The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Tumult about Lightness and Heaviness

Dear Unknown Friends:

In the present section of the historic lecture Poetry and Technique, which we are serializing, Eli Siegel speaks definitively about what has been called “light verse.” And through the difference between light verse that is true poetry and light verse that is not, we can see something of how great, kind, intensely and achingly needed is this 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.” For every day, people are tormented about the opposites of lightness and heaviness.

A young man in Denver can feel weighed down by his thoughts. His confusion about women, work, money, family, about whether he is really useful to anyone and whether anyone has real meaning for him, sometimes affects him like lead, pressing upon him. Then, he can go after being ever so light: can crack one joke after another with his friends; can try to feel nothing really matters: you take things as they come, you laugh and have a “good time” and don’t let anything get to you deeply. After week-ends spent this way, he feels miserably empty and ashamed.

Millions of people in America now are shuttling between a feeling of painful heaviness and the empty giggle or guffaw. And Aesthetic Realism says, so kindly: What you want is what art has—a oneness of opposites. You want to feel that you are light-hearted, not through getting rid of meaning, but because something means a very great deal to you. You want to feel that because you are trying with all of yourself to understand and be fair to something or someone, to give that thing or person respectful weight, you are at once happily grounded and buoyantly free. I am proud to say, with gratitude equivalent to my very life: through Aesthetic Realism, people can have at last that ached-for state of mind and feeling.

Since the distinction between light verse that is real poetry and light verse that is not, represents the difference between the life we want and the life we don’t want but may have—it is necessary to see what that distinction is. So let us look a little at a poem by a person Mr. Siegel here calls “not a poet,” the witty and famous and suffering Dorothy Parker. This is titled “Comment”:

Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,

A medley of extemporanea;

And love is a thing that can never go wrong;

And I am Marie of Roumania.

We Want Meaning Too

This quatrain is, from one point of view, well done. It has irony. It tells us that a wide-eyed, gushing praise of life is fake; and it does so through three exuberantly bounding utterances—followed by a fourth that fits rhythmically and rhymes, but sardonically negates the others through being patently false.

The quatrain is likable. Yet it will leave people feeling as unclear, bitter, and empty as they were before they met it, and perhaps more so. And the reason is that while we want to be as skeptical as possible, while we want fakery punctured, while we want to see how meaningless life can be—we also want meaning with our meaninglessness. We want to see beautiful sense in things even as we’re seeing all the falsity and pain life can give. And—because the writer did not see truly enough—the way this poem is made, the relation of word to word, syllable to syllable, does not make for that depth within the lightness, that richness within an awareness of emptiness, that we thirst for in order to feel our lives have sense and wholeness.

I present for comparison the first stanza of an instance of light verse that is true poetry, “The Policeman’s Lot,” from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance:

When a felon’s not engaged in his employment,

Or maturing his felonious little plans,

His capacity for innocent enjoyment

Is just as great as any honest man’s.

Our feelings we with difficulty smother

When constabulary duty’s to be done.

Ah, take one consideration with another,

A policeman’s lot is not a happy one.

These lines of W.S. Gilbert present the view, with which Aesthetic Realism agrees, that a criminal is not entirely different from someone who is not a criminal. There can be terror in the fact that a man who may hold up six people at knife point on 35th Street tomorrow has much in common with you. He may like the same music you do, and look for love as you look for love. Further, Aesthetic Realism shows, what enables someone to do something criminal is that which all people have: contempt. Mr. Siegel described contempt in the following great principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” And he showed that this ordinary making less of what is not ourselves is the beginning of every cruelty. That fact is illustrated here by Aesthetic Realism consultant Dale Laurin: we publish part of a paper he presented in October at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar, “Does a Man’s Contempt Make Him Strong or Hurt His Mind?”

W.S. Gilbert Meets Our Hopes

Meanwhile, there is the Gilbert true light verse. It is, in its way, as breezy as the Dorothy Parker quatrain; and at least as chilling—for there is nothing more chilling than the confusion of good and evil. Yet in these lines are the richness and sense of the world. That is, we see and hear reality’s opposites as one—and as we do, we hear poetic music, and feel the world has meaning.

In the first line, the activity of a person standing for evil, a “felon,” is made quite everyday and businesslike in the dignified, innocent phrase “engaged in his employment.” Through a rhythm in words that is factual, reasonable, evil and innocence are wed in this line. They are made matter-of-factly, scarily, rather thrillingly the same and different. And running through the line, heard five times, joining the business-like part and the criminal part, is the eh sound—like a person’s struggling to make sense of something. The line is light, and it is deep, at once—as we long to be—and as we do, we hear poetic music, and feel the world has meaning.

The second line has, along with its comedy, a richness: “Or maturing his felonious little plans.” It has—with rs, ls, with its full-sounding, even mouth-watering words maturing and felonious—a relish, and you do not know if that relish is innocent or evil. The way felonious ripples with a certain rightness into little makes one feel felonious must mean something much nicer than it does. But to feel the rightness and evil of the world as the same even while we know they are different; and to feel this sameness and difference, rightness and wrongness, making sense and music in a line, is to have that state of mind which Aesthetic Realism shows we were born to have: it is to like the world.

