|NUMBER 1437.—October 18, 2000||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the great Poetry As Happening, a 1958 lecture by Eli Siegel. We print as well part of a paper by Leila Rosen from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled "What’s True Self-Expression—in Life, Love, Art?" And I will comment on an everyday aspect of self-expression, to illustrate this principle on which Aesthetic Realism, in its magnificent comprehensiveness, is based: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." The aspect of expression I refer to is a person’s choice of apparel: why one cares for a certain garment and wants to wear it.
In Poetry As Happening, Mr. Siegel speaks about the approach to literature of Hippolyte Adolphe Taine (1828-93), an approach with which Aesthetic Realism disagrees. Taine said the defining thing in a literary work is "la race, le milieu, le moment"—the author’s heredity, surroundings, and time. That is not so. The defining thing, and what makes a work art or not, is its structure, how it is made, whether the artist has been able to give his subject authentic form. But because Taine emphasized so much the material world that a writer meets, Mr. Siegel uses him to show something central to Aesthetic Realism: that reality with its happenings has a structure like the structure of a poetic line—the oneness of opposites.
And Aesthetic Realism explains that in order to understand ourselves, we need to see that we are trying to put opposites together. We need to see this to make sense of the most crucial matters in our lives, the biggest, the deepest: love, the way we get angry, how we look on persons different from ourselves, our ability or inability to learn. But for now I comment, as I said, on something which seems less urgent yet affects people constantly: what takes us in an article of clothing.
Whenever a person cares for a garment it is because that garment puts together opposites that the person, without knowing it, wants to put together in herself. We are taken by a dress, sweater, pair of shoes, because through it we feel we’ll be more the way we want to be, and that means have the opposites that may mix us up ever so much be, in some way, resolved.
Let us take a person I wrote of two weeks ago. In the lecture we are serializing, Mr. Siegel speaks about Chaucer; and so I commented on lines by him about the Wife of Bath, the lively 5-time widow of over 600 years ago. Among the information Chaucer gives us about her is: "Hir hosen weren of fyn scarlet reed / Ful streite yteyd" ("Her stockings were of fine scarlet red / Tightly fastened").
The Opposites and Red Stockings
So around 1380, this lady chose to wear stockings of a certain color and also tautness. I’m sure there was a desire in her to have the shape of her legs be clear, even though not much of them would be visible. Meanwhile, she was putting together flamboyance, through the color red, and something like strictness through the rigorous fastening. (In fact, the word streite meant also strictly.)
These are opposites that affect women very much. We would like to put ourselves forward gloriously. We would also like to be severe with ourselves, feel we are exact, fit rightly with other things. And women of the 14th century and now have suffered because these opposites seem apart and fighting. Women have wanted to dazzle— and then been ashamed because they felt their thrusting of self was not the same as respectful exactitude about the world, including about the feelings of people. A garment won’t solve the problem; but it can make for a satisfaction because it meets the unseen yearning for these opposites to be one. Stockings that were brilliant in redness yet also severe, taut, brought a satisfaction to the Wife of Bath—along with the satisfaction of having a man perhaps observe her pleasing medieval ankle.
The big cause of trouble in how we see and use clothes is the same thing that causes trouble in every other aspect of life. Mr. Siegel identified that thing: it is contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Clothing should be a means of relating ourselves accurately to the outside world, of showing ourselves honestly. The trouble, immensely frequent, is the using of clothing as a substitute for wanting to know ourselves and for wanting others to know us. People so often use clothes really to hide who they are and to put forth something that will impress and fool people; that is contempt, and is a big reason people are excessive about clothes. And of course, women have used clothes as weapons, to weaken men.
Meanwhile, our need to put opposites together goes on, and has us feel, "I want to wear this." So I mention swiftly three instances of women’s apparel presented in advertisements in a recent issue of a large newspaper, and point to the opposites in us that they put together.
Pants, Pearls, & a Suit
In one ad is a pair of pants: simple, fairly narrow—and of black velvet. We want a lushness in our lives; we want our thought, our personality, to be rich—like that black velvet. Yet we also want to feel we are straightforward, straight-line, unpretentious—like the cut of the pants. Can we be both, and at the same time? "I am," these trousers say; "maybe you can be too."
An ad 6 pages later bids us to "indulge in luminous simulated pearls"; and we see many strands of them around a lady’s neck. Pearls have met for many centuries the desire of a person to feel that the confined and the unconfined, the neat and the mysterious, can be one. That sphere, which every pearl is, is so immensely orderly, so contained. Yet the luminosity has us feel we are also with what’s infinite, the glowing unknown. A woman wants to honor the unlimited in herself. She also wants to feel safe. She shuttles confusedly between these desires. But the pearls around her neck say, "My dear friend, the bounded and the boundless can be one!"
