The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Need to Know a Person

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we conclude our serialization of the 1952 lecture Some Women Looked At, by Eli Siegel. In it, discussing literary and historical passages about women, he shows that every woman stands for the world itself. Every person does, and not in some mystical, high-flown way—because the opposites that make up reality are in everyone. Women throughout the years and now have been mixed up, sometimes tormented, by such opposites in us as yielding and assertion, depth and surface, gentleness and strength. This great lecture is an illustration of the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

We also print part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll presented at a recent public seminar. The subject was “Mistakes Women Make in Love—What Are They, & Is There an Answer?”

The hero of this issue of TRO is The Need to Know a Person. And one of the greatnesses of Aesthetic Realism is that it explains something said nowhere else: What’s necessary for love between two people to fare well and what’s necessary for economics (that seemingly impersonal, unromantic thing) to fare well, are the same. Further, the trouble in love and the cruelty and inefficiency in world economics have the same cause.

The Fight—in Both Love & Economics

The constant fight in everyone is between seeing the world as something to know, and seeing it as something to own—a place in which to conquer things and persons, manage them, make them subservient to oneself. It’s the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality.

A woman tonight, Bridget, will tell herself she’s in love. She’ll feel a swirl and flush as she thinks of Ryan. She’ll long to have him kiss her, touch her, to see his lips tremble as he looks at her. Yet she’s not interested in knowing him. To think, for instance, about how he sees his mother, or a friend, or a person in his office, doesn’t occur to her. And if it did, she’d find the subject boring—also insulting, because she feels the main thing in his life, the overriding thing, should be Bridget.

She doesn’t understand why she gets agitated in relation to Ryan, unsure, jealous, why she’s ill-natured and snappish with him even though she tries not to be. The reason is: she deeply dislikes herself for her purpose with him—which is to own a human being and have him make her important. That is what she really sees Ryan as existing to do.

Despite their fervent lovemaking, this representative couple has not seen knowing the reality within each other—in its vividness, depth, width, subtlety—as mattering. That’s why they’ll quarrel increasingly; each will feel angry and ashamed; each will be more bitter and less hopeful about love.

The Same Mistake

All the economic cruelty of the centuries has come from the same mistake Bridget has made. She has had the profit motive in relation to Ryan. The profit motive in economics is: I should use people in such a way as to make myself important, comfortable, prosperous; I don’t need to think about who they are and what they deserve. “The world,” writes Mr. Siegel,

was meant to be known, to be felt, not to be parcelled out into huge segments or lesser segments for the complacent but deleterious delectation of some and the domination and manipulation of others....We can own the world only by knowing it....All other possession, both in love and economics, is false and hurtful.*

I love those sentences. I think they’re beautiful prose and beautiful science. The one thing, Aesthetic Realism explains, that will make the US economy finally fare well is for it to be based on good will: on seeing people as to be known, not beaten out; on asking and answering the question “What does a person deserve by being a person?” That’s the same question Bridget needs to like asking, and lingering on, and answering as to Ryan.

There is much more to say about the relation of love and economics. But Aesthetic Realism understands both and shows there is a basis in common—and I see that as an immeasurably and joyfully important fact.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Unknownness in Everybody

By Eli Siegel

All the women I’ve read about today should be understood, and their relation to the unknown and the mysterious should be felt. The only way to see that relation is to see the aesthetic problem always there. So it is fitting to close this dealing with some women by reading the most famous passage in English about the mystery of woman: the passage dealing with the Mona Lisa, in Walter Pater’s essay on Leonardo da Vinci. There is the beautifully unseen woman. I have read this before, but it is still as lovely as ever. It has been quoted a good deal, but it is a highpoint in the music of English prose—also the subtlety of English prose.

The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all “the ends of the world are come,” and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed!...

You Are a Thief

This description is a mighty tribute, and it is a warning to people about the unknownness in everybody. As soon as you think you know a person before you do, you are a thief, because you have denied things that are in that person, for your own purposes. Not to know a person and to act as if one does, is a criminal deed; nefarious, though secret.

