The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Love—& the Mistake

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is a new installment of the great, stirring, immensely educating, historic, infinitely kind lecture by Eli Siegel that we have been serializing. (And I mean every adjective and adverb.) In that 1964 lecture he discussed his poem “A Marriage”—written 34 years earlier. The ideas in it, he said, are a prelude to what would be taught in Aesthetic Realism lessons. And they are a prelude to what people are learning about love in Aesthetic Realism consultations now.

The poem, one of the most beautiful in American literature, is composed of 20 sections. In this issue we have Mr. Siegel’s discussion of sections 12 through 18. (The whole poem is reprinted in TRO 1915.)

What is love? What is it for? And what is the big mistake people make about it? What is it that ruins love? People want the answers to those questions as achingly as they ever did. And they’re not getting them from the various mental practitioners, relationship counselors, articles, talk shows, and websites. The answers are in Aesthetic Realism. For instance, in issue 150 of the present journal, Mr. Siegel writes:

Love is a means of liking the world through a person....When we use a person not to like the world but to make ourselves important or successful, we are having contempt both for that person and the world.

...Love is either a possibility of seeing the world differently because something different from ourselves is seen as needed and lovely; or it is an extension of our imperialistic approval of ourselves in such a way that we have a carnal satellite.

That last sentence, eloquent and vivid, is classic. It explains with grandeur (also humor) so much of today’s social life, victories, and ensuing tears.

In the present issue of TRO, Mr. Siegel is showing that the big matter in love and marriage is: how do we encourage another person to feel about the world?

Everyone, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is in a fight between 1) the desire to like the world, see meaning in the world, see the world as a friend—and 2) the desire to have contempt for the world, feel we’re important because we can look down on what’s not us. The first desire is the deepest we have. It’s what impels a baby to reach toward light, to take in food, eventually to take in words. As we go after love, we do so with those two desires battling in us. In the issue of TRO I quoted from, Mr. Siegel explains:

We have to see that there are two things in us causing us to love another. The first is our desire to despise the world. We can use the loved person to make less the rest of the world. The second thing, the true cause of love, uses the loved person to make the whole world more beautiful.

Matthew Prior: Couples & Couplets

To introduce what Mr. Siegel says in the present TRO, I’m going to comment on a poem very different from “A Marriage.” It is by Matthew Prior (1664-1721) and is titled “An Epitaph.” Prior describes a couple who have an arrangement that is definitely (though he doesn’t use these words) against the world. The poem is satiric; it is funny. In 4-beat couplets, Prior tells how together husband and wife made the world dull.

A couple can tacitly agree that reality isn’t good enough to stir them. That is another form of something Mr. Siegel speaks of in the lecture: two people ratifying each other’s fear of the world. If we and a partner dislike the world, we’ll inevitably find it both uninteresting and fearsome. —Prior’s poem begins:

Interred beneath this marble stone,

Lies sauntering Jack and idle Joan.

The beauty of those lines is in the fact that Prior has made a one of a sloppy, who-cares quality and the neatness of the couplet. As the words lies sauntering and idle are placed here, they have, as sound, a kind of limpness, and convey a picture of two people inattentive to things. There’s a shrug of the shoulders in that second line. Yet the couplet also has grip: it is agog in its so-what-ness.

How little the husband and wife cared about what wasn’t themselves, is in the following lines:

If human things went ill or well,

If changing empires rose or fell,

The morning passed, the evening came,

And found this couple still the same.

Prior is musically making fun. But Jack and Joan are really not so different from most couples. In fact, two people can marry in order not to be affected much by reality’s happenings. People don’t put it that way, of course; but so many love-relations are based on the feeling, “I’m tired of being buffeted around and insulted by the world. You and I together will have a kingdom in which that nasty, confusing, unappreciative world can’t get to us—because we, darling, are better than all that!”

When you want the world not to get to you, you want it not to affect you. And that means you want to shrug it off, find it meaningless. So many couples, as the years pass, find the world dull. They don’t see that they’ve arranged things that way. The dullness makes, on the one hand, for a soothingness, and on the other for an awful emptiness.

