The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Love, Art, & Cleverness

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize Poetry and Cleverness, by Eli Siegel, an important and wonderful lecture of 1949. Here too is an article by Lynette Abel, from a recent public seminar titled “How Can a Woman Be Sure of Herself in Life & Love?” Yes, Aesthetic Realism truly answers that question, which fact in itself is evidence for how needed Aesthetic Realism is.

And there is the subject of Mr. Siegel’s lecture. Aesthetic Realism explains the difference between cleverness that’s valuable, useful, charming, meaningful—and cleverness that is devious and hurtful. The first is impelled by respect for reality; the second by contempt. And in this section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about two kinds of good cleverness, one of which is larger and deeper.

By way of introduction, I’ll comment on the relation between something Ms. Abel writes about—the tremendous subject of love—and cleverness. It happens that both men and women don’t know whether love is a matter of cleverness or of deep, wide feeling. Most people would say it’s the latter, yet most people rely on cleverness, mainly devious cleverness, to “get” someone and have things proceed in the way they think they want. This is one of the biggest causes of sadness, emptiness, and anger: the hope for love yet the feeling one needs to be strategic.

Right now a woman is thinking about what outfit she can wear that will knock a particular man dead. She has prepared herself for many years: thought about how to use her eyes, her smile, how to walk, how to seem enchanting. And men have gone after the most seductive look and technique too. The media, social and otherwise, are replete with advice on the subject. Of course, people should try to look good, dress well, etc. But usually in what’s called the dating scene, there is the cleverness of trying to nab and manage someone while seeming at ease and natural. Men have been suspicious of women, felt women were plotting. Women have thought that of men.

And there is something seen as “romantic”—an intrigue and flirtation—which is really a contest about cleverness, perhaps amid smiles and glances. It comes to this: Can I make that person need me more than I need him or her? Then, after people do “get” each other, as time passes each wonders why they don’t have the big, deep, sweeping feeling of love they so much want. But you cannot pursue a false notion of love—the having your way through cleverness—and then expect to feel the real thing, which the depths of you long for.

Even after years of marriage, a cleverness can still go on: the showing oneself only partially, having a self inside hidden from one’s partner. And there can be, year after year, the cleverness which is the attempt to manage another, mold that person, get that person to do what one wants. Again, there is the pain of missing what one hasn’t really been going after yet profoundly desires: love in its thoroughness and grandeur. So I quote from Self and World three great sentences by Eli Siegel on what real love is—the thrill of wide and particular justice:

Love is the giving to a person of all that which is coming to him or her; nothing which is not deserved; everything which is. For that, a constant, comprehensive, intense desire to know a person is necessary....The purpose of love is to feel closely one with things as a whole.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


A Kind of Beauty

By Eli Siegel

I said that we usually associate the word clever with adroitness, with the lesser things, not with something very big. Yet cleverness is present in all poetry, if we see cleverness as meaning the ability to deal with something harsh, angular, difficult, and make it seem soft or easy. When, for instance, a person is able to juggle three balls, he is clever, and there is beauty in that. A person who is able to walk on a tightrope is clever, and he does something beautiful. The point is that everything that seems to be unusual or difficult, done with grace, makes for a kind of beauty.

There are some poems that have both sorts of cleverness: obvious adroitness, and also ease with deep feeling. The Irish writer Francis Mahony (1804-66) has a poem called “The Bells of Shandon.” It is clever, but the cleverness does not destroy the sentiment. To relate it to something in the popular field: Rodgers and Hart were clever. Their songs have unusual effects—the words do—yet there is a good deal of sentiment in them. Now, cleverness is to poetry as humor is to poetry, because humor accents the less deep side first. Not that it isn’t deep—it is. But it accents the lighter side, and so does cleverness. Yet where cleverness goes along with tremendous seriousness, we have a wonderful combination, and in this poem of Mahony we have a touch of that.

He went to Paris and lived most of his life there. He could do all kinds of things with words. He could write macaronic verse—a putting together of Latin and English. People have done that. Also, many English poems have been translated into Latin, for what purpose it’s hard to say. One person I know translated “Casey at the Bat” into Latin. Meanwhile, Mahony’s “The Bells of Shandon” is a clever poem that is also on the tearful side:

With deep affection,

And recollection,

I often think of

Those Shandon bells,

Whose sounds so wild would,

In the days of childhood,

Fling around my cradle

Their magic spells.