People have hoped to feel weighed down in order to have contempt for the world: because there is a triumph in feeling that this world consists of one burden after another and we are too sensitive and good for it. And people have “made light” of things out of contempt: for there is a triumph in showing that things mean nothing to us—we are above them all. Meanwhile, the feeling that lightness and seriousness or weight cannot go together in this life, makes for a deep agony. Aesthetic Realism grandly ends this agony.

Eli Siegel himself was the most respectfully, courageously serious person in history—he wanted to be and was fair to every person and thing—and his humor was magnificent. The philosophy he founded is, forever, the means for people to have true lightness of heart—which arises from the world seen, with resplendent seriousness, as a friend.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Lightness and Depth

By Eli Siegel

It would be interesting to have a complete study of why Matthew Prior of the 18th century—seen as the beginner of light verse—is a poet, while a very popular writer of light verse, Margaret Fishback, is not. Dorothy Parker, too, though she did write so many quoted things, is not a poet—and I respect many things that she did.

When light verse is very good, it has in it depth: there is a mingling of religion and elegance. This poem—“A Song”—of Prior shows that; there is nothing overtly clever about it:

In vain you tell your parting lover,

You wish fair winds may waft him over.

Alas! what winds can happy prove,

That bear me far from what I love?

Alas! what dangers on the main

Can equal those that I sustain,

From slighted vows, and cold disdain?

Be gentle, and in pity choose

To wish the wildest tempests loose:

That thrown again upon the coast,

Where first my shipwrecked heart was lost,

I may once more repeat my pain;

Once more in dying notes complain

Of slighted vows, and cold disdain.

This is light, but there is a throb in it. A word like cold meeting a word like disdain, as placed here, is very effective. And as you hear the first line, “In vain you tell your parting lover,” you have a feeling of air taking on meaning. That is the real thing; there are lightness and heaviness there. And the metre is ordinary: it is iambic with an extra syllable.

In technique there is a putting together of words—as, for example, in the two words “Ah, wilderness.” This comes from FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and O'Neill used it as a title for a play. The reason that phrase is so taking is the simplicity of the sigh in “Ah,” and then the confusion in “wilderness.”

And wherever there is technique, there is a placing of ease and difficulty. That is important, because ease and difficulty are two ways of the world. We can look upon the world as panting, working hard. When we think now of some places in Asia and the Middle East, we think the world is gasping and confused. On the other hand, spring will come, and it’s easy. The putting together of ease and difficulty is part of technique; but again, we must be like the world in order to put together the opposites in the world.


Contempt: The Weakener

By Dale Laurin

I am grateful to Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism with my whole heart for their ground-breaking understanding of what contempt is, and for showing it is the greatest weakener of a person’s mind and very life.

In his preface to Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes: “Every child has this debate: Shall I...see the world as magnificently and as delicately as possible; or shall I see the world as the material for victories for just me?”

Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, I liked looking at objects and drawing them. I remember, when I was 8, looking at a huge oak tree and wondering if I could ever represent this tremendous thing on paper—its height, its depths, its massive trunk sending out branches in every direction, and the definite yet irregular and constantly changing round shape created miraculously by what seemed like a million leaves shimmering in the summer sun. But I also had a desire to “see the world as the material for victories for just me.” For instance, I saw early that I could use food to have power over my parents. More than a little finicky, I insisted that my mother cook special dishes just for me, most of which I turned my nose up at. Meals became dramas centered around me, with my parents coaxing, bargaining, begging their skinny son to eat, while I picked at my food or sat like a stony potentate.

Aesthetic Realism explains that eating is a basic means of liking the world, of having it literally become part of ourselves. But a child can also see food as standing for a world that doesn’t let him have his way—and through food he will conquer it. As time passed, my narrow, snobbish way of seeing continued—and took in much more than food.

I regarded people with different tastes or manners as strange and inferior. I regret the scorn I showed whenever our neighbor Mrs. Dione offered me one of her homemade Italian dishes, which I would love today but refused even to taste then. It was not a big jump from having contempt for her cooking to having contempt for the whole Dione family and “people like them,” as I put it—which was just about anyone who wasn’t of Northern European ancestry: in other words, anyone not like us.

It is quiet thoughts like these, I learned, that lead to racial hatred and national policies of “ethnic cleansing.” “Where do...biases begin?” writes Ellen Reiss in issue 1115 of The Right Of   “...The answer is: the desire for contempt[,] ...the ordinary yet infinitely dangerous feeling, If something different from me is less—if I can look down on what I am not—I am more!”

I learned it was my contempt that increasingly made me nervous around people, and was also the cause of the boredom, dullness, tiredness I felt. Aesthetic Realism taught me how to see the world and people accurately, and this revolutionized my life! I had new respect and wonder about things and people as I saw they put together opposites I wanted to have one in myself. I noticed the way delicate raindrops struck a windowpane with great force; the way a compass—a drafting tool I had taken for granted in my job—unites point and wide circumference; the way people quietly sit in a subway car while speeding down the tracks.

And far from my losing myself—being interested in people made me stronger, prouder, more myself. I am so grateful to feel this every day of my marriage to Barbara Buehler, whose criticism, encouragement, and love of Aesthetic Realism I love! Because of the magnificent knowledge of Aesthetic Realism, people no longer have to be run by contempt!