|NUMBER 1304.—April 1, 1998||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We begin to serialize Poetry and Practicality, a lecture Eli Siegel gave nearly 50 years ago. It is great in literary criticism, and in the understanding of that most treasured and worried about thing—your own self. We print too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Len Bernstein, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this February: "Ego or Justice?—the Raging Fight in Every Man."
Aesthetic Realism shows that those two subjects, justice and the practicality of poetry, are the same subject! The practicality Mr. Siegel mainly speaks of in the present lecture is, he says, the customary notion of practicality as the utilitarian and unfanciful. But he is the critic who showed that every good poem, no matter how strange its subject, is practical in the most urgent sense.
The reason is in this principle stated by Mr. Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." All humanity's cruelty has come from people's seeing two opposites as apart: what's just to other things and what takes care of me. The way of mind which Mr. Siegel identified as the source of all the unkindness on this earth—Contempt—pits those crucial opposites against each other: contempt is the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." But poetry shows those opposites are one: that to be just to the outside world is the same as expressing oneself. There is nothing people more desperately need to know: because unless we see justice as self-importance, we will want to exploit another—including economically—and be superior, including as to race.
Mr. Siegel showed what some critics hoped could be true but no critic before him saw: beauty and practicality are the same thing!; beauty and justice are the same thing! I love Mr. Siegel for showing this—with immense richness and utter fidelity. The Aesthetic Realism way of seeing poetry is what I love most in the world.
Justice is a oneness of opposites: point, or particularity, and width. To be just to a person is to want to see who that person, in his terrific specificity, is: to want his feelings—so particular and keen to himself—to be real to us. But to be just to this person is also to see that he is ever so wide, infinitely related: so much history, before his birth and after, has gone to the making of that point which is himself; he has in his mind places, sounds, words, leaves, shapes, colors, hopes; he is not merely how he may annoy us, or praise us.
And mostly, people withhold this justice, with its two aspects, from others. People don't want to see either who another precisely is, or what he has to do with everything—the whole world. In both love and the less intimate aspects of life, we mainly see people in terms of how nice they are to us: we judge them on whether their existence brings us importance, makes us comfortable. And that is horrible.
Poetry Is Justice
Look at the first line of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Pied Beauty":
Glory be to God for dappled things.
That line, not only in the meaning of its words, but in its sound, represents what justice is. As Hopkins speaks in this poem about things that are spotted ("pied"), he begins with a phrase of terrific width: "Glory be to God." Those wide sounds reverberate, reach, and also leap exuberantly. But what do they go toward, what are they about? A phrase so different from that bounding largeness—a phrase about items, the sound of which has a tender particularity one can almost touch: "for dappled things." Here the flat a, the d, p, th, ng have a feeling of texture, delicate friction, caress—of tactile, beloved, immediate thingness.
"Glory be to God for dappled things" is justice so much meant that it is musical. Poetic music, Mr. Siegel showed, is the chief thing distinguishing a true poem from something that may look like poetry but is not. Poetic music is reality's opposites heard as one, through words. The music shows justice is beautiful—is profound and sweeping delight.
The Justice of Alexander Pope
We hear that oneness of width and particularity, which is justice in every instance of good poetry. Take a couplet of Alexander Pope, from "The Rape of the Lock" (III, 21-22), a couplet about awful injustice. Pope says judges will condemn someone hurriedly to death in order to get to dinner in time:
The hungry judges soon the sentence sign,
The particularity of something and the width of the world are inseparable in this couplet. For instance, there is a painful contraction in the sound of "wretches hang" which makes you feel them. "Hungry judges," with its repeated pit-of-the-stomach uh sound, has contraction in another way—the contraction of selfishness—and the corporeal: we feel those judges.
But along with the intense, organically felt particularity in these lines, there is a something else. The way the sound of "hungry" is like and different from the sound in "hang"; the way the thoughtful meaning of "judges" is so different from the bodily meaning of "hungry" yet the words are made to be of each other; the way "wretches" and "sentence" have a likeness in sound; the way rhyme makes the two so different lines also akin—all this makes for a feeling of wonder, scope, even grandeur. The reason is, we are hearing in an arrangement of words the Sameness and Difference of reality itself. Pope is just—all poetry is—to the world itself: we feel and hear its structure, the oneness of opposites.
Eli Siegel's own passionate, unwavering, and graceful justice to the world made him, in my opinion, the most beautiful person who ever lived. We see some of that justice in the paragraphs that follow; his prose, spoken prose, is beautiful. Persons of the press resented his greatness of intellect and ethics, seeing it as an interference with their egos. But the justice of Aesthetic Realism is what every human being longs to meet, and to learn from.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Poetry and Practicality
By Eli Siegel
One of the things Aesthetic Realism sees as true is that all poetry is practical. However, in the minds of those who think themselves "poetical" or "literary," and also those persons who do not see themselves as poetical, there is a rift of importance between the poetic and the practical.
Assuming the practical means that which enables one to attain one's desire: if poetry corresponds to a desire, and that desire is attained through poetry, then poetry is practical.
But practical has another meaning: it is the quality making for the attainment of a desire which is attainable. A practical desire would be a desire which is of this world and based on fact, and which would employ means that are of this world and also based on fact. So the practical means that which exists and can be got in a way that is not strange or unexpected or in any way out of this world.
The practical can be said to be that which makes a chair practical: we have a desire to sit down; a chair will give us the opportunity to sit down. We have a desire to sleep; a bed gives us a chance to attain that desire. We have a desire to eat; eggs give us a chance to attain that desire. So a chair, a bed, eggs are all practical. They are things of this world and serve a desire which is a desire that one can see. The impractical has been seen as that which is not of the everyday.
All that would be sensible if reality were only everyday. Aesthetic Realism sees reality as of every day, but also as of a day that one has not seen hitherto. There is something strange in the most customary reality. If you looked at an eggshell long enough, you would see it as strange. If you took a coat, a fairly good coat, and looked at it, you would find strangeness there.
Along with the disesteem for poetry had by the "practical" people, "poetic" people have also had a disesteem for poetry, because from their point of view the poetic does not take in the prosaic, the everyday, the practical. Aesthetic Realism says both the "practical" people and the "poetic" people are wrong. All poetry is a making of the wonderful practical, and of the practical wonderful. It makes the everyday a thing that is of a strange day, an unexpected day; and it takes the wonderful and infinite and brings it into the living room. They both are wrong because reality is both practical and wonderful.
Starlight shines on subway stations. What are you going to do? Are you going to say the starlight doesn't exist, and the subway stations have no right to exist? It is unwise to do so. If reality sees fit to take the form of a dejected Iowa congressman, and if it sees fit to take the form of gossamer at twilight, who are we to say reality shouldn't? Who are we to go around selecting and saying, "Look, you dejected Iowa congressman, you have nothing to do with poetry"; and then saying to the gossamer at twilight, "How delightful you are—oh, come to me: you are my relief!"? Both these attitudes are bad, because the gossamer at twilight cannot be properly appreciated without an adequate comprehension of the dejected, stoutish Iowa congressman. Both are real, and whatever is real is precise nourishment for poetry.
In this talk I am going to show that poetry has always been about the practical. It happens there is a body of poetry, the Chinese, which is delicately, mischievously, and profoundly practical. Scholars have placed the Book of Songs as having arisen about 500 BC, and I am reading from Arthur Waley's translation. This poem uses the practical for a wonderful purpose:
Anxiously chirps the cicada,
This poem can be said to be a delicate elaboration of the practical idea that seeing is believing; and that if you see things in terms of what you have hoped for, that is good. The lady says that she was ill at ease before she knew who her lord was, but now that she has seen him, things are okay. This is what the poem is about. It is a very practical poem.
The Fight: Ego vs. Justice
By Len Bernstein
The loveliest question a person has," Eli Siegel writes, "also the most insistent and most powerful," is "What is coming from me to what is not myself?" Yet "Man has so far seen himself as hindered by justice, not expressed by it. This is man's greatest misfortune" (TRO 167). That was true of me. I felt that while justice was admirable, it wouldn't get me ahead.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that a fight between ego and justice in every person begins early. I remember in first grade being very upset over losing a dollar. But when my teacher said it was found by a classmate and suggested I show my appreciation to this student, I thought, "He only gave me back what was mine! " I couldn't understand why the idea of even thanking him made me so uncomfortable. I see now I preferred feeling the world was unjust to me, to being grateful someone was kind.
Meanwhile, I had a desire to be generous. As a boy, I put away a dollar each week in a Christmas Club account so I could buy presents for the people I knew. I enjoyed thinking of what each person would like.
But in high school I felt the way to showcase my personality was to appear unaffected. And I found it difficult to concentrate in most of my classes. Then in l1th grade I fell in love with chemistry. I didn't know that there I was getting pleasure from justice: from seeing deeply a specific substance, trying to be exact. This was so different from the way I looked at people. I felt being interested in what was within a person, his or her thoughts and feelings, would corrupt the purity of my being. I know now this is why I was nervous around other students: I didn't like myself for my scorn for them.
I wanted to see myself as more refined than others, including very much my father. He (different from me) liked talking to people. He had fought with the courageous Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and was more interested in things happening in the world than I was. I'm sorry to say I took pleasure in trying to punish him and the other members of my family through being moody and acting glum.
Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel so kindly asked me, "Did you ever act as if you hadn't heard your father?" I said yes. And he asked, "Does that mean you were annulling him?" That was exactly what I had been doing. And I learned that one of the first forms of injustice is simply not to listen, to make another person like a dim shadow, less real than oneself.
In this class I told about something that terrified me, which seemed to be a recurrent dream but also a sensation I would have in a semi-wakeful state: I would be lying in bed and a coldness would creep over me. I would desperately try to move, get free - but could not. Among the questions Mr. Siegel asked was, "Is there a certain triumph in not being able to feel anything?" I said yes, I'd had it. Then he asked, explaining what I was unconsciously criticizing in myself, "Do you think it would be a triumph to take the whole world and say, 'I feel nothing'? " I answered, "Yes!" I now could criticize that triumph with clarity, and didn't have to punish myself for it so frighteningly.
I am tremendously grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism this fact—which has given me such happiness, pride, and ease: "The loveliest question a person has" is "What is coming from me to what is not myself?" When people everywhere can study Aesthetic Realism and ask this question, justice will be loved, and the world will be a kind place.
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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