A great tribute to women is the fact that men sometimes, without being conscious of it, have acted as if the world were being seen through them. This has been done sometimes without the woman’s willingness; but anyway, there has been a fumble towards accuracy.

There are two ways of getting rest. One is the way of going after comfort so that you don’t see anymore. The other is the saying, “Yes, I acknowledge the mystery, and acknowledging it, I want now to see it in a still way”—but there isn’t a notion that all those things unknown have been settled.

Pater gets physiological in a sense, and relates the “cell” and the “flesh” and the “deposit” to such things as “fantastic reveries and exquisite passions”—an interesting collocation. Then he says that in the Mona Lisa the various ancient aspects of women come together. It isn’t quite true. But the “white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity” do seem simple compared to this very thoughtful Giaconda. There are subtlety and strangeness in the Leonardo work.

All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias.

You could object to phrases like “the animalism of Greece ” and “the lust of Rome,” but the main drift is true: that within this idea of Leonardo da Vinci, a meditative quality and an energetic quality are present, and they seem to have a common source. The sentence, however, is more notable for its use of the word and its music than for its strict historical precision.

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.

She “has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her”: she represents the secret and the sunny, the day and the feeling of the deep sea. “And trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants”: she has been businesslike too.

We have Leda, the beloved of Jupiter. She was the mother of Helen of Troy, who stands for beauty and what it can do. Then there is Saint Anne, the mother of Mary. And that mingling is something. Well, Helen of Troy could go through things and Mary could go through things. And if Helen of Troy and Mary are both in a woman and they don’t get along—that woman can go about shouting. But the woman in the painting takes all these complications and contraries quite nicely: “all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes.” She has taken it well. And all that history is in the way Leonardo da Vinci has shown the eyelids and the hands and the “changing lineaments” of her face.

     So she stands for everything. Standing for everything has its ridiculous side. To stand for many things means often that you can’t stand for one thing. Chekhov has made fun of that in his story “The Darling.” Yet there is a possibility of standing for many things and being firm anyway.

In All People

In this talk I have presented women not in all ways, because there is very much more to be said. There are all kinds of women and all kinds of dealings with women. But I think the picture presented has had the main points.

   When we see that woman as representing reality can be all this, I think we can get humble, because every one of the things that woman represents is in all women and, in a way, in all men. And when we see that these diverse things are in a person—a person between five feet, maybe a little under, and six and a half feet and more; that is, woman and man—we should get a respect for the subtlety of reality. And in having a respect for that, we get a respect for possible subtlety in ourselves—the subtlety which, not respected, can give so much pain. Then, in seeing the subtlety without fear, and willingly, perhaps a simplicity that is honest will emerge.


Women’s Biggest Mistake in Love

By Carol Driscoll

Once, I wanted to sweep under the rug every mistake I’d made in love. I tried to fix all the blame on men, but I was very troubled, feeling, “Why does every relationship end like this? I must be doing something wrong.” Then, in a class early in my study of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel asked me, “What is that which every person finds difficult? We all,” he said, “have a sense that we may not have been perfect.” And he asked whether I thought we should try to know our mistakes fully “or skip along and forget them.” He continued:

Aesthetic Realism thinks that criticism of oneself is the kindest thing one can have for oneself. The more we see a mistake fully, the lighter we feel. A mistake should be seen as fully as a painting.

Women need to know that our biggest mistake, the chief interference with our ability to love truly, is our desire to have contempt, to build ourselves up through lessening other people and things. And contempt takes many forms. The purpose of love is to like the world—not to have a victory over it.

My study of Aesthetic Realism enabled me to look critically at my mistakes in love, to understand why I made them, and to learn from them. The self-respect and happiness this has made for are tremendous.

