The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Fight in Everyone & the Answer of Art

Dear Unknown Friends:

This issue is about the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The great need of every person, Aesthetic Realism explains—in how we see, feel, in every aspect of our lives—is to put together the opposites that are one in all art: such opposites as freedom and accuracy; intensity and ease; surface and depth; our so particular Self and the outside World.

Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of the human mind is not only true—magnificently true—but shows our real dignity. We can feel proud knowing that even in our confusion we have to do with nothing less than what beauty is and the structure of reality itself. That is, we’re dealing all the time with the opposites, which are in every object and happening and are the basis of art.

We Are Logic & Passion

This issue includes part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Devorah Tarrow presented last month at a public seminar titled “Logic & Passion—Do They Have to Fight in a Woman’s Life?” Those opposites torment people, even as they may joke and pretend to be at ease on the subject. Both men and women take for granted that there’s a separation between their reasoning minds and the feelings and desires of their bodies; and yet, however they may act, they’re very much ashamed that what drives them does not go along with accurate thought. Catullus in 1st-century BC Rome, Lady Murasaki in 11th-century Japan, Byron in 19th-century England (for example) wrote of their pain on the subject. And Ms. Tarrow shows how these opposites can at last be one.

Preceding her article is the second half of Aesthetics Is the One Way, a 1947 lecture by Eli Siegel. He is describing the thing in all of us which interferes with our own lives. It is contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Aesthetic Realism shows that everyone, however unknowingly, treasures contempt, sees it as making us important and comfortable, and yet it’s that which weakens us, impairs our judgment, makes us feel nervous and empty, makes us mean. Contempt makes all the opposites fight in us, because it is a division between the largest opposites in our lives: care for self, and what the outside world is and deserves.

In the lecture, Mr. Siegel discusses his definitive (and humorous) work “2-A Pleasure Described.” He shows that the one real rival to contempt is aesthetics, the state of mind that causes art: the feeling that the way to be ourselves is to be grandly fair to what isn’t we.

Alexander Pope Tells of the Opposites

A passage in Pope’s Essay on Man (1733) comments in eloquent couplets on opposites at war in us. Here are several lines. “He” is man, or the self of everyone:

He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;

In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;

Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;

·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  

Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;

Still by himself abused or disabused;

·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  ·  

Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled:

The glory, jest, and riddle of the World!

This is great poetry. It is beautiful, musical, powerful about the rift of opposites in people. Pope, like others, longed to know what Eli Siegel explains: that the answer to that rift is to have, in life, the way of seeing which is in art itself.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Aesthetics Is the One Way, II

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel continues to discuss his “2-A Pleasure Described” (Self and World, pp. 357-8). There, in 10 points, the narrow aspect of self describes the pleasure it gets from contempt.

3. I get a sense of triumph from being “invisible” from humans. I can hide with great unconscious glee.

If one respects personality or self, wherever there is personality one has to respect it too. Therefore, the way to feel is that all true seeing by other selves adds to the intensity of one’s own. In aesthetics there is the desire to nullify oneself, to be “absent”—but never to hide, never to conceal oneself in order to watch and manipulate others. There is never the kind of invisibility that depends on contempt for what you’re invisible from. In the pleasure described here, invisibility is contempt; that is why it is bad.

How Do We See the Imperfect?

4. I am in touch with perfection; the boring and imperfect have been nullified.

Originality in art consists in showing that beauty can come in more ways than has been expected. Perfection and imperfection make up reality. A broken building in a painting is still broken, but the painter has gone after perfection of form.

Deeply, we don’t want to get to perfection by negation. We want to see the perfect in the everyday. The artist welcomes the oneness of perfection and imperfection. The contemptuous person says he can come to smoothness and perfection only through himself. All art is a putting together of perfection and imperfection, the complete and the incomplete. The contemptuous person feels the perfect is himself and the imperfect is what is not himself.

5. I can make fun of everything I want.

In humor that is aesthetic there is love: making fun is a sort of kindness. The humorist feels that in making fun of a manifestation, he can love the thing or person more. The contemptuous person makes fun of other things to elevate himself.

The World as Restrictive

6. Matter, objects no longer seem obstructions. I have done away with pavements, walls, furniture, stone. I am in nothing, and free.