A pants suit appears in a full-page ad. And with the matter of the suit comes a tremendous problem and hope of woman. She wants to be dignified; she also wants to be graceful. She wants to be assertive, strong; she also wants to yield. Woman is, as Mr. Siegel once said of me, "yearning and formidable, and she has to make some sense of these." This suit tries to. It is classical, tailored: that is, dignified. Yet one can tell in the full-page photograph that the fabric has a softness; it flows just a little. And the generous wide lapel is firm—as it also yields to the curve of the feminine form.
Because Aesthetic Realism exists—because of Eli Siegel’s courage, knowledge, and integrity—we can know at last who we are and what we are looking for!
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Is Reality Like Poetry?
What’s True Expression?
By Leila Rosen
Expression, Eli Siegel has explained,
is anything we do having an outward form, for some purpose of ourselves .... Whenever we do something, we show what we are and also what we want. No person can do anything without expressing himself in some way. The question is how successful the expression is. [TRO 901]
My life—as a person, woman, and New York City high school English teacher—shows what Ellen Reiss writes in TRO 902: "Our true expression is freed by Aesthetic Realism, as surely and sweetly as a caged lark is freed when the cage is opened and he soars into blue sky."
Where the Trouble Begins
Expression," said Mr. Siegel, "begins with our thoughts to ourselves" (TRO 905). As a child in Brooklyn, my thoughts about the world and people were of two very different kinds, arising from two opposing purposes. My desire to like and be affected by the world showed in my early care for words and language. But mostly, as I looked at the people closest to me, I had another kind of thought.
Like many children, I felt my parents were less refined than I was. I saw my father go from humming "Sweet Georgia Brown" and dancing jauntily, to suddenly being furious. And in my snobbishness I was embarrassed by my mother because she was very talkative—even with strangers! I also didn’t feel this was the same mother who made cutting remarks about a neighbor or relative. I used my impressions to be scornful, to have contempt, and to feel I’d express myself, as Mr. Siegel describes in his lecture Aesthetic Realism and Expression, "by restraining [myself], by not talking." I wanted the false expression of feeling "you’re roving around in the clouds that make up yourself ... away from all the knocks and sharpnesses and thorns that you had to meet" (TRO 902, 905).
For years I was puzzled by the fact that, fiercely untalkative and separate as I was, I cared so much for language. In an Aesthetic Realism consultation I began to understand why when my consultants said: "Any warfare with words is essentially a warfare with meaning. [But] the triumph of contempt is also its disaster: we find we’re in ourselves and we can’t get out. Do you think one of the reasons you’re interested in language is as a criticism of this?"
Yes. I learned that language stands for our deep relation to the world, for through it we are affected by and can express ourselves to other people—which I desperately needed to be and do. I had felt encased in myself, and periodically would throw myself into activities that would bring me closer to people—at summer camp; at a new, experimental high school. But because I wanted to scorn and haughtily dismiss people as "not my type," I continued to ward them off, and would retreat once again, in pain and triumph.
True Self-Expression in Love
Though I tried to convince myself that the reason I hadn’t been successful in love was the poor judgment of men, who didn’t know a good thing when they met it, I had a suspicion something in me interfered. In an early consultation, when I was asked, "Are you distressed about the men question?," I answered, "Not terribly, but somewhat." My consultants asked, "Do you think to say you’re really concerned about men gives them too much importance?" Yes. I did feel showing I was affected by a man was humiliating!
Studying Aesthetic Realism, I began to learn that the reason love didn’t fare well with me was that I’d made a contemptuous rift between expressing myself and wanting to be affected by someone outside myself. In an Aesthetic Realism class, when I said several men I knew had been critical of my wanting to be useful to them while not feeling they could be useful to me, Ellen Reiss asked: "Do you think if we don’t want people to be useful to us, we can’t wholly want to be useful to them?" I didn’t understand why; and she explained with thrilling logic that to be really useful to a person, we have to want him to have all the meaning he can—including for us.
What she was describing is good will, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). I learned that when we love a person, we want the best thing in him to be stronger, more expressed; we want to be a kind critic of the things he dislikes himself for—and we want him to do the same for us. I am grateful to be engaged in this happy process with the man I care for, jazz pianist and high school music teacher Alan Shapiro.
I see Aