The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Tumult about Strength

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are honored to publish here two poems by Eli Siegel. And we print part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein presented recently at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What Makes a Man Truly Strong?”

Everyone, of course, wants to be strong, in both body and character. With the proliferation of exercise machines and fitness centers, the going after physical strength is more intense and elaborate now than at any time in history. The increased interest in having one’s body strong is certainly a fine thing. And it is possible that an excess focus on it, the narrow, heated concentration a person also can have on the firmness of one’s physique, comes from the feeling in him or her that there is something too flabby in how one sees, something limp, wobbly, wishy-washy in one’s ethics and interest in knowledge. We can want to be ever so muscular to make up for the fact that our care for truth is flaccid. We can feel excessively compelled to build up our bodies because we’re ashamed that our interest in the world is weak, lacking in vigor and tone.

The subject of strength—like every other subject people are vitally concerned with—won’t be understood without this great principle, the basis of Aesthetic Realism, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” There are various qualities which people feel to be the opposite of strength: delicacy, gentleness, sensitivity. And both men and women are in deep tumult, sometimes anguish, about these opposites.

I think that never before in history have men, while wanting to be strong, so consciously also gone after the opposite of strength. Today, to call a man sensitive is no longer an insult but a compliment. The same man who wants to be seen as tough-minded, determined, and physically solid also wants to be thought of as “sensitive to the feelings of others,” “caring,” “spiritual,” even gentle. 

Men have really always wanted these opposites to be one in them, and have been pained because they were not one. A man in any year has wanted to put his foot down and also love, to stand up for himself yet not be a brute. Yet today there is a greater conscious tribute being given by tough males to the gentleness/sensitivity aspect of reality. For instance: It is no longer unusual for a man with impressive muscles to seem at ease and proud taking care of a baby. And I saw attempts at poetry published respectfully where once one would be shocked to find them: in Teamster, the national magazine of the Teamsters Union. 

Women, like every instance of reality, have also always been both strong and delicate—as the atom is both, and an 18th-century sailing ship was, and a computer is. (There was an iron determination, sometimes a cruel determination, in ever so many a demure medieval maiden and Victorian clinging vine.) But the awful presenting of woman as a creature who should only be soft and yielding is pretty much over. In America in 1999, a man will generally say—even if he doesn’t like or believe this—that the mind of a woman is as strong as that of a male. And women are making it clear that their muscles can be hard too. 

Meanwhile, even as men and women are showing they want to be both strong and gentle, these opposites are still at tormenting odds in people. Power and tenderness still war within a woman; they still battle within a man. A woman does not feel she is the same person determined in her career, holding her own in an argument—and yielding in a man’s arms. She wants, she needs, both these aspects of her, but she feels in having them she is two different selves. A man who may tenderly comb his young son’s hair does not feel like the same person talking tough with his buddies about how no one is going to push him around—or yelling at this same boy not to talk back to him and to go to bed. Both man and woman feel, with the old pain of centuries, and the anguish that is just one’s own, that when we are tough we aren’t kind or sweet but mean; and when we are tenderly considerate and yielding, we’re not strong but foolish and will be taken advantage of.

The Big Interference

Aesthetic Realism explains what the biggest interference is to making sense of strength, and to having real strength. That is what Bruce Blaustein writes of here. The interference is our desire for contempt: that thing in us which Mr. Siegel so greatly showed to be every person’s biggest danger, the thing in us that hurts our mind, damages every aspect of our lives, and is the source of all our and humanity’s injustice. He defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” In thousands of ways—including wanting to be unaffected by something, wanting to look down on someone, wanting to use people for our personal profit and aggrandizement—persons feel contempt is strength. But it is a hideously false and backfiring “strength.” Contempt is, Mr. Siegel writes, “that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 362).

The Art Purpose

Men and women will be truly strong, and will have their tenderness go along with their forcefulness, when they see, through the study of Aesthetic Realism, how these opposites are one in art. Take, for example, a Hokusai print of Mount Fuji in a storm: There is a terrific boldness, solidity, thrust to the shapes in it. Yet Hokusai has made the curve of that famous mountain yielding and tender too, as it rises. He has shown that the sharp, fierce lightning is also graceful. The storm clouds, ominous, are lightsome too, have something playful about them.

Aesthetic Realism shows there is a purpose impelling every work of art which corresponds to a purpose we need. That purpose is good will, which Mr. Siegel described as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” (TRO 121). This desire—to know, value, bring out the good power in things and people—is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the greatest strength. It is the only purpose that will make us truly strong. And the having of this good will is at the same time the most subtle of jobs, the most delicate, the tenderest. It is what Mr. Siegel himself had all the time. Persons of the press and the various establishments have tried to keep his work from being known, out of fury at his honesty and at their own need to learn so much from him. Yet his unflagging, beautiful justice to reality makes Aesthetic Realism the strongest body of knowledge there has ever been—and the kindest.

The two poems by Mr. Siegel published here have his great respect for things. Mr. Siegel saw, and felt, and showed that once a thing is, it can never be annulled, never really die, for it is a fact, part of all reality. The 1953 poem “First Time” tells us: the smoke of a train of 1880 is still real; it would be real this minute even if no one thought about it. But Mr. Siegel does the smoke the kindness he showed all things look for and deserve: the kindness of being thought about truly—“noticed.” The poem is two lines of free verse, beautiful in their oneness of weight and vibrancy, factuality and wonder.

