The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Reading, Anger, & Beauty

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 3 of the great 1972 lecture Reading Itself Has to Do with Poetry, by Eli Siegel. He is showing that not only the works one might read but the very process of reading is described in 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.” Looking at passages from the book Good Reading, edited by J.S. Weber, he speaks about spontaneity and order, wandering and point, freedom and plan—opposites that are one in poetry and all art. They are our opposites too, are in us all the time—so often in a way that confuses us, brings us turmoil, has us dislike ourselves.

Here too is part of a paper by Matthew D’Amico, from a recent public seminar titled What Do Men Need Most to Know about Their Anger? He illustrates this fact: Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that explains anger. It enables us to distinguish between anger that’s good, strengthening, kind, intelligent and anger that’s hurtful, stupid, cruel, shame-making—and enables a person to stop having the latter. The difference depends centrally on this: is the purpose of our anger to respect the world or to have contempt for it?

In the part of the lecture included here, Mr. Siegel speaks briefly about Sappho. And so, to join further the two sections of this TRO, I am going to quote a poem of hers that has anger in it. The poem consists of four lines.

It is thought that Sappho led an educational circle or school in, likely, the 6th century bc. And in this poem there is anger that a person did not care for knowledge, did not go after having feeling for art and beauty. The word Pierian refers to Pieria, a place associated, in mythology, with poetry and the Muses. I use the translation of Willis Barnstone, who gives the poem the title “To an Uneducated Woman”:

When dead you will lie forever forgotten,

for you have no claim to the Pierian roses.

Dim here, you will move more dimly in Hell,

flitting among the undistinguished dead.

Through the translation, something of the beauty of Sappho’s Greek lines comes to us. There is a sharpness, even a fierceness, in the sound of these lines, and yet that severity is at one with tenderness, with sound that murmurs and rustles. The last line describes something terrible: “flitting among the undistinguished dead.” Yet there are wonder and subtlety in how that terrible thing is said; through the line’s music, the emptiness told of becomes tactual, is at one with meaning.

Sappho, millennia ago, was using anger to see meaning in the world, to respect and like the world. That, Aesthetic Realism shows, is how all emotion should be used; it’s what life, education—and reading—are for.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Opposites as We Read

By Eli Siegel

In the next sentence we have the opposites flagrantly. And they are phases of what I’ve already talked about: randomness and planning, spontaneity and determination, expansion and keenness. There are many other ways of putting it—to-the-point and roaming. The eye is like that. The eye, in reading, has a tendency to roam and also get to a point. The motion of the eyeball has been studied in relation to both painting and reading. But we have the main opposites in this sentence:

Try to do your reading in an attitude of easy relaxation combined with alert concentration. [P. 17]

Which means: try to be poetic in your reading. You’re going to relax and concentrate, and anytime you do that you’re in the field of Homer.

The language is somewhat careless: “alert concentration.” It would be hard to say just what non-alert concentration is. However, once you’re alert you have something to see, and if you’re right in seeing it you should keep on looking.

In another sentence we have the athletics of reading. This reminds me of all the football players of a team skipping rope, getting to be in condition:

The ideal is to read easily, swiftly, skipping past greatly detailed passages but with attention alert to note and retain important points. [P. 17]

You’re going to “skip” but also “retain.” The idea is to read “easily” and “swiftly”—but at a certain point you can’t feel easy if you’re after swiftness. And how are you going to notice whether there are “greatly detailed passages” while reading “easily” and “swiftly”? Also, there’s the matter of: who gives you the right to skip? The author very often feels that what you may want to skip is important. Then, you’re skipping but you still have your “attention alert to note and retain important points.” That really is a lot of doing. Meanwhile, the sentence is a most unusual one, because it puts together gymnastics or the activity of the athletic field or dance floor, with mind.

Reading & Speed

There has been a great to-do about reading fast and retaining what you read and having full understanding. I’m still looking for decisive proof of such a thing. Let us take the poems of Sappho. They could be put in just a few pages, and they are very simple: for instance, somebody is in bed and saying I feel lonely; in the meantime there’s some awareness of the sky. It’s said very simply—but the large thing is that the Greek is of a certain kind. You can get the “meaning” of the poem very quickly, because Sappho is not obscure. She happens to be subtle magnificently. If you want to see what the poem is “about,” Sappho could be read before lunch and it wouldn’t cut in on your lunchtime too much. But there’s a kind of reading which goes after something. And what is that which one should go after? It’s a little in a phrase in my poem “Familiar Mad Heroine,” the phrase about literature’s coming “from a nervous devil, who knows what two syllables can do going with three.”

