The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Fight in People, the Answer in Art

Dear Unknown Friends:

What is the largest matter, the constant need, the deepest purpose in the mind of everyone? That is what the lecture we are serializing is about: Poetry and the Unconscious, by Eli Siegel. He gave this talk in 1949, eight years after he began to teach Aesthetic Realism, with its true and magnificent understanding of the self.

We include here too an article by sociologist and Aesthetic Realism consultant Devorah Tarrow. It’s part of a paper she presented last month at a public seminar titled Women—Determined & Doubtful; or, When Is Our Determination Right?

Aesthetic Realism explains that the self, so particular to each of us, is an aesthetic matter. Everyone’s own self—including our unconscious, what we don’t know in us—is described in this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The opposites that make up the world—motion and rest, force and gentleness, expansion and contraction, freedom and order, and more—are ours too. And our great need is to make them one, in particular the opposites of self and world: we need to feel that care for our so personal individuality is inseparable from justice to what we are not, the outside world through which we live and know and love and become increasingly ourselves.

But, Aesthetic Realism explains, everyone’s “greatest danger or temptation” is to pit those opposites of self and world against each other: “get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself, which lessening is Contempt.” This contempt is the big weakener of our mind and the source of all human cruelty.

In Poetry and the Unconscious Mr. Siegel discusses poems by the 19th-century writer James Thomson. Thomson, he is showing, wrote poems of two kinds, some expressing joy at the loveliness of life and others about the world as bleak and awful. And in both, Thomson made for authentic art. What does that mean—including for every one of us?

There is a division in people between their being pleased and caring, and their feeling that the world is a wretched, mean place. And people shuttle confusedly, painfully, between those feelings. But art, I learned from Mr. Siegel, does something entirely different. Because art is impelled by a tremendous desire to respect the world, it uses any subject, from the loveliest to the most miserable, in behalf of respect. When art is the real thing, a person shows—through words and their music in poetry, for instance, or through shape, line, color in painting—that a lovely subject is not just soft and sweet, but has strictness, even severity, even rockiness in it. And a true artist in any field presents something ugly not as a means to despise reality, but with such a oneness of accuracy and nuance, immediacy and mystery, that we feel reality’s beauty even as we see what’s not beautiful.

Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to have the art purpose in life itself. And as Devorah Tarrow illustrates in her article: along with being knowledge that people need urgently right now, it is also the most joyful, exciting, pleasure-giving knowledge in the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Thomson, Coleridge, & All of Us

By Eli Siegel

In “Sunday Up the River” Thomson has these stanzas about morning:

There is not a cloud in the sky;

The vague vast grey

Melts into azure dim on high.

Warmth, and languor, and infinite peace!

Surely the young Day

Hath fallen into a vision and a trance,

And his burning flight doth cease.

Yet look how here and there

Soft curves, fine contours, seem to swim,

Half emerging, wan and dim,

Into the quiet air:

Like statues growing slowly, slowly out

From the great vault of marble; here a limb,

And there a feature, but the rest all doubt.

Thomson is trying to solve the situation in his own life: the desire to be lazy and the desire to be energetic, to be the mid-Victorian happy dynamo. And in the second of the stanzas I just read, the purpose is to see sculpture, stone, as also mobile. In one of his poems he calls himself lazy. And he wrote a continuation of the other—the 18th-century—James Thomson’s “Castle of Indolence.”

But here the desire to be slow and spacious and moving, all at once, is expressed. Thomson could not get to that in his life. His highpoints of good sense were in his poems. That, of course, is sad. And it happens. A person can write good poetry and be unable to affirm it in his life, which means that the poetry is sensible where his own life is not so sensible—not that the poetry isn’t sensible.

Then Thomson has this in “Sunday Up the River”:

Were I a real Poet, I would sing

Such joyous songs of you, and all mere truth;

As true as buds and tender leaves in Spring,

As true as lofty dreams in dreamful youth;

That men should cry: How foolish every one

Who thinks the world is getting out of tune!

Where is the tarnish in our golden sun?

Where is the clouding in our crystal moon?