We Mistake Flattery for Love

In an issue of TRO, Ellen Reiss explained:

The beginning mistake about love is the feeling, in both man and woman, “I don’t like the world. But here’s an impressive person whom I can get to make me seem more important than the whole world. Through this person’s adoration and also body, I’ll feel I’ve at last got the world on my own terms.” [TRO 1099]

That describes me in my mid-twenties, living in Boston. For instance, when a man I was dating, Philip Stone, took me to a romantic restaurant on Cape Cod, and purchased a very expensive bottle of French wine, telling me that we would return in five years and open it together, I was wowed: “He’s spending all this money on me!” As he looked into my eyes, other people in the room became shadowy and irrelevant. I also can’t remember a word of what else we talked about.

We never did return to open the wine, and when we parted some months later, it was anything but romantic. “I never want to see you again, you s.o.b.!” I shouted at him as I slammed his car door, in a mingling of tearful, frenzied anger and shame.

Some years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel asked me, “Do you want to be a better person?” I said tentatively, “I think so.” “Are you sure,” he asked, “or do you want to have one victory after another?” I learned that I’d suffered because I’d used men’s approving of me to puff myself up while making other things meaningless. This was my biggest mistake about love. Mr. Siegel explained:

Your purpose in caring for a man is to care for reality. Reality is hard to understand. It is variegated and changeable. But reality is still your greatest love.

Learning about my mistakes and what real love is, enabled me to see value in a man and to love him. He is Harvey Spears, an art director, Aesthetic Realism associate, and my husband. Among the reasons I love Harvey is that he’s a kind critic of me. He wants me to be a better person. And when he criticizes me—for example, saying, “You’re too impatient, Carol; it doesn’t show enough respect when you get annoyed because you can’t understand something right away”—I listen, learn, and am very grateful to him. I’ve come to see that what Aesthetic Realism explains is true: criticism with good will is the same as love!

Aesthetic Realism Consultations

Nicole Morris is studying for her BA degree at night while holding down a full-time job as a computer programmer. Like other women, she has hoped for love, and she has made mistakes, including with Raymond Butler, a man she met at school.

She told her Aesthetic Realism consultants, “It was exciting when I met him.” And she described a very popular, albeit mistaken, notion of love: “when the sparks fly.” However, after some months they’d broken up, and Ms. Morris had been puzzled and pained. Now she wanted to understand what had happened.

Consultants. So we’ll ask: if you had to put it in one sentence, what mistake do you think you made with Raymond Butler?

She told us, almost in a whisper, “I think I wasn’t interested in knowing him really.” “That’s true,” we said, “but are you sure you think that was the mistake?” We pointed out that a woman usually feels: she didn’t play her cards right—that was her mistake. And we asked, “What do you think it means to know a person?”

NM. I think it means sincerely listening to him, being interested in what he’s saying, not pre-planning what you want to say. I mean—I’m really not sure. 

Consultants. It doesn’t begin with what a person says. It’s wanting, as the first thing, to think deeply about someone. The only basis for loving a person is wanting honestly to know him, and that means wanting to see a man’s relation to other things, not just to oneself.

We asked, “What motive might a woman have that interferes with knowing someone?” And we read these sentences from “Love and Reality,” chapter 7 of Eli Siegel’s Self and World:

Ted met [Selma] on June 12; and on June 16 he called her “Wonderful.” Selma wanted all her life to be called wonderful and here was someone whom she had not known at all five days before using this proud adjective to describe her. [P. 179]

“I’m identifying,” Ms. Morris told us. “This is about me.”

Consultants. Nearly every woman makes this mistake. She wants a man to tell her she’s wonderful, even though, as Mr. Siegel describes, she hasn’t gathered sufficient evidence to feel that’s true. Do you think if you see that’s what you’ve been after, it will be crystal clear that it’s an insufficient basis for love?   

What stands for you more: creating a romantic, idyllic picture of a man who praises you, or wanting to have a strengthening effect on a person? 

NM. Definitely, wanting to have a good effect.

About her study of Aesthetic Realism, she wrote to us: “This is making for new hope about love, and I’m very thankful for it.” 

* Self and World (NY: Definition Press, 1981), pp. 279-280.

† The names have been changed.