There is an unconscious war between matter, seen as restrictive, and space, seen as standing for freedom. That war is illustrated by a dream told me. The person was flying through space, and it seemed very pleasant for a while. But then he began to wish there could be a kitchen floor under him. He awoke feeling very troubled. In that dream, freedom is played off against restraint. Many people feel they’d be free if there weren’t things like pavements, people, tables to get in their way.

In sculpture, you make a freedom out of substantiality. In architecture too there’s a making of freedom out of weight. And this is what is in sex. Poetry is restrictive, but its restrictiveness is also its freedom. Likewise with music, the dance, the novel.

All art is both form and substance. The world is space and matter, and art is the seeing of the world as it is, by the artist.

The contempt mind objects to earthiness. Aesthetic Realism says the earth liberates and also obstructs, and deeply its obstructiveness is its liberation. There are persons who are very “earthy” outwardly because they really hate matter as an opposition—they see what’s outside them as an obstruction to be conquered. That is what happens when sex is misused: it is bad because it is freedom against restriction.

In painting, you have the feeling of solidity—of, for instance, a house or tree present—and also of space. And painting makes a one of the dimensions: it gives solidity to a plane. We also have movement in the serene, the static.

The contemptuous self wants to be in a cave, snug, still—or flying around without any obstruction whatever. He can’t put the two together. He wants stillness as against motion, or motion as against stillness. We see the going from one to the other in the manic-depressive.

Are We Of Things, or Apart?

7. I can make expeditions into the other world, which I still see as shadows, and at my leisure pretend I am part of it. This gives an added fillip to my triumph.

The contemptuous person is in the world, but he doesn’t want to be of it. He doesn’t feel the self who is in the world is really he. There’s not a successful desire to feel one can be an individual while being affected by what does not appear to be that individuality.

The novelist who deals with sixty personalities feels his personality is heightened by that. This is what Balzac felt, and all art is that way. By imagining, we are more ourselves. The self is aesthetically impelled: it wants to feel it’s an individual thing by seeing and including what is not itself.

8. I can talk of my pains eloquently, and fool people as to their cause and meaning.

When pains are talked of, if the purpose is to inform others, to see that even in pain there is purpose to the world, it is useful. There is a respect for the possible audience and the subject of the pains—“this misery can be put in terza rima.” In contempt, there is a desire to use the pain to prove the world is bad.

Do We Want to Be Affected?

9. I can be a deceptive emperor; be present and not present in a room; know the time and not know the time; exist and not exist; and have myself, myself, myself while I fool everything and am not affected by anything. (I can pretend I am affected.)

In the aesthetic state there’s an impersonal feeling, but also a big effect. Take an actor playing King Lear. He really feels the pain, yet as artist he’s not deterred by it—there’s emotion and not emotion. All art is like that. Imagine an impressionist painting a sunset. He feels the sunset, yet there’s a restraint: he won’t grow sloppy about it.

The purpose of perception is to feel the world is yours. But you have to work for it. The way you work for it is through knowledge. Any shortcut is contempt. The schizophrenic or nervous person gets to power without respecting the source of all power: reality.

Imagination is of two kinds. There is the imagination of knowing, or artistic imagination, which presents reality as possibility; it is not depreciatory of the customary world. We see this kind of imagination in Lewis Carroll. Contemptuous imagination depreciates, competes with, actual reality. There are manipulation, tricks, all kinds of business. There is no oneness between being part of the world—giving oneself to it— and looking at it. There is that oneness in aesthetics.

The way the artist thinks is: “Out of the world I can make something which has form. Therefore the world must have form and sense—or, where do I get it from?”

10. I (sometimes called Ego) know this pleasure. It is what I want, and I’ll use pain, pain, pain from the world to get it....

In contempt, there’s a desire to be pained by the world. The artist takes the painful and says, “This too can have form.” Therefore he has courage.

The Answer Is in Art

The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to build up aesthetic courage. The good sense people want is going to be aesthetic—and nothing else. People are contradictory, and if they’re to manage their contradictions, it will have to be the way contradictions have been managed—made one—in art. Persons who talk of art as something removed from the ordinary world don’t know what they’re talking about.

