The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Most Hopeful Thing in the World: Relation

Dear Unknown Friends:

We're proud to publish two poems by Eli Siegel. And with them is an article by Kevin Fennell, who is a singer with the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company and an important writer on rock 'n' roll. The article arises from a paper he presented at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "Public Self & Private Thoughts; or, Does a Man Have to Pretend?"

Mr. Fennell writes about something so constant, so little talked about, so not understood; something that makes every person ashamed, with a kind of ongoing, taken-for-granted shame. It is what Eli Siegel calls, in his essay by that title, "the ordinary doom." And Aesthetic Realism understands it and enables it to end. "If we judge from history," Mr. Siegel writes,

we are doomed not to show our feelings; not to have them known. There have been many, many persons who have lived rather long lives, and who have been in many conversations; who yet did not show what was in their minds, what feelings they truly had. When people can't show their emotion, they are disappointed and resentful.

As people go through their days with a rift between what's inside them and what they show, there is, on the one hand, the deep disappointment even as they smile, joke, act casual and assured. On the other hand, those same individuals can get a triumph in having a life within and another for show.

Every child finds early that if you keep your feeling to yourself and pretend with people, you can manage them, fool them, and have a world inside that's superior to everyone and everything. The desire to do this is part of contempt. Mr. Siegel identified contempt as the most hurtful thing in the human self. He defined it as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."

Nevertheless, no matter how indispensable seems the ability to dissever what we feel and what we show others, we can never be at ease with that separation. We long to be an integrity. We despise ourselves for not being one.

The World: Opponent or Friend?

The clever yet miserable rift between one's private thoughts and what one shows, goes on in social life, in the family, in what people take to be love. It's huge in national and international politics. In every instance the rift exists because people see the world itself not principally as something to value but as something to fight. Unless we see the world outside us as that which completes us and is akin to us, unless we see it as something we should know as a means of knowing ourselves, we'll hide from it and try to fool it. And we'll punish it and manipulate it. We'll see persons other than ourselves as existing for us to conquer in some fashion: either by getting them to make us important, or by defeating them, scorning them, making them not matter. Mostly, people go through life in a state of quiet (or not so quiet) combat with the world, punctuated by some instances of liking things.

Every person, therefore, needs to learn what Aesthetic Realism explains: the world—in all its confusion and grandeur and fearsomeness and loveliness and strangeness—is like ourselves, is the other half of ourselves. Seeing this is the only way we'll feel that our thoughts and emotions are not material to be strategic about, to keep hidden. Further, seeing the relation of ourselves to outside things and people, is the only way human beings will stop being cruel to each other—including with bombs.
So I'll comment on this Aesthetic Realism principle, which is the basis for seeing that our most inner self and the outside world are fundamentally connected: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."

Summer & Ocean

We are now in late summer. And in this season of warmth and vacations, people find things to like. But those likable things seem isolated instances, because we don't see them as showing that we're in a world that completes us and deserves to know us.

There is the ocean. People are going to it this summer. They want to be near it, and in it. A central reason why is that the ocean is a oneness of force and delicacy . The waves crash—yet their foam curls sweetly, playfully, and disappears. Everyone knows the ocean is Mighty. Yet you can put your feet into it where it meets the shore and feel this Mighty Thing gently caress your toes. Byron, in his famous passage about the ocean in Childe Harold, says it has both "bubbles" and "terror."

These opposites of force and delicacy, power and grace, might and tenderness, are the world's opposites. They are also in a Beethoven symphony, and in us. Each of us wants to have power, affect people in a big way; yet we can be troubled because we feel that as we try to show our might we're not considerate, graceful about what other people and things deserve.

Force & Delicacy in a Father

When we see that reality's opposites are in another person, we begin to see that person in a way that makes us proud. This is what happens in Aesthetic Realism consultations. Take the following, which stands for many instances:

A woman was furious with her father, who had died five years before. She saw him as a brute, out to tyrannize over her and the family. Her consultants asked: "Was your father only a brute, or did he try to be gentle in any way? Along with being so forceful, was he graceful about anything?"

The woman was very surprised. Then she said that her father could spend hours at carpentry—he was a craftsman: he wanted to get just the right curve on a piece of furniture, and just the right finish, and he handled his tools firmly but with great delicacy and tenderness. "Do you think he wanted to be powerful and gentle at once in his life too? And could he loathe himself because he wasn't—whether you saw the self-loathing or not?"

This was the beginning of the woman's changing about her father. It was the beginning of her feeling that both he and the world he stood for had meaning which added to her and which it would be good for her to know as fully as possible.

A Lake Too

A lake is different from an ocean. But this summer, as in other summers, people have gone to lakes too, and felt both stirred and calm there. A lake is a oneness of the tremendous opposites rest and motion. It seems very still. Yet it moves; it sparkles. There is activity in it—fish go about busily and lead whole lives in it. And it has plants growing in it—plants which also rest and stir.

A lake, too, can do more than just please us on a summer day. It can have us see that this world is a place in which we don't have to hide and manipulate and deceive. A lake shows that the world is like us. Reality's opposites, which the lake has, are also the very deepest things in ourselves. We, like the lake, want to be at once agog and calm. We want to sparkle and be composed. We can be distressed because motion and rest fight in us: we can go from being agitated to feeling dull. A lake, at rest and in motion at once, gives us encouragement, and hope.

In his book Self and World Eli Siegel writes, after describing opposites in a person:

There is a tremendous correspondence between the very unlimited depths of personality and the astonishing universe in its suddenness, its ordinariness, its surprisingness, its concreteness, its boundlessness. The depths, the real depths, of self, are the world. [117-8]

I love those sentences. They give the philosophic reason why it's wrong to make a rift between what's in us and what we outwardly show. "The depths, the real depths, of self, are the world"—and so we are ashamed and weaker when we try to fool and hide from that which enables us to be ourselves.

The Next Person

The next person we meet will have the opposites a lake has. A person whom we might just ignore, or someone we're in a battle with, or an individual with a background very different from ours whom we resent—each longs to have a sense of ease in his or her life, lake-like ease, yet also to be richly stirred by things. Each longs to feel composed, and simultaneously excited, interested. When we see this ache to make sense of rest and motion, we have a certain immediate respect, because we see that the person has the world itself in him or her. We can't want to scorn or hurt someone whom we see as having the structure of reality, the very opposites we have.

Now—two poems by Eli Siegel, written in 1961 and 1968. They're different from each other. But both, with logic and music, are about what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the most hopeful thing in the world: relation.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Two Poems by Eli Siegel

 

Recurrent March

The month of March is quietly for everyone,

With its winds, warmth, days, afternoons and length.

The month of March has included animals and one's regrets

As it went along to its junction with April.

There was the month of March in France, 1622,

And in New Jersey, 1622.

It is somewhat incalculable, the month of March is,

But is what it is, safely in time.

March represents the dulcet contrariety things may have; it is a mobile month; it speeds as it is humid;  it is sluggish as it ticks.

There is congestion in the month of March, in which congestion is dulcet contrariety.

It is a month that honors deprivation; it has taken a stand against ferocity.

It is time to consider the month of March as a recurrence.

March is recurrent, the way a number is, or a color or a mood.

March has represented the best startlingnesses available.

We have wanted March even as we got it.

Think of that, or that, and you will likely find it is in March.

To live in March is to live.

The third month of the year will be, acceleratedly and gloriously, for some

March represents the dulcet contrariety things may have; it is time yet; the time the universe can spare, the time the universe has.

 

Roar-Roar as Relation

Skates can be used to love the universe.

The way they roar—if delicately—on asphalt could come only from something like the universe;

And this skate-roaring-on-asphalt is so much against the pallor, the fixity of death, so familiar by now.

And if we think of a cheep-cheep of a little bird, tired perhaps,

Oh, how that cheep-cheep takes on more while we remember the said roaring of skates on asphalt.

It seems that a universe without relation couldn't function; and we have had two relations:

Of skate-roaring to the fixity of death, and of skate-roaring to the cheep-cheep of a little, perhaps tired, bird.

And everyone who knows anything about relation knows it never stops.

The skate-roaring is over, but the relations it has go on.

It is true the cheep-cheep is at the moment unheard,

But when the roaring begins again—what with boys liking to skate,

It will be good to bring out the cheep-cheep again.

