Dear Unknown Friends:
This issue has to do with something great, beautiful, necessary-to-be-known—something Aesthetic Realism is the body of knowledge to show. It is this: What makes a critical judgment in the field of art right or wrong, has everything to do with what choices we make in our lives. What makes a critic judge a work of art wrongly and what makes us judge wrongly in our life are the same.
TRO has been serializing The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, a 1972 lecture by Eli Siegel. Published here is a short section, in which Mr. Siegel continues discussing an essay by critic Paul Elmer More about the poet Milton. We print here too an article by Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss—from a paper she presented this month at a public seminar titled “To Manage People or Understand Them: The Historic & Intimate Debate.”
Literature & How the World Should Be Owned
To place a little the paragraphs from the 1972 lecture: Paul Elmer More (1864-1937) was a literary critic with right wing views—views Mr. Siegel disagreed with adamantly. Yet Mr. Siegel praises More’s large care for Milton and sees it as important. More, in the section of the essay quoted here, refers to Samuel Johnson’s famous condemnation of Milton’s poem “Lycidas.” Johnson, born in 1709 (101 years after Milton), is himself a major and lovable figure in English literature. Yet he couldn’t stand “Lycidas.” And More says it was because Johnson objected to Milton’s “republicanism”—that is, Milton wanted England to be a republic rather than a monarchy. Milton agreed with those who overthrew Charles I and had England be run by an elected Parliament. Further, Milton wanted religion in England to be more democratic too, to belong to the people of England and not be run by what he saw as a snobbish and aristocratic Anglican Church.
It may be hard for some persons to think that the most grandly classic of English poets was a radical, but Milton was. “The people,” he wrote, “are superior to kings” (A Defence of the People of England). Neither government nor religion, he felt, should be in the hands of some élite. Samuel Johnson, a hundred years later, was uncomfortable with these ideas—and so, in 1936, was More. More says he agrees with Johnson’s loathing of Milton’s political and religious views—yet says that he (More) loves “Lycidas.”
I’ll quote in a moment from an Aesthetic Realism lesson I had in which Mr. Siegel spoke about the relation of literary criticism and every person’s own life. But first, it needs to be said that all true art—whatever the political view of the artist—is democratic in the fullest sense; indeed, is completely revolutionary. The reason is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In every instance of art, the beauty arises from the artist’s feeling and showing in the thing dealt with, the structure of reality itself—the oneness of such opposites as motion and calm, freedom and order, change and continuity, power and delicacy, nuance and clearness. Each work of art, then, in its particular way, is a saying that the whole world is in every thing; the world is in, and so belongs to, every person. That is the fundamental philosophy and economics of art. The notion that the world should be possessed chiefly by certain persons is entirely inartistic, and fake.
Here, now, are some sentences from an Aesthetic Realism lesson I had about literary criticism and life. “What,” Mr. Siegel asked, “interferes with criticism?” And, after two thousand years of art criticism and centuries of turmoil in people’s lives, he gave the principal answer, and described how “ego can interfere with seeing”:
A critic is supposed to be fair to two things at once: the object, and his feelings as to the object. But there is a me in everyone that says the best thing to do is be inaccurate about the rest of the world. This has occurred in criticism and has made for some false judgments, many of them. A person can use a work of art to love oneself in a spurious manner.
Mr. Siegel explained that a critic can misjudge a bad work and praise it because “this work as good would please something in himself.” A critic can dislike and condemn something fine because “this work as good would threaten something in himself.” He continued:
That which enables one to be a critic of this kind is present in life, and it comes to this: “That is good in this world which pleases me or likes me.” Self is the one bad judge in this world—nothing else can go wrong—the narrow self that is not interested in the object.
Toward the end of the lesson Mr. Siegel said: “I’m trying to have Ellen Reiss convinced that her criticism of herself, the world, the people she knows has a likeness to the criticism of poetry.” I thank him forever for enabling me—a representative of humanity—to be convinced of that beautiful and all-important fact.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
A Problem of What to Value
By Eli Siegel
Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing Paul Elmer More’s 1936 essay “How to Read 'Lycidas.'”
More—who has been quoting Tennyson’s praise of Milton—questions Milton’s way of seeing the government of England:
“Voice of England”? Does [Milton] speak for the whole of England,... from the heart of England, giving articulate expression to that...which has made England what we know and love?
More’s answer is no. He has a tendency to call Milton a kind of foreigner, almost. (Later he says Milton had in him “something essentially un-English.”) Yet the other More, who saw literature, is predominant in this essay. The essay is notable, especially once one knows who Paul Elmer More is. He says about “Lycidas”: “I...hold it to be the greatest short poem of any author in English.” But then he continues:
Yet with that opinion I have felt bound to remember the sweeping condemnation of Johnson, to whom...the poem “is harsh,...unpleasing,” ...without passion and without art.
Johnson, like many people, felt, This man isn’t stirred by anything—this is an exercise. It is important to see how and why nearly every great poet has simply affected persons the wrong way. —More says Johnson’s
hostile criticism of the art of “Lycidas” sprang...from hostility to...all that Milton as a man stood for....[In Johnson’s view,] “Milton’s republicanism was...founded in an envious hatred of greatness....He hated monarchs in the State, and prelates in the Church; for he hated all whom he was required to obey.”
Johnson does present Milton as quite given to delinquency, or at least disobedience. More continues:
To Johnson’s charge...I can subscribe without reservation....But...he denounced “Lycidas” because he read into it the author’s ecclesiastical and political heresies; whereas I must reject the maker whilst admiring what he has made. And there the difficulty lies...: how can one so combine detestation and love? how can one make so complete a separation between Milton the destroyer of Church and State, and Milton the creative artist?
About Milton’s style, More says he disagrees with various
modern critics and poets [who] repudiate what may be called the Miltonic line of development and [who] seek their parentage in...the “Metaphysicals.”
One of the things that the persons going for the metaphysical poets felt was that Milton was too grand and couldn’t give himself to an ordinary object, like a violet, tears, or a compass, the way Donne could. This brings up the question, What should we be interested in seeing?
One of the purposes of the Aesthetic Realism consultation trios is to make for a true relation between what can be called the less agreeable objects or sights of the world and the more respectable. When one can make an easy relation between the respectable and the unrespectable and feel one is in the same world—that is something against contempt.
So we come to a large question in poetry: Can any object be seen honestly and poetically? The answer, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, is Yes.
To Manage People or Understand Them?
By Miriam Weiss
In a letter I sent home from camp when I was 13, I enclosed a character sketch I wrote in a writing workshop. It was of a woman selling buttons on the streets of Chinatown, whom my parents and I used to see, and I respected myself for trying to understand her feelings.
I was interested in language and different cultures, and two summers later I was thrilled to take part in an archeological dig at a Mohegan Indian site. I remember the wonder I had as I thought about how people lived there long ago and what they felt.
But—as also can be seen in letters from camp—my desire to understand, notably the two people I was writing to, had big limitations. Amid lively descriptions of campfires, treasure hunts, and folk dancing, I gave minute instructions to my mother about how frequent and how long her letters should be:
Please try to write more often as I only got two letters from you in one 7-day week or try to send the letters so I will get them Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Love Miriam.
P.S. Please type letters from now on as your handwriting is “slightly illegible.”
The next summer I was still at it, writing:
I got your letter today apologizing for your handwritten letter. Well, I wasn’t going to mention this, but seeing as the circumstances allow, you double space when you type. That is getting less words on a page than single spacing. Something will just have to be done!
In the corner I drew a stick figure of my mother behind bars—with the word jail written on the door. I thought I was being cute and that my parents would be charmed. In another letter I wrote, “I hope I’m not being too pushy,” as I spelled out an elaborate menu for a dinner I wanted them to serve me and a bunkmate on my first night home.
I was like many children: I felt my parents were my possessions. And their job, as I saw it, was to take care of me in a world that wasn’t too friendly. In not one letter did I ask what they felt. Describing the fight everyone has—between respect and contempt—Ellen Reiss writes:
The unarticulated battle within us is: Shall I see reality and its happenings, objects, people as things for me to know, value truly—or shall I see them as things for me to manage, look down on, use as possessions to make myself important? [TRO 1582]
I also managed my parents in a way many girls do—by giving them the message that they had to worry about me. While they saw me as having a good time with friends, taking part in many activities, learning new things, I’d inevitably let them know I wasn’t getting on so well and needed their assistance. Once when we were visiting California, I had the hotel clerk reach them at a restaurant they were at because I decided I was having trouble breathing—a situation that immediately cleared up when they returned from their interrupted meal. I never thought: Do they have a right to have a good time without me? But even as I felt driven in this way, I was ashamed.
I’m very happy to be telling what I learned from Aesthetic Realism: the purpose we were born for is to see meaning in reality, and that includes trying to understand people.
The Power of Knowing vs. the Power of Managing
Aesthetic Realism consultations are that oneness of knowledge and good will which is essential in understanding a person. In one of my first consultations, I spoke in a bored manner about my father, Conrad Weiss, and shrugged my shoulders. My consultants asked: “Do you think you have made your father into A-Being-to-Approve-of-Miriam-Weiss at the expense of knowing who he is?” I was surprised, but I knew the answer was yes. And they asked: “Is it possible that the most interesting things about your father, you don’t know?”
This was new. And I was given the assignment to write a soliloquy of him at age 18. As I thought about what he felt as a son and brother, his hopes and puzzlement about love, his uncertainty about the future in the midst of a world war, and his love of the big bands, I saw that the man I took for granted at the breakfast table had feelings as real as mine. I became interested in his opinions, and we started to have deep conversations—which affected both of us very much.
Seeing a happy change in me, my mother, Sarah Weiss, began to study Aesthetic Realism for herself. In a consultation we had together, she spoke of how bossy I could be at home, and the consultants asked: “Are you afraid of your daughter?” “Somewhat,” she said.
Consultants. Would the fear be, if you felt she wanted to respect you? [And to me:] Can you tell your mother you’d like to make her more sure of herself, not less sure?
MW. Yes, I can.
Consultants. If you were more interested in what your mother feels, would she be less afraid of you?
MW. Yes, she would.
As I saw the bad effect I’d had on my mother, I felt, This is not what I want! And I began to discover a new power I was capable of: using my thought to try to understand, not manage her. I wrote on how reality’s opposites were in Sarah Weiss: how she was both easygoing with people and precise as she worked with numbers; was thoughtful and energetically determined to have a good effect on an elderly neighbor; how she had pride and humility as she scrubbed a counter, making it shine. I saw that my mother had large meaning because she was related to everything!
A person studying Aesthetic Realism is asked to write a sentence each day about something one liked. My mother and I began to write ours in the same spiral notebook, and we eagerly looked forward to reading each other’s entries. She wrote of liking the rain one afternoon; of her pleasure from a conversation she had with my father and her hopes to be a better wife—and I respected her so much more. I felt I was being introduced to my mother and, yes, I wanted her to be surer and stronger.
The Desire to Manage Makes Love Impossible
I didn’t think love had to do with understanding a person. Instead, I devoted much of my thought to arranging a picture of a man whose interest in me would show how wonderful I was. In one consultation, when I spoke about a young man I was attracted to who didn’t seem to reciprocate, I was asked: “Can a girl feel bad when the notion she has created of a man, which she thinks about when she’s alone, is interfered with by the presence of the man? Do you in any way prefer the Bob Simmons in your mind to the real Bob Simmons?” The person in your mind, they explained, is one you can manage better. Also, without being clear about it, you can have the inner satisfaction of “feeling in some deep way that it’s not another person you’re loving, but you.”
This criticism had me reconsider my conceited choice to feel no real flesh and blood man was good enough to affect me too deeply.
Because of what I was learning, I changed about love. I had begun reading the novels of George Eliot and saw how she got respectfully and deeply within the selves of characters, writing with criticism and compassion about a self-centered man like Edward Casaubon, and showing a rich inner struggle in a man who was honest and kind, Adam Bede. I then met and fell in love with Joseph Spetly, and he with me, and we married.
Joe is a man whose way of seeing the world I have excitement and wonder about. I’m moved on a daily basis as he tells me what he sees and feels about things—the glow of morning light on a building, a novel he’s happily engrossed in, a conversation with his father, a photograph he’s taken, world happenings. I respect his love for history, his passion against economic injustice, and his knowledge about science. As a woman once given to smugly thinking I knew best—how lucky I am and how romantic it is to be affected by and learn from Joe, including from his critical perception of me.
In the poem “Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later,” Eli Siegel asks, “What was he to himself?” I saw firsthand that Mr. Siegel had this purpose, to know, with every person he spoke to or about. In a class, when he asked me what I was hoping for, I said, “To be interested in people honestly.” He explained, “You can’t be interested in people unless you feel the relation between the world and yourself is something you like.” Aesthetic Realism is the grand, kind education that makes this possible.