The lark sings now the eversame new song

With which it soared through Eden’s purest skies;

This poet’s music doth for us prolong

The very speech Love learnt in Paradise;

This maiden is as young and pure and fair

As Eve agaze on Adam sleeping there.

You would think this was a very cheerful person who somehow was in touch with the more sensible angels. However, what we find is stanzas like the following, from “The City of Dreadful Night”:

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: All was black,

In heaven no single star, on earth no track;

A brooding hush without a stir or note,

The air so thick it clotted in my throat;

And thus for hours; then some enormous things

Swooped past with savage cries and clanking wings:

But I strode on austere;

No hope could have no fear.

That represents the other side of the unconscious always in a person. The two sides are always put together in poems. And that is why Aesthetic Realism says that if the professional people dealing with mind will not understand poems, they will never know what happens to people. Thomson could write the good poem with the lark and the nice Eve, and also write this, which is very good poetry too.

That stanza is about the same thing as a passage in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a poem I discussed at length. The passage I’ll read represents the fight between choking and spaciousness. Now that we have seen Thomson describe the stifling in himself, the clotted throat, the thing that many times people have in the morning when they think they cannot talk and are choked with anger and disgust, let us see how Coleridge, using his unconscious and also his sense of structure, put it.

In part 4 of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” the mariner is isolated from all the other people of the crew. They are all dead, and yet not dead. He says:

Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide, wide sea!

And never a saint took pity on

My soul in agony.

The many men, so beautiful!

And they all dead did lie:

And a thousand thousand slimy things

Lived on; and so did I.

And then:

I look’d to heaven, and tried to pray;

But or ever a prayer had gusht,

A wicked whisper came, and made

My heart as dry as dust.

I closed my lids, and kept them close,

And the balls like pulses beat;

For the sky and the sea, and the sea and the sky

Lay like a load on my weary eye,

And the dead were at my feet.

That is about some of the concomitants of isolation, the contempt glory. Then, motion occurs. This is the description of depression stopping itself, getting to liveliness again, and Coleridge uses water-snakes to get to it:

Beyond the shadow of the ship,

I watched the water-snakes:

They moved in tracks of shining white,

And when they reared, the elfish light

Fell off in hoary flakes.

Within the shadow of the ship

I watched their rich attire:

Blue, glossy green, and velvet black

They coiled and swam; and every track

Was a flash of golden fire.

The marginal note says: “Their beauty and their happiness.”

O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware.

The marginal note says: “He blesseth them in his heart.”

The self-same moment I could pray;

And from my neck so free

The Albatross fell off, and sank

Like lead into the sea.

That is a description of some of the agonies of Coleridge, just as Thomson has described some of his agonies: the war between the Thomson who didn’t want to have anything to do with anything, and the Thomson who wanted to be hilarious and jovial (and he often was), and mean it.


When Is Our Determination Right?

By Devorah Tarrow

I was 17 and I was determined to capture a young man, Jimmy Fox—and to persuade myself I’d succeeded. I wrote, “I swear I’ve never had power like this before. Jimmy adores me, I know it.” But doubts kept creeping in, and I kept trying to convince even my diary that all was well. I wrote about Jimmy:

He had a date with Carla but that’s okay—we laughed over it....He thinks she’s pretty bad after me. I know he loves me!

But there was something not right, and we both felt more and more uneasy. A few months later we broke up and I had no idea why; I wrote in my journal, “I feel dull, scared, inadequate.”

Learning from Aesthetic Realism about what makes our determination right and what makes it wrong, changed my life and made me happy and able to respect myself. The one determination we can be proud of is wanting to be just to other people and to the world itself. The determination to have our way no matter what the facts may be has to make us doubt ourselves. Explains Ellen Reiss:

There is an underlying self-doubt which...comes from something beautiful in us....Our big doubt of ourselves, the thing that can make us uncomfortable any moment, is: Have we welcomed contemptand sabotaged the central need of our lives, our need to respect and like the world? [TRO 1355]

I had no idea there was something beautiful in me saying, “This is no way, Devorah!” The reason I felt so bad about Jimmy was that I’d wanted to capture a man, not know him, see him truly.

