The Best in Us—and the Worst
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are honored to print an introduction that Eli Siegel wrote nearly 25 years ago for a public seminar conducted by the Aesthetic Realism consultation trio The Kindest Art. The seminar was titled “Is the Drive to Art Different from the Personal Drive?” This short introduction. with its beautiful sentences, is about two things not understood before Aesthetic Realism, in all the centuries of art criticism and thought about life: 1) what impels a true artist?; 2) how is the artist’s great, sane, sensible, kind purpose different from the purpose people have in everyday life—a purpose that makes them agitated, bored, confused, lonely, and mean?
We also publish “Justice or Conceit?” part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Ken Kimmelman presented at a seminar last fall. Mr. Kimmelman is an animator and filmmaker. And his work has affected people across America in the past months through his Emmy Award-winning anti-prejudice public service film The Heart Knows Better, his 60-second film, shown on television, in movie theatres, and sports stadiums, quotes and is based on the following statement by Eli Siegel: “It will be found that black and white man have the same goodnesses, the same temptations, and can be criticized in the same way. The skin may be different, but the aorta is quite the same.”
Aesthetic Realism, greatly, shows that, with all the various purposes human beings have—to succeed in a career, find love, dress well, be entertained—there are two central, warring purposes that all the other purposes are about. One of these two purposes is the best thing in humanity; the other is the worst: and everybody has both. Until we understand these purposes and can love that best thing and criticize that worst thing in us, we will be mixed up about all our other purposes and never know or get clearly what we want. The best and deepest purpose of everyone, Mr. Siegel showed, is “to like the world on an honest basis.” This purpose, become intensely impelling, wide, rich, deep, is the drive to art. “Art,” Mr. Siegel writes, “goes for justice to all that is and all that lives. It welcomes subtly. It welcomes universally.”
But it is Eli Siegel who has identified, too, the other purpose in people, including artists—the purpose that makes a person mean, dishonest, cruel, that makes us untrue to ourselves, ruins love, weakens our minds. That purpose is contempt: the purpose to “get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self.”
Two Purposes in Emily Brontë
I write a little now about a person who is important in art. She stands for that mix-up—between width and narrowness, justice and contempt—which artists have had, and which also is making people who are not artists suffer in New Jersey and Kentucky, Kyoto and Madrid.
Emily Brontë, in her short life (1818-48), did not know the difference between the thing in her that had her write Wuthering Heights, with its intensity of feeling and carefulness of structure, that had her write some of the authentically musical poems of the English language—and that other thing, which wanted to despise the world and people and show she was better than they. She lived her life of nearly 30 years in Yorkshire, England, amid the rough, wild moorland she loved passionately and wrote about immortally. And the double ness with which she saw people is described by her sister Charlotte in a letter quoted in Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë. Charlotte writes of Emily:
My sister...rarely crossed the threshold of home. Though the feeling for the people around her was benevolent, intercourse with them she never sought...; and yet she knew them...; she could hear of them with interest, and talk of them with detail minute, graphic, and accurate; but with them she rarely exchanged a word.
Though Charlotte Brontë is not clearly critical, she is describing a deep contempt for people in Emily that existed simultaneously with a desire—tremendous—to respect people. The characters in Wuthering Heights are alive now, 150 years later, because Emily Brontë wanted to be just to people—to the intricate feelings within them, to how they move and speak and affect each other. But she didn’t know that her not wanting to have to do with people outside the family, her becoming ill when away from home for any length of time, came from something entirely different from the thing in her that listened with deep interest to the sound of Yorkshire speech and to information about persons’ lives.
Though writers on Emily Brontë have tried to link her determined isolation to the quality of her art, that isolation was essentially contempt. It was not artistic a bit. It made her feel immensely displeased with herself and lonely. It also, for all her importance, stopped her from being as great an artist as she might have been. The power of Wuthering Heights is principally in its stirring, big relation of Yorkshire earth as beautifully fierce and kind, to people as fierce and gentle, kind and cruel. But Emily Brontë could not create a character with the complex interior fullness her contemporary George Eliot gave to people, or even that her sister Charlotte gave to Jane Eyre.
Courage, False and True
There was a beautiful courage in Emily Brontë. She wanted to see and feel things for herself, including the world where it was difficult, not smooth—like the bleak, rugged Yorkshire landscape. And this courageous welcoming of the difficult, at one with the desire to yield beautifully, sweetly to the meaning of things, made for the music of her poetry. But there was another kind of “courage” that was contempt, and completely unpoetic—and Emily Brontë did not know the difference between them. She wanted to show she needed no one’s help—and. this was a way of saying no one was good enough, really, to add to her. Even days before her death, when she was so ill she could hardly move, she refused to let anyone assist her. Wrote Charlotte: “To stand by and witness this, and not dare to remonstrate, was a pain no words can render.” In all its affectingness, such “courage” was really scornful superiority. It was fundamentally different from the lines—proud yet so welcomingly wide in their music—that begin Emily Brontë’s greatest poem:
No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere!
I see Heaven's glories shine,
And Faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.
Aesthetic Realism is based on the following historic principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The thing Emily Brontë loved most in the world, the earth of Yorkshire, with its jagged rocks and delicate heather, she loved because it put together opposites. And I think the moor stood too, in its beloved harshness, for criticism she thirsted to hear and never heard: accurate, kind criticism of her contempt. Because she wanted critical severity that was also love, she wrote these lines (“It” is a river in her “dear moorlands”):
It is swelled with the first snowy weather;
The rocks they are icy and hoar
And sullenly waves the long heather,
And the fern-leaves are sunny no more.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
But lovelier than cornfields all waving
In emerald and scarlet and gold
Are the heights where the north-wind is raving,
And the crags where I wandered of old.
Emily Brontë had the heroine or her noted novel utter one of the famous statements in literature, “I am Heathcliff!” And Emily Brontë, I believe, is saying now, “Aesthetic Realism is so true about me, it is me; it is everyone. It stands for the world itself!”