The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Order & Wildness: In Us & Samuel Johnson

Dear Unknown Friends:

Our serialization of Eli Siegel’s magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Words continues; and in the present section, Mr. Siegel is looking at statements by Samuel Johnson about words. These statements are from the Preface to Johnson’s famous Dictionary of the English Language, completed in 1755.

I have thought it right to include here too a report I wrote many years ago—of another class about Johnson. In October 1968, Mr. Siegel gave a lecture titled Samuel Johnson Makes the Wild Looked At. This was literary criticism at once great and tremendously warm. Here was Eli Siegel, with his exactitude, understanding what hope impelled Johnson, late in his life, to visit the rough Western Islands of Scotland with James Boswell. Here was Eli Siegel understanding (as I say in my report) the yearnings of this formidable writer, who could scare people with the force and polish and causticity of his wit. The lecture was a living illustration of the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

Samuel Johnson (1709-84) was himself one of the most important of critics. But he did not know what Eli Siegel was the critic to explain: our deep need is to be like art—to put opposites together. In the 1949 lecture Poetry and Words, Mr. Siegel showed that Johnson was intensely affected by the way words are at once orderly and disorderly, fixed and in a whirl. Those opposites are like the symmetry and wildness which, 19 years later, Mr. Siegel would describe as insistent within Johnson himself, impelling him to visit the Western Islands, a place so different from those elegant London drawing rooms. They are opposites troubling people now: We want our lives to go oh-so-smoothly, be oh-so-neat; yet we long to be surprised, shaken deeply, too. Every person desires order; every person feels there is a wildness in us we do not understand!

Toward the end of what has been called the greatest biography in English, James Boswell writes about the character of the friend he loved, Samuel Johnson. And he tries to place the grandeur of Johnson along with things about him which could not be praised, and along also with the bad feelings, the depression Johnson sometimes had. I’ll quote soon from the end of Boswell’s Life of Johnson. But first I quote an earlier sentence, telling of the period when Johnson wrote the passages Mr. Siegel comments on in Poetry and Words. Says Boswell: “At the time when he was concluding his very eloquent Preface [to the Dictionary], Johnson’s mind appears to have been in such a state of depression, that we cannot contemplate without wonder the vigorous and splendid thoughts which so highly distinguish that performance.”* And this, now, is from the final pages of Boswell’s Johnson:

[He was] stern in his taste;...impetuous and irritable in his temper, but of a most humane and benevolent heart, which shewed itself not only in a most liberal charity, as far as his circumstances would allow, but in a thousand instances of active benevolence....A constitutional melancholy...gave a gloomy cast to his whole course of thinking:...and allowance must be made for his uttering hasty and satirical sallies even against his best friends....He was somewhat susceptible of flattery....But his superiority over other learned men consisted chiefly in what may be called the art of thinking, the art of using his mind; a certain continual power of seizing the useful substance of all that he knew, and exhibiting it in a clear and forcible manner; so that knowledge...was, in him, true, evident, and actual wisdom. [II:653-5]

What is it in a person—even so fine a person as Johnson—that makes him ill-natured, unjust, also depressed? Eli Siegel is the philosopher who has answered that question. The cause is the desire for contempt: the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Mr. Siegel showed that there is a fierce fight in everyone between contempt for the world and respect: between the victory of feeling people, things, and reality itself are not good enough for us; and the victory of seeing value in the world.

Boswell delicately describes contempt in Johnson: it is in his inflexibility or sternness, his irritability, his “hasty...sallies.” And Johnson thirsted to learn from Aesthetic Realism that depression and “constitutional melancholy” arise from a deep contempt. They have in them, with all their pain, the miserable triumph of our feeling the world is unworthy of us. And we can go for that triumph when we are much beset, as Johnson often was. Our contempt is also the chief thing making us dislike ourselves-because our opinion of ourselves depends on our justice to the world. The human fight, then, between respect and contempt was in Johnson. But his desire to respect the world was larger than most people’s. It was an 18th-century and immortal force. It had him love words, and use his thought as Boswell describes.