A person is a person insofar as he’s able to grant personality to others. The artist is a person. An artist is an artist because he has dared to be completely human. That is why there has always been great reverence for artists.


Do Logic & Passion Have to Fight?

By Devorah Tarrow

Women think, with despair, that yes, logic and passion do have to fight. I did. And in a class Eli Siegel said, “The problem of man and woman is how to have kissing go along with cogitation.” That statement is so true, and I’m grateful to have learned that logic and passion don’t fight in a woman’s life when she has a purpose she’s proud of: to know the world outside of her and try to be fair to people, including a man she’s close to.

I saw myself as a logical person, and in college I got good grades. Yet while I used my logic to reason out the differences among the British empiricists, I had other purposes with it too: I’d have “intellectual” conversations with a man—to have him want me. But I felt increasingly that I was careening between what my passions seemed to demand and what my mind told me was right. I felt: why, if I was going by what the popular psychology I studied told me to go by—my instincts—did I feel so bad?

The split in me became more and more painful, and I felt love would never succeed. Then I learned about an Aesthetic Realism lesson Eli Siegel gave to two college women, in which he explained:

We can use anything—Greek or sex—for false ambition, false achievement....That is, the self can be disproportionately served....If we use sex not to see the meaning of the world but to assert ourselves, we’ll have the same guilt as using Greek that way.... Anything you do that doesn’t honor the world sufficiently, you’re guilty about—anything.

The self, I learned, has a logic: Our deepest purpose is to see meaning in things, in people. When we work against that purpose, go after the “false achievement” of contempt—whether in how we use sexual passion or our mind—we can’t like ourselves. Learning this, I felt I could finally make sense of myself and love. I saw that the reason I disliked myself was: I’d been after contempt—lessening, devaluing people to make myself important. And while I had had a true passion, for civil rights—which was in behalf of caring for what is real—with men and sex I’d had a different purpose.

In another lesson, Mr. Siegel explained: “Subtlety [of mind] is used in behalf of the fineness of truth, the exquisiteness of what is real, or it is used in behalf of giving yourself reasons for doing something which might not be right in the first place.” He asked me, “Do you think you have both kinds?” I did.

Knowledge & Love

I was coming to know Jeffrey Carduner. And for the first time with a man I was attracted to, I felt I could be different. We talked about our lives, our hopes, and where we wanted to be better. I learned from Jeffrey about subjects I hadn’t been interested in, including economics. I respected him, and wanted to understand and encourage him.

Yet I still had, too, an intense desire to put aside thought and just get a man to make a lot of me, very much through sex. I didn’t like myself for this desire, and fortunately I was able to ask questions about it in an Aesthetic Realism class. Mr. Siegel said:

ES. Our examining purpose is usually not the same as our loving purpose. It should be, and that is one of the great divisions: mind is used to be critical, investigatory, examining; and it is also used to be enthusiastic and to love something very much. What is the difference and what is the sameness of mind there?

I said I didn’t know. And he explained:

ES. For instance, in the matter of love, there is some desire for truth.

DT. There is?!

He explained that there is knowledge present at the height of passion: for example, one is aware of touch.

ES. There’s knowledge there. Your seeing being is present no matter what you’re going through.

DT. I feel when I’m getting approval my seeing stops!

ES. I don’t believe it. You just said you were aware that you were getting approval—that shows it didn’t stop entirely.

DT. That’s true. That’s good!

ES. Aesthetic Realism says very definitely that all thought is either for the purpose of preserving, enhancing, advantaging a person, or it’s for the purpose of seeing what is true.

He composed these lines:

With respect you protect

The beauty of the world.

With contempt you protect

Your own supremacy.

Care for a Man—& Reality

After that lesson I wrote in my journal, about love: “My suffering and difficulties have come from an insufficient hope to encourage a man to care for everything and everyone else. Now I feel closer to the right track. What’s our purpose?: to use each other to learn and to understand, to question our contempt, and work to be fair to each other and the feelings and hopes of people.”

Now Jeffrey Carduner and I are married. Where once I was torn, feeling myself a woman of mind who betrayed herself with a man, I’m proud to encourage Jeffrey and myself to be fair to people, including as we’re in each other’s arms.