We have this sentence:

An important discovery of recent years is that, up to a point, the faster you read the better you remember.

I’m not sure how well that has been proved. I remember once reading something in a great hurry and not remembering anything. People do forget a great deal—everyone is chagrined by how much they forget. You begin seeing you’re not a perfect instrument when you think of all the things that meant a great deal to you which you’re now oblivious of. There are many instances of a person’s looking at something and saying, Well, that isn’t so bad—then finding out he wrote it.

If you know you are a slow reader, try pushing yourself to read faster by searching for key phrases and forcing yourself to skim past minor matters.

You’re supposed to concentrate on “key” ideas and not get bogged down by details. Of course not. But what is a detail and what is a key idea? Take the sentence The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog (which was used to practice typing). You have some adjectives; you have two nouns and one verb. But what’s the key idea?

What Is Minor?

“Try pushing yourself to read faster by searching for key phrases.” I have a notion that people who are going to search for key phrases might slow up. “Skim past minor matters.” Once more, what’s a minor matter? It’s a little as though Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice is saying, “In such a night / Stood Dido with a willow in her hand” and you cut him off: I know—it was a very pleasant night.

One of the things that used to be said about a lovely phrase or line of poetry was you can roll it on your tongue indefinitely, and the advice about fast reading seems against that. It’s a bit like saying, Don’t smack your lips—it wastes time. Then we have this concession:

Sometimes, however, it is well to go back and reread a passage, either because you did not quite grasp it, or because it said something so well that you want to enjoy it again and impress it on your memory.

“Sometimes, however, it is well to...reread a passage.” Yes, it is well. Then the question is, are you supposed to reread it at the same speed?

“You want to...impress it on your memory.” That used to be done in offices a great deal—a statement would be on a sign. There used to be a phrase in 1909, Time not lost is money earned. It’s not a great sentence, but it used to be there and you saw it every day.


What Should We Know about Anger?

By Matthew D’Amico

It was my 11th birthday and my mother had arranged a lively party, with friends, good food, and a delicious birthday cake. Yet after the festivities in my honor, I was sullen. “What’s the matter?” she asked. “Nothing,” I said curtly, kicking the floor. After some prodding by her to find out what was wrong, I said, “You forgot to sing ‘Happy Birthday.’” I could see my mother felt bad, but I felt inwardly triumphant being angry about this big “injustice” done to me. The fact that I and others had had a good time went out the door. This was like other angers of mine: I’d look to be hurt; but in my triumph I’d feel ashamed.

People all over America are tormented by the fact that they get angry quickly, fly into a rage, and later feel very bad. Then there’s a true anger in people about how they are used economically. They’re furious that they can’t find work, and that, if they do have a job, they still have a hard time putting food on the table.

I’m grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that there are two kinds of anger, and there’s a criterion for what makes anger right or wrong. In his magnificent lecture Aesthetic Realism and Anger, Eli Siegel explains:

In a good anger we are fighting for the beauty of the world. In a bad anger we don’t give a damn about the beauty of the world. The anger that is good is really an anger that is the desire to be pleased. But the anger that is bad is the desire to see the world as bad. [TRO 896]

Anger, Early

Growing up in New York City, I liked learning in school about history. I got a thrill when we read about people who fought for justice, including Martin Luther King and others who fought the horrible institution of segregation in the South. Their intense anger took a beautiful form in direct action, and learning about the brutal injustice they were opposing made me angry in a way I was proud of.

But I had another kind of anger. As a child, I used the fact that I got sick a lot and was small for my age to feel unfortunate and to be angry at a world I felt had made me that way. The adults around me often showed their concern for me. They worked hard to have me eat well and like things, and I used this to feel I should be catered to. When someone questioned me or didn’t readily agree with me, I had angry thoughts and sulked. Often my anger was inward, because I felt to show emotion was uncouth. But I’d have thoughts about getting into fights with people, including children who didn’t show me the deference I felt was coming to me.

There were also times my anger took an outward form. When I was on a local softball team I’d yell and curse if we lost, once even tearing my baseball cap in pieces. I saw the whole world as ugly because my team didn’t win.

My inaccurate anger, whether inward or outward, had results. I felt cold, felt I couldn’t have large feeling for things and people. And I often felt very unsure in social situations. But so fortunately, I was able to learn from Aesthetic Realism what all young people deserve to be learning: that our deepest desire is honestly to like the world, be fair to it—including to the feelings of other people.

