The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Deepest Kind of Cleverness

Dear Unknown Friends:

We have reached the conclusion of Eli Siegel’s great 1949 lecture Poetry and Cleverness. In this final section, to illustrate what cleverness is, he uses passages from Samuel Butler’s Hudibras, a satiric poem cared for immensely from the time it was first published, in 1662.

Cleverness is something people want very much to have; yet they also despise themselves for their cleverness. It’s something they both admire and detest in others. There is a tremendous mix-up in people about cleverness, because the difference between good cleverness, beautiful cleverness, and ugly, hurtful cleverness has not been understood. As I wrote in the last issue, we can distinguish between these only through knowing about the fundamental fight Aesthetic Realism has shown to be in every person: the constant fight between the desire to respect the world honestly and the desire to have contempt for it. Authentic cleverness comes from respect for the world. False cleverness—and that includes cruel, sleazy cleverness—comes from contempt for the world.

And here is a big reason for this lecture’s importance: through seeing what cleverness is, in art and elsewhere, we can know what we are looking for, tumultuously aching for, in ourselves. The following landmark Aesthetic Realism principle is true about cleverness: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Cleverness, Mr. Siegel has been showing, always brings together (whether truly or falsely) the opposites of difficulty and ease, largeness and smallness. To be clever, he says, is to do “something that people would think hard, with ease.”

The most awful, vicious, filthy, harmful “cleverness” is also enormously frequent. It is the cleverness of making that largest of things, truth, something oneself can manage, toy with, treat lightly.

There Are Beauty & Contempt

At the end of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about what he calls “the deepest kind” of good cleverness. It is that which looks honestly at the “burdensome,” the “horrible,” and through the honesty gets to lightness. So it is right to follow the final section of Poetry and Cleverness with a poem by Eli Siegel himself, a poem that has magnificently, thrillingly, this “deepest kind of cleverness.”

First, though, a little about what contempt often does with the horrible and the lightsome (which are forms of the opposites difficulty and ease). The world of course has the horrible. It has things that are repellent, repulsive. Yet people can get a triumph feeling that the disgusting is that which runs the world, that life itself is dreary, that what one meets is one burden after another. This is the triumph of contempt. It’s the miserable but conceited feeling that we are too good for the world we somehow got into. Within contempt is the sense that to see value, meaning, beauty, wonder in things is a humiliation because it would mean we’d have to look up to what’s not us rather than feel superior.

Then there’s what contempt does with lightness. Very much can be said about that. But essentially, contempt gets to lightness not through wanting to see meaning but through taking meaning away. So there is the lightness, often around, of the vacuous giggle. And there is ever so much sneering humor that makes for the awful lightness of emptiness because the purpose is to lessen the value of things and feel superior to them.

When We Feel Opposites as One

It is an urgent matter to see that the uninviting and charm can be together truly; that difficulty and buoyancy can be felt authentically as one. This, Mr. Siegel has been showing, is what happens through the cleverness that is in real art. And nowhere does it happen more mightily and kindly, playfully and deeply, musically and logically, than in his own poem “Also Not Liking You: Observations on Sickness in Verse or Anywhere.”

About that phrase “Sickness in Verse”: In 1970, when Eli Siegel wrote this poem, the word sick was sometimes used as a stylistic term for much artwork of the time, work that put forth the repulsive (e.g. “sick art,” “sick poetry”). He was making fun a bit of both the nomenclature (which didn’t last) and some of the art. But “Also Not Liking You” goes far beyond any contemporary references. It is about the world and people of any time. And it is vibrantly immortal.

I find it affecting that both Hudibras and “Also Not Liking You” are composed of 4-beat rhymed couplets. The nature of the couplets is different, yet those in both poems are wonderful, musical, and wild. Eli Siegel’s have more flexibility, variation. They’re more lyrical in their sharpness than Butler’s very fine ones of nearly 300 years before, from which an enduring literary term arose: “the Hudibrastic couplet.”

