|NUMBER 1846.—April 10, 2013||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 6 of The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. This great 1972 lecture is about a central idea of Aesthetic Realism: that the way of seeing which is in all authentic art is the way we need to see in order to have lives, selves, minds we like. “All beauty,”Aesthetic Realism explains,“is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
There are the opposites in the lecture’s title: known and unknown. And Mr. Siegel has been showing that all art arises from a person’s desire to know truly, both what he or she feels and the object being dealt with. In art, this desire to know is so powerful, exact, deep, wide, that the result has too the unknown as beautiful. That is: whether in a good poem, concerto, painting, or dance, there is—along with something ever so immediate—the sense of wonder, of something unbounded, of the world in all its fullness.
A different way of seeing, however, is the source of bad art, and is also the big weakener of every person’s mind. It is contempt, the feeling we do not have to see either ourselves or anything else with exactitude: we are we, and anything we think or feel is good enough—indeed, is correct; and we have the right to see any fact, person, reality itself, in a way that makes us feel comfortable, important, and superior. This way of seeing is the ugliest, cruelest, stupidest thing in the human self, and it is immensely ordinary.
At the present point in the lecture, Mr. Siegel begins to discuss an essay by the critic Paul Elmer More. It is about the poet Milton and his “Lycidas”—a poem that has moved many people but has also annoyed and bored ever so many. As he looks at sentences of More, Mr. Siegel, while being scholarly and literary, is never only that: he is speaking, in a vivid, down-to-earth, sometimes humorous way, about matters that affect every person—from taxi driver to office worker to senator. He comments too on something he spoke on in several other classes: the meaning of a “great book.”
The Fight We All Have
We come, then, to Large and Small in people’s lives. This matter troubles people mightily, whether they know it or not. Men and women everywhere hope, even ache, to have big lives, big feeling; and they are deeply disgusted and ashamed because they don’t have these. One can seem to take for granted, and seem to be satisfied, that one’s life is rather confined. And people can associate the idea of big feeling with some things they’re not proud of—like big angers, and being driven in big ways that don’t look beautiful to them. That is not the bigness I’m speaking of. A baby born into the world right now is born to know and feel this world as richly and fully as possible, to find large meaning in things—in other words, to have large respect for reality. The newborn baby, now moving her arms and legs as her mother holds her, did not come into the world to live narrowly in it and feel tepidly about it. We are all this baby.
There is a song on the subject that became a hit when Peggy Lee performed it in the 1960s, and its popularity has continued these many decades. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” consists of a spoken monologue and sung chorus. It’s based on a short story by Thomas Mann, “Disillusionment,” in which a man tells how nothing has been able to make for a feeling of largeness or grandeur in his life—not even love: a tepidity, dullness, emptiness just goes on. The song has affected millions of people so much because it stands for something they feel. The other reason is that the chorus is musically quite good, with its combination of flatness and triumph, grind and yearning. Here are some sentences from the song’s predecessor, the 1896 story by Mann. (I do not know the name of the translator.)
“I have roved the globe over, seen all the best-praised sights, all the works of art upon which have been lavished the most extravagant words. I have stood in front of these and said to myself: ‘...Is that all? Is it no more beautiful than that?’
“...It is life in general, life in its dull, uninteresting, average course which has disappointed me—disappointed, disappointed!...So I dream and wait for death. Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment! At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: ‘So this is the great experience—well, and what of it? What is it after all?’”
Neither Thomas Mann nor the writers and enjoyers of “Is That All There Is?” have known what Aesthetic Realism explains: while people want to have big feeling, see great meaning in things, they also have a tremendous desire not to. There is a hope in everyone to find reality a disappointment, one continuous dullness, because that way we can feel we are too good for the world—we are a sensitive creature for whom this crude world cannot measure up. That is how contempt works.
There is something in everyone that is in competition with the meaning of what we meet, that feels, “If this is big, I’m not so big. If this stirs me, sweeps me, then it has a hold on me—it’s running me. I should be running it! It’s better to have a small, arranged, limited, tepid life in which I seem to have control, than a big life in which I can’t feel superior to what I meet.”
There are various phony solutions people come to about this fight of large and small. Snobbishness is one. Snobbishness is a way of endowing your life with things you pretend are large, while you maintain your contempt, while you don’t have to respect what’s different from you. It is fake largeness. If you can drop the right names; if you can attend the right events; if you can be at a party with the right people—you can tell yourself you’re in the midst of what’s big. Snobbishness is a replacement for seeing large, true meaning in things. And it’s a replacement that never works. It always makes for emptiness and for (however one may mask it) self-loathing.
Large Feeling & Profit Economics
All through history, one of the chief interferences with feeling the world largely, knowing it widely and authentically, seeing meaning in it, has been profit economics. That is, the world’s wealth has been owned by relatively few people, while others have been used to make profit for them. Millions of people, born to find large meaning in things, have been made unable to: as Mr. Siegel wrote in the Modern Quarterly at age 21, “Their lives were forced to be led so, to get food enough for their stomachs was all that they could do.”
Also, the acquisitive way of mind that profit economics encourages is completely opposed to largeness of feeling and thought. To think about how you can beat out someone, make a lot of money from people’s needs, have a competitor fail, pay a worker as little as possible: this may have cunning with it, shrewdness with it, but it does not have grandeur. The profit system way of seeing, like snobbishness (of which it is a form), has a phony bigness: the bigness of feeling that you, and people you associate with yourself, should own most of the world; that others are inferior, and to be managed.
Paul Elmer More, whose essay Mr. Siegel discusses, had that way of seeing. And no one hated such a view of humanity more than Eli Siegel did. Yet he praises More’s essay on Milton. His doing so is part of his own largeness as critic: Mr. Siegel was always ready to see value, even in people with whom he disagreed—and to be richly fair to it.
“Great Books; and the Kick”
To help place the matter of bigness in literature and life, I’m going to quote from an essay by Eli Siegel. It is playful and beautifully important. Here are the first three sentences, then sentences from the end of his “Great Books; and the Kick”:
Always people have wanted to read great books. Really, people would just as soon read great books as little books, or what is called “ephemeral literature.” The only trouble, and it is a big one, is that they don’t most often enjoy the great books....
We have to feel that the grandeur of the world is intimate for us before the grandeur of a book is properly, pleasingly apprehended. How can we come to Sophocles’ Antigone as to a table of a favorite restaurant, unless we see the meaning of the Antigone as friendly, as a neighbor on the next block, there by our own desire?...
The Great Books won’t be the great books until simple joy, joy that can go along with the joy of well-timed food, accompanies the reading of these books. Such joy, as far as I can see, is not yet forthcoming. The great books will wait. They always have.
Aesthetic Realism enables people to feel and know with the largeness they long for. And Aesthetic Realism itself makes for emotion that is large, proud, logical, continuous, and always fresh. It is my pleasure to say that I know of nothing greater in the world than Eli Siegel’s teaching of Aesthetic Realism, and the way of seeing that was always his.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Largeness in Literature & Life
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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