The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Comprehension Men & Women Desire

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are in the midst of serializing the lecture Some Women Looked At, which Eli Siegel gave in 1952. With clarity, depth, often humor, always kindness and style, he comments on various descriptions, literary and historical, of women. The basis is 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.” We see opposites in women—in the same woman: such opposites as sweetness and fierceness, yielding and assertion, humility and pride. And we see both men’s and women’s confusion about the opposites.

In this issue there appears only a brief section of Some Women Looked At, because I want to join with that 1952 talk another instance—20 years later—of Eli Siegel’s beautiful comprehension of women. In 1972 he lectured on the novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). At the time, I wrote a report of the lecture, and it is this report which is printed here.

Women in Their Variousness

In his classes over the years, Mr. Siegel spoke to and about hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women. He spoke on such noted women as Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Mme de Stael, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and spoke in lessons to women who were not famous but were trying to know themselves and make sense of their feelings and lives. The lecture on George Eliot stands for three things: 1) It represents Eli Siegel as literary critic. I think his seeing of what is central to her writing, and the warmth and width and nuance with which he presents it, is great literary criticism.

2) The George Eliot lecture shows something of what Aesthetic Realism as education is. He gave it for persons teaching, or preparing to teach, Aesthetic Realism in consultations. And through this lecture we get a sense of how an Aesthetic Realism consultant is trained to meet the self—with all its depth and subtlety—of an individual man or woman. 3) I think this discussion of George Eliot stands for the texture, the exactitude, the largeness with which Mr. Siegel saw every person he spoke to or about—woman or man, noted or not.

I am moved to quote now an instance of that seeing, from an Aesthetic Realism lesson of mine. It is about the matter which, we’ll find, Mr. Siegel showed to be central in the writing of George Eliot. What is it, really, that has men and women disappointed in each other, wounded by each other?

    Aesthetic Realism explains that the big, continuous fight in everyone is between respect for the world and contempt for it: between the desire to see value in what’s not ourselves and the desire to elevate ourselves through lessening other people and things. So, on the one hand, we want to care for someone—but on the other hand we want to see that person chiefly as existing to make us comfortable, praised, glorious. We want to be kind to someone—but we don’t want to think too deeply about what goes on within him or her. This is the fight between contempt and respect in social life, domestic life. It goes on not understood by the people who have it. Yet it makes for resentment and shame, for dullness and thrusting anger. How we need to understand it, so that the desire for respect can win!

In the lesson from which I’ll quote, Mr. Siegel was explaining to me and to the man I was close to, Mr. B, why we felt hurt by each other. He said:

There are various reasons for esteeming a man that a woman can have: if he has power, money, is thought of well. But then there is something more personal: the sense that “what I have seen, you have seen.” And that approval, which is academic and intimate at once, Ms. Reiss finds it hard to give. She feels there are things she wants comprehended.

He mentioned the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dupin) and two of the men she was close to:

George Sand could feel Chopin didn’t know literature; Alfred de Musset didn’t care enough about social problems; and neither was as philosophic as she. Then, Ellen Reiss has the feeling that her self is an education.... The first thing a woman wants is for a man to say, “I want to understand you. I’ll never get tired of trying to understand you, and if I lag in any way, I want you to tell me. And if you can’t tell me on Monday, try again on Tuesday.”

He explained to Mr. B:

Ms. Reiss feels you have lagged in understanding her. Do you have a full desire to understand her? 

Mr. B. No. 

ES. You say it as if it’s not the large thing it is. The large question is, what is the relation of loving and understanding?

There Is a Desire Not to Be Known

The contempt in each of us can prefer our not being understood by another. We can prefer to be hidden and to fool a person—have him at our feet, or in a team with us to belittle the rest of the world. Both men and women can act as though knowing and being known is “not the large thing it is.” Yet the need for it never leaves us. That need is part of what Aesthetic Realism describes as the force of ethics; it is part of good will. We inevitably judge ourselves—like or dislike ourselves—on the basis of how much we want to understand others and be understood ourselves.

A Woman of 16th-Century France

Present also in this TRO is comprehension in another form. It is an honor to print Eli Siegel’s translation of a sonnet by the French poet Louise Labé (1521?-1566). He gave his English form of her Sonnet VIII the title “Louise Labé Tells of Herself.” And in this translation we hear the music of the original French: Eli Siegel has us feel the oneness of tumult and dignity in this woman of the 16th century, her bewilderment and eloquence.