Early Determination in San Antonio—of Two Kinds

As a child I had a big desire to like things and express my like of them. For example, I loved our 6th grade class trips to hear concerts for children given by the San Antonio Symphony Orchestra. We were assigned class reports about them, and I decided I’d write as the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, only I gave myself the name Greda Clopper. I wrote determinedly, if not completely accurately, about the composers’ works, along with some 6th grade gossip:

We were in the balcony where Mary Finn secured a seat where she could drop candy wrappers on people below her. The rest of us were carrying on in a very unmentionable way....The orchestra played a march called Racoshi by Hector Barrio. This was very beautiful....The beautiful Scheherazade by Rimsky Korsakof was danced for us. Such a colorful array I have never seen before!

When I wanted to see, hear, and know, I was proud.

But I also felt that the world was something I had to have my way in, that I should get people to bend to my wishes. I loved praise, was determined to get it, and developed a big smile, which I saw had a large effect. Yet an unease never left me, and I wrote often in my journal about my selfishness and coldness.

As time went on, with boys and men, the thing I was proudest of, my desire to know, was nearly obliterated by a desire to conquer. About the wrong determination in everyone, Mr. Siegel wrote: “The having our way without seeing what is coming to all else is a cheapening of ourselves: it is shameful.”

Like many women, I came to justify going after my way with thoughts like this: “I’m a liberated woman. I want to be an independent self, with a career, and I’m also liberated about love. I have needs and I’m going to pursue them with men.” My psychology courses in college said I should go after “self-realization,” and as far as I knew that was what I was determined to do—but what was wrong? What was wrong was, my determination had contempt in it, for the world and people. As time passed, though I seemed to get what I wanted, I was more and more distressed about myself.

What I Learned about Good Determination

So very fortunately, a friend told me of Aesthetic Realism. And I heard Eli Siegel say resoundingly in a class: “To conquer the world is the most stupid, loathsome, bourgeois thing you can do. It’s not to be conquered; it’s to be known.”

In studying Aesthetic Realism, I began to learn that the deepest thing in a person wants to be fair to the world, including to the depths of other people. In order to be fair to a person we need to see that he or she is trying to put together reality’s opposites. I wrote to Mr. Siegel:

When I heard Aesthetic Realism on the conflict between contempt and respect, I knew I had heard what was accurate about myself and all people. I feel that I’ve begun to see reality as friendly and as not fraudulent but as having meaning.

I had hope that something deep could take place with the man I was coming to care for, Jeffrey Carduner. But I wasn’t sufficiently serious about criticizing the old contemptuous determination, and I wanted this man to be devoted to just me. I’d arrange a “romantic” date—the two of us, ever so close—but in the midst he’d ask something like, “Now, what do you think is the best way to understand my father?” I was getting angry that I had to think so much! And we began to fight.

Knowing that Eli Siegel would make sense of what I felt, I wrote to him asking about what it was I didn’t see. In a class, he said with forthrightness that was honest, passionate, and so kind:

Men and women are alike in this: although they like to have a good time in sex, what they want in the long run is to respect. But to give respect doesn’t seem emergent. People look for contempt because it establishes the self more easily. Everyone is affected by two purposes: “The world is my oyster” and increased respect.

That described something I felt was in me. And he explained:

ES. This is the question that troubles one: What should I think of the world? Is it a hodgepodge with some nice things in it, or should I respect it? Your attitude to a person is the same as your attitude to the world. [For example:] Do you think of Mr. Carduner as a possible husband?

DT. Yes.

ES. The major thing now is whether you’re tormented by the fact that you have two hopes about him. You know, every woman involved with a man would like to be able to tell him to go to hell.

Then he spoke about the deepest purpose we have: to be fair, have good will. He said,

To be fair is to grant others what they have, the possibilities and capabilities that they have. The motto of Aesthetic Realism is: Give existence everything that is coming to existence. It’s the only way to be fair to yourself!

That purpose is what I’m determined to have, and the pleasure it makes for is enormous. I’ve seen this in my marriage to Jeffrey Carduner: asking of ourselves to have good will makes for love that is real—and that grows every year.