On Being Affected
From an Aesthetic Realism Lesson Conducted by Eli Siegel
Eli Siegel. What do you think you are going for now, Mr. Ashbery?
Jack Ashbery. I’d like to see more about myself. I’d like to understand some feelings I have.
ES. So, beginning at the beginning: do you think it’s true that in every person’s feeling about everything they are going for the oneness of opposites?
JA. I don’t think I see that well enough, Mr. Siegel.
ES. All right. I’ll try to make this vivid. To live is to master and to yield—that was said in Victorian times. You have to be affected by people, and you also have to do something with them. Now, people have a tremendous difficulty about that because they would like to manage and tell things what to do. The desire to yield, which goes along with being respectful, is not so popular with you, as it is not with most people. Do you think that is true?
JA. Yes I do—sometimes I don’t feel like yielding.
ES. Do you think, for instance, that Ms. Osborne is too refractory, and she thinks you are?
JA. That’s right.
ES. Let’s look at these opposites. The persons who yield too much feel they are sheep, and they may not be completely happy—not, at least, as people; as sheep maybe, but not as people! And also, the other way doesn’t work well. Take Ms. Osborne: do you think she likes to manage too much?
ES. All right—do you think it makes her happy?
JA. No, I don’t.
What We Have to Do
ES. This is Aesthetic Realism: Aesthetic Realism says that in your life, whatever else you do, use what comes your way to make sense out of the opposites in you. For example, right now your right arm is yielding; it’s kind of passive. But also, you’re holding that paper. Do you see that?
JA. Yes, I do.
ES. Do you feel both—the yielding and the managing?
JA. Yes. I see it in my arm and my hand.
ES. That is true about everything. It’s true about the heart. And it may be that one of the reasons sometimes bad things happen to the heart is that it doesn’t know whether to yield or to fight. I think those two terms at the moment are essential in your life.
JA. You’re correct! You know, I feel it is very hard to be affected.
ES. No, you’re affected. Can you look, for instance, at Mr. Greenberg, to your left, and not be affected?
JA. No, I’m affected. I see him, so that means I’m affected—right!
ES. It’s how you’re affected. Everything is affected. You take a sack of wet potatoes and throw something at it—it’s affected. It’s how you’re affected. You’re affected by your mother; you’re affected by Ms. Osborne. A good way of not being affected is by losing your senses, and it’s a way some people try to adopt.
JA. I find myself trying to do that at times—just not hearing, not responding when I’m called.
ES. There are persons right now in what is called a cataleptic state. A cataleptic state is felt to be a supreme triumph, where you’re not aware of anything. And the only way you’re affected is, let’s say, your skin becomes waxy and there’s a certain impression. But in terms of responding as a person, you don’t. So is that admirable?
JA. No, it is not.
ES. A pebble in a road is affected, if it’s only by the sand near it. There are various kinds of effect that can be talked about. The necessary questions for a person are: what kind of effect?—which is the quality; and how much of an effect?—which is the quantity. You would like to be affected by a picture, wouldn’t you?
JA. Yes, I would.
ES. And if you weren’t, you’d feel a loss?
JA. Yes. I’d feel left out in some way.
ES. People went to the Museum of Modern Art today in the hope of being affected, and if they weren’t they felt it was a trip wrongly taken.
JA. Yes. I go to the museum with that hope.
ES. What is said in the beginning of this lesson is that you’ll have the problem of affecting and being affected, always. Do you feel that at any moment in your life you are doing both?
JA. I’m seeing that it may go on all the time.
ES. Anybody who looks at you is affected. Mr. Greenberg, if you look at Mr. Ashbery, do you get the well-known Ashbery effect?
Ralph Greenberg. Yes, I’m getting it.
ES. It’s an effect only you, Jack Ashbery, can give. For something to be looked at means that something is affecting. I once saw a picture of a cat carrying a kitten and crossing a street, and everybody had stopped to look at her. That cat was affecting everyone in the territory.
The thing, then, to see is whether by the very nature of existence or your life, you’re trying to make a one of being affected and affecting, or yielding and mastering.
JA. I think I understand more what you mean now.
ES. This is the position of Aesthetic Realism: we have to do well with that which is inevitable—that is, we have to be affected and affecting, but we’d like to do a good job. Do you think that’s present in every problem? For instance, would you like to affect Ms. Osborne and be affected by her?
JA. Yes, I would.
ES. So I’ll ask you this: how many arguments have you had?
JA. Oh, quite a few!
ES. Do you see that even in an argument people are affecting and being affected? The chief thing in an argument is: “He likes to say things and doesn’t want to listen!”
JA. That’s right! That’s what happens.
ES. That means, “I don’t want to be affected.” Do you think she has the same problem? She doesn’t listen to you?
JA. Right. I feel she turns me off.
ES. So she also has a way of not being affected?
JA. Yes, she does. I have definitely seen that!
ES. And I should like you to look at it. Everything has the problem; a human being has it in a particular way. Do you think you have suffered because you want to be more affected by Trina Osborne, and at the same time there’s a reluctance? That happens to be the male quandary. It has been for a long time.
JA. What I feel in myself is that every time I’m affecting I go through something. It’s about yielding and being aggressive. I see myself as forcing myself—
JA. Right. I’m trying to get across something to people. And when I’m being affected, I feel that I have to be another way.
