The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Love: Two People & the World Itself

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue serializing the great 1964 lecture in which Eli Siegel discusses his poem “A Marriage” and speaks about what love truly is. We print here too sections of a paper that sociologist and Aesthetic Realism consultant Devorah Tarrow presented in October, at the public seminar titled “The Mix-up in Women about Managing & Yielding—& the Beautiful Answer!”

“A Marriage” was written in 1930, and appears in its entirety in TRO 1915. It is one of the important poems of America—for what it says about love; and also for its musical might. In his discussion Mr. Siegel points out that the way of seeing in this poem—the way of seeing the world, people, and love—is a prelude to Aesthetic Realism itself, the philosophy he would begin to teach a decade later.

And as Ms. Tarrow makes clear, Aesthetic Realism is teaching men and women today what people have needed to know these many centuries—have needed hugely, achingly. For example, it is the education that shows the following:

1) The purpose of love is to like the world itself through wanting to know, with honesty and depth, another person.

2) The everyday yet tremendous mistake people make about love is to use the “loved one” against the world—to put aside and look down on other people.

3) Using someone close to us to make less of the world and other people is an aspect of the most hurtful thing in the human self: contempt—the feeling we’ll be more if we can diminish and scorn what’s not us.

4) People have thought love was having someone show we are far superior to the rest of reality. Yet as two persons collaborate to make one another royalty in an unworthy world, they resent each other intensely and feel ashamed. That’s because each has betrayed the other’s and one’s own deepest desire: to see reality in all its largeness as a friend.

5) This Aesthetic Realism principle is true about love: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Opposites central in love are width and intimacy—the world in its multitudinousness and a person ever so close to us.

6) Good will, spoken about by Mr. Siegel in this lecture, is urgently necessary for both love and life to fare well. It is “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” Good will is the oneness of knowing and feeling, criticism and encouragement, exactitude and brave imagination. It’s what we thirst for from a person, and without it, all the praise and embraces we get are false and empty.

—And good will, I saw, is what Eli Siegel himself always had: it was the height of intelligence, kindness, and style.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Are We Interested in Good Will?

By Eli Siegel

Section 6 of “A Marriage” has to do with conversations between two people:

And where have you been?

It is snowing fast,

It is a long way from here,

Sometime, yes—

All in a way for themselves.

Just as a person gives himself an individual accent, so he sees it in another—a certain accent he finds nowhere else. And all of these phrases can be used with that accent present.

—Going to section 7:

With every instance of affection a world connives,

Every kind word is part of destiny’s business.

The universe cheers when the word of one person is met keenly, knowingly, lovingly by another.

Love is the mightiest point in a sweet and cunning world’s going after harmony;

Love is the color of the deftest and richest world geometry,

Geometry moving, and making a point a world, and a world a point.

With the first of these lines the question comes up, Is the world present when any specific thing happens? And is the world present when there is any affection? The word affection, which was much used in Elizabethan times, hasn’t been made clear. What does it mean to have affection? For many people affection is a word securely between love and sex.

Well, if we look at the word, we do find the word affect in it, and to say “I have an affection” should be in some relation to being affected. If you say, “I have an affection for pineapple,” it means you like what pineapples did to you. If you have an affection for the novels of Mayne Reid or of Wilkie Collins, you like what they do to you. Affect, then, is present in affection.

In words like love, like, affection, friendship, sympathy, partner, mate, some notion of good will must be present. And according to Aesthetic Realism, good will is the most subtle thing in the world. The history of civilization will be the history of the rediscovery of good will. “Every kind word is part of destiny’s business.” It is supposed that when two people marry each other, kindness will be around more than elsewhere. What happens to it?

“The universe cheers when the word of one person is met keenly, knowingly, lovingly by another.” When two people are kind to each other, what has permitted it? Does the universe like it or not? Does the universe think it has tricked people, or does it think that something about it itself is present? A farmer, for example, having a good crop, says, “Fortune was kind this year. Every one of the things I sowed grew rightly. None was hurt by either insect or cold. And there was enough of it, and I got a good price. Fortune was kind. Kind skies.” It does seem that the universe, which we know is unkind, can also be kind. After all, if we like any food in this world, it’s the universe that made it. If we like lying on the grass and forgetting everybody, the universe did provide the grass on which we lie, trying to be oblivious of everything.