Prior has a fine—also terrible—couplet about one way Joan and Jack have taken the meaning out of other human beings. This is about the leftovers from the couple’s meals:

They gave the poor the remnant-meat,

Just when it grew not fit to eat.

The goodness of those lines as poetry is in their musical relation of purring smoothness and fiercely critical sharpness.

There are these lines, about how Joan and Jack are apart from the feelings of the vulgar public:

Nor tear nor smile did they employ

At news of public grief or joy.

Prior wants you to condemn the couple’s way of being. Yet, again: to have a universe for just us two is what millions of men and women yearn for and consider to be love itself. And Prior, in all his keenness, does not see that two people, even Joan and Jack, loathe themselves and each other for diminishing the world—because what everyone wants unquenchably is to see reality as a stirring friend.

What Love Should Be

“A Marriage,” Eli Siegel has said, is about what love should be. And I’ll comment swiftly on just two of the lines from that poem, included here. They are in section 15, about traveling to see a loved person: “So many fields passed for the meeting of love, / So many flowers whizzed by for the meeting of love.”

Those lines have momentum. They throb. They are about the fact that, yes, in love we have selected one person from a universe of many things and people. But even as they tell of things passed by to reach the person, the lines, with all their motion, also linger lovingly in sound on those universe-things—“fields passed,” “flowers whizzed by.” Reality is caressed, as one person is honored.

The lines are beautiful. So is Aesthetic Realism’s way of seeing love.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


What Is the World Like?

By Eli Siegel

The mistake, or the thing lacking in marriage, is what is lacking anywhere else, assuming that the lack is not inevitable. The mistake is: most marriage has not made the world friendlier for the two people. And they seek each other sometimes in desperation. They also can avoid each other in desperation. But the world is not made friendlier.

This is so in other activities and situations of man: people are busy, but the world as such is not made friendlier. A person as an individual is still afraid of the world. Maybe he’s right. Nevertheless, there is a hope in man that the world is friendly. And most persons, through their marriage, get “proof” that the world is not—which, if it has to be, is simply realism and should be commended. But it is hinted in section 12 of “A Marriage” that two persons should go after making the world friendly to each other, if that is possible:

Two in this serious game of making law and color one,

Like two clouds that join and together go down the sky—

After an unknown sun—

And a light beyond suns—

Join, kindly, for the management of this terrifyingly deceptive, evanescent, massive, high and low, godlike, snail-like—this and that—and all around us, in us, and beyond us, and beyond us, and beyond us—and for us world.

The biggest question now is the Aesthetic Realism question, though, to be sure, it isn’t put the way Aesthetic Realism puts it. It’s put mostly as Can the world live at peace?—which is part of it. Need the world endure another holocaust indescribably greater than any previous holocaust? No objection to asking that. But even if there is no coming holocaust—what is the world like to one as an individual?

Many dreams show that the world is a fearful thing to an individual. And most people are afraid of it. If that feeling is correct, one should say so, and sometimes it has been said. Before Bertrand Russell took such interest in the campaign to ban the nuclear weapon, the hydrogen infinite terror, he wrote A Free Man’s Worship and implied that we can never see the world as friendly. However, he said, it’s the world we are in, and we shouldn’t fool ourselves, pretend we like it, and go through flower-throwing rituals. How friendly can the world seem? Or does the question at all exist? Is it possible for an individual to see the world as friendly?

What Are We Going After?

“Two in this serious game of making law and color one, / Like two clouds that join and together go down the sky— / After an unknown sun—” What is this “unknown sun”? When persons think they have an ideal, what is that ideal, or final purpose? Is it a hope for blissful accuracy in terms of a seen world? The ideal is usually felt to be something apart from the world, a radiant shelter, something that is in the world but shows it up. And maybe that is the only way it can be. The question is whether a human being can feel friendly to the deep, beginning way the world goes about its business.

“And a light beyond suns—” The idea of the rim of the sunset, beyond the horizon—these things have attracted people. And Beyond the Horizon is an eminent American play by O’Neill. What is looked for beyond the horizon? Well, what is looked for there, is a world stranger, kinder, more interesting, and more friendly. The last word is as important as any.

Two people should ask how much fear they have lessened, if any, in each other. Fear has roughly been just what it is for the last two thousand years and more. There’s no less fear. If you don’t have fear in one way, you have it in another. It’s as popular an emotion as any.

