The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Real Love Is Like History

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 5 of Eli Siegel’s great 1949 lecture Poetry and History. And here too is an article by filmmaker and Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman. It is a portion of a paper he presented this summer at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Which Goes Wrong —Love or the Lover?” 

So we have, in this TRO, love and history. I love how Aesthetic Realism sees both subjects. The way Mr. Siegel spoke and wrote about history made the wide, tumultuous past have the warmth that one associates with love. And he showed that if love between two people does not have the respect for the world in its largeness which history stands for, it is not love. 

This principle, stated by Mr. Siegel, is true about both love and history: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." For example, history is infinitely specific and infinitely inclusive at once. To look at a happening in the American Revolution (say in Brooklyn, in the summer of 1776), is to look at that happening, as sheerly itself. Yet the sheerly particular setback of George Washington at Brooklyn Heights in late August 1776 is joined, in history, by incalculable other happenings and feelings —including the tribulations of Cleopatra, the games children played in China in the year 810, the fluttering of a leaf on a Parisian tree in 1234. And in some fashion, Washington’s difficulty in Brooklyn is related to all of them. 

In the present section of the lecture, Mr. Siegel refers to his poem “This Is History.” It says, with rich music and logic, something about history as at once specific and inclusive. This poem of 1926 begins: 

When rose petals, sometimes in night, go down through the air of night to  grassed earth, green earth, 

History is being made, history is not adequate without the doings of roses.

In his note to the poem, in his collection Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968), there are these sentences: 

The falling of rose petals in night stands for a big thing in the life of man: Leaving. That a rose petal should leave a rose is like Charles V when he abdicated as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. 

History: A Guide to Love

Aesthetic Realism says further: the way history is specific and inclusive is how love should be! If we truly love a person, we want to comprehend and strengthen that person in his terrific particularity —but we also want, through that person, to be more keenly aware of, and to care more for, the whole world of men and women and happenings. Usually love, as it exists on dates and in homes, is not that oneness of specificity and inclusiveness, and therefore the romantic feelings people have about each other fade swiftly, and change to something dull, angry, bitter. Aesthetic Realism is that which explains, after all the centuries, what makes people fail in love—and what has interfered with every aspect of life throughout human history. It is contempt.

Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the thing in people that is anti-inclusiveness. It says, “The way to be Me is to see myself as unrelated to other things: my importance is in my being able to look down on things, feel superior to them.” From contempt has come every cruelty and, really, every stupidity. 

Contempt is completely opposed to the desire that has humanity be interested in history at all. To say, as Herodotus did, and Thucydides did, and Gibbon did, “Things that happened long ago have meaning for me, for us, and I want to understand them and also tell of them justly”—this arises from what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the deepest and most beautiful desire we have: the desire to like the world.

And Aesthetic Realism explains that love has failed because people do not go after love as a means of liking the world. They want love, not as a means to be more inclusive of persons and things, but as a means of getting rid of the world and feeling superior to it. A woman tonight will not think about a man the way Gibbon thought about the history of Rome: as something to see exactly and also to see as having tremendous scope, and relation, and nuance. She will see this man, Pete, as someone existing to make her important and to show she’s better than the rest of reality. Years ago, in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel put in a succinct and beautiful sentence the mistake I was making with a man—the mistake human beings have made about love. He said, “You used Mr. V to create a world somewhat apart from the world Aesthetic Realism tries to honor.” I thank Mr. Siegel, with all my life, for teaching me to try to honor the world of history, words, and humanity, including with a man; and for showing that to do so is the same as romance, intelligence, and happiness. 

Words That History Asks For

Since this TRO about history and love contains an article by Emmy award-winning filmmaker Ken Kimmelman, I comment on his most recent public service film, in relation to history. That film is the greatly moving What Does a Person Deserve?—about homelessness and hunger, and about the one real solution to them. It is now being shown on major television stations throughout America, and in movie theatres. It has music by Edward Green. And the matter concerning history that I am speaking about is whether the question and statement by Eli Siegel that one sees in this film are what history has gone toward and is asking for. 

The people whom we see in the photographs that comprise Mr. Kimmelman’s film ask for money in order to eat, are in a soup kitchen, reach for something desired in a public garbage pail; yet they all, through how they are presented, have immense dignity. And before and after photographs that quietly shake us, is this question by Mr. Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being alive?”

The statement that we read, at the film’s end, after seeing men, women, children without homes, and also a vast field of American wheat blowing in the wind, is from Mr. Siegel’s Self and World:

The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs. 

That question, “What does a person deserve by being alive?,” is the most necessary question in all of history. From its not being asked has come all the brutality of the world. The honest asking of it is the one thing that will stop injustice. It is also, Mr. Siegel has shown, the one thing that will have the world’s economy be efficient. 

In the statement with which the film concludes, Mr. Siegel has described what every person fundamentally deserves; what human beings have been and will be angry until they get. He has described what people across our nation want now and could be given gracefully and proudly—an America “truly theirs.” 

Eli Siegel, in his honesty and courage, was the greatest friend to history. He spoke for it, and will be loved by it forever. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Ordinary Is History

By Eli Siegel

Take some other poems that deal with ordinary things, and yet are history.* This is a 7th-century Japanese poem, by Hioki no Ko-Okima: 

On the shore of Nawa

The smoke of the saltburners, 

When evening comes, 

Failing to get across, 

Trails over the mountain.