On this I ponder

Where’er I wander,

And thus grow fonder,

Sweet Cork, of thee;

With thy bells of Shandon,

That sound so grand on

The pleasant waters

Of the River Lee....*

When we have (in the 2nd stanza) a rhyme like “I’ve heard bells chiming / Full many a clime in,” we know he’s working hard—also when we hear lines (in the 3rd stanza) like “I’ve heard bells tolling / Old Adrian’s Mole in.” That’s Hadrian’s tomb, in Rome. And we have this bit at the beginning of the 4th stanza: “There’s a bell in Moscow, / While on tower and kiosk O!” We know he is doing things with words; he’s giving them the difficult executive treatment. However, through it all there is sentiment—the cleverness is not of that conspicuous disabling sort. Just because there is a touch of strangeness about it, the sentiment seems to be stronger. We feel that this person means it when he longs for the bells of Shandon in Ireland while he is in Paris, Moscow, Rome. The short lines and the rhymes generally make for a pleasant effect, and somehow the adroitness with the words helps the sentiment.

While there can be a cleverness of words, there also can be a cleverness of idea. Take a poem by a brother of Alfred Tennyson. He had quite a few brothers and, as usual, didn’t get along with them too well. Charles Tennyson Turner (he changed his name), lived from 1808 to 1879. His poem “Letty’s Globe” is about how the hair of a girl covers all of Europe—of course, through a globe. This sonnet has an unusualness of idea, and has remained as part of English literature:

When Letty had scarce pass’d her third glad year,

And her young artless words began to flow,

One day we gave the child a colour’d sphere

Of the wide earth, that she might mark and know,

By tint and outline, all its sea and land.

She patted all the world; old empires peep’d

Between her baby fingers; her soft hand

Was welcome at all frontiers. How she leap’d,

And laugh’d and prattled in her world-wide bliss;

But when we turn’d her sweet unlearnèd eye

On our own isle, she raised a joyous cry—

‘Oh! yes, I see it, Letty’s home is there!’

And while she hid all England with a kiss,

Bright over Europe fell her golden hair.

Here is a girl—she’s only three—playing with a globe, and “She patted all the world.” As poetry, that phrase is the best thing in the sonnet: it’s clever but it’s natural.


How Can We Be Sure of Ourselves?

By Lynette Abel

On a double date it was clear that Neil, my best friend’s date, was attracted to me. I flirted with him and when we were alone a moment he stole a kiss, then, whispering in my ear, asked for my phone number and said he’d call. I was elated, soaring, and felt a surge of confidence. He preferred me! Like so many women, I thought approval from a man would make me sure of myself.

But the next day I began to have misgivings: what about my best friend, not to mention my own date? I hadn’t thought about either. I tried to reason away my doubt with my favorite motto: All’s fair in love and war. Yet as the day went on I felt awful, and plummeted into a pit. When Neil called to ask me out, I made some excuse. I never went out with him.

Years later, I learned from Aesthetic Realism why I often felt so unsure when I seemed to be getting what I wanted. Writes Ellen Reiss:

There is an underlying self-doubt which, Aesthetic Realism explains, comes from something beautiful in us. And we should try to know it as well as we can, because it is the means to our true sureness. The underlying doubt, the underlying uncertainty that we can have, unarticulated yet poking and sometimes gnawing and thrusting within us,...is this: Am I liking the world more through this thing I’m in the midst of—or am I using it to dislike the world? [TRO 1355]

Aesthetic Realism explains that what will make a woman sure of herself is to do all she can to be just to the world, see meaning in it, because that is everyone’s deepest purpose. It explains too the competing, hurtful desire in us: to have contempt—make less of things and people to elevate ourselves. The false “sureness” people get from contempt, writes Ms. Reiss, really makes them “pervasively and sometimes disablingly uneasy in their lives” (TRO 1271).

Two Ways a Girl Goes after Sureness

As a child, I loved the pink and white flowering dogwood trees in our yard in Alexandria, Virginia. And I was thrilled when I learned how to read. I also loved singing. My sister Sherry played the piano, my sister Terry and I harmonized, and at those times, though I didn’t put the feeling in words, I had a sense of true well-being and confidence.

But mainly, I thought I’d be confident through feeling superior to other people. I liked thinking the Abels—all eight of us—were better than other families, more musically talented, better educated, and cool. I made mental notes about how our neighbors were inferior to us, dull, and crude. For example, the Thomases watched boxing on television—something we’d never do! I felt particularly superior when my father praised me as the youngest child he’d ever known who could carry a tune, and told me that, unlike my sister, I had a real ear for music. Boy, did I use that! But while my sister was playing Bach fugues, my conceit had stopped me from feeling I needed to learn even the very basics of music. I didn’t know that I was cultivating a false confidence by looking down on people and things, and that this was why as years went on I felt terrifically unsure of myself, including about love.

