The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Ourselves—& What’s Around Us

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the third part in our serialization of the 1951 lecture It Still Moves; or, The Novel, by Eli Siegel. He shows what the novel is, must have—whenever and wherever it is written. He shows what makes a novel beautiful, and why that matters. And as he does, we are seeing some of the meaning and richness—also urgency and cultural might—of this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In the present section, Mr. Siegel speaks about the elements of character and environment, or place, in the novel, and the relation between them. Certainly, ever so many commentators on the novel have discussed those elements. But he is the critic who saw what no one else did: that character and place in fiction are forms of the biggest opposites in the life of every person: self and world. Both a character in a novel and all of us are meeting the world at every moment. And the world takes the form of other people—but, very much, it takes the form of place: what surrounds us, where we are.

Because of his seeing—so fully and gracefully—that the technical opposites in art are in people too, as Eli Siegel speaks about character and place in a novel, something occurs that does not occur in discussions by other critics: we feel that the subject is also ourselves. We feel that what’s being explained is kind to us; that opposites at war in us can be one—because they are together page after page, with much diversity, in a good novel. All this makes for a warmth and thrill as Eli Siegel discusses environment in the novel. And his beautiful seeing of this subject represents how he was on every subject, including all the arts and sciences.

Now, from Life to Novels

To help place what you’ll soon read about the novel, I’ll quote, from the book Self and World, Eli Siegel writing about the constant situation in everybody’s life. Again: the “duality” he describes can, in a novel, become those literary elements character and environment:

There is a deep and “dialectic” duality facing every human being, which can be put this way: How is he to be entirely himself, and yet be fair to that world which he does not see as himself?...

We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it. We have to be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves. [P. 91]

People have loved reading novels, but haven’t known that they were seeing, chapter after chapter, a self meeting what’s not oneself and having to do something about it. In what one does about the there, in how one meets it, are both a) what a particular character in a novel is like; and b) who we are, how our own minds fare. And again: the there may be other people, but it’s also, very much, the environment. Jane Eyre, for example, is trying to answer the question of how to “be entirely [her]self, and yet be fair to that world which [s]he does not see as [her]self.” So is Harry Potter. So is Don Quixote. So is Strether in Henry James’s The Ambassadors.

In meeting what is not ourselves we each have the fight Aesthetic Realism identifies as the central battle in humanity: between respect for the world and contempt. Every novel illustrates this fight in some fashion. Contempt is “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” It is, Eli Siegel showed, the source of every cruelty. It’s that in us which interferes with our lives and minds. Novelists have not known about contempt as the weakening, unkind principle in humanity, yet they have illustrated it, sometimes with much subtlety—and style. Now, through Aesthetic Realism, the novels of the world can truly be a means of understanding and criticizing contempt in ourselves.

Poems about Novels

Eli Siegel wrote poems on many, many subjects. And included in this issue are three of the poems he wrote about the novel. One can feel in them his love of what the novel is, his respect, and also his humor.

1) “Voilà, The Unknown Is in Novels” was written in 1952 and appears in his collection Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. He says of it in a note: “An attempt is made to be fair to the midst of the novel.”

As this poem mentions some of the things that are in novels, the way these things are mentioned is different in each instance; there is a different rhythm, a different music. For example, there are tautness and an abruptness in the 6th and 7th lines: “Two men grappling, / And a bottle falling.” Yet some softness is in the sound of those lines too, a sense of subtlety. Meanwhile, there’s a very different quality in other lines—like the delicately chipper music of “A tree welcoming a parasol, / A parasol welcoming a duchess,” and the foreboding, ethically rich sound of “Two souls glaring, / At each other’s hateful mystery.” In keeping with the author’s note quoted above, we are in the “midst” of the novel, and we feel that “midst” as music. In each vivid instance mentioned, we feel too the strange, the mysterious, “the unknown.”

2) “No Reader Attending,” a poem of 1961, appears in issue 728 of this journal. It is about novels that no one reads now or hears of, because they haven’t made it through time. What a subject! The poem certainly has humor, and factuality, but there’s a touch of poignancy too. I could say a lot about the wonderful technique of this poem, including about the nature of the rhymes, rhythms, line lengths—all of which help make for a feeling of matter-of-factness and suspense, depth and jauntiness. The poem tells us that within forgotten novels the characters have emotions—but that there’s also emotion in the fact that their feelings aren’t read about, aren’t seen, by anyone.

3) “A Lady Sails the Sea” is published in Hot Afternoons, and I am guessing that it was written in the late 1920s. The poem shows that the same person who can be exceedingly distressed by danger in life can get delight reading about danger in a novel. (Mr. Siegel has mentioned that the title he gave to the novel she reads was affected by Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1862 “sensation novel,” Lady Audley’s Secret.) In the four long free verse lines of this poem, we feel the traveling motion of the ship the woman told of is on, and also the motion of her feelings as they stir and reach.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


A Person & the Outside World

By Eli Siegel

In the novel, what we have even before character in the multitudinous sense is the sense of one person. A great novel is Robinson Crusoe, and it is at its greatest when Robinson Crusoe doesn’t meet anybody. Later he does meet people, Friday and others.

The big thing in a novel is the relation of a self to the world about him. When a person goes and looks at the sea or the sky or a mountain or even at his house, there is already a happening, because there is a certain dramatic relation between the person and the thing outside of him. A novel couldn’t go on just that way—some other person would have to be in it for it to be a complete novel. Robinson Crusoe is the greatest success in the mono-novel, almost, the novel of one person. To have that, is difficult. However, the idea of the personality and nothing but the world is present in all great fiction. Sometimes a person has to face, not another person, but himself and then that representation of self which is in the world about him.

A Person and, Perhaps, the Sea

A writer who represents very deeply the relation of the self to place, or the reality about him, or environment, is Joseph Conrad. It is interesting that those persons who have tried most to show the relation of their feelings to, let us say, a storm, or a dark night, or a misty night in summer, or early morn in the Himalayas with the Indian vegetation still having dew—these writers have also been most deeply interested in their very selves. The reason that Conrad at this time is having such a vogue is that he shows with profundity the relation of the reposeful and also stormy outside world to the depths of oneself. In a reference book called Authors Today and Yesterday (H.W. Wilson Co., 1934), the sketch of Conrad has this:

Conrad earned a reputation as the greatest of sea writers. John Drinkwater says: “No novelist has ever described with such overwhelming and yet restrained power tropical storms and hot seas and writhing luxurious scented vegetation as cruel as it is beautiful. It may almost be said that the sea and the sun are often the principal characters of his stories.” His central human figure in many cases is a man apart.

And this writer mentions Almayer’s Folly and The Secret Agent as examples. The Secret Agent is very popular now, and it’s a very good novel. It is about a man fighting to be alone and fighting to be not alone, which was the fight of Conrad. It is a story that uses the outside world, the night around the ship, the waves in the dark night going about the ship, in order to show the fight that is in a person.

In great novels the environment does take on a personal quality. It happens in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It happens in Turgenev. It happens in Tolstoy. It happens very definitely in Cooper. It is so in the very greatest novels.

Environment, then, is a big thing in the novel. The three big things are the events themselves, the characters, and reality outside—environment, if you want to call it that, or place. Novels, when they have all three powerfully, are tremendous. If they have two, they are very good. If they have one, even, they can be good if that one goes deep enough. But it is the interaction of the three in terms of happening that makes for a great novel.

So a tentative definition of the novel can be: a narrative of the impact of character, emotion, place, going for one purpose. Each word in that definition has to be looked at carefully. I can extend the definition and say: a novel is a book in which many things happen to more than one person, who affect each other while they are in relation to place, all of which makes for oneness. Both definitions go for the same thing.

A Novel of Indiana

Looking further at the aspect of place: I have mentioned Conrad, and I now go to a novelist whom I see as important in the history of American literature, who accented place very definitely. (I may say parenthetically that my first review, almost, was of his book The Hoosier Schoolmaster; it occurred in 1917.*) The Hoosier Schoolmaster, which appeared in 1871, was a very popular book. It is a novel that, though it has incident, accents place, a new background, so keenly. I’ll read from an autobiographical sketch by its author, Edward Eggleston, a sketch published in The Forum magazine in 1887, in a section called “Books That Have Helped Me.” Eggleston says that the way he came to write The Hoosier Schoolmaster was this:

The starting-point of novel-writing with me was the accidental production of a little newspaper story, dashed off in ten weeks, amid pressing editorial duties, and with no thought of making a book. The “Hoosier Schoolmaster,” faulty and unfinished as it is, first won public attention for me, and now, after sixteen years, the exasperating public still buys thousands of copies of it annually, preferring it to the most careful work I can do. I am often asked in regard to the immediate impetus to the writing of this story, and the answer seems paradoxical enough. I had just finished reading Taine’s “Art in the Netherlands.” Applying his maxim, that an artist ought to paint what he has seen, I tried my hand on the dialect and other traits of the...people of Southern Indiana.

In Taine’s Art in the Netherlands, and in his other works, the influence of geography, what is around the person, is made a great deal of. Taine went a little wild, but it is still a pretty intense and pleasant business to read his writing on the subject, about how the land around one affected one’s thoughts.

There Is Thomas Hardy

A person can react to place, but occasionally he reacts to the whole world, as in Job, as in The Pilgrim’s Progress. Sometimes it’s just nature itself, one man and all of nature. A person who has accented that, a novelist of repute, a novelist who used the architectural method in constructing his books, is Thomas Hardy. About him, I’ll read from an interesting book on books called Good Reading, published by Pelican Books. Hardy felt that the relation of fate itself, of the world itself, to a person was something that could be so cruel, something that man had so little to do with, that it could be dealt with deeply and dramatically in a novel.

In Good Reading, Edward Le Comte—the person writing about Hardy and his relation to the world, and his using of place—says this:

Toward the close of the century which began with Scott (who nearly always provided happy endings) came Thomas Hardy, in whom deterministic melancholy reached the depths of the Greek tragedies. The futility of human struggle against unpredictable nature and chance pervades his somber novels, of which Tess of the d’Urbervilles and The Return of the Native have been most esteemed for the precision of their plot structure and the bitter force of their irony.

We all think that nature is an opponent, not just a friend. This sometimes takes a deep form in novels, in fiction generally, in the drama. For example, the relation of man to the world about him is a big thing in Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil. That takes place in the far north of Norway. The relation of man to fate is very much present in War and Peace. But again, it is in every novel.

*Eli Siegel would have been 14 or 15.


Three Poems about Novels

By Eli Siegel

Voilà, The Unknown Is in Novels

A novel has so many things:

Something a leaf may do,

For instance, rustle.

—A smile not wholly meant:

It has happened.

—Two men grappling,

And a bottle falling;

Yea, bottle.

—A change in the depths of a growing miss,

Not alone in Leicestershire:

For people gather in Leicestershire: it has been long so.

—A man thinking about himself;

How can man avoid this?

—A landscape altering,

With persons near it,

And the landscape described somewhat.

—Two souls glaring,

At each other’s hateful mystery

Within the tall, unkind walls of two oblong unconscious’.

—A tree welcoming a parasol,

A parasol welcoming a duchess,

The duchess forgetting a parasol.

—The forgot is in novels,

And, voilà, the unknown.

No Reader Attending

Many a Victorian novelist,

Her books unread, is not missed.

And this goes for lovers who kissed

Within these novels, so ill known.

The heroine is there, alone,

In a double sense, her loneliness not seen

By any reader of these days.

Novelists and characters

Are somewhere on their own

Unattended by turning pages,

Turned by readers.

The hero is serene,

Unaccompanied. There is no praise,

For there’s none to give it. Whatever assuages

The grief of heroine is not found out.

And we know nothing of the lout,

Wealthy and titled, a father meant

The heroine to marry. Absent

Readers might as well be acquiescent.

Unhappy middle, happy ending—

Faugh! it doesn’t matter. There’s no reader attending.

A Lady Sails the Sea

Over the sea from England, a ship going, going to Africa, with a timorous lady aboard.

And the waves came about the ship, and the winds came, and roared and whistled; then it was the lady gave up her novel-reading in affright.

But the winds roared once only, and the waves were big once only; and the lady finished with some delight Lady Huntley’s Secret, a novel of England.

And so she left England, and sailed over the sea to Africa, and to Africa came.