So it seems the universe can be kind, and the universe can be infinitely horrible. The question here is whether the universe wants people to be kind. It could be said—and it was said, in a way, by Schopenhauer and Shaw and others—that kindness was invented to give sex a good front. Whether the purpose of sex is to extend the field of kindness or kindness is used to hide the fact that sex rules everything, is still a question. However that may be, there is something like kindness, and occasionally we see it in every living thing.

“Love is the mightiest point in a sweet and cunning world’s going after harmony.” Is love the specific thing necessary to make one’s world viewpoint really tangible? That was said in ever so many other forms by Aesthetic Realism later, but it’s hinted at in this line.

We come again to this matter: are we really interested in the good will of another person, as long as we can do what we want with her or him? Aesthetic Realism says yes. As we look to manage people, we also would like to feel people are kind in the two ways that kindness shows itself: they want to please us, and they want to respect us. If we feel they are not, and if we get the feeling after years that they are not kind, then there is something that we look for and are exceedingly pained in not having. And if we can’t be kind, it is also a great loss. The going after kindness and good will is the ultimate subtlety.

“Geometry moving, and making a point a world, and a world a point.” The world is present in tender conversation.


Managing & Yielding: The Mix-Up

By Devorah Tarrow

My life, like every woman’s, was a mix-up about these opposites, managing and yielding.

From an early age, I watched my father, a colonel in the Air Force, being saluted by lower ranking officers and enlisted men, and felt, “That’s the way I want to be.” I wanted power, and felt managing people was the same as being powerful. I didn’t know that, as Aesthetic Realism shows, a person is really yielding all the time. When we breathe, we yield to the world. When we eat, we happily yield. Our ears are yielding to sounds. Our senses are, Aesthetic Realism explains, organic like of the world.

My life changed because I learned that our deepest desire is to like the world, be fair to it, yield to what the facts of this world deserve, not manage them to suit some false notion of ourselves. That is the yielding that makes us proud, and it’s the same as an honest, even beautiful, managing—using our thought to see what is true. Meanwhile, we can also yield in an unjust way—to something bad, to our own desire for contempt. “Every action,” Eli Siegel once said, “is both a yielding and an assertion. Whenever we feel bad, it’s because we assert in the wrong way and yield in the wrong way.”

There was a fight in me as to whether I wanted to be affected by people and things and see that as strength, or feel that running things was strong. On the one hand, I loved to learn. I loved Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: I memorized those magnificent sentences, yielding to their beauty. I also loved to spell. But I was so arrogant that when the time came for a spelling bee I didn’t think I needed to study, and was spelled down in the very first round. And if girls got together to study—not for me!—I’d learn on my own. I felt to show I needed something besides myself was a sign of weakness.

And There Were Men

As time went on, that fight—between being able honestly to be affected, and an unkind managing—got more intense, particularly when it came to men.

For example, I met Jim, a dentist, at a party and saw he was taken by me. So one day I convinced him he should leave work—and, of course, all the people who had scheduled appointments—for a rendezvous with me. After all, I felt, what was the big deal?—they could always reschedule. However, when we were together we were both uncomfortable, ill at ease, and we never saw each other again.

That same year, while at Bard College, I had another way of managing, more in behalf of fairness. I ran a tutoring program for children, and also helped organize a drive to increase faculty pay. It never occurred to me that in these my purpose was very different from my purpose with men.

Sometimes men did object. Dean wrote me, after a night together: “I felt you latched on too fast. You seem to care immediately, Devorah, but I doubt you could really mean all you say or show in such a short time. I felt things being pushed.” I felt very bad, but didn’t know how to stop.

When I came to New York to finish my last two years of college I acted sure of myself. But inside I felt colder and harder, and wrote in my diary: “I’m careless, often uncaring, conceited. I feel dull and just plain scared yet I can’t get a grip on what I need.”

Very fortunately, I met what every person most needs: a friend told me about Aesthetic Realism. And in Eli Siegel’s Self and World I read these words about Walt Whitman:

Take Whitman’s Song of Myself. Whitman yields himself to what he sees; to earth, to people; and he is proud doing so....The intense, wide, great fact sweeps Whitman truly; he yields and he has a feeling of deep independence and pride.

I loved this—there was a principle one could learn: beauty could come through yielding in an accurate way, and that would make me proud!

And in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel explained something no course I’d ever taken had taught: there is such a thing as the whole self, and that self says, The way I’m going to be myself, assert myself, is by yielding to what the facts are. He explained: “A person wants to honor fact and himself. Even when people make mistakes, that desire is there, only all of oneself is not seen.” All of oneself, he continued, “is trying to be just to the facts” even while part of oneself says, “‘To hell with the facts—I want what I want!’”

A person present at the lesson asked, “How do you know if how you try to manage things is right?” and Mr. Siegel gave this humorous example: “It’s always easy to ask, ‘Does all of me want it?’ For instance, there was once a person who was shooting up a tavern in the Old West, and somebody asked him, ‘Does all of you want to do this?’ He said, ‘No, just part of me—I better go back to my horse!’”

Mr. Siegel explained: “The reason people are ashamed is that once more they preferred to work or think with some of themselves and not all of themselves. That part of oneself can be called ‘I am I and I have a right to have my own way because I am I, not because all the facts go with it.’” I asked whether being just to the facts means being just to the facts in other people too, and he answered: “Everywhere. The idea is to have the wish of self go along with what is.”

He also described the central fact about people: “A person,” he said, “is a oneness of opposites: he is an aesthetic situation and possibility. For example, he is selfish and also interested in other people. —So you can ask, Ms. Tarrow, what is true.”

I did. I began to ask: Is this girl, or this man, trying to put opposites together, to make a better relation of self and world, selfishness and generosity? Is every person a relation of hardness and softness, firmness and flexibility, depth and surface?

Then I met Jeffrey Carduner, who is now my husband. For the first time I wasn’t thinking, “How can I manage this man into feeling he needs only me?” I asked questions: I wanted to know who he was, what he hoped for, what he had against himself. And I felt proud. I was seeing that trying to have a good effect, good will, is the relation of yielding and managing we want.

A Woman Learns about Forms of Managing

In an Aesthetic Realism consultation a young woman I’ll call Cece Bowdon described, thoughtfully but with distress, a relation of yielding and managing she was ashamed of. Often with a man, she said, “I’ve acted like I ‘melted,’ so he’d like me. But I was really fooling him, if you know what I mean.” We did know. And we began to teach her something that surprised her: this way of being didn’t begin with men but with how she saw the world and people.

She told us, “I never feel connected enough with other people, and if I get closer I get scared and back off. I think it’s a fear of rejection. But for some reason I feel guilty.” We asked, “If you feel guilty, might it be because something in you feels you are unfair to people—that you reject people first?” “I reject?” she asked, but then said, “Yes—I think I sum people up and then turn them off.”

She also told us she had been dating a man whom people considered very mean. We asked:

Consultants. Were you interested in how he saw other people? Or did you make up facts about him to go along with what you’d decided you wanted?

CB. Yes! I think I narrowed him only to what I wanted him to be. I see that!

And to illustrate what she was seeing about managing facts and people, she described how she’d recently gotten angry with a man, Jim Shaw. She’d asked him how he’d most like to spend a day, thinking he was going to say, “Oh, Cece, I want to spend it with you.” But instead, he had the nerve to say he’d like to spend the day reading!

Consultants. Jim Shaw has a way of seeing the world, books, people—his mother, even—not just you. So would you like to find out who he is, not manage who he is?

CB. Yes. I feel prouder now because I want to think about what’s true.

Ms. Bowdon did assignments, including writing soliloquies of both her father and mother, expressing their hopes and fears; and she was happier. Her father told her he saw a very good change in her. Then in a consultation we said: “A big question in a woman’s life is: Is yielding to the facts outside of her the same thing as her strength, her ability to manage beautifully?” We used an object, the table we were sitting at, to illustrate the answer:

Consultants. For instance, this table is a oneness of managing and yielding. It’s strong, yet it yields to things being placed on it. Do you think its ability gracefully to yield is the same as its strength? And do you think a man wants to be strong, like this table, and also graceful?

CB. Yes! This is so useful.

In a discussion of good will she asked, “But can I really make another person stronger?” And we answered, “Yes—if you talk to a person in a way that has him like the world more; if you ask yourself, ‘Who is this person?’; and if you’re thinking, ‘I hope I know him better and that he likes the world more through me.’”

Ms. Bowdon wrote to us that because of her consultations, “I feel more confident, and see hope in reality!” What’s happening to her life through the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism shows what can happen, and will, to the lives of men and women everywhere.