In an Aesthetic Realism consultation I had as I was beginning middle school, I spoke about a boy I was competitive with, whom I’ll call Anton. He was better than I was in sports, and good at math and science, subjects that were not my forte. Also, the girls in our class showed a great fondness for him. Playing baseball or touch football in the schoolyard, I’d get angry when Anton did something well, like make a great catch or run faster than I did. I’d imagine getting into a fistfight with him, and winning. My consultants asked, “How did you feel as you were having these thoughts?” “Big and important,” I answered. “Do you associate being angry, putting someone in his place swiftly, with power?” I did.

They wanted me to see that I could make a different choice, that I had a wrong notion of what would make me strong. “Do you think,” they asked, “there’s another kind of power you’re after?” And about Anton: “Are you at all like him or just different?” “Different,” I said. They explained that not to see a person as having feelings as real and full as your own is contempt, and enables you to be cruel.

Then my consultants asked: “Do you think there is strength in reading a book?” “I’m not sure,” I said. And they described how being truly affected by the words in a book, the feelings of characters, adds to a person’s mind, makes him larger and stronger.

Consultants. If a person couldn’t read, couldn’t take in words and have large emotions, would he seem strong to you?

MD’A. No, he wouldn’t.

Consultants. Is this related to seeing the feelings of Anton? Instead of being angry with him, would you be stronger seeing your relation to him?

They asked if there were things we both liked. And to my surprise I readily said, “We both like to play catch with our gloves and throw the ball as far as we can to each other. We both like to talk about our favorite rock bands. And we both like eating pizza.” I was beginning to see Anton with more fullness, as more like me—and my competitive anger stopped.

My consultants asked me to think about Abraham Lincoln, and to compare his anger against slavery to the anger I had. I saw that Lincoln’s anger was large and passionate and came from his hope to have the world itself more beautiful and just. Seeing this had me realize that my anger was small and mean, and that therefore it made me dislike myself.

Young people everywhere are thirsting for this knowledge. There is a great deal of anger in young people today. Some is at adults who play fast and loose with truth and the facts. Meanwhile, feeling the world is a confusing mess, a young person can justify a wrong anger—anger based on contempt—which can have grave consequences.

Knowing versus Anger in Fatherhood

As a father now, I feel very fortunate that my Aesthetic Realism education continues. I’ll tell about a discussion in a class for consultants and associates that took place when my son, Sebastian, who’s now 11, was just 2.

I wanted my child to “behave” and do as I told him, and in the class I said I got angry when he threw things on the floor. I’d bellow, “Pick up your blocks and put them away!” I felt I needed to be strict and severe in order to stop this behavior, but I didn’t like myself for how I was. Ellen Reiss, the Chairman of Education, asked me: “As you describe this situation, do you think about how much your desire to know is present or not present? If you are going to be strict with your son, should you want to know what’s affecting him? Also, if you are going to be gentle, do you have to want to know?” I saw I hadn’t been interested in that. “I go with my first reaction,” I answered; “I get angry too quickly.”

Ms. Reiss asked, “What does one really think of oneself for wanting to manage a person but not know him? How important do you think wanting to know is?” To encourage me to see Sebastian more deeply, she asked if there were any words he liked to say. I responded: “He likes the word apple—although he doesn’t really pronounce the l sound quite right.” And she pointed out, truly, “As you describe that there’s a tinge of scorn.” Then she asked, with kind critical humor, “Do you want to say, ‘Sebastian, I’m better than you—I can say every syllable in apple. I can say more words. I can say ellipse and parabola’? You’re more nervous and less free because you don’t want to know sufficiently what your son feels.”

Today, as I speak with Sebastian—about school, what he’s learning, his care for basketball and drawing, and what he feels—I have a much greater desire to know. And it has made for an increasingly deep friendship between us.

I’m grateful, too, that as a political coordinator for a labor union that represents public and private sector workers throughout New York, I want to know the feelings of the people I represent. I’m proud of the work I do, and have an anger that’s in behalf of these workers, who are often seen unjustly, threatened with layoffs, or forced to work under dangerous conditions. With me always is this important question asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” I’m proud of my anger at those persons who are trying to have unions not exist in our country—which means trying to condemn millions to lives of poverty.

Aesthetic Realism brings sanity to the subject of anger, and is needed by all the people of every nation.