just dashing around, singing when it pleases, hopping on a twig, staying there a while, having the air, and not having to file anything. As soon as you start filing, you’re one of those oppressed human beings. There have been poems, the most famous of which perhaps is Shelley’s “To a Skylark,” where a person wants to have the carelessness of an unperturbed bird.

In the next line there is the matter of the world as threatening and the world as making for lightheartedness: “Vanishing of black, smoky train into softly-white, million-flowered field; disappearance of weighty smoke and heavy cinders into delicate summery shimmer.” These objects have tactual qualities. They have ways of motion that are different. The fact that “heavy cinders” can be near “delicate summery shimmer” is something. Cinders and shimmers are a very interesting pair. What they stand for is present in love and marriage, and how they are present should be known.

So the world as interestingly dramatic is presented for this marriage, in the first three sections.

Women, Men, & Justice Are Abstract & More

Then, section 4:

The finely adequate word showing where justice might have been long ago and the meeting of this word by a line of feminine light.

It used to be said often that women have to carry on the work of the world. Men, if they wanted, could read the Talmud and other learned books, but women had to see to it that cooking was done and children were born. Women were not seen as given to abstraction. If a woman started talking abstractly for more than three minutes she usually was seen as de-sexed. That wasn’t done!—she had to get to something cute and tangible. Men were given the job of abstract thought. This, to be sure, is somewhat changed; there are women logicians. Yet even when women weren’t seen as having the desire to deal with concepts in the various sciences, they did want to think that the man they cared for honored intellect. The person I am writing about in this poem was a lawyer, so the word justice comes in. Now, justice is something that can be anywhere. What it is, is still not clearly seen. Though justice isn’t seen, we have buildings erected to express it in: halls of justice, courts of justice.

When aesthetics gets really going, the relation of justice to prettiness will be taken as an everyday subject. Justice is something correct and can be dazzling. And prettiness can be correct and can be dazzling. The desire for justice is along with the desire to see anything that fits, that has propriety in shape and color. So a feeling for justice can be perceived. Justice is for man and woman. The possibility of response to “showing where justice might have been” is in this section 4: “The finely adequate word showing where justice might have been long ago and the meeting of this word by a line of feminine light.”

There Are Chance, Choice, & a Universe

Among a wildly numbered, swirling, diving, circling, plunging mighty army of flying things, See!—Some still power, which persons may call chance or choice or destiny or the Lord or ever-so-often-mentioned God—and the departing from a swirling army of two beings, a departing in some universal manner; and the making of some deliberate universe themselves.

That was section 5. How people come to be married, one cannot say. The first thing necessary in being married is, you have to meet—or at least hear of each other. There have been mail-order marriages, but you can’t marry a person you never heard of. Fate has a lot to do with the matter; and everyone knows that whatever fate is, it’s easier to talk about it than to have anything sensible said of it.

A word in this section, chance, is a synonym for fate. Fate is usually seen as rigid: you are picked out, you have your name on that paper which will govern your life, and that is all there is to it. Chance, however, is seen as hardly rigid because it is as free as any bird. Yet the two are often made equivalent.

“...Some still power.” There is some power, and it could be put this way: What is the cause of it all? We know some things about what is sending the earth around the sun, but how, after all, did that come to be? And what relation has that which sends the earth around the sun to that which makes you feel bad? As soon as you ask these questions, it means that you’re interested in fate as science.

Why two people should know each other seems to be concerned with themselves. But if they look deeply, they can ask: “Why should I have been in the same precinct as that person at that time?” It’s just possible that Paris and Helen might never have met. And Tristan and Isolde—Isolde might have been in Austria.

“...and the departing from a swirling army of two beings...; and the making of some deliberate universe themselves.” What are the universes in a universe, and what do people mean when they say they want to be happy?

Aesthetic Realism has said that most often when two people separate themselves from the world and are married, it’s with a disdain for that world—also with the feeling that the world has already injured them. Still, they have to meet the world. And it is the world, still, that provides the material for happiness. It’s the material of self. And if the self can’t use the world for happiness, it has to use some competitor, which is dangerously used. Some universe is made by two people. On what basis, is the question.