That was a happening: the smoke of the saltburners couldn’t get across, so it trailed. It was a happening. If we read about it, then something of what it was becomes ours. 

History has been going more and more after the ordinary. Right now, a history will accent the kind of buttons on the button-shoes of children in 1880. It will deal with things that once were thought to be below the dignity of history. So this also is history. As I have said in a poem, the falling of a rose petal in the night is history. Anything that happens, and can be felt, is the field of history. The organization of it has to be poetry. 

Another poem, which is Japanese, is the following, by Hitomaro: 

On the moor of Kasuga

The rising of smoke is visible.

The women surely

Must have plucked lettuces on the spring moor and must be boiling them.

So we have a little about the boiling of lettuces of the 8th century in Japan. That is history. It is also a poem. I cannot at this time say as much as I’d like why it is a poem. 

Another Japanese poem of ancient times is the following, anonymous: 

When the dawn comes

With the flicker flicker

Of sunrise,

How sad the helping each other to put on our clothes!

What this gets down is the feeling, very often the moody feeling, that people have 
had in getting up in the morning and putting on their clothes. That is history too. Poetry mentions it; but history, if it knows what it is, will accept it. 

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Why Love Goes Wrong

By Ken Kimmelman

Even as I felt driven to women and hoped to fall in love, I came to feel, as many men have, that there’s really no such thing as true love. Eli Siegel saw what every lover needs to learn: the purpose of love is to like the world.

But men have another purpose which is completely opposed to love’s succeeding. When a man thinks, as I once did, that a woman exists to make him important, adore, and serve him, he is impelled by contempt, not love. 

A Mistake Begins Early

“What has happened in the life of man,” Eli Siegel writes, 

is that his disgust and his respect have had different purposes often .... As soon as a feeling “for” is not at one with a feeling “against,” that much our beings miss integrity: we are two persons, not in the best arrangement. [TRO 211] 

That is an accurate description of my state of mind as I was growing up in Washington Heights, New York. I used what I felt were my keen observations to see my mother as hypocritical. For example, she would act friendly to company but when they left, close the door and say, “Thank God! I thought they’d never leave!” Then we would talk together and give each other the message that we were hurt by others and made of finer stuff than they were. Every drawing or painting of mine was a guaranteed hit with my mother: “It’s a masterpiece,” she would say. Sometimes I’d get angry and object, “You hardly looked at it!” And she would say, “With your talent, how could it be bad!” While I lapped up her praise, I thought she was foolish and insincere. It never occurred to me how insincere and political I was. 

This mix-up in me between disgust and care, for and against, continued in all my relations with women, making love go wrong time and again. I’d fall head over heels; then, in a short time—sometimes in the same evening—want to have nothing to do with the girl. I remember getting all dressed up to take Paula Engels out to a fancy dinner and a movie. I was very impressed with her. But that evening I drove her home in my red Plymouth convertible—and when she got out of the car, I waved goodbye and drove off without another word. I remember the look on her face as I saw her, in the rear-view mirror, standing there dumbfounded. At first I felt triumphant; but within moments I was slapping my face. I said to myself, “How could you do such a mean thing?!” I had no answer.

I Learned Why Love Didn’t Succeed

I am enormously grateful that at a time in my 20s when I was in a painful relation with another woman, I had an Aesthetic Realism lesson with Mr. Siegel and learned what was holding up my life. He asked, “Do you believe your intent, say, with your mother, was good?” “No, it wasn’t good,” I answered. He continued, “Let’s be scientific. The reason that emotional things don’t work is because there are two purposes. One is to give value to the object, and the other is to deny it. Did you try to revere something while trying to have contempt?” 

I had. And Mr. Siegel explained, “This happens to be the customary thing. Now, Aesthetic Realism says that can’t work. It’s a little bit like trying to drive a car and also keep it in a ditch. It can never work. While your intent is not clear, there can never be the success you want. And do you believe that your purpose has been to make a very ingenious arrangement of despising your mother and revering her?” “Absolutely,” I replied. 

“What would be the result?” Mr. Siegel asked. “Things go wrong because there has been a huddle of opposites. People think you can have one motive and then have another motive on the same point. Motives can be one, surely, but not the way people have them....For instance, you can criticize a person and care for that person; but you can’t want to despise a person and at the same time want to revere that person. There are some things that are incompatible.” 

Through this lesson I was able to see the true cause of where I went wrong. And I’m very glad, too, that my mother, Ida Kimmelman, wrote to Mr. Siegel, telling him how grateful she was to Aesthetic Realism for making me a kinder son. 

This lesson is part of the tremendous education I have received in my study of Aesthetic Realism. Because of it, I now have true love—in my marriage to Marcia Rackow. My purpose has changed! The difference between wanting to know a woman, wanting to have her stronger, in a more just relation to the world, rather than trying to own and weaken her for my cheap glory, is the difference between self-respect and self-loathing, kindness and meanness. It is true pleasure instead of dismal pain!

*Mr. Siegel read these poems from the Van Doren Anthology of World Poetry. The translations are by Arthur Waley