So two people could “Join, kindly, for the management of this terrifyingly deceptive, evanescent, massive, high and low, godlike, snail-like—this and that—and all around us, in us, and beyond us, and beyond us, and beyond us—and for us world.” I could have made the world more terrifying, but it is described here as terrifyingly deceptive, which is pretty much. Do two people make that world seem friendlier? Or do they, in their need for each other, make the world seem more unfriendly? And does this mean anything?

Section 13 is one line:

Marriage is a successful simile in the poetry of this startling existence we’re in.

In a successful simile, two things being compared to each other and made close to each other both take on power. The water swept over the plains like the Huns on a mad morning in pursuit of the Romans. If this were a good simile, both things compared would take on power. —Then, section 14:

Here’s affection and here is, too,

Observation of history together,

Notation of the law,

Worriment about justice,

Regard for the atom,

Companioned conversation with some imposing German.

There’s affection. But people also like to think that they’re knowing things. In the marriage this poem began with, what with the people concerned, there could be a dealing with matters like history and law that was unusual.

We have section 15:

An auto may take one,

To the knowing light in a dear face,

Or the knowledge-having laugh of a dear mind, mind shown in mischievous eyes.

So many fields passed for the meeting of love,

So many flowers whizzed by for the meeting of love,

So many houses spurned, meadows banished, barns raced past—

For the meeting of a dear face.

Houses spurned for the meeting of love,

Stars abandoned for the meeting of love.

Do We Look for Knowledge & Kindness?

“An auto may take one, / To the knowing light in a dear face, / Or the knowledge-having laugh of a dear mind....” Knowledge and kindness are, along with sex, to be thought of in a person. What place do they have? What do they say to each other?

“...mind shown in mischievous eyes.” A good deal has been written on the relation of love and humor, but the relation of the two has not yet been ascertained because most people instinctively think that love is too serious a thing to be humorous. And if it gets humorous, the feeling is that it’s getting superficial.

“So many fields passed for the meeting of love, / So many flowers whizzed by for the meeting of love.” There is a situation which has motion and space as a means of getting to it. Two people do have some attitude to each other that is abstract and general. Two people, when they say, There is something for me in you that I haven’t seen so far and it is exceedingly important, are talking in a large way. When they say, What I have looked for I find in you, that what-I-have-looked-for is a pretty big order. What-I-have-looked-for cannot be separated from some notion of the world as friendly.

Section 16:

Springs we’ll have again,

And springs with the presence of love.

Sultry nights will be ours again,

And nights with knowledge and care about.

The opening of doors, the cessation of rain, the disappearance of birds,

All will have love around.

Love can be defined as such a deep approval of a person that the desire to show one’s gratitude can rightly take a physical form. That’s the same, really, as another Aesthetic Realism definition of love: proud need. There’s a need of something, and you’re proud of it.

Still, we get to this: There is something I approve of in you; what is that which I approve of? That is the question that will always be asked. And if there is a discrepancy later between what one feels then and what one seemed to feel earlier, there can be great trouble. There has been great trouble. The motto of all love can be said to be: I have to find the world friendly through you.

“The opening of doors, the cessation of rain, the disappearance of birds, / All will have love around.” So a person can be used to be affected by some of the possible friendliness of the world. How much friendliness there can be in this world, how related to the terrors—that is something to be thought about.

Valued More

This is section 17:

For love changes birds for us,

And makes the delicate pink petal soberly hidden away,

And the gliding motor-mad, dashing through clouds aeroplane,

Something else; affection has made a new adjective for petals and aeroplanes.

Affection is the feeling that the way a thing affects you is good for you, and pleases you so much that you’d like to show it to the thing affecting and pleasing you.

“For love changes birds for us.” If there is love, then birds seem to mean more to us.

“And makes the delicate pink petal soberly hidden away, / And the gliding, motor-mad, dashing through clouds aeroplane, / Something else.” Affection has brought value that you yourself feel, to these things. —Then, section 18:

We hail today new summers,

New waves;

And a new past.

—Meaning that these three can be seen, because of affection or kindness, in a new fashion.