The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Human Self: Confusion & Grandeur

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are honored to publish a poem by Eli Siegel about the novelist Norman Mailer, who died last month. With it, we print part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Nancy Huntting presented this fall at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar. The subject was: “Can a Woman Be Both Serious and Lighthearted?”

Mr. Siegel wrote the poem about Mailer in 1956, when that author was quite controversial. Meanwhile, years later, when he came to be treated as a literary elder statesman, Mailer was still, like every person, controversial to himself. We don’t know how to see ourselves; how to be for and against ourselves; how, as this poem says, to make sense of our mind and body, modesty and boldness, our desire to be exact and our desire to be completely free.

This principle of Aesthetic Realism was true of Mailer: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In her article Nancy Huntting says it is true about her. Studying Aesthetic Realism, she learned what Mailer and millions of other people have hoped to learn; indeed, ached to learn.

Poetic Metre & Human Turbulence

Eli Siegel’s “Observations in the Metre of Tamburlaine on the Norman Mailer Turbulence” was published first in the Village Voice in 1956. Three years later, Mailer included it in his book Advertisements for Myself. I'll comment a little on the poem, beginning with its title.

The metre referred to, of Christopher Marlowe’s play Tamburlaine (c. 1587), is blank verse—a blank verse that has grandeur, majesty, but also great regularity. Unlike later blank verse, including much of Shakespeare’s, nearly every Marlowe line is end-stopped: one line does not, as idea and music, spill over into, or “enjamb,” the next. Further the two-syllable, iambic beats are practically unvaried; rarely are three syllables substituted for the two. Here are lines from Tamburlaine: “And Í have márched alóng the ríver Níle / To Máchda, whére the míghty Chrístian príest, / Called Jóhn the Gréat, sits ín a mílk-white róbe” (ll. 2755-7).

I think Eli Siegel used this regular yet majestic metre because it was a means to show what Mailer was unknowingly hoping for. It was a means to show that humanity’s turbulence could be given strictness, accuracy, and—seen truly—become splendor and form.

Eli Siegel’s ability to write so gracefully in the Marlowe metre is in itself a huge poetic achievement. Along with the understanding in it of the Mailer self and art, this poem simply as literature is beautiful.

We Are Flesh & Thought

Eli Siegel writes about Mailer: “Complacency at least is fought by him / Who asks what flesh can do to formal thought.” Every person is troubled by the fact that we have intellect, logic, and yet what our bodies seem to want can mix up our thought—can appear even to mock it. Most people pretend on the subject, try to act as though they’re not troubled. At least, this poem says, Mailer didn’t act smooth: he couldn’t put those opposites together, and (in his early writing, at any rate), he didn’t pretend he could.

The poem says we need to see those opposites—flesh and respectful thought—as one, not shuttle between them. It says this in lines that have might. One is: “The pale Madonna in the hot desire.” The line is rich, mysterious, grand—and so orderly.

Mailer needed to know, as all people do, what Aesthetic Realism explains: The thing that makes us ashamed of how we use our bodies, and also how we use our minds, is contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Our contempt makes sex and thought be at odds. The one thing amiss with sex is: people have used it to see the world subservient to themselves. They’ve used a person who represents the world to glorify themselves, have reality do their bidding. But if we see sensation as a means to be fairer to everything, then at last we'll be proud: as the poem says, we’ll “place the viscera with logic, time.”

Showing Off & Modesty

Mailer was seen as showing off, and he did. But Eli Siegel in this poem says that if we’re asserting ourselves in order to know ourselves, in order to question ourselves authentically—then ostentation and humility are together. There are these lines, great and kind: “...Assertion, can it go with us / Who always question what we truly are? / How good we are, how strong, how weak, how real?”

Mr. Siegel explains why Mailer is important, and at the same time wants him to be better: “We can but wish that love and scorn so merge / In him, they stand for form in every one / Of us.”

Some months before he died, Norman Mailer said he hoped to write about Eli Siegel for the back cover of Dear Time—a new collection of Mr. Siegel’s poems—and would do so when a publisher for the book was chosen.

Over the years, Mailer received much praise. But there is no greater honor than to be understood, to have one’s tumult comprehended and what one is going after, the best in one, seen and shown. That is what this poem does. And it represents the depth, kindness, and might with which Mr. Siegel always saw art and people.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Observations in the Metre of Tamburlaine on
the Norman Mailer Turbulence
and Its Relations:
With the Presence of Byron, Dostoievsky, 

Bodenheim, and Everyone

By Eli Siegel

—But Norman Mailer’s turbulence is still

The deep, deep turbulence a man can have—

Compelled to see himself: a moving world,

Impinging, hitting, charming—at one time,

The selfsame moment, by the selfsame mind.

Complacency at least is fought by him

Who asks what flesh can do to formal thought—

And keeps on asking, in the smoke and sun.

We must see lusciousness in thought—

The pale Madonna in the hot desire.

The need is sterner now than ever; now

Our self-respect demands, demands, demands

We place the viscera with logic, time.

The turbulence of Norman Mailer helps.

The ostentation of this writer makes

Us ask: The nature of true modesty—

Is what? Assertion, can it go with us

Who always question what we truly are?

How good we are, how strong, how weak, how real?

Then show off in your tortuous way, O mind!

Abase yourself in swirling smoke of hours.

The blue flame of the factory within

May be resplendent yet in sun without.

But work is needed; Norman Mailer’s work:

A novelist confronting smugness more—

And fakery within, even when it’s his.

The way to glory is the way of show:

The show of fall and rise, of murk and light—

The show of self as drama all the day.

So Mailer has a bit of Byron, yes—

Of Dostoievsky and of Bodenheim—

And Lord knows what—each artist has and is

A world of love and anger by himself.

We can but wish that love and scorn so merge

In him, they stand for form in every one

Of us. These lines of now are a salute,

A criticism and—a friendly Oh!


Can We Be Serious and Lighthearted?

By Nancy Huntting

I remember in my late teens feeling that other people’s efforts to be lighthearted were silly. I tended to be sad, even grim, and by my twenties I felt heavy inside: it was an effort to talk, move. At the same time, I felt like a shadow and thought other people wouldn’t remember me. I’m very grateful to say that I learned from Aesthetic Realism why I was a painful relation of these opposites, and I have a lightheartedness and also a feeling of solidity now that I once thought impossible.

Lightness, True & False—& Pain

I did many lively things as a girl in Glendale, Ohio: coasting on my bike down Gunny Hill; dancing and singing with my friends to rock ’n’ roll; turning cartwheels on our front lawn; running with Chippy, our dog. But by my mid-teens I was already losing my sense of fun. I preferred novels that were tragic. I avoided reading Dickens because I'd gotten the impression he was a humorist.

Our family was economically fortunate, a fact which enabled me to be much more carefree than many children. But as my parents praised me and gave me things I wanted, and as I saw them fight, I used what I viewed as their foolishness to think I was smart and very deep.

At 15, my three best friends and I all had a crush on a senior, Taylor Smith, captain of the swimming team. Our high school didn’t have a girls’ team, so we began one in order to work out with the boys. We didn’t dare speak to Taylor Smith, but we giggled and whispered in the halls, and wrote “Taylor” on the soles of our sneakers with a magic marker.

What was the relation between my “lighthearted” fun about Taylor and the achingly painful Saturday a few years later when I cried alone the whole day because my boyfriend, Johnny Blair, broke up with me? I'd had daydreams, imagining ways Johnny might show he loved me: such as following me and appearing at unexpected moments; having a rendezvous with me instead of going to his classes; suddenly arriving in a hot-looking car to take me somewhere. These thoughts about Johnny, like the games about Taylor, were void of any actual interest in who the person was or what might strengthen him. My idea of love, I later saw, was that a man should glorify me in a world that didn’t deserve my serious consideration.

I didn’t know that a man’s affecting me stood for the world’s affecting me, and that I couldn’t truly love and feel loved because I disdained the world. At 26, what I considered my consuming passion for the multitalented Pete Tomkins became despair: as I saw it, he was so energetic and busy elsewhere, and I was left waiting, lethargic, and desperate for his company.

I Learn about My Purposes

In Aesthetic Realism consultations, which I began to have at age 27, I learned a way of seeing the world that is beautifully serious, and that enabled me to be increasingly proud of how I saw people, including men. I learned that my largest desire was to like the world—get pleasure from knowing and seeing meaning in things. Real lightheartedness arises from this purpose. But another self in us wants easier victories through having contempt. We’re seemingly the most important thing in the world, but it’s a fake self, at odds with reality, and makes us deeply heavy and stuck.

My consultants asked me, for instance: “Would you say there is a disposition in you, even as you have to do with people, to be removed and just by yourself?”

NH. Yes.


Consultants. So even when you devote yourself to a person, the other self is working?

This surprised me, but I began to see it was true.

When I told my consultants that my father, Donald Huntting’s, manner was more “reserved” than my mother’s, and that when she got very angry he just didn’t respond, one question they asked was: “Did your father tease your mother?”

NH. Yes. 


Consultants. And have you teased the world? Do you think you are too good for the world?

Yes, I did. As I reconsidered that opinion, a certain heaviness and lethargy ended.

Through studying Aesthetic Realism I saw something thrilling: both I and the men I’d had to do with were trying to put reality’s opposites together. Being energetic didn’t have to knock a person out; seriousness was not depression! Energy and repose, lightness and heaviness were meant to be in a beautiful relation in us, as they are in music, or a good sentence in a novel.

I began to study in classes taught by Mr. Siegel. And in one class about the self he asked me these questions about the relation I'd had with Pete Tomkins: “Did you have a problem of being taken too seriously and too lightly? Was there a shrine for both of you? Did you make each other too heavy?”

That is just what I felt! I had made Pete the most weighty, most important thing in the world: I felt if he worshipped me as I worshipped him, we could put aside the rest of the human race. Yet I was also making light of who he was, by not being interested in his past and his relations to other people, except where they had to do with me.

Mr. Siegel explained: “You and Mr. Tomkins felt that love and respect are two different things. They are like color and outline in art, where respect corresponds to outline and love corresponds to color. To be interested in who a person really is, is respect....Were you able to be yourself with him?”

No, I hadn’t been, and I felt relieved to be finding out why. I didn’t like the person I was with him: acting weak, waiting to be doted on. The thrill of being together arose from a triumphant dismissal of things and people.

A Serious Fight & Real Lightness of Heart

Women don’t know we have this serious fight going on inside: How much should the outside world affect us? Do we want to be changed, shaken up, criticized by the world in the form of a man—or do we want to conquer the world through a man, and also get away from it?

Toni Whittaker is a kindergarten teacher who has Aesthetic Realism consultations by telephone from Massachusetts. When we first spoke with her we heard a sunny energy in her voice, and she told us she loved the outdoors—tennis, biking, boating. In her second consultation she said that a relationship of more than seven years with a man, Seth Brady, was breaking down. Two years ago she’d discovered that Prof. Brady, distinguished in physics, was seeing another woman. He told her it was because he was lonely—she hadn’t enough time for him. She was devastated, and then sought “consolation,” she said, by being with another man.

She and Seth had gotten back together for almost a year. She told us he was too possessive, and now he’d broken up with her. “I must be doing something wrong,” she admitted. But she had another feeling we recognized: why doesn’t he appreciate how wonderful I am and shape up?!

We asked, “Does he have suspicion of you?” “He’s very suspicious of me!” she said with exasperation.

We told her what Mr. Siegel once said to a woman in a class: “The greatest suspicion men have is that, in some way they don’t see, a woman is making them weaker.” And we asked: “Have you wanted Seth Brady to be stronger, in a better relation to the world? Has that been your purpose?”

TW. I don’t know.

Consultants. Could he feel, “This woman wants my adoration, but does she want to know me and want me stronger? She wants me to be around, but does she want me to like the world?”

TW. Yes, he could.

Consultants. Are you in a terrific fight about whether you want to possess a man or have good will for him?

TW. I think so.

Men, of course, can have ill will, and we were not justifying Seth Brady. But as a means of having Ms. Whittaker understand him and herself, we asked what specific criticism of her he had expressed.

TW. He said that when he was there, I didn’t give him enough attention.

Consultants. You feel he’s possessive, and he may be. Meanwhile, do you think you are capable of dismissing a person?

TW. He definitely felt dismissed. 


Consultants. Do you act like it’s a minor matter? 


TW. Right. I don’t think it’s minor.

Eli Siegel defined seriousness as “the taking by a mind of what a thing wholly is, and what that thing means.” We said, “We’re asking you to be serious. If you’re serious, you'll really be happy.”

We suggested Toni Whittaker read the novel on which Mr. Siegel gave his lecture titled “Jane Eyre; or, This Girl Had Good Will.” In her next consultation she told us she loved the Charlotte Brontë novel, and she had some important observations about Jane:

TW. She didn’t take the opportunities to flirt with Mr. Rochester, like I would have. She’s so humble, too, in a good way.

Consultants. Is she also proud? 


TW. Oh, yes! I’ve been asking myself, “What would Jane Eyre do?” I’ve spent my time in a better way.

So much heaviness and pain will end when men and women can study the real purpose of love: for two people, with the utmost seriousness, to encourage each other’s deepest desire—to see meaning and wonder and form in the world; to like it!