The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Likeness of Men and Women

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the concluding section of the magnificent 1949 lecture we have been serializing: Poetry and Women, by Eli Siegel. We do not have the final minutes of the lecture: these early Aesthetic Realism classes were recorded via wire-recording, and it seems the spool of wire ran out before the class ended. So we publish here, to follow the last words we have of the lecture, a poem by Mr. Siegel which continues its meaning.

In the section preceding this one, Mr. Siegel spoke on an essay of Virginia Woolf about Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He was intensely critical of Mrs. Woolf’s patronizing of, meanness to, and sheer inaccuracy about Mrs. Browning, an important and true artist. As I wrote last week, I see Mr. Siegel’s criticism of Virginia Woolf as the kindest consideration she ever received. He understood what impelled her false judgment; he understood that in her which hurt her mind. Now he speaks directly about Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which he called “the one successful novel in verse by anyone.”

It is increasingly acknowledged that women have been unjust to women, as Virginia Woolf was to Mrs. Browning: women have been wronged not only by men. Also, women have often been unfair to men. Mr. Siegel is the person of thought who explained what all injustice arises from—whether it’s unfairness in literary criticism, meanness in domestic life, or the brutality of racism and economic exploitation. That source of injustice is the desire, which we all have, for contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

An Aesthetic Realism Lesson

I quote further here from an Aesthetic Realism lesson of mine which I wrote about last week—because the beautiful, powerful comprehension of women in the lecture we have been serializing is continued in it. What Mr. Siegel explained in this lesson is great in its understanding of a particular person, me, and also of all people. That was always so in the lessons Mr. Siegel gave. Each was tremendously individual: he saw every person so exactly, in one’s own tumultuous and keen particularity. Yet each lesson was a grand and kind classic about the self as such: it stood for everyone.

At this lesson, when I was 25, Mr. Siegel spoke to me and the man with whom I was closely involved—I’ll call him Don Kemble. And in the passage I quote, Mr. Siegel was showing something people now need terrifically to know: that men and women are centrally alike. We see some of what I treasure so much: his width and tenderness and precision and humor. He asked Mr. Kemble, who felt women were mainly different from himself, “Do you believe that Miss Reiss is afraid of her own criticism?”

Don Kemble. Yes.

Eli Siegel. That is something that is hard for a man to realize, that a woman is criticizing herself. Miss Reiss does describe herself, and it is quite true, as George Sand described herself, as Mary Wollstonecraft described herself: she sees there are two forces in her that are not in the most blissful state of compatibility. Miss Reiss can at any moment feel she is bad and there’s no hope for her and she should be given back to the Aztecs.

Ellen Reiss. And they may not want me!

Eli Siegel. Mr. Kemble, you don’t know the power women have of dismissing themselves from reality. Do you believe they can do that?

Don Kemble. Yes.

Eli Siegel. No, you think that all inner turmoil is masculine.

Don Kemble, he said, “has a question that is about two souls fighting for mastery in him,” and so do women.

People have felt there are things in themselves that are fighting—something selfish, mean, and something nobler and kinder. But just what those forces are was not seen before Aesthetic Realism—either by people as such or by eminent describers of mind. It is Eli Siegel who explained that the fight — in both man and woman — which takes thousands of forms, is between the desire to have contempt for the world and the desire to respect reality, to like and see meaning in the outside world. This fight is present in every aspect of our lives, from love to education to how we see economics. And how these things fare depends very much on how that fight fares.

Pleasure and Strength

In the passage I quote next, Mr. Siegel gives form to something tormenting people now. Underlying what he says is this Aesthetic Realism principle, which explains people’s confusions and griefs: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The opposites here are pleasure and pride, or pleasure and strength; and then mind and body, which Mr. Siegel speaks of vividly and poetically. He said to me:

You have a question as to Mr. Kemble, “Do you make me stronger or not?“ There are two things every person asks [about another]: “You please me, but do you make me stronger? You make me stronger, but do you please me?” These are terrible questions. Their terror cannot be overestimated, because the fact that something can please one and make one weaker has brought a certain sick quality to the life of man .... 

In the field of expression, enjoyment, or sex, we hope to be proud and pleased at once. Ellen Reiss hopes to be proud about her manner of taking earth—in the same way that she would take the page of a book. The difference between the two things is felt by man and woman: “I’m a different person making love from him or her who goes after knowledge.”

Mr. Siegel asked Don Kemble: “Do you think if Miss Reiss could solve this problem of somatic expression and cerebral expression, you could?” “Yes,” was the answer. “Do you think,” he continued, “if you encouraged her to be a coherent self, you’d be assisting yourself?” “Yes.” “Do you think then,” Mr. Siegel asked, “the fate of man depends on the fate of woman?”

I say swiftly here what I love Aesthetic Realism for teaching me, and teaching men and women now: The way we’ll feel we are the same person making love and going after knowledge is by using the man or woman with whom we’re close to care more for the world itself and for humanity, people as such. The way we’ll be both pleased and stronger is through wanting to use our knowing a person, our embracing that person, to be more accurate about all people and reality—not to kick out the rest of the world and feel we’ve conquered it because someone agrees that we’re superior to everything!

Mr. Siegel was, in my very careful opinion, the person who most respected the mind of both woman and man. He was the best and kindest critic of every person. He was the educator who brought forth most fully and consistently, in man and woman, intellectual and ethical strength. Year after year I was a recipient of his criticism and encouragement, and so I consider myself one of the most fortunate people in human history.

A Poem

He wrote the poem which ends this TRO in 1926. I see it as a conclusion for Poetry and Women. Certainly it stands for the first noun in that title: it is Poetry, immensely musical. As to the other noun, Women: in the poem Mr. Siegel joins some ordinary activities of a young woman, including activities of her mind, with the world as geography, earth, weather. The world, he showed in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism, is the other half of ourselves. We need to see and honor that fact; and a person who knows us needs to.

