The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Point, Width, & Being False to Oneself

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish here the final section of the great 1969 lecture Has Poetry Point?, by Eli Siegel. And with it is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Robert Murphy from the recent public seminar “What Makes a Man’s Life Large or Small?”

 In the lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about two opposites that are in us and in events, and are made one in every instance of art: width and point, or welter and resolution. As he does, we are looking at this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

There is a spurious, very hurtful dealing with width and point that every person is prone to. One can feel that one’s life has much confusion in it, that there is so much one doesn’t comprehend about oneself. And there is a desire to take that uncomfortable welter, that width of confusion, and, without having to think, make it come to some swift point, to some rapid sureness, and so feel bewildered no longer. People can get to this fake sureness in many ways. Anger is a principal one. We can want to be angry, because at the moment we yell at someone, or throw a cup across the room, or even blast someone inwardly, in our own thoughts—at that moment we feel we’re completely clear: there’s nothing more we need to know. This and all fake modes of getting from sprawling unclearness to triumphant “clarity,” leave one, after the initial heady sense of release, more unsure and self-disgusted than before.

A reason racism is so abundant is that it is a way of taking a sprawling uncertainty about oneself and annulling it by getting to a “point”: a focus of hate. If one can despise an entire race, feel superior to millions of people, one can seem to put aside the fact that there is so much one is unsure of and so much one doesn’t like about oneself.

People have used—misused—sex for the same purpose. If you can have a very definite ecstatic corporeal release, you can feel the whole dissatisfying world has been dealt with victoriously by you. It has been annulled, transformed into someone pointedly, keenly, existing to please you.

A Readiness in History

The desire to take wide unsureness and weltering self-dislike and, without working to be exact, have them get to some ego-pleasing culmination: this is also the reason people have found war attractive. As I write about this fact, my purpose is not to comment on current events or particular countries. It is to describe a way of mind that has been in history, which has not been understood and needs to be understood if our future is to be civilized. The one means of comprehending why millions of people in nation after nation have welcomed unnecessary and wrong wars, is the Aesthetic Realism explanation of contempt. “Contempt,” Mr. Siegel wrote in a definitive issue of this journal, “is ...the main cause of wars” (TRO 165). It is also what has made ordinary citizens support them.

Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt can be wide: a general state of mind scornfully taking in ever so much. But it can also provide a terrific sense of point: a feeling our questions are answered because, look!—we’ve lessened someone and are superior. 

Sometimes it has been necessary to go to war. In 1861, when the South wanted to secede from the Union in order to protect the institution of slavery, and began by grabbing Fort Sumter, it was necessary for the United States to fight this. It was necessary to fight Hitler. Meanwhile, a student of history knows that ever so many wars were not necessary—though at the time, politicians and press succeeded in having people feel the war must be!

That was so in 1898, with the completely unnecessary Spanish-American War, about which there was intense war fever throughout America. Many people feel, and felt at the time (say, Emerson, Thoreau, Lincoln), that our 1846 war against Mexico was unnecessary and had an ugly purpose. And there was the Franco-Prussian War; and the First World War, with history showing that in 1914 neither side stood clearly for justice, though millions of people in each country were whipped into a fervor and pictured themselves Right and Patriotic and with God, as soldiers were sent to kill.

Why Something Has Been Welcomed

1) So we find that a person of any country, perhaps you, has a feeling of wide unsureness, pervasive self-dissatisfaction. And do you want to get rid of it! The need to think and keep thinking, to try to understand though the answers don’t immediately come in, is annoying and humiliating to the ego. Then, if something standing for you, your country, seems to say, “There’sthe enemy, them—we’ll hate them and level them!,” there can be the feeling that messy, ongoing questioning is finally annulled.

2) If you can defeat somebody you feel superior, and people want to feel superior. War is attractive because people, not liking themselves, feel that through lessening another nation they’ll think well of themselves.

3) People can back their nations’ leaders in an unjust war because they feel, “What’s connected with me must be right.” It’s sheer conceit. When a child tells his mother how mean another child was to him, she has a tendency to take his side immediately, because he’s hers. A good mother is interested in finding out what’s true, not “siding” with her child: she feels loving truth is loving him.

4) Contempt has with it the desire to feel hurt—because then you don’t have to criticize yourself and can feel you’re a superior person assailed by mean barbarians. That is why you (of any nation) can be ready to believe politicians and press who tell you someone is out to hurt you. That is why you don’t want to distinguish precisely between what may hurt you and what may not.

5) People have many, swarming angers: at family, boss, neighbors; about money, love. They would like to consolidate those weltering, seething, unresolved angers into one nationally backed, explosively effective anger.

People, then, welcome war because they welcome contempt. But as persons welcomed incorrect wars, however intensely, the depths of themselves were never fully convinced. That is because what we want most deeply is to be just.

More than anything else in history, Aesthetic Realism encourages in people the desire to know. It shows the pleasure in trying to see. And that desire to know is the one real alternative to contempt. It is what Eli Siegel himself had, grandly and always. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Two Kinds of Climax

By Eli Siegel

While there is the climax, the culmination, there is also the letdown that can be in composition. Flaubert and Maupassant have endings of stories—and so do Hemingway and quite a few others—that don’t end at all. Something like, “And he put another egg in the pan”—culmination. Or, “He thought tomorrow he would have this really sewn"—another climax. And, “He looked out the window, but after a while his elbow felt uncomfortable, so he shut the window.” How can the ordinary, the broken, likewise be a culmination? How can the divided clothespin, as I used to call it, be a blaze of meaning?

In The Lawless Decade, the book by Paul Sann about the twenties that I read from earlier, there is that quality of almost, of could be, of might-have-been, of the aborted climax. It’s most notable in the dealing with Roscoe Arbuckle, who was known as “Fatty.” He was a comedian and was very cheerful, and no one associated him with ominous evil. But then he was at a party in September 1921; a girl died there, and the circumstances were ever so doubtful. Roscoe Arbuckle was tried for manslaughter. He had three trials. One would think something definite would come of it, but it happens that reality doesn’t like climaxes, not in terms of ethics. So I’ll read this bit of semi-boiled-egg history and art.

The first trial is 10 to 2 for acquittal, and it’s dismissed. Then there’s a second, 10 to 2 for conviction, and that’s dismissed. Then there’s a third panel:

The third panel took just 6 minutes to clear the pink-faced defendant of manslaughter and observed:

"Acquittal is not enough for Roscoe Arbuckle. We feel a great injustice has been done him and there was not the slightest proof to connect him in any way with the commission of any crime."

One would expect what one did see later in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town: the real exoneration—hooray! But nothing like that happened. Arbuckle was free, but the association by then was so messy that people didn’t want to see his pictures. The mere fact that he had been tried—there was already an association.

This midway stuff occurs in reality: it’s neither here nor there and nobody wins and everybody has a bellyache.

Eleven years passed before anyone let him act. Warner Brothers put him in some two-reel comedies in 1933, shooting in New York. He finished one on June 30 and said, “This is the happiest day of my life.” In the morning he was dead—felled in his sleep by a heart attack. He was forty-six.

The anti-climax, which also is a climax, is a big thing in art too: where you don’t really have a conclusion. In Candide, Voltaire has that kind of muggy ending.

These blunt effects and sharp effects and wide effects and speedy effects are concerned with poetry. Every happening has something like them. The fact that a flower can blossom, and from one seed there can come twenty or thirty petals, is one kind of climax. But that same flower can be washed to the ground by heavy rain. In the meantime, there is that principle of everything working for one cause, which we saw examples of. They do give a hint: that all reality can be for one thing. What that means, we shall look at further.