Mr. Siegel wrote “Forevermore,” of 1970, in a form that is so different: two 3-line stanzas in which the meter of every line is strictly iambic—but the 1st line has 3 beats; the 2nd has 4; the 3rd has 5. The poem says, with a terrific firmness that is also sweet freedom and joy, that this spring, for all its passingness, will be part of reality always—a flower, a lovely “now” can never really fade.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Poems by Eli Siegel

First Time

The smoke moved with the train that day in 1880.

For the first time, in a long time, that smoke is noticed.

Forevermore

It is the spring of now. 

We’ve had the spring of yesterday.

That flower there is of the moment’s spring. 

What’s now will soon be gone. 

That’s neither here nor there, my friend. 

The now of spring will be forevermore.


What Makes a Man Strong?

By Bruce Blaustein

I am grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that what makes a man truly strong is his wanting to know the world, to be honestly affected by it, and to have a good effect on the world and people. But men have had another notion of strength: the feeling, I’m big because I can look down on you. This feeling— contempt—inevitably weakens a person. 

The Early Mix-up about Strength

When I was eight, I was thrilled learning from my piano teacher to play simple songs. As my fingers followed the notes, I was being affected by reality’s opposites—high and low, slowness and speed, sameness and difference—and I felt strong. But when Billy Silverman began to play better than I did, I hated it. Once at his house, as I watched Billy’s fingers move gracefully, playing Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” I became angry and hoped he would make a mistake. When he didn’t, I told myself, “Who needs to play this stupid music anyway?” I never had another piano lesson. Because my purpose was to beat out Billy, to feel strong by being superior to him, I was unable to be affected by this beautiful music. My trying to be strong through having contempt continued to weaken my ability to see meaning in people and things. There was a power I went after that was quicker than working to be fair to something: I prided myself on getting anyone to smile. I felt the “Blaustein charm” was the answer to anyone’s questions. I saw other people’s weakness as my strength, because through it I could be indispensable to them. Inwardly, though, I despised myself. 

Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss explained why. “As you made people smile,” she asked, “was it honestly or dishonestly?” I said, “I’m not sure.” And she explained, “I think you could honestly want to cheer up people. But also, did you want to fool people and control them? Was this cheerfulness a way of running the world?” “I think it was with me,” I answered. 

I was learning the reason for so much of the pain in my life: that what I saw as an asset—my ability to have a big effect on people while I thought they were weak and foolish—was the very thing that made me feel so bad. 

Like many sons, I had exploited the difficulties of my parents. Instead of trying to understand what my father felt—why, for instance, he could be the life of the party, and then become gloomy, not talking to anyone—I cursed God for giving me a confusing, undependable father. I remember very early feeling strong by having revenge on him. Often, when he tried to talk to me about friends, school, Little League, I became stony, bent on making him feel he was a failure. 

Once, when I heard my parents quarrel because there was not enough money to pay the mortgage, I triumphantly smashed my glass piggy bank into pieces, placed the money in my mother’s hand, and said, “Mommy, it’s all I have, but I hope this will get you out of the mess he got us into!” David Blaustein was devastated. He looked at me and said, “Why do you hate me so much?” Momentarily, I felt like a hero; right after, I felt cheap and cruel. 

By the time I was 20, I was often nervous, restless, and spoke in rapid, broken sentences. I was unable to concentrate, and reading a book became a painful chore. Learning, Aesthetic Realism explains, stands for our desire to be affected by the world and have it become us. 

A Father, Seen Anew 

When I began to study Aesthetic Realism, the thing that stopped me from liking the world and being affected by it truly—my contempt— was criticized. And as I saw that respecting the world and people was a much greater pleasure, I began to feel strong in the true sense of the word! For the first time, I began to ask what my father cared for, how he saw things. And so one day, driving on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, he spoke about his big feeling about baseball; and also about the day when, as a teenager, he waited in line at the Paramount to see his favorite singer, Frank Sinatra. He spoke about meeting Anne Cohen, a 17-year-old girl from the Bronx. He said, “She swept me off my feet, she was so beautiful and full of life.” Anne Cohen would become his wife, and my mother. 

It was a new experience, honestly wanting to know and be affected by my father. I felt strong. I cherish the conversations we have had in these years, and I can say something I once never could: I love David Blaustein. He wrote in a letter to Ellen Reiss: “Through Bruce’s study of Aesthetic Realism, I have the son I always hoped to have. We have a friendship that we never could have had.”

Strength in Love

When I first met Lauren Phillips almost 19 years ago, the whole world looked better to me through her. But I regret that as I was so affected I didn’t feel strong; instead, I felt I was losing my autonomy. Under the guise of being “useful,” I would lecture Lauren about her shortcomings and look for reasons to be less affected. This did not cause her to feel warmly towards me, and we stopped seeing each other. But I couldn’t stop thinking about her. In an Aesthetic Realism class, when I said I still cared for Lauren but was afraid that if I asked her out something would go wrong again, Ellen Reiss asked me, “Do you want Lauren Phillips to know you?” And she asked, with humor but also depth, “Do you want to bear the scrutiny of a woman 24 hours a day? Do you want a woman to see all?” I was learning that one of the big ways a man is strong in love is feeling the world represented by a woman deserves to know who he is. I am proud to need Lauren Phillips, who is now my wife! 

Aesthetic Realism is the education that can make for a strong, beautiful way of seeing people and things everywhere.