ES. How about breathing? Do you think you are inspiration and exhalation—or, as William Saroyan put it in a title, inhale and exhale? Do you think all of that is so tough to do?
JA. No. But they happen at different times.
ES. Every time you breathe you’re affecting the air: you take air, which affects you, but then as you breathe it out you affect the air still remaining. You see how close it is?
JA. Yes. I’m doing it.
Are the Opposites Inseparable?
ES. What is the relation, then, of the two—affecting and being affected?
JA. I don’t know, Mr. Siegel.
ES. The idea is that they’re deeply one. Let’s assume that a person hits the piano keys rightly: do you believe that even before he hits the keys, he was affected by the melody that he’s trying to express?
JA. Yes, I think he had to be affected.
ES. So, being affected by the melody, he can hit the keys right.
JA. In other words, something has to be going on...
ES. There has to be some impression before there can be expression. And in every way, the two things are going to be one. Now, I’m not asking you to agree; I’m simply saying that the first thing to do is to get to a sensible relation between yielding and mastering. A foreman, for example, very often has to listen to the owner. He tells men what to do, but the owner tells him what to do. —Yes, Mr. Greenberg?
RG. I find that in photography the same thing holds true: when I see something, I am affected by it before I can take a picture of it.
ES. That’s right. Are you saying the two opposites are getting closer in you, as well?
RG. They are, yes.
ES. Every person wants to have the best life. And life itself is a process of affecting and being affected. And it takes the form of yielding and mastering. —Yes, Ms. Osborne?
Trina Osborne. Mr. Siegel, the idea that before there can be expression there has to be impression—is that true about every aspect of reality?
ES. Yes. Suppose a baby cries when born—most babies do—there must have been something—and it’s been written about—affecting the baby, making it seem right to squall or cry. Take a rubber ball: the rubber ball won’t squeak unless it’s pressed. The relation of the two is part of physics—action and reaction, and motion and inertia, and so on. But it can be very subtle: on the one hand, it’s physics; it’s also the most difficult thing in life itself.
TO. Are they always equal—action and reaction?
ES. I wouldn’t say that. One can say they’re equal in a full sense because of the nature of the opposites. But suppose you give a storekeeper five dollars and he gives you 80 cents change; it means the object cost $4.20. Now, you can say the action and reaction are equal, but at the same time they’re different. Or you can kiss a person and he steps on your foot. They’re simultaneous and they’re related, but before we say equal, well—you can say it belongs to the conservation of energy, which would make everything toted up in time. But let’s go slow.
RG. Is it always impression first, and then expression later?
ES. Yes, it always is that. Before a thing can express itself, it must have gotten something from the world enabling it to do so. Let’s say you speak English—because when you were a child you heard somebody speaking English, and later you also read things. It has to do with cause and effect.
But a sensible person is one who sees beauty both in impression and expression, which is the same as being affected and affecting. Certain painters are called impressionists and certain painters are called expressionists; both can be good.
JA. Mr. Siegel, is it possible for a person to be affected and postpone the expression?
ES. Oh sure! Is it possible! Do you mean you’ve done it?
ES. Of course it’s possible. It’s like what has been in various novels: “I loved you the first time I saw you, Belinda.” “Why didn’t you tell me? It’s now 22 years later.” The field is exceedingly elaborate.
We Question Ourselves
ES. In the document you wrote for this lesson, you say:
I want to give the thing in myself that is worth fighting for a chance to grow. I have learned from Aesthetic Realism that man has an ethical unconscious. I have seen it work in myself and others.
All right, good. So how is it working now? Who feels guilty, you or Ms. Osborne?
JA. I think we both do.
ES. Who do you think more? Ms. Osborne is good at this too. She has an ethical unconscious, which is another term for conscience. Do you think she has anything against herself?
JA. Yes, I do.
ES. “I have seen it work in myself and others.” If there’s anything that can make for beauty, and we miss it, and we’re aware that there was something missed, we don’t like ourselves. —Yes, Mr. Greenberg?
RG. Does that show we’re trying to put together being affected and affecting things—that if we miss something, we don’t like ourselves?
ES. Well, there are two kinds of power. There is the power of affecting. But also, for instance, there are certain people who have power because they can recognize bird voices or bird songs. There’s a kind of power that comes from distinction—as, say, there are some people who can distinguish between one kind of wine and another. Most people think it’s just wine. There is the power of receptivity: the power of getting impressions or having responses.
Mr. Ashbery, let’s assume that somebody didn’t get any response from something that someone else got a response from: who would be stronger? Would the one getting the response be stronger?
JA. Definitely yes. Having a response is needed for a real feeling of power.
ES. Sometimes it’s the other way around, because say a little sound of the window gets some person nervous. In other words, we have the problem of excess response along with insufficient response. Have you ever felt that something wasn’t making for the response you’d like?
JA. Yes, I have.
ES. So, do you want to be more aware or less aware?
JA. I want to be more aware.
ES. That means being more affected, you know!
JA. Yes, it does mean that.
ES. The first principle is that anything can affect anything. And the effect of one thing on another can be accompanied by anything, all things, some things. And this makes for that elaborate diversity with a possible composition that is good.
So we’ll go for more composition.