A Man: Large and Small

By Robert Murphy

“For a self to be large,” Eli Siegel wrote, “is that self’s being able...to identify itself with whatever is real” (TRO 218). He also described the opposed way of mind in us: contempt. Men have felt about a coworker, neighbor, even a woman one hopes to care for, “If I can diminish you in some way, I’m bigger.” But this contemptuous way of being big always makes a man despise himself, and really makes him small.

The Fight in My Life

As a boy, after getting a microscope for Christmas, I spent hours looking through it. I was amazed by what was in a drop of water, the tip of a fly’s wing, a single hair. In college I loved studying microbiology and finding that there was a whole living universe we couldn’t see. To find large meaning in these small things thrilled me—and it was at such times that I felt proud, larger myself.

Meanwhile, I had another way of feeling big. I was made a great deal of by my family, particularly my father, who treated me as the heir apparent of the Murphy family. And I used the approval I got to be conceited. As I heard my father say, “All you have to do is breathe in and out and you’ve got it made: you’re my son!” and “The whole neighborhood looks up to us and is jealous,” I was not encouraged to think it was necessary to care about the feelings of other people. And I didn’t. In fact, I came to feel that the way I would be somebody was by having a big effect on others while I remained cool. Yet with all my affability, I was increasingly unsure of myself. I didn’t feel big inside.

Years later in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel asked me: “Do you think you have the patience to be approved of exactly and as part of a process?” I said, “I’m not sure.”

ES. On the one hand, you want to get your relatives’ approval—"Great guy, Robert Murphy!"—which is so easy. And on the other, you want to be approved of in an exact way....Do you believe you’re too impatient?

RM. I feel that very much. 

ES. What does it come from? “I’ve been given a taste of being approved of promptly; no waiting": once a person gets that, he’s spoiled forever.

Then Mr. Siegel asked me something that surprised me very much: whether the easy approval I’d gotten had made for my uncertainty. I saw that it had; and that it also had to do with something that had pained me greatly as a boy and young man: my inability to read. Neither I nor my parents, nor psychiatrists, nor special educators, of whom there were many, understood why I, who was articulate, even bright, could not recognize or put together letters of even the simplest words. The shame I felt about not being able to read made me feel puny.

I have seen nothing more important about the cause of reading difficulty than these sentences by Mr. Siegel in his Children’s Guide to Parents and Other Matters:

Some people can’t read books. It’s likely that people who can’t read books can’t have their feelings affected much by other persons, either, and, for that matter, by things generally. These people think that they have “themselves,” so why do they have to read books very deeply? They are wrong, because if they know how to read books, their “selves” are a lot more.

I’ve seen that when a person doesn’t want to get the world into him through reading, it’s because he has gone after feeling large in other ways, hurtful to himself and others. The way I built myself up was in feeling I was a better athlete, had more girlfriends, had a richer family, was better looking, than any of my friends. I had no idea that the way I went after being large was the very thing that made me feel lower than a snake.

One of the biggest things that happened in my life is that through what I learned from Aesthetic Realism, I came to love books and to see the wonder in words.

Largeness and Smallness in Love

No man would say he wanted something small in loving a woman. Yet that is what we are going after if we want to possess a person and see her in terms of ourselves. We think: “Her eyes shine like the stars—especially when she is looking at me! The way she laughs at my jokes, the way she turns her face up to mine with sweetness and devotion!” In a class, Mr. Siegel described how we lessen a person—are uninterested in who she truly is—and meanwhile use her to make ourselves big: 

We want to conquer the world through a person, justify ourselves and feel we are perfect. Robert Murphy uses a woman to make himself immaculate and feel he has a victory over the world. Sometimes if she acts a certain way, he feels he’s gotten the love of God.

This was so. And it is why it was impossible for me to love someone truly or feel I deserved to be loved.

Aesthetic Realism is new in enabling men to criticize our small, narrow purposes and encourage our biggest purpose. I am very grateful that now, through knowing my wife, Aesthetic Realism consultant and poet Margot Carpenter—including through our embraces—all things look better to me and I feel I am a fairer man.