The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Love & the Philosophic Opposites

Dear Unknown Friends:

In the 1964 lecture we are serializing, Eli Siegel reads and discusses his magnificent 1930 poem “A Marriage.” What that poem says about love—so musically, mightily, warmly, penetratingly—prefigures what people would learn in Aesthetic Realism lessons and classes beginning in the 1940s, and what men and women are learning in Aesthetic Realism consultations and public seminars today. We have reprinted the entire poem in TRO 1915. And in our current number, Mr. Siegel is speaking about sections 8 through 11.

The central matter about love has been articulated, for the first time, by Aesthetic Realism. It can be put this way: Is love about the world; is it an honoring of the world, a care for multitudinous reality? Or is love a refuge from people and happenings, a consolation against the world and a victory over it?

Aesthetic Realism shows that the purpose of love is to like the world itself through valuing another person. And the bitterness, resentments, recriminations, and dullness that come to be between two people exist because the “love” situation has been used to have contempt for the world. Two people come to despise each other because they’ve used each other to wage a cozy war against much of reality.

Marriage Is Philosophic

Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of that ever so human thing love is inseparable from its philosophic logic, its understanding of what reality is as such. For example, this Aesthetic Realism principle is fundamental to what love is—the love people long for and are confused about: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the part of “A Marriage” included here, and in his discussion of it, Mr. Siegel is showing that both marriage and love itself are a continuation of the world’s structure of opposites. Marriage has to do inextricably with the world in thousands of ways—it has to do with reality’s objects, history, happenings, people—but it is also a form of the world: it has reality’s composition, the oneness of opposites.

And so, Aesthetic Realism explains, if two people use each other to look down on things, they are sabotaging what love itself is. Not only are they betraying the deepest desire and purpose each person has had from birth—to like the world—but in belittling the world together they are undermining and making awry that structure of reality’s opposites which is love. Having contempt for the world yet expecting to do well with that form of it which is love, is like feeling triumphantly repulsed by water yet expecting to enjoy drinking a glass of that liquid.

In this TRO, Mr. Siegel speaks very much about the opposites of change and continuity, of being and change, principle and change. He speaks about change in relation to history, literature, art, fashion, world events, geology, scientific logic, and more. I am thrilled by this discussion; it is so alive—graceful and gripping, logical and surprising. It does what Aesthetic Realism itself does, and what love should do: the discussion makes the world in its fullness closer to us. It has us, through knowledge, feel the world is a friend.

Change & Continuity in Marriage

Since Mr. Siegel is commenting on change and continuity in things as such, I’ll mention three big ways marriage is a relation of these world opposites.

1) In marrying, two people are clearly in a state different from what they had before. Do they feel that, though changed, they are also gracefully and truly continuous with who they were, faithful to who they were? There has been much pain as to this matter—and much resentment and inter-punishment. Husbands and wives have told themselves, and sometimes their spouse, with various degrees of wrath and self-pity: “I gave up my precious freedom—I sacrificed my individuality in marrying him/her/you!! I need to find some time to get back to ME!”

2) Then, there can be the feeling that the other person has changed cruelly. Women often tell themselves with bitterness, “He changed on me! He used to adore me. Now he’s uninterested; he doesn’t care.” (And there is, of course, a male version of this complaint.)

3) So there is acrimony about another’s seeming change. But the same people also have the feeling that there is not enough change in their marriage: things seem dull, pedestrian; there’s not a freshness, an ongoing sense of surprise. Couples have tried to remedy this situation, fruitlessly. Two people can travel in an attempt to get a feeling of joyful change; yet travel, while a wonderful thing, will not bring the deep and lasting newness that’s desired. And couples, desperate for freshness, have tried new amatory techniques—to no avail (and often to considerable shame). Deeply the matter is unsolved, and the dullness and resentment go on. That is because the only way reality’s opposites will be one for us, even in a kitchen or bedroom, is through using each other to see large meaning in the things, people, happenings of the world itself.

In relation to the first instance I mentioned: When your purpose in love is to know and see meaning in the world, not only do you feel that your self as changed through marriage is continuous with who you were—you feel your married self is true to the purpose you were born with: to like the world through knowing it. In relation to the second and third instances: If two people have the purpose of encouraging each other’s care for things and persons outside of them, there will be both a beautiful steadiness of care for one another, and a beautiful freshness, newness, surprise.