The thought of Eli Siegel was even greater than that of Johnson. And I, who was his student and knew him, as Boswell knew Johnson, am in a position to say that I never saw Eli Siegel be in any way petty or unfair. He was passionately, gracefully, imaginatively, powerfully just all the time. I saw this ethical and intellectual grandeur in Mr. Siegel, unwavering, year after year; and I wish Samuel Johnson, author of Rasselas, the Dictionary, the Lives of the Poets, could have seen it too.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Words: Fixed & in a Whirl

By Eli Siegel

Taking more paragraphs from Dr. Johnson. He is really in a good deal of trouble, because what he says here is, Won’t the language stay still! That is one of the complaints he has in the Preface to his Dictionary:

My Labour has likewise been much increased by a Class of Verbs too frequent in the English Language, of which the Signification is so loose and general, the Use so vague and indeterminate, and the Senses detorted so wildly from the first Idea, that it is hard to trace them through the Maze of Variation, to catch them on the Brink of utter Inanity, to circumscribe them by any Limitations, or interpret them by any Words of distinct and settled Meaning: Such are bear, break, come, cast, full, get, give, do, put, set, go, run, make, take, turn, throw.

Words are like what we see in reality. On the one hand, we have words that are numbers—very definite. Seventeen, ninety-two, four, three: very definite words. Then, we have words that are so general, like as and on, the conjunctions and prepositions, and words like go and take. The word take has so many meanings and gradations of meanings, and Johnson is complaining because the words just don’t want to stay put. What can you do with them?

“While our Language is yet living, and variable by the Caprice of every one that speaks it, these Words are hourly shifting their Relations....” So let us take the word break. I suppose it has something to do with what happens to a rock when you throw it very hard. It might break. A dish might break. Then we have “break a promise.” And then, mysteriously, the word gets to “He didn’t get the breaks.” What has happened? Who did it? You “break up a, party,” and there is “Break it up!,” and so on. Every word, once it exists, wants to get into other territory. It moves around like a child who doesn’t know where he should be. It wants to do more.

We have all kinds of gradations. For instance, Johnson mentions bear. We have the idea of bearing something; but we also have bear meaning strain. There are times when a word takes in a meaning it didn’t have before. Get is the most scurrying word. You get something from the grocer; you get an idea; you “get it good”—which means you get something bad. It is used in so many way: “This thing gets me!” Yet the word is always spelled the same way: g-e-t. It runs all over the place. Sometimes it is obvious. “Will you please get me a pencil?”—everybody knows that. But then we have “Did you get my drift?” What’s that?

These words, then, are a constant situation of whirlpool and fixed boulder. That makes for poetry. We have the word give. “I have to give it to him.” Then we have “I GAVE it to him!” It depends on the intonation. “I have to give it to him” can mean something good; but “I GAVE it to him!” is something else.

The word do has all sorts of connotations. “Oh, he did me up right.” “That’ll do for you.” This little word do—how did it go through all these evolutions?

We have put: “Put it there!”—that has a history. And how does it happen that the word run, which means what an animal can do in a field, is also “running things”—“He runs the Democratic Committee”?

We get the idea that words are fixed and also in a whirl. It is so. And that is because they are the intermediaries between how things are and the unconscious of man. So we should be very respectful of them, and at the same time think that they have to do with our ecstasy and our safety.


Johnson: Elegant & Wild

A Report by Ellen Reiss

On October 13, 1968, Eli Siegel spoke about Samuel Johnson. The question is, he said, Why did Samuel Johnson, toward the end of his life, in 1773, when he was comfortable in England, go to the wilder part of Scotland; and what does it have to do with poetry? The purpose, he said, of Johnson’s traveling to the Western Islands of Scotland, years after he had published his Dictionary, and when he was noted in England for his brilliance and polished style, was to make the wildness in his own mind tangible by seeing the wildness there.