Throughout his life, he gave that understanding which men and women long for. And in Aesthetic Realism he provided the means for people truly to know each other at last.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Radiance, Yieldingness, Determination

By Eli Siegel

There have been depictions by men of the woman peevish, even knavish, sour. Also, women have described women dishonoringly. But the business of honoring women still goes on. It has to go on, because women represent reality.

Take this radiant thing from Tennyson’s Maud, where the whole world takes on color—mostly from the rose— because Maud has said yes. The poem as a whole doesn’t end in that radiant way; still, this is a moment in the poem:

Go not, happy day,

From the shining fields,

Go not, happy day,

Till the maiden yields.

Rosy is the West,

Rosy is the South,

Roses are her cheeks,

And a rose her mouth.

When the happy Yes

Falters from her lips,

Pass and blush the news

O’er the blowing ships.

Over blowing seas,

Over seas at rest,

Pass the happy news,

Blush it thro’ the West....

Hardly any person would write a poem just this way these days, but the feeling goes on, and it has to be seen as part of the story.

There is another woman—I could mention many—the wife of the Duke of Marlborough. She was a little like Lady Holland, whom we heard Macaulay describe. The Duchess of Marlborough was very strange—Pope wrote about her—and independent. There is the picture of women as yielding, and there is the picture of women being so determined. We hear of women scaring Indians. Here is a woman’s determination—Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, as described by Horace Walpole:

Old Marlborough is dying—but who can tell! Last year she had lain a great while ill, without speaking; her physicians said, “She must be blistered, or she will die.” She called out, “I won’t be blistered, and I won’t die.” If she takes the same resolution now, I don’t believe she will.


The Novel Speaks of Poetry; or, George Eliot

A Report of Eli Siegel’s Lecture, by Ellen Reiss

“I remember,” says Mr. Myers, “how at Cambridge I walked with her once..., on an evening of rainy May, and she,...taking as her text the three words which have been used so often as the inspiring trumpet-calls of men,—the words God, Immortality, Duty,—pronounced with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable was the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.” ¹

The person presented here is the Victorian woman who, many scholars think, wrote the greatest novel in the English language, Middlemarch. Born Mary Ann Evans, she took the name George Eliot. Eli Siegel talked of her, greatly, on April 5, 1972, in a lecture called The Novel Speaks of Poetry; or, George Eliot.

“A respect for the novel, and a questioning what relation the novel has to poetry,” he said, “is necessary for consultations, because the novel is so much about people affecting people. The goodness of a novel depends on how the novelist sees people.” Mr. Siegel spoke during this class of how George Eliot saw, and also how she was seen. He quoted from an essay about her by R.H. Hutton, her contemporary, and a 1934 consideration by Lord David Cecil. From the Hutton essay came the passage with which I began.

 “George Eliot,” noted Mr. Siegel, “is like Kant, somewhat like Matthew Arnold, in feeling you don’t have to have a specifically seen God to think something is coming from you to the world. She felt there was a duty owing from every person. George Eliot can be seen as a very rich repository of evidence that every person is compelled to have a good effect on every other person. This is a phase of good will. And in Eliot’s novels, as in Dostoevsky’s, it is convincing.”

David Cecil writes that George Eliot differed from her fellow Victorian novelists in that her mind was massive; it was philosophic. And one feels that. When I read Middlemarch, I thought, She has the most powerful mind of any woman I have read. One feels also what is in this statement of Eli Siegel: “George Eliot has been praised because she can make the pattering of things, the usual, look unusual. The novelist in a large way has the problem of poetry: how to show the usual and the unusual are about the same thing.”

Cecil writes, “George Eliot...is one of the few women novelists whose great characters include young men.” ² Said Mr. Siegel, “She is such a mingling, in thought, of masculine and feminine. And her appearance, which was unfortunate, was used against her.” (Critics would describe how ugly she was.) “But,” he went on, “she was exceedingly feminine. She looked what she wasn’t.”

The Ordinary May Be Immortal

We heard sections of the story “The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton,” from George Eliot’s first work, Scenes from Clerical Life. The plot is simple. The Reverend Barton is married to a very kind woman. They have many children and little money. An acquaintance of theirs, Countess Czerlasky, who is as selfish as she is physically endowed, comes to stay with them, and from her stay arises scandalous gossip, which is untrue. The countess is inconsiderate to Mrs. Barton, who has become ill. Mrs. Barton dies. “That,” said Mr. Siegel, “is the story. In it is this idea: the ordinary may be immortal.” For instance, George Eliot writes:

Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones.

George Eliot, it was said, agrees with Aesthetic Realism that the question in you is as illimitable as the galaxies. A constant thing in her novels is the showing of persons' lack of true interest in each other. Sometimes in describing this, she is charming, as in the following comparison:

I can only ask my reader,—did you ever upset your ink-bottle, and watch, in helpless agony, the rapid spread of Stygian blackness over your fair manuscript or fairer table-cover? With a like inky swiftness did gossip now blacken the reputation of the Rev. Amos Barton.

A novelist, said Mr. Siegel, has to show people as weak and strong, good and bad, selfish and not selfish. And that means the novel imitates us. Mrs. Barton represents sheer good will, the desire to have a good effect. She’s not wholly believable, but she’s important. As she is sick, she sees evil in the countess; not the evil the town may look for, but the evil of inconsiderateness. Some tragedy is going on, underneath details. Then Mrs. Barton dies. And George Eliot goes within Amos Barton’s mind and writes a sentence that, Eli Siegel said, is poetic:

Spring would come, and she would not be there; summer, and she would not be there; and he would never have her again with him by the fireside in the long evenings.

Both Sexes, Criticized

The novel Middlemarch, he noted, is the most talked about novel in American, English, Canadian, Australian universities today. And he said it is indispensable because it is critical of both sexes. There are four main characters in Middlemarch. There is Dorothea Brooke, who marries the scholar Casaubon and finds she has overestimated his ethical quality. “Dorothea Brooke,” commented Mr. Siegel, “represents man or woman, seeking, disappointed, and trying to understand.” Then there is Rosamond Vincy, whom Mr. Siegel called “one of the most elaborate tranquil bitches in history. She is simply given to herself. And Tertius Lydgate is hurt by her.” He described these four characters as an eternal quadrilateral.

“For a woman to be critical of woman as much as George Eliot was,” he said, “and so understanding of the feeling of Lydgate, is something to see.” This is from the end of Middlemarch, about Lydgate, who had wanted to write deeply about medicine, but, because of his marriage to Rosamond, was never able to:

Lydgate’s hair never became white. He died when he was only fifty....His acquaintances thought him enviable to have so charming a wife, and nothing happened to shake their opinion. Rosamond...simply continued to be mild in her temper, inflexible in her judgment, disposed to admonish her husband, and able to frustrate him by stratagem. As the years went on he opposed her less and less....He once called her his basil plant; and when she asked for an explanation, said that basil was a plant which had flourished wonderfully on a murdered man’s brains. Rosamond had a placid but strong answer to such speeches. Why then had he chosen her?

Because Middlemarch begins with a principle, of which every detail is an organic instance, it speaks of what poetry is. “The beginning of pain,” commented Mr. Siegel, “is to assume you understand a person justly, when maybe you don’t. Why do people give each other pain?—that is the subject of Middlemarch, and it is being talked of now. George Eliot,” he said, “did a great deal to make understanding as important as it is. She helped in an unfinished cause.”

At this class, Mary Ann Evans, George Eliot, received from Eli Siegel that understanding she tried to give.


Louise Labe Tells of Herself : Sonnet VIII

Translated by Eli Siegel

I live, I die; I am intense and I drown.

I have extreme warmth while enduring cold:

Life for me is too soft and too hard.

I have great dullnesses mingled with joy.

All at once I laugh and I have tears,

And while pleased I have such disturbing sadness:

My good goes away, it never is lasting:

All at once I am in dryness and I flourish.

So Love uncertainly takes me with him;

And when I think I shall have more sorrow,

Without thinking I find myself with no pain.

Then when I believe my joy to be certain,

And that I am at the height of fortunate desire,

He puts me back in my first unhappiness.

¹Richard Holt Hutton, Essays on Some of the Modern Guides to English Thought in Matters of Faith (1891). 

²Early Victorian Novelists (1934)