The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Prose & Parents

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is chapter 5 of The Opposites Theory, a work Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s. Scholarly, philosophic, and alive, it is about the explanation of art which is central to Aesthetic Realism: art is always "the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual."

As we serialize The Opposites Theory, I have been commenting on something Mr. Siegel does not write of lengthily in it: he is the philosopher who has shown that the human self —including the dear self which is yours or mine—is an aesthetic matter. In all our hopes and troubles our need is to put together the opposites that are made one in art.

In chapter 5, "The Necessary & the Casual in Prose," Mr. Siegel speaks about the fact that all good writing is at once forceful and ever so at ease. Well, those are opposites which confuse parents, even torment them. A parent today, as in previous years, doesn't know whether to be strict or easygoing, severe or permissive. Neither parents nor those who advise them know that what's needed is to be like a good sentence, simultaneously easygoing and firm—that this oneness of opposites is the only thing that will satisfy, be beautiful, work.

A Wrong Severity

In Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll has a poem or song about bad parental strictness. The Duchess sings it to her child, and in its wild context it is funny and terrible:

Speak roughly to your little boy,

And beat him when he sneezes:

He only does it to annoy,

Because he knows it teases.

Even if we put aside the "beat him" part—since, blessedly, hitting is something American parents no longer feel free to do—we find in these lines the thing Aesthetic Realism shows to be the weakener of mind, the cause of cruelty, the interference with our making opposites one. That thing is contempt.

Contempt is "the addition to self through the lessening of something else," and begins with our feeling we have the right to see people and things "in a way that seem[s] to go with comfort." The big mistake parents can make is to see their child mainly in terms of themselves: what will make them comfortable or important. When parental strictness is ugly, it's because it has arisen not from the desire to understand the child—but simply because the child did something that discomfited the parents, annoyed them, as the Duchess says.

A False Permissiveness

Contempt can also make for a permissiveness. An instance is in David Copperfield, as Dickens presents Steerforth's mother speaking about her now-adult son. A parent can be wrongly easygoing and non-critical, for the following unarticulated reason: Because my child is mine, he's wonderful, superior; there's no need to make sure he's fair to objects and people—they're beneath him, and he should be able to do anything with them he pleases. Dickens writes, in chapter 20:

Mrs. Steerforth [was] devoted to her son. She seemed to be able to speak or think about nothing else. She showed me his picture as an infant, in a locket, with some of his baby-hair in it.

She says she chose a particular school for her boy because there he could manage the schoolmaster and everyone else:

My son's high spirit made it desirable that he should be placed with some [schoolmaster] who felt its superiority, and would be content to bow himself before it....[My son] would have risen against all constraint; but he found himself the monarch of the place.

As the novel continues, we see that this mother's permissiveness, with its contempt for the world other than her boy and herself, encouraged Steerforth to be cruel.

The desire, great and exact, to be just to reality, is what makes opposites one in art. It can make them one in us.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Necessary & the Casual in Prose

By Eli Siegel

The Theory of Opposites in Art is based on the idea that every condition of art, every situation in it, all aspects of technique arise from, are commented on, by philosophic aspects of the universe or existence itself. A seemingly lesser thing is never wholly apart from a larger. The chestnut is never wholly apart from the chestnut tree; and the chestnut tree is never wholly apart from land and sky and motion.

In the world are the Necessary and the Casual. They just are. Everything we look at gives us a feeling of the necessary and casual. Life has this feeling all the time. It is a feeling related to the great philosophic contraries of Determinism and Freedom, Law and Chance. It is a feeling related to mighty human ideas of Fate and Personality, Destiny and Choice, Predestination and Salvation.

And if there is any great human or philosophic idea about, art has it somewhere; everything in art has it somewhere.

It does seem as if prose were more casual than poetry; that poetry had a necessity different from that prose has. And an oil painting seems to be more insistently necessary than a charcoal drawing. Further, a trunk standing still among grass seems more necessary than a swaying reed by a river, or the tree's own twig high up where winds get at it.

The Theory of Opposites states that an artist must go after the necessary and casual at once. The Theory also states that when we like anything in art we have felt the necessary and casual in one indivisible moment of mind; we have felt the necessary and casual in one immediately seen thing.

A Grass Blade, for Instance

If we contemplate a grass blade in Maine in early September not far from a Maine river, and if we are pleased by the grass blade—and it is only right to be pleased—one of the reasons we are pleased is that we have felt the grass blade to be necessary and casual. After all, if the grass blade exists it would be churlish to question the necessity of its existence. Within the idea of existence itself—any existence—is the necessary. Within the idea of existence itself is also the might-be, the presumptive, the casual.

A flag waving in Pittsburgh in the breeze; paper going towards a roof; the glide and swirl of velvet; the blowiness of gingham—these pleasant things tell of how the necessary and casual are subtly, powerfully implicit in existence.

Grace is the necessary made casual.

There Is Prose

I have mentioned conditions of and situations in art. The great arts have subdivisions, and in the art of literature is that constant, impossibly-absent-in-life thing called prose. Prose is more casual than poetry, I said earlier. Still, while prose is more casual than poetry, prose itself has two divisions: the Pompous, the Ornate, the Labored, the Complex, the Impressive, the Magnificent, the Stiff, the Poetic—let these stand for the first division; in the second division may be found the Chatty, the Easy, the Colloquial, the Rippling, the Conversational, the Intimate, the Unlabored.

These adjectives, in one form or another, apply to all the arts. Correggio is a little Easier than El Greco; Miró is a little Easier than Léger.

Again, there is prose. Arthur Clutton-Brock has written a quite notable essay, "The Defects of English Prose." Apparently it is a review of Logan Pearsall Smith's anthology of English prose. Mr. Clutton-Brock chides Mr. Pearsall Smith for preferring the labored and posturing and "unnatural." Mr. Clutton-Brock, one gathers, prefers Defoe to Ruskin, Swift to De Quincey. He doesn't say this in the essay, but since an eighteenth-century favorite of Mr. Clutton-Brock, Shaftesbury (quoted in the present essay), is more akin to Defoe and Swift, it is not too hazardous to say what I have. There are many persons who find in eighteenth-century prose—in Swift, Defoe, Voltaire, Diderot, Fielding—a casualness most pleasing. It seems that the centuries vie with each other in naturalness and unnaturalness.

I cannot see Mr. Clutton-Brock as wholly just to prose in his essay; for prose—like other aspects of or situations in art—is a study always in the casual and conscious, in the casual and necessary, in the indirect and direct, in the posture and the lope, the clenched fist and the limp finger.

Early in his essay, Mr. Clutton-Brock sees poetry as standing for love, prose for justice. (This brings up the aesthetic relation of love and justice, a matter of no little concern to art.)

If the cardinal virtue of poetry is love, the cardinal virtue of prose is justice; and, whereas love makes you act and speak on the spur of the moment, justice needs inquiry, patience, and a control even of the noblest passions. But English Prose, as Mr. Pearsall Smith presents it, is at the mercy of its passions and just only by accident.¹

It is good to see love and justice related to the structure of prose. It would seem that the justice which Mr. Clutton-Brock speaks for is more severe than the love he doesn't speak so much for, yet in prose itself the essayist seems to prefer ease to severity—at least a certain kind of severity.

Anyway, justice seems necessary and love seems casual. —How could justice and love be without their beginnings?

As we look at the way prose is made, I think we can discern the necessary and casual in every part of speech, in every phrase, in every clause, in every sentence, in every paragraph. Philosophy gets into the most unlooked for crevices. It is in the minute and in the point.

Casual about the Mighty

Mr. Clutton-Brock later quotes, praisingly, a passage from Shaftesbury's Letter concerning Enthusiasm, of the 1710s or so. There is this sentence in the passage:

This, my Lord, is the security against superstition: To remember that there is nothing in God but what is God-like; and that He is either not at all or truly and perfectly good. [P. 847]

The essayist is right when he says the passage is "easy"; and he is also right in thinking it is surprisingly good for Shaftesbury to be easy about religion. The fact that Shaftesbury is effectively easy about religion points to the aesthetic purpose of being casual about the mighty, large about the seemingly trivial. In aesthetics, terror, as much as possible, should be like the fresh, green leaf moving friendlily outside our window.

Looking at the sentence some more. —There is the motion of a brisk, friendly walk in it. The sentence is constructed briskness. The sentence is arranged, speedy, friendly affirmativeness. There is an equivalence of yes and no, either and or, with such a rhythm of words and phrases and of facts and surmises, that out of it all comes an undelayed reassurance, wide as can be. Mr. Clutton-Brock is right: it is a good, amiable, well-made sentence saying a great, great deal in one neat outburst of rhythmical gesture.

Still, what makes the sentence good is the presence of seriousness in the colloquial, of something logical and necessary in the easy, of something mighty and eternal and perhaps most fearful in the spontaneously amiable.

The critical essayist, describing a quality in the prose of W.H. Hudson and Mark Rutherford, says:

Their peculiar quality is justice; they describe without a laboured eagerness or momentum, and without vivid words, just what they have seen and felt. [P. 849]

So W.H. Hudson and Mark Rutherford are said to have "justice" in their prose; are said to have a quality of exactness and ease.

Are exactness and ease in prose concerned with the Necessary and Casual in the world itself? Does good prose go after that immediate double-presence in indivisibility of the Necessary and Casual that is in existence itself? The answer, as the Theory of Opposites sees it, is: How else?

Something False

Mr. Clutton-Brock does not like the taste people have for the falsely necessary, for "clamorous sublimities." I am sure that if "sublimities" were natural, not clamorous, Mr. Clutton-Brock wouldn't object. We have these words:

We are not yet a public of readers civilized enough to demand the highest virtues of prose; we prefer "clamorous sublimities" and phrases that ask to be noticed; we must be urged through a book by the crack of the writer's whip. [P. 849]

It is interesting that Mr. Clutton-Brock should have said, "We must be urged through a book by the crack of the writer's whip"—for the necessary in prose is close to the urgent, the compelling, the mastering. However, there is the falsely necessary, the spuriously urgent, the hollowly compelling. The problem of terror and ease is in prose and its judgment: as it is in our lives.

In good prose, the necessary and casual are one, and terror and ease are one. Not only are love and justice one in good prose, but love and the frightening. How love and the frightening are one is chiefly for the prose of the future, but already in the Bible and Pascal and Dostoevsky and James and Rabelais love and the frightening—related to the casual and necessary—have been instantly together.
Prose has a complex future. It is difficult to write of the complex future of prose without sounding a bit complex oneself.

Wandering & Advancing

In the last passage I quote from Mr. Clutton-Brock's essay, we have rather clearly the statement that opposites are one in the art of prose:

Yet still one dreams of a prose that has never yet been written in English, though the language is made for it and there are minds not incapable of it, a prose dealing with the greatest things quietly and justly as men deal with them in their secret meditations, seeming perhaps to wander, but always advancing in an unbroken sequence of thought, with a controlled ardour of discovery and the natural beauties of a religious mind. [P. 849]

When Mr. Clutton-Brock says in this passage that prose may "wander" as it "advance[es]" and that still it is an "unbroken sequence," he is exceedingly close to saying that prose is casual and necessary at once.

"Wandering" and "advancing" are an aspect of casual and necessary; there are other aspects. In his essay, Mr. Clutton-Brock seems to be more for sharpness, plainness, hardness, and keenness in prose, less for wideness, softness, suggestion, haze, decorativeness, and such things.

However, a form of the necessary and casual is the Mist and the Blade, Vagueness and Immediacy, the Unseen and the Mistakable. (The Theory of Opposites takes the right to use capital letters at any time for whatever seemly purpose.)

Here prose is like the other arts, for every art goes after wideness, largeness, meaning as it deals with the immediate, the sharp, the specific.

For example, in the essay on Giorgione in The Renaissance, Pater chiefly writes of the mingling of clarity and wide, subtle suggestion in the Venetian painter. The quality Pater finds in Giorgione is in this passage from Pater's consideration of the painter:

The harsher details of the mountains recede to a harmonious distance, the one peak of rich blue above the horizon remaining but as the visible warrant of that coolness which is all we need ask here of the Alps, with their dark rains and streams. ²

In these words about mountains are the visible and the suggested, the sharp and unseen, the immediate and what is beyond. A mountain, seen, yet in vagueness, is about prose in its assertion and suggestion; it can stand, too, for Giorgione and painting.

And There Is Balzac

Balzac, writing the short story "Jesus Christ in Flanders ," calls likewise—and somewhat unexpectedly—for the contrast of the splendid and plain in prose and art. As quoted by Geoffroy Atkinson in the fifth volume of Les Idées de Balzac, the indefatigable one has time to say:

Human creations require powerful contrasts. And artists ordinarily demand of nature her most brilliant phenomena, doubtless in despair of producing great and beautiful poetry from her ordinary demeanor, even though the human soul is often as deeply stirred in calm as in motion, and by silence as much as by the tempest.³

When Balzac says that we can be moved in "calm" as in "motion," by "silence" as by "the tempest," he is saying that Rest and Motion, the Necessary and Casual have the same purpose; are one in art.

This means that rest and motion, necessity and casualness, serenity and intensity are one in prose. And Mr. Arthur Clutton-Brock's important essay, "The Defects of English Prose," goes along.

. As quoted in Victorian Literature, ed. Ernest Bernbaum (NY: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1935), p. 844.

2 As quoted in The Bibelot, ed. Thomas B. Mosher (NY: Wm. H. Wise & Co., 1898), IV, 313.

3 (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1950), V, 103. Throughout our serialization, passages quoted by Mr. Siegel in the original French are given in translation.