This lecture was titled Samuel Johnson Makes the Wild Looked At; and Eli Siegel’s kindness and greatness of thought were vivid in it. He spoke with such care about the yearnings of a critic dead 200 years—a critic so impressive people have not thought of him as yearning at all. The opposites seemed flesh and blood to me, as Mr. Siegel spoke of Johnson’s need to complete his symmetry with something savage, and how the need to put these opposites together drove him from his home.

Mr. Siegel said that in Johnson’s meditation there is great loneliness, but also energy about the loneliness; and there is “an honesty of self-reproof.” He said Johnson’s real poetry is in his prose—though his formal verse should be read because it comes from one of the greatest minds in the world.

The Intangible Made Tangible

First, Mr. Siegel read a sentence of Johnson about the writer Addison. It is a sentence eminent in English literature; but no person before Eli Siegel saw that what Johnson most wanted for himself is in it. Johnson, Mr. Siegel said, is the master of antithesis, an 18th-century way of describing opposites; and in the last sentence of Johnson’s “Life of Addison” there is, through antithesis, an attempt to put together various qualities of mind. The sentence, he said, is poetry: “Whoever wishes to attain an English style, familiar but not coarse, and elegant but not ostentatious, must give his days and nights to the volumes of Addison.” Mr. Siegel said we can see in this sentence a desire of Johnson to make something abstract and intangible into something which can be touched. That desire is the reason he went to Scotland.

He described what he saw there in an account called A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, which is from the beginning, Mr. Siegel said, better poetry than most of Johnson’s formal work. We heard this description:

Inch Keith is nothing more than a rock covered with a thin layer of earth, not wholly bare of grass and very fertile of thistles....It seems never to have afforded to man or beast a permanent habitation.

Explained Mr. Siegel: Johnson is saying, “At last! I have now seen loneliness not just in my own mind, but in some part of England!” This was the intangible, the loneliness within Johnson, made tangible in the Scottish earth.

We saw that Johnson was also trying to put past and present together. He is vexed that in Scotland every tree looks new: “From the bank of the Tweed to St. Andrews I had never seen a single tree, which I did not believe to have grown up far within the present century.” He compares himself to growing things, and says he hasn’t seen any tree as old as he is.

Then suddenly past and present meet. He hears Scottish women singing as they reap com on the isle of Skye, and he writes that this must be like what the rowers of galleys in ancient Greece sang! He met what he wanted, Mr. Siegel commented: something wild with something classical.

The Rough, the Wild Go On

We heard sentences showing that the renowned critic feels he has completed himself by being interested in gooseberries and sheep’s milk. These sentences have a good, non-18th-century harshness, Mr. Siegel pointed out—some of the quality of Gerard Manley Hopkins. For example: “I gathered gooseberries in September; but they were small, and the husk was thick.” And it doesn’t seem to be the awesome, formidable Johnson who tells us, “Sheep’s milk is never eaten before it is boiled; as it is thick, it must be very liberal of curd, and the people of St. Kilda form it into small cheeses.” He sees process, and the tangible, said Mr. Siegel, and likes how things are made.

As Johnson looked at the castles of Scotland, we learned, he felt a coming together of fierceness and kindness, and he used a wonderful Johnsonian phrase about those castles: “vigilant with ignorant suspicion.” And describing the Scottish island Iona, Johnson writes a sentence with grandeurin which, again, the symmetry of the classical world and the wildness of western Scotland meet, “That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plain of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer among the ruins of Iona.” The words here, Mr. Siegel noted, are warm in their sound: piety, ruins, Iona.

The understanding that Samuel Johnson was longing for was in this class. “Johnson,” said Mr. Siegel, “was looking for smoothness and excitement, or incitement. He found something of it in the Western Islands of Scotland.”

* (London: Oxford University Press, 1927), 1:199