The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Space, Matter, & Our Own Emotions

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to begin serializing Poetry and Space, a lecture Eli Siegel gave in 1949. It is great in its literary criticism and its kind, rich understanding of people.

Space, of course, is part of the physical world. Yet we have feelings about it all the time. Those feelings can have joy with them, and ease; also agitation and even terror; and much in between. Space, as Mr. Siegel explains, is in all art. It can be seen as having two opposites: one is time; the other, perhaps even more fundamentally an opposite of space, is matter. And this principle of Aesthetic Realism certainly includes space and matter, space and time: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Mr. Siegel says that in this talk it’s not his purpose to deal extensively with how people “use space,” what we do with it in our thoughts. Yet he does explain very much about those thoughts: he makes sense of things no one else has been able to, and he does this as he deals with poetry, including poetry by Shakespeare and Whitman.

Anger Is about Matter & Space

The principles of Aesthetic Realism itself are the means to understand that rich, intricate, fierce, subtle array of feelings each individual has about the opposites of matter and space. Every person, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, has, all the time, an attitude to the world itself, and this attitude to the world is present in everything we do and every emotion we have, including about space and matter. For example, in another lecture Mr. Siegel spoke about those opposites in relation to anger—the kind of anger that’s unjust and hurtful. “Wherever there is anger,” he said, “we feel there is an obstruction to what we want to do,” and matter, being physically obstructive, can stand, to us, for a world that obstructs us, interferes with our desires, gets in our way. If we dislike the world, he explained,

to have to deal with matter constantly, to have to walk on it even, let alone bump into it, is displeasing, outrageous, humiliating, undesirable, angering. Space is looked for....That is why certain pretty terrible people called pyromaniacs like to burn up places. They think that in changing the world into space they are conquering. A good way of symbolizing anger is: I’ll pulverize you; I’ll smash you to smithereens! If you crush something indefinitely, you change it into space.

...So space, being seen as nothing, would be the one non-angering thing. Anything that is looked on as an interruption is seen as insulting, because part of us can’t take the idea that there can be an interruption to ourselves. And that which we live by, or matter, is a big interruption. [Poetry and Anger, TRO 962]

In those sentences, Mr. Siegel is explaining why a person today can smash his fist against a wall, break a window—even damage an electronic device by using one’s fingers on it with undue forcefulness.

The sentences also explain an attraction that has been a source of enormous grief. It’s because a person dislikes the world, feels it to be obstructive—something impeding, shackling, weighing one down—that drugs and alcohol can have a potent allure. Through these, one seems no longer bogged down, but in space. Even the idiomatic terms getting high and flying stand for a certain escape from obstructive matter into that space in which one’s ego can loll and gambol, where one is not beleaguered by the need to recognize the existence of anything.

Contempt or Respect—the Battle Is There

How we feel about space and matter has mightily to do with that fight which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the largest in everyone’s life: the constant fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it. Let’s take a dramatic trouble of mind, which Mr. Siegel refers to swiftly in this first section of Poetry and Space: the fear “of being closed in,” or claustrophobia. What I’ll say about it is not meant to sum up its cause; but through Aesthetic Realism, which describes the self as fundamentally aesthetic and ethical, we can see the following:

A person may feel the world of happenings, people, things to understand—the wide world outside her—is not good enough for her. She has contempt for it, and feels a cozy enclosed world she can make within herself, where she can get rid of people and things and be regally immured, is far superior. But unknowingly she hates herself for that choice—because her largest desire, the purpose of her very life, is to like that unlimited outside world. Unless she can criticize herself clearly for the choice she made, she’ll punish herself painfully for it. She may use a symbol to do so—be terrified of closed-in places. When she’s in or near one, she feels panicky, desperate for space. The reason is: these physical situations symbolize the fake, contemptuous victory she has gotten in her mind—the victory of closed-in superior apartness.

A less dramatic approach to space and matter is in the popular phrase “I need my own space.” Certainly there can be value in being alone—if one uses being alone to be fair to the people and things of reality. But the phrase “I need my own space” usually has a tincture of scorn with it—for example, as a wife uses it in relation to her husband. What she means is, “Having to be so much aware of you, affected by your presence, doesn’t take care of me! You are obstructive. I have to get rid, for a while at least, of you—and humanity.” This approach (often recommended by therapists and counselors) does have in it a big failure of self: the failure to feel that being vividly aware of what’s not me is the same as caring for myself.