“Also Not Liking You” was published in 1989, in issue 843 of this journal. My comment on it there was not meant to be about cleverness. But looking at the comment, I see it does describe in outline how the poem is “cleverness of the deepest kind”—and most beautiful kind. I wrote:

In the great and humorous lines of “Also Not Liking You,” what can sicken is described unremittingly, with no soothing decoration. Yet as the poet tells about each unwelcome thing with the energetic exactitude it deserves—it is interesting! And the variety of the unpleasant gets to be a lively dance. In this poem—in the words’ meaning, rhythm, rhyme, musical sound—energy and the tedious are one. Disgust and wonder are one. Neatness and mess are one. Drag and jump are one. The unbearable and the charming are one. Aesthetic Realism says, Opposites as one are the structure of the world; and when we feel opposites as one in art, and like it, we are respecting and liking the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Essence of Cleverness

By Eli Siegel

The first important English poet who impressed people with his cleverness was Samuel Butler, who lived from 1613 to 1680. He is the author of Hudibras, and the whole poem is clever—it has an adroitness of verse and also an adroitness of thought. There are a good many noted quotations from it. Hudibras is not as famous as it used to be, but it is still an important work, and things that are still current can be found in Butler.

Let us take this very neat summing up of an ethical situation, described cleverly; Butler is speaking of the Puritans, and says they

Compound for sins they are inclined to,

By damning those they have no mind to.

That is a well-known English quotation. It means that people unconsciously can come to some agreement with themselves about the bad things they want to do, but then they make the matter worse by being very much against the things they don’t want to do. And this is expressed neatly. It is poetry, because what we have is a lot of meaning neatly packed. Some of poetry is like packing clothes in a valise. There is an art to that. When many clothes have to be put into a valise without hurting the clothes, and everything is to be trim and shipshape, the ability to do it belongs to cleverness. And the ability to fill two lines with so much that it would make for suggestion but not so much that it would make for diffuseness, to have things not loose and not rigid—that is part of writing. We have this in the couplet.

That was from part 1, canto 1, and so is the next couplet. Butler writes about the persons who try to have their religion prevail through force:

And prove their doctrine orthodox

By apostolic blows and knocks.

That is also clever—for one thing, because a respectful word like orthodox is so related to a word like knocks, and the juxtaposition of the violence and the serious thought is arranged neatly and swiftly. One of the things that are in cleverness is the ability to do something we expect to be slow, swiftly. Slowness changed into swiftness and difficulty changed into ease are two essential things in cleverness.

The Little & the Big

Before I read a description of the main character, Hudibras, I think it well to read Butler’s famous comparison of a red lobster with the dawn. This has in it the essence of cleverness, because, as I said earlier, cleverness accents the littleness of things but, when it’s good, can deal with big things anyway. You feel the big things, but what you see first is the little effect. This, from part 2, canto 2, is a famous simile:

The Sun had long since, in the lap

Of Thetis, taken out his nap,

And, like a lobster boiled, the morn

From black to red began to turn.

One never expected the rising of the sun to be compared to a lobster becoming red. But somehow the comparison seems to fit. In fact, people have said Butler took it from Rabelais.

Now, from the description of Hudibras in part 1, canto 1. This is about the subtlety of his logic. And the verse itself is accelerated and neat. It’s breathless, but it seems to get somewhere:*

In school-divinity as able

As he that hight Irrefragable;

A second Thomas, or, at once

To name them all, another Duns;

Profound in all the nominal

And real ways beyond them all;

And with as delicate a hand

Could twist as tough a rope of sand;

And weave fine cobwebs, fit for skull

That’s empty when the moon is full.

Those last two couplets are famous quotations and really poetic. The being able to twist a rope of sand is a highpoint in cosmic cleverness. And about the “weav[ing] fine cobwebs”: when a person, for instance, makes lace, there is a disposition to say that person is more clever than a person who makes a big rug, or a person who helped build a ship, because cleverness has to do, chiefly, with the lighter, the lesser things. Consequently, when we have an idea of a person’s use of thought being like the weaving of fine cobwebs, we have an idea related to cleverness, because subtlety is logic as clever, but logic when wide is not clever in that sense.

We Need a Oneness of Delicacy & Weight

The reason cleverness is important is this: People either have a tendency to be heavy-handed, massive, to go about too much like an oxcart driven by destiny, or they get too finicky and too touchy. The ability to go rightly from one to the other, matters in one’s life. We need the ability to see that the world does make gossamer and butterflies’ wings and spiders, let alone cells, and that these fine effects are mighty important. The subtle cobwebs that are real are to be respected. And the accumulation of the little things can make for something very big, just as some of the finest situations of life have to do with the relation of the smallest things in us. If we are in order, our cells are in order; if we are not in order, it can be presumed our cells are keeping us company in that. Our cells are clever because they are so small. Whatever is small, we have a tendency to call clever. We have a tendency to call a child cunning or clever—Oh, isn’t she clever! We use the word in another way, of course, about other people. But when they are able to deal with a big thing as though it were light and small, as I said, the disposition to use the adjective is around.