In high school I was a cheerleader and member of the pep club, but walking down the halls I didn’t feel very peppy. I was ill at ease, and a whole drama took place in my mind if I saw, for instance, a boy I knew. Should I say hello?, pretend I didn’t see him?, or become very interested in a book I was holding? This anxiety came because, as I later learned, I saw people as existing to approve of me, not as a means of my knowing and respecting reality more.

What Makes for Sureness in Love?

When I attended Florida State University, though I hoped through my classes I’d gain more confidence, my overriding belief was: if I just get enough praise from a man, that’s all I need. That is what I banked on with Tom, who was good looking and seemed captivated by me. Tom was in the Naval Reserve and, like many young men at that time, feared he’d be sent to Vietnam. But I didn’t think much about that, or about the fact that the US was killing innocent Vietnamese people. Though I had some doubts about our relationship, I tried to push them aside. When he visited, we’d get a motel room and exclude everything else. Tom said he loved me, that I meant more to him than anything else, and I told myself he was all I needed. But after each weekend, I’d sink and feel desolate. How I needed to know what Eli Siegel explained in a lecture:

To love anything or anybody, you have to see this as a beginning of love for all things. All love is love of the world. Otherwise...it’s a way of saying, “Somebody has consented to be mine; therefore I can forget about other things.” Through this love there is emptiness.

I had that emptiness.

After Tom learned he was being sent overseas, he proposed marriage, and I accepted right away. But when he decided he wanted to wait until he got back, I was furious. I began dating other men while writing to Tom as if he were the only one. I felt bitter, and incapable of love. And I worried about how well my mind worked, and feared for the future.

Then at 23 I met the knowledge I was thirsting for. In my second Aesthetic Realism consultation, my consultants described the big question I was in the midst of: Are you going to think well of yourself “because you have men interested in you or because you see in a way that is honest, beautiful, and just?” And they explained:

Consultants. The thing this hinges on is whether one’s deepest desire is to like the world honestly, or whether the desire for power is the deepest. The thing wrong with how you’ve been with men is that the kind of power you went after with them stopped you from having something you wanted more.

I thank Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to know the something that would make me sure of myself in life and love: to have good will, to want to know and have a good effect on the people and things outside of me.

In a class taught by Eli Siegel, which I was honored to attend, I asked what it would mean to have good will for someone. He explained that good will is “the wanting, through your effort, to have the person you’re talking to a better and stronger person.” And he said, “When a person is born, the question is, How can I be fair to the persons around me?”

The desire to be just was the purpose Eli Siegel exemplified beautifully and richly, whether he was speaking about the poet Baudelaire or the music of Chopin, or talking to a wife about her husband.

If You Care for a Person

When Michael Palmer and I began to go out, I felt that I’d made a lot of mistakes and now had a new chance to have good will for a man. I was affected by Michael’s many interests, including baseball, architecture, history; by his love for Aesthetic Realism; and by his thoughtful desire to know me. When we became engaged I was very happy, and we decided to live together. But though I’d changed in many ways, I had a self-satisfaction thinking a man was making me important and I could now rest mentally. Soon things were getting dull in our apartment. And Michael was critical of me for not being interested enough in international events.

I thank Ellen Reiss for what she asked and explained when I spoke of this situation in a class: “Aesthetic Realism says the purpose of knowing another person is to like the world. Do you have another purpose? Do you see Michael Palmer somewhat as a take-care-of-Lynette-Abel mechanism?” I answered, “Yes, I think I have.”

“If you care for a person,” Ms. Reiss explained, “you want that person to love what’s true. But people would rather have a goal that’s narrower, where they’re the center of the world.” And she said, “What Lynette Abel wants most is to respect herself, but she’s taking another desire and putting it ahead of that first desire.”

I felt deeply understood, respected, and ambitious to change. Ms. Reiss suggested I write on Eli Siegel’s 15 Questions, “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?,” in relation to Michael, and I did. I asked him many questions, trying to see with particularity how reality’s opposites affected and were in him. Once, when we were walking up Madison Avenue, he pointed to the Art Deco design of a building and spoke about how it was massive and sleek yet had ornamentation too, which gave it a lightness. And he spoke of loving Art Deco. I had a new feeling about heaviness and lightness, impersonal and personal, thinking of that style and Michael. Life in our apartment became more exciting; I had larger, deeper emotions of respect and wonder. And I became surer of myself, because I was really trying to know. The kind, joyous thing love is, I’m thankful to feel for Michael, my dear friend and husband.

*That is the first of the poem’s four stanzas.