America: Matter & Space

As our nation today is in the midst of so much tumult, it moves me to say that America, topographically and deeply, is one of the most beautiful joinings of matter and space that have ever existed. America is matter as land, including mountains, plains, and the earth that has become city streets; it is matter as buildings, growing things, items manufactured, items used, human beings with bodies; and all these have space within and around them, including that space which is within blue sky. The oneness of matter and space, Mr. Siegel pointed out, is in America with an immense variety-in-unity that is unsurpassed. And this is one of the reasons he wrote in a poem: “America is the poetry of topography deep in time.”

To whom should the matter and space which is America, and the matter and space which is the world, belong: to only a few people predominantly, or to everyone? This is the insistent question of our time. And the authentic answer to it is given by Mr. Siegel in his book Self and World:

The world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs. [P. 270]

An aspect of all people’s right to “liv[e] in a world truly theirs” has to do with an ever so fundamental oneness of matter and space: a home. All architecture is clearly space and matter, and a home is. It is shameful that in this beautiful land more than half a million men, women, and children do not have a home at all, and millions of others live in “homes” that are wretched and demeaning. That will change when the economy of our nation is based on respect for people and for the American land, instead of what it’s now based on: contempt, seeing a person in terms of how much profit can be made from her or him.

Space and matter, then, are about justice. They are about the feelings of every person. And they are in all art. Eli Siegel was fair to these—justice, people, art—always. And in the paragraphs that follow, we meet some of that fairness now.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Poetry and Space

By Eli Siegel

The relation to last week’s talk, “Poetry and Unity,” is that space is one of the obvious and inescapable unifying things. Time is also unifying.

A question that can be asked is whether anything isn’t in space. Sometimes people have said it is hard to see such a thing as justice in space. Where is justice, and where is memory, and where is hope? How can you say that hope is in space in the way that a cupboard is, or a stone, or a gazelle? But it can’t be proved that there is anything which isn’t in space. And anything which has everything in it is surely unified. Space, therefore, is something we can’t get away from. We all have an attitude to it, and if we are against things it is likely that we play tricks with space.

One of the purposes of poetry is to be fair to space. Another purpose is to be fair to matter. Poetry just goes around being fair.

Space can be defined as the universe or existence or reality thought of as not having any weight at all—and for that matter, as not having any form at all, because as soon as there is form there must be something that makes form. So the universe without weight or form would be space. And anything seen as permitting motion without any interference at all could be seen as space. We have space around us, but we also have space in us.

Space is a big technical problem in poetry because, just as in music what occurs between notes is a part of the music, so what occurs between words—the pauses—is a part of the poetic method. The light quality, the fact that some things are comparatively not solid in relation to others, the presence of nothing, in painting, in poetry, in music, is desirable and constant.

It happens that as we talk we go for space and also for closing in. It’s quite obvious that when a child says “oo” she is using space or affirming space much more than if she said “eh.” And it is also quite obvious that the letter w has more space than a letter like t.

Space is inescapable. It can be seen as the absence of obstruction, the absence of weight, but even the absence of definite form, and we all have an attitude to it. The reason why in the early days of studying mind it was found people were afraid of being closed in, and also afraid of much space, is that these things are pretty fundamental. We have feelings about space in relation to us. We accept space and have to ask ourselves, What are we doing in it, and is it ours?

I am not now talking about how people use space. But to show that it is present in all poetry and that persons have taken an attitude to it, I’ll read two short things of Shakespeare.

There Are Space & Death

In Measure for Measure Shakespeare has a very famous speech about death, and this speech shows a fear of space. It also shows a fear of obstruction, being closed in. It is the speech of Claudio when his sister tells him to be courageous and prefer honor to life—and Claudio doesn’t want to die. Most people haven’t wanted to die, the great majority haven’t, and I’m not sure about the minority. This is Claudio in act 3, scene 1 of Measure for Measure:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent world; or to be worse than worst

Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts

Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!

