|NUMBER 1383.—October 6, 1999||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great, definitive lecture Poetry and Excitement, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. And we print part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Marion Fennell, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled "Caring for People—Wisdom or Foolishness?"
At the basis of Poetry and Excitement is the central principle of Aesthetic Realism. I love this principle, passionately and critically, because it is the means of knowing at last what art truly is, and also of understanding our own intricate, thirsting-to-be-comprehended lives: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." In the present section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about the known and unknown.
So we have in this TRO those tremendous opposites of known and unknown, and Ms. Fennell's discussion of the large disinclination in people to care for people. One of the ways the two subjects meet is in the fact that we can use being painfully confused by persons early in life to feel people are not worthy of affecting us deeply. A form in which the unknown comes to a child is the fact that grownups, including parents, bewilder him: they seem to change on him in a way he doesn't understand. Some of the finest prose in English is about this feeling. It is in "The Child," chapter 9 of Eli Siegel's Self and World; and here are a few of many sentences describing a boy's bewilderment:
Joe couldn't understand why his mother, Helen, should be irritated with him .... Sometimes Helen's irritations would occur without notice, just when she seemed to be pleased with the growing and exploring Joe. It just didn't make sense. Here was some being, an important being, smiling at him; and then, some moments later, maybe just because a doorbell rang, or because something in the kitchen went wrong, acting as if she didn't care for Joe at all. [P. 218]
The way people around one can go, without a sense of coherence, from sweetness to displeasure, from wanting to hug one to being aloof, has sometimes been so confusing, so woundingly mysterious, that a child can use it to be against the world itself. A child can feel what Mr. Siegel describes the little girl Luella Hargreaves as feeling: "She felt there were spikes in gloves; and that a rose without a thorn had something the matter with it" (p. 229). Education is the making of the unknown known; and a child may use the unknown she met in the form of puzzling adults, to be against the unknown she meets as a teacher tells her about the alphabet and numbers. She may feel deeply this unknown too is something she should keep away from. She may also use her early feeling that what she doesn't understand in people is messy and hurtful, to be suspicious of the next person she sees.
What a Child Wants
Simply—we need to study Aesthetic Realism if we are to be just to children. A child wants to feel that an adult's affection and displeasure are coherent, because they have the same purpose. That purpose needs to be what Aesthetic Realism shows is the central purpose of a person's life: to like the world honestly.
When a child feels a parent's anger is not narrow, but is in behalf of justice to the world, he respects the anger. And when the child feels that the same parent's care for him is personal, yes, but is also a means of the parent's being fairer to everything, the child respects the parent. And he feels this parent's anger and affection go together!
Every child deserves to have the adults who are near him be learning something else which is vital to his well-being: Aesthetic Realism explains that the thing in each of us which damages our life is contempt. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." A person of 5 or 65 is having contempt as he changes the pain of being confused by people, of seeing them as unsteady, into the inner triumph of feeling all people are hypocrites and the world's a mess. A child wants this contempt understood, and longs to be encouraged not to have it.
It was my tremendous fortune to meet Aesthetic Realism when I was a child, because my parents were studying it. In my first Aesthetic Realism lesson, when I was 4½, Mr. Siegel was teaching me to use even the confusing unknown in people and things to see the world more truly, to see it as a friend. For example, he composed this couplet, which relates what can bewilder a child to something everyday and likable:
I looked at a changing rubber band
He asked this kind question, so respectful of a child's mind: "Do you think big people are different from little people? Everybody can get mixed up, but if you are a friend you try to have them less mixed up." I saw in Mr. Siegel, from the very beginning of my knowing him and all the years after, the most beautiful steadiness: the steadiness of complete honesty.
We can see in the toys children care for, their huge hope that what is unknown, mysterious, strange be at one with what's known and everyday. For instance: Pokémon characters are supernatural; yet in their terrific strangeness, they have the qualities of people and animals one recognizes —and some are even cuddly. Furbies are at once weird and cozy. Barney looks different from one's relatives—yet he is comforting.
What a Poem May Have
In the portion of Poetry and Excitement printed here, Mr. Siegel quotes a poem of his own, "New Souls," now published in his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. The poetry of Eli Siegel has enormous variety. There is in some of his poems a tremendous, musical simplicity. But others can accent, as "New Souls" with its rich symbolism does, the mystery things have. Mr. Siegel does not explain here what the poem is about. So I'll say, a little, what I think it may be dealing with.
Are the "new souls" the desire in us— which we usually put aside—to see the world with freshness, newness? Does the "flame" stand for the meaning in things—a meaning much larger, more burning, than people see? And does that meaning need to be seen in a straightforward way, as part of the ordinary—without getting to anything as unprosaic as "hexameters" right away? Does that flame, that meaning, move "heavily and fluffily" because it hasn't yet been seen as it wants to be?—then later, when it is seen, it comes to be agog: it "will look and perk its neck." "Renaissance pigeon" is a oneness of opposites: a pigeon has a kind of complacency about it, while the Renaissance is the grandeur of new seeing. And our complacency should change into a Renaissance.