What a Line Has

I’ll point for now to just one of the lines from “A Marriage” included here. It is the third line of section 11:

The most glorious chase in the world is that of mind after a frisky universe.

You can hear—through the music, through the words and how they fall—Eli Siegel’s conviction about this statement. The line is charming and grand. It has a simultaneous largeness and tenderness about reality. Only a person who loved the world could write this, could see the world we’re in the midst of as “a frisky universe.” There is a heard relish in the phrase “The most glorious chase in the world,” with its round os, and its rs and ls. Eli Siegel saw the largeness of things tenderly, and saw every individual thing as having largeness. While the line describes all the good thought humanity has had, I see it as most fully describing Eli Siegel’s own. From his “glorious chase...after a frisky universe” arose Aesthetic Realism. I love the line, and the person who wrote it, and the living philosophy that embodies it.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Marriage Has All This

By Eli Siegel

Section 8 of “A Marriage” begins with the lines “The whiteness of a petal, / The clean shiningness of a diamond.” Flowers and jewelry have to do with what can be called marriage customs. Without flowers and jewelry, it seems, you can have no marriage. But flowers and jewelry are symbols. If you want to present something growing, and growing in an organized way, there is a flower. A flower is a prettily organized method of something specific growing.

This is section 8:

The whiteness of a petal,

The clean shiningness of a diamond,

The racing of clouds into clouds, and the curving of winds round trains;

Steel, mist, light, wheels, and old ocean,

All are the attendants of mind liking mind,

And all serve today.

Softness and hardness, obstruction and freedom are around, and these are shown in “Steel, mist, light, wheels, and old ocean.” “And all serve today”: I point out again that this poem is about what marriage should be. As to the specific marriage from which it arose, history is history. History is what shows up man’s intentions.

Section 9:

Today has been served for ever.

The reins of the mighty, earth-possessing drivers,

The disposers of society,

And they who bind wild lines into one line,

Are the humble attendants of today.

Managing and power can take various forms. “The reins of the mighty, earth-possessing drivers”: that is one kind of power, driving horses. “The disposers of society”: that is another—you put things somewhere. You put this there, and this there. And that can be done with people.

“And they who bind wild lines into one line”: composition is also a kind of management. “Are the humble attendants of today.” All these forms of management can be used well.

Section 10 is one line:

Green of North Carolina, history in Washington, and white in Baltimore are concerned today.

This outside of North Carolina, and this past of Washington, and white in Baltimore are concerned with the marriage of two people.

Change—in People & Reality

Meantime, persons are in turbulence. Their attitudes change. Any person who thinks he’s not fickle hasn’t lived. The way one’s mind changes is disgraceful: you like a pickle one day and Mozart the next. The world is restless. What makes for change, and what keeps the world going, is a question. The world is restless. The world consists, for the historian, of the rise and downfall of civilizations. Section 11 has to do with change:

It is a constantly arranging and rearranging world,

And the arrangements and rearrangements are what science and law are after.

The most glorious chase in the world is that of mind after a frisky universe,

And earth joins in the cheering when some of its colorful madness

Has science and law for its conquerors,

And the colorful madness is greater than ever.

“It is a constantly arranging and rearranging world.” The world consists of things arranged and rearranged. The fact that spring is imminent is a sign of the world’s restlessness. But civilizations also go down and rise. And the value of activities takes on a difference. The relationship of art and business right now is quite different from what it once was. Attitudes are in process. They can be surprising. So we have to ask: What is all the commotion for? Why should there be commotion at all? Why can’t the world call it a day and stay there? What’s all this changing from one seat to another?

Well, every object of thought, all life, is a study in the arranging and rearranging that the world has.

For example, thirty years ago the coolness of Hemingway was the fashion, more or less. But at the moment we have something else: it’s not coolness that is now stirring people. There is anger in say, Hochhuth’s The Deputy. Hemingway was angry, but the way of being angry was different. At the moment, a certain being excited is pretty prevalent. An author can take a day of the First World War and try to have you relive the emotion those people had.

Fashions in art change. At the moment, abstract artists are a little sheepish. They can’t bring their line patterns and color patterns and ask you to look, with the same bravado and sureness they once had. Something else is going on.