Logic has to do with cleverness too. The Scholastics are now looked on with esteem. So are the Talmudists. They could be very clever. They could take one point and argue about it a whole evening. It was thought to be a waste of time, but now it is seen not to be such a waste of time. One can take a small point and spend the whole day about it, and that can be wasteful or it may not be wasteful. The Scholastics are now seen as not having misused their subtlety. They were clever in logic, and Butler is writing about them but, really, he is making fun of excess subtlety:

He could raise scruples dark and nice,

And after solve ’em in a trice;

As if divinity had catched

The itch on purpose to be scratched.

These next lines are famous:

Or, like a mountebank, did wound

And stab herself with doubts profound,

Only to show with how small pain

The sores of faith are cured again.

This is a deep ironic principle. Let’s say—and I’ve talked about it—a person would purposely lose fifteen dollars in order to find it again. They’d have a good time every time they found it, if they could forget they purposely had lost it. This principle of getting oneself into trouble so that one can get out of it, and so spend one’s life, is a kind of cleverness of the unconscious that cannot be wholly praised.

He knew the seat of Paradise,

Could tell in what degree it lies,

And, as he was disposed, could prove it

Below the moon, or else above it.

If you’re too clever you can prove anything. And if you want to do something you can give reasons for it. If you don’t want to do something, you can give reasons. If you don’t want to do anything at all, you can give reasons. Whether they are good or not, if you are very clever you can convince yourself.

The passage continues, describing some of the subjects of Hudibras’s thought:

What Adam dreamt of when his bride

Came from her closet in his side.

The rabbins used to discuss that: what was Adam doing when Eve came to him; what was he thinking about?

Whether the devil tempted her

By a High Dutch interpreter;

If either of them had a navel.

That was a big question—whether Adam and Eve had navels.

Who first made music malleable;

Whether the serpent at the Fall

Had cloven feet, or none at all.

All this, without a gloss or comment,

He could unriddle in a moment,

In proper terms, such as men smatter

When they throw out and miss the matter.

These lines have in them wisdom and cleverness. As they’re critical, they have the cleverness of good sense. There are more good sense proverbs and couplets in this poem than anywhere else in English.

Cleverness at Its Best

We come to this principle: when we can deal with the things that are wearisome, tedious, puzzling, unexplainable, burdensome, dreadful, terrible, horrible, without running away from them, without trying to lessen them, while trying to see what is true, and through it all come to lightsomeness—we are changing profundity into a happy wisp. That is the deepest kind of cleverness. There are the more wearisome kinds of cleverness. But if the difficult, that which was seen and felt to be forbidding, uninviting, dull, hard, weighty, ponderous—if all that can be changed into a merry snap-of-the-finger loveliness, we have cleverness at its best.

The world is the cleverest thing we have. The reason there can be gagmen, and persons who can rhyme nicely, and rope dancers, and improvisers, and persons who can do all kinds of things with all kinds of things in all kinds of ways—the reason for all this is that the cosmos is a clever beast, or a clever thing.

There is nothing more clever, really, than what is. That is the way poetry sees it. And that is the way everyone should see it.


Also Not Liking You
Observations on Sickness in Verse or Anywhere

by Eli Siegel

It is a Botticelli picture sprinkled with sand.

It is a rat in a library which you can’t understand

As to how it got there; it is a sudden tear

In something you’ve just begun to wear

With a splotch added; it is a sudden cramp

While you’re burdened with some needless lamp

You have to carry to an address you don’t know.

It is a wide empty feeling of permanent woe

As you walk by cracked cups, on unfriendly asphalt

Going ahead far and far; and you know it’s your fault

That the asphalt can’t speak, and be of some use.

It is having one’s neck in a shirt that’s a noose.

It is God either absent or not liking you,

And somehow when absent also not liking you.

*The people referred to are the medieval theologian Alexander of Hales, who was called the Irrefragable Doctor; Thomas Aquinas; and Duns Scotus.