This poem has humor. The rich, slow music of the mysterious meets the snap of the immediate. Phrases like "a day of morning and breakfasts," and "thanks till Tuesday and thereafter" have both mystery and everydayness. And I love the beautiful, simple, musical triumph in "We shall say to the new souls: / You are we."
Because persons of the press have resented the enormous scope of Mr. Siegel's knowledge and the completeness of his honesty, they have stopped his work from reaching millions of people. But the perception of ourselves and the world people long to have is in Aesthetic Realism—which humanity is increasingly meeting and will meet, and for which all humanity will say "Thanks ... thereafter."
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
One of the things that excite is the unknown world meeting the known world. In the vulgar form: get a good ghost in a manor, and you'll have excitement. Get in zombies, witches, wizards, ghosts, specters. All those things bring together the known world and the unknown world, and people will be affected, because there is something in us that is aware of something unknown. The unknown has been put in cheap novels, and in ghost stories, sometimes in good stories. But it is to be taken very seriously. And whenever we have the meeting of life and death, the meeting of what people still think of as this world and the next, there can be big excitement.
In poetry, there is something which can be said to be a world other than this, making up, with this one, the complete world. That is, the world consists of strangeness and of ordinariness, and through poetry we see how these two worlds are one and different. Even when we have realism, this happens. A woman whom if we met in the street we wouldn't be interested by —if present in a story, we find takes on a new meaning. These two worlds meet in poetry: a world which is obvious and a world which isn't obvious. And the way this is done in poetry and art is what art or poetry is about.
Sometimes the two worlds can meet otherwise. The world is more ordinary than we think, and also stranger than we think. I have written some poems where these worlds meet in a fairly clear fashion. There is one I called "New Souls." This is the meeting of the obvious and the extraordinary; and if you see it, that is good:
So that new souls can come and tell us:
Circles and tears,
Our deepest desire, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to like the world on an honest basis; and "the importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form." But also, Eli Siegel explained, "There is that in us which wants to like nothing but ourselves" (TRO 606, 607).
That describes me. With all the conversations I used to have with girlfriends, I was not really interested in knowing deeply their thoughts and feelings, what they were worried about or hoped for. Often, these conversations centered on what we wanted to buy for ourselves, gossip about other girls, or on how the young men we knew were either Prince Charmings, selfish brutes, or little boys to be taken care of. It wasn't until years later that I learned from Aesthetic Realism why I felt so terrible after these conversations, and my friends did too: it was the contempt in those talks that made us feel bad—foggy-headed, ill-natured, and exhausted, needing a nap.
Like many children, as I was growing up I used the fact that the adults around me weren't so interested in what I felt inside to put up a wall between myself and others. I saw it as smart to protect myself from being hurt by them; but I also got pleasure hiding what I felt and laughing inwardly at them. This was contempt, and came at a high price. I remember, as a girl, watching the movie Heidi and being aware that there was something wrong with how cool I was toward people. When a mean relative tries to take Heidi away from her grandfather, I cried along with her, and wished I could show that much feeling for someone!
Because the press kept people from knowing Aesthetic Realism, my desire to have contempt accelerated, as did its painful results. I had boyfriends, traveled, studied fashion—and only "cared" for people, not because of who they were, but because they made a lot of me. Anyone looking at me would think I "had it all together." But more and more I put on a show: hiding the emptiness I felt behind a smile; drinking too much; and being afraid I'd never care truly for anyone. Once, when the brother of a close friend died, I remember feeling ashamed at how unmoved I was. I never once asked my friend what she felt.
Then, near the end of 1981, I learned about Aesthetic Realism from my brother Kevin, and felt I had met at last what I was hoping for! In one Aesthetic Realism consultation, after I said I was afraid to think about a friend who was having difficulty because it would make me sad—I began to understand what my real reason was: it would take me away from thinking about my favorite subject—myself. And my consultants asked, "If you look at people [deeply], do you think you will find not just sadness? Are the elements in the drama of every person elements that will make you fuller and lighter if you see them truly?"
Yes! I learned that the world and people I had once tried to get away from are really inextricably related to me, and that every person can tell me something about my very self. All people, I learned, are a relation of opposites: sureness and unsureness, hardness and softness, energy and thoughtfulness, hope and fear. When we see our kinship to people we feel, as Ellen Reiss said in a class, "Encouraging a person is the utmost in selfishness."
What I have learned has given me such a happy life, with a mind that is much keener and deeper, and a desire to know what people feel—people both close to me and far away.
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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