The weariest and most loathed worldly life

That age, ache, penury and imprisonment

Can lay on nature is a paradise

To what we fear of death.

This fear of death has taken quite a few forms. There is the seeing of death as “To lie in cold obstruction and to rot”: that is, some sort of closing in, and no motion at all. It is the going from “sensible warm motion to become / A kneaded clod”: an absence of activity.

Then there is something else: “To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside / In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice.” “To bathe in fiery floods” is quite different from being a “kneaded clod.” With “to reside / In...thick-ribbed ice” there is a feeling of cold—and where space cannot be welcomed there is a big chill, though ice is not the same as space.

Then there is a tremendous motion. After “To be imprison’d in the viewless winds”—which means winds that cannot be seen—we have “And blown with restless violence round about / The pendent world.” This is quite different from obstruction. Here one is being blown about and having no place at all. And space can terrify because there doesn’t seem to be any foothold in it.

Then we have something nearer to the customary notion of what may follow death: “or to be worse than worst / Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts / Imagine howling.” Here there is the pain of hell.

“The weariest and most loathed worldly life /... /... is a paradise / To what we fear of death.” Some people have said any kind of life is better than no life at all.

This description is a pretty fearful thing. It is, as I have tried to show, contradictory. But people can’t make any sense out of death. On the one hand, there does seem to be some sort of fixity, and on the other, there is a feeling of nowhere, and both can be terrifying. Shakespeare was affected by these two things, because we have to make some sense out of being fixed and also out of being whirled about.

Space, Freedom—& Somewhere

The Tempest is sometimes called the last of Shakespeare’s comedies. It is thought to be his swan song, in which he threw down his wand (as Prospero does), and then went back to Stratford and became a landowner and had a nice time, though a short time, as a respected owner of real estate in Stratford who had made good in London.

This song from The Tempest is quite different from Claudio’s speech, but it is about the same problem of much space and wanting to have a place. Space and place are opposed. Space is just anywhere. Place is somewhere as against anywhere. Ariel is the free aspect of humanity; the kind, lightsome aspect. Ariel is a benevolent anarchist, the anarchist who thinks nice things. He wants to be free, but he has a lesson in kindness through Prospero before he is free; he helps Ferdinand and Miranda. In act 5, scene 1 he sings this:

Where the bee sucks, there suck I:

In a cowslip’s bell I lie;

There I couch, when owls do cry:

On the bat’s back I do fly

After summer merrily.

Merrily, merrily, shall I live now,

Under the blossom that hangs on the bough!

Here the two desires of people are shown: to roam about freely, to deal with matter successfully; and the desire also to feel that there is a somewhere for us.

“Where the bee sucks, there suck I”: that is being very definite, because the bee is a rather definite beast. “In a cowslip’s bell I lie”: and that is definite, because Ariel seems to be very much at home in the cowslip’s bell. He is placed. “There I couch, when owls do cry”: he finds a nice home in this flower and doesn’t mind the owls.

But then he also speeds so nicely: “On the bat’s back I do fly / After summer merrily.” This is real motion.

“Merrily, merrily, shall I live now.” This line has space, a round quality, and also a definiteness. The line, because of its music—with its speed, which implies space, and also its roundness, which implies space—is an attempt to deal with the problem of how to be in the utmost motion with the utmost place feeling, the utmost point-permanence. “Under the blossom that hangs on the bough!”

This is a turmoil. Claudio’s speech was a turmoil, or turbulence and unsettledness; but here the turmoil is for the joy of things.

These two bits from Shakespeare are about the same thing: how to deal with the everlasting problem of wanting solidity and yet desiring to see solidity as an interference. Matter is an interference with space, but space can be called an interference with matter.

Matter somehow comes out of the same thing that space does, but just how is a big thing. The only answer is that reality is that which has in it the utmost emptiness and the utmost fullness. This would mean reality is also the utmost in idealism and the utmost in materialism—because if emptiness and fullness can be shown to be one, there is no reason why idealism, which after all is indispensably empty, can’t be at one with materialism, fullness. —Well, that is Shakespeare.