It will do wonders with the roaring,

Wonders with the rigid paleness of death.

Relation is to be praised,

And relation is at the midst of anything whatsoever, like universe.

Cheep-cheep,

Roar-roar,

Stillness—

And again,

Cheep-cheep, roar-roar, stillness, roar-roar.


Public Self & Private Thoughts

By Kevin Fennell

I went through my first 29 years feeling I had to put on a show for people and keep my real thoughts to myself. What I've learned studying Aesthetic Realism changed that, as I'm happy to describe now.

The Division Begins Early

As I was growing up in Yonkers in a large family, there were times I showed what I felt inside—like when I'd laugh out loud at a funny skit on TV by Red Skelton or Jackie Gleason, or when I tried to be exact in Spanish conversation class. But watching the way my father could alternate between harshness and tenderness, and my mother between devotion and remoteness, I came to see it as wise to keep myself apart from people while acting obedient and giving them what they seemed to want.

At our frequent family gatherings, I was conscious of myself "performing" as I tried to have aunts and uncles notice how well-behaved I was. There would also be a truer performance: my sister Marion and I would sing for the company, and I wanted them to applaud me. Years later, in an Aesthetic Realism consultation, I was asked: "When you were first 'onstage' with people applauding you, did it have you care more for the people who were there, or did they become shadows who existed to applaud you?"

It was the second. In my mind I made fun of my relatives for what I saw as their foolishness and insincerity.

I soon found that people in general were not as enamored of me as my family seemed to be. This made me angry, and I increasingly withdrew even as I smiled, preferring to make myself as blank as possible rather than risk not getting instant approval. But inwardly I felt vengeful and would imagine them all humbled and in awe someday, seeing how amazing I was.

In eighth grade, I stood before an audience of eight hundred students and parents at the junior high school talent show and sang "Somewhere" and "One Hand, One Heart" from West Side Story. Though I received a lot of applause, I felt disgusted with myself the moment I walked off the stage. For the next ten years, I wouldn't sing around people, even my closest friends. I told myself I was embarrassed that I'd sung Broadway show tunes rather than rock 'n' roll, but I see now that I couldn't accept applause from people I'd been scornful of in my private thoughts.

Increasingly, I shifted my reactions and moods according to the company I was with, while maintaining in my thoughts a running monologue about people: "He's a lamebrain," "She's pushy," "Doesn't he ever shut up?" When I got together with friends from college, I tried to project the image of a witty, colorful, well-adjusted nice guy, but inside I felt a thousand miles away, and often cursed myself as a phony.

The Real Me

In Aesthetic Realism consultations, I heard questions that shone a light on the warring purposes in my mind. Because of what I learned, I got a chance to be myself, which means I got a chance at a life worth living.

My consultants asked me: "When a person is with you, do they get the real you?" I wanted to say yes, but couldn't. They asked, "Have you felt this is a world that deserves for you to show yourself to it?" I had never thought in those terms before. I realized: No—I felt "special" and untouchable by others.

I was beginning to learn that it was not other people's lack of friendliness which caused the gulf of separation I felt, but rather my own contempt, my own thirst to feel superior. My consultants encouraged me to ask myself as I was with people: Am I really trying to see what I feel right now and show it? Or am I arranging myself for some purpose—and if so, what good is it doing me? I did ask myself these questions and, to my relief and pleasure, found myself wanting to know other people and also express myself honestly to them as I had never done before. And as I learned to see that I'm related to everything through the opposites, I no longer had the feeling that the world was an alien entity from which I should sequester myself.

When I met Carol McCluer, a young woman from California who was an actress and singer, I was bowled over by her intelligence, her beauty, her honesty in talking deeply and critically about herself, her sense of humor, her care for animals, her love of literature, her respect for the principles of Aesthetic Realism, and by her sweet and steady desire to know me and do me good. Sometimes our discussions were rocky, but that was good because it countered smoothness in both of us. And as we got to know each other better, I felt I could trust Carol to want to see me as I am, to criticize me if I was untrue to myself, and encourage the best in me.

We married, and are the parents of a daughter, Sara. And our education goes on—making our lives rich, romantic, and exciting!