What makes for the change? Why should there be discontent in the world? Why should there be a persistent desire of the boulder to be acquainted with the earth it is stuck in? Boulders don’t look ambitious, but they are ambitious. They took thousands of years, but they’re going after something. And other things are discontent. Man is the most discontent being in the world. He has more fashions, more attitudes, more ways of doing things, more modes of contemplating than anything else, and he is changing them.

Clothes are part of this discontent. I’m very glad to say that this year no one knows what the spring fashions for women really are. They seem to have everything in them, and there’s nothing that sticks out. A person once showed that there is a subtle change in clothes from, say, the year 150 of the Roman Republic to the year 100. We all thought that the Romans were dressed the same, that they just went to the Forum in the same costume. There were changes in medieval times too: clothing in the 14th century is not the same as in the 11th century.

In Marriage, History, Music

What is all this fury and commotion about? The idea of life is an idea of new things constantly, new impressions. This commotion has to do with marriage. There is such a thing as the love whirl. A bride, let us say, got married in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and went off to Newport: she was in a whirl of happiness. That’s the word. She was in a whirl of activity. And whirl means that the last thing you had, you’re not wholly satisfied with.

“And the arrangements and rearrangements are what science and law are after.” A good deal of history has shown that if there was the baroque in the 17th century, and the rococo later, it had to be. Why is the baroque inevitable? Why is the rococo inevitable? Why was it inevitable for the orchestra to show its beginnings in Mozart and Haydn and then flourish more or less as we know it in Beethoven, and then take on greater multiplicity and grandeur in Berlioz, and then get to world catastrophe in Mahler? Why did all this happen?

What makes the world go—what’s all this about? For instance, at the moment there’s a very useful indignation about some of the things going on in Vietnam. Certain persons who never thought they would be worried about South Vietnam are worried, and they have gone so far as to show themselves in public. That is, they have demonstrated, with banners: “Lily white fingers off South Vietnam!”

There are changes. It is felt, for example, that Africa is the most turbulent of the continents. Yes, it is. There are more countries being formed there, and you don’t know what new republic will arise. But there’s turmoil everywhere. At this moment every town in Pennsylvania is in a state of turmoil. About what, is hard to say; but that it’s in a state of turmoil, we can see.

Television is in a state of turmoil. It’s looking for something. All the arts, no matter how much of mass media they are, are in a state of turmoil. Something is being looked for. Why? It’s true that if you look for something you also want to say that what you’ve already got is the best thing going and the only thing that will fit you. Still, there is this looking. Even the Reader’s Digest, looked at closely, seems iconoclastic unconsciously.

“And the arrangements and rearrangements are what science and law are after.” One’s life is made up from rearrangements. You can’t move without having a rearrangement. An American statement is, “For a year I was wild about malteds. Why did I lose my taste for them?”

Is There a Principle?

Can all the turbulence, the multiplicity, the confusion, the miscellaneousness, the unpredictable and maddening encyclopedic quality of things—can all of this have some principle? Is there a principle in confusion? Science says yes, because science cannot do away with the fact that everything is composed, and that if things mingle in a certain fashion and then mingle in a new fashion, there is some cause working. Once you have the idea of cause, you’re next to the idea of law. And once you’re next to the idea of law, you’re next to the idea of symmetry. And once you’re next to the idea of symmetry, you’re not so distant from the idea of beauty.

If there are three hundred small insects dashing around a city lamp of the old-fashioned sort on a summer night, science can’t have it that these insects are there in their formation for no cause. Science can’t exist without saying there is a cause, though the insects know nothing about it, for their curvetting around that lamp. And every tadpole is an engineer, according to science. Every water bug is a Napoleon.

Let’s say two people decide their marriage was a mistake. On what basis was it a mistake? There must be something that is a criterion for a mistake which is outside of the two people in the marriage—because if it were just within one, you could call it a mistake or not a mistake as you preferred at any one moment. So the things that make a marriage a mistake must lie, too, outside of the people in the marriage. It is necessary to think that if one’s marriage is right, it goes along with rightness as such. And rightness does concern the principle in the unpredictable.

The most glorious chase in the world is that of mind after a frisky universe,

And earth joins in the cheering when some of its colorful madness

Has science and law for its conquerors.

A married couple, in other words, should say: “We are wild about each other, but that doesn’t mean we are not decent to each other.” (“Colorful madness” is related to wildness, and “science and law” to decency.) So the equivalence of wildness and decency is gone after.