This poem, “Very Rainy Mornings,” tells about a Connecticut young woman. And the rain, the grass, the discarded newspaper, and more, are the world outside her and seem to be saying, We’re here, we’re different from you—but you’re not apart from us: we stand for your feelings too!

The verbal music of the poem has such delicacy, such intimacy, and also width, wonder. It represents the beautiful justice to people which is alive in Aesthetic Realism now, and permanently. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


To Be Herself 

By Eli Siegel

I am going to read some passages from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which is one of the great works written by a woman. It is a sustained novel. It is easily read, but it has some of the richest expression possible, and it is about the woman who wants to be herself. Mrs. Browning says a woman wants this long before the 1920s, long before Greenwich Village, long before the emancipation of women.

Women wanted to be themselves. Most often they didn’t say it, and they didn’t say it very early in any sustained manner. But in 1856 it was said, by Mrs. Browning. George Sand has said it in another way. There is a relation between two persons: George Sand and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And it is said here in a rich manner.

In the novel there is a man who is a sort of socialist, Romney Leigh, Aurora’s cousin. He wants to marry her. But she thinks he is going to use her only to help him; and she feels that although there is good work that he is doing, there is something in herself which he doesn’t see. They both go through a good deal. There is a woman who is looked on as a possible wife for Romney—she is so poor, so unlucky. There is a very bad woman who hurts her, Lady Waldemar, who is satirized. Then there is a tragedy; Romney is blind. And Aurora Leigh understands him, and he understands her, and it seems the understanding is pretty authentic.

Depth and Melody

In the first book there is a statement about babies. At this time Mrs. Browning had a baby.

I, writing thus, am still what men call young;

I have not so far left the coasts of life

To travel inland, that I cannot hear

That murmur of the outer Infinite

Which unweaned babies smile at in their sleep

When wondered at for smiling.

The passage about what “unweaned babies smile at in their sleep / When wondered at for smiling,” with its feeling of the infinite—that is very deep, and it is said with tremendous melody. It has a depth that Mrs. Woolf did not have.

There is a description of Aurora Leigh’s father. The father is not Mrs. Browning’s father, because this is autobiographical only deeply. He represents herself, by the way. He marries an Italian girl whom he sees in Florence. He doesn’t want to be the dull Englishman. This is a description of how the girl took him:

From which long trail of chanting priests and girls

A face flashed like a cymbal on his face

And shook with silent clangor brain and heart,

Transfiguring him to music. Thus, even thus,

He too received his sacramental gift

With eucharistic meanings; for he loved.

This may sound flossy, but it essentially isn’t. And it is a using of something visual as something to be heard: “A face flashed like a cymbal on his face / And shook with silent clangor brain and heart, / Transfiguring him to music.” There is no dull crinoline Victorian lady writing this.

Mothers Have Multiplicity

There is an interesting passage about Aurora’s mother. It seems that the mother was seen by her in all kinds of ways, and this is one of the most important expressions of the multiplicity of a mother. As a girl in Italy, Aurora remembers her mother, who died; and later the adult Aurora Leigh who is telling the story remembers how many ways she, as a child, saw this mother:

And as I grew

In years, I mixed, confused, unconsciously,

Whatever I last read or heard or dreamed,

Abhorrent, admirable, beautiful,

Pathetical, or ghastly, or grotesque,

With still that face ... which did not therefore change

But kept the mystic level of all forms,

Hates, fears, and admirations, was by turns

Ghost, fiend, and angel, fairy, witch, and sprite.

—Which is a way of saying that a mother was at different times a ghost, a fiend, an angel, fairy, a witch, and a sprite.

A still Medusa, with mild milky brows

All curdled and all clothed upon with snakes

Whose slime falls fast as sweat will.

How very ugly that would be! “Or anon—”: then from someone giving forth slime, she is Our Lady of the Passion!

Our Lady of the Passion, stabbed with swords;

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Or, my own mother, leaving her last smile

In her last kiss, upon the baby mouth

My father pushed down on the bed for that,— 

Or my dead mother, without smile or kiss,

Buried at Florence. All which images,

Concentred on the picture, glassed themselves

Before my meditative childhood.

This is good blank verse, but it is swift, and somehow the story is told. The remarkable thing about this is that there is a narrative. It isn’t just something that pretends to be a story and is a means only of getting in nice blank verse lines. There is a narrative; there is character; there is change of character. No wonder Virginia Woolf couldn’t stand it!

Both father and mother die, and Aurora comes to live with an aunt who didn’t like her brother’s wife. Mrs. Browning writes:

And thus my father’s sister was to me

My mother’s hater. From that day she did

Her duty to me (I appreciate it

In her own word as spoken to herself),

Her duty, in large measure, well pressed out,

But measured always.

Very neat.

There is a lovely passage—it’s amazing though—about what Aurora learned:

I learned my complement of classic French

(Kept pure of Balzac, and neologism)

And German also, since she liked a range

Of liberal education, —tongues, not books.

I learnt a little algebra, a little

Of the mathematics, —brushed with extreme flounce

The circle of the sciences ....


Very Rainy Mornings
by Eli Siegel


How tired a girl may be who over Connecticut fields has gone

And who near grass has been at six o’clock in the evening thinking of a Hartford doorstep.

She has fingered beads in a parlor in a summer afternoon,

And has listlessly turned pages of a 1921 novel.

She has heard bands, noisy in mornings, heard them through a window,

And now she is two days from rain.

She thinks of Paul, she sees Paul, as after six o’clock she is nearer to Hartford.

She walks past part of a newspaper lying on the cold ground.

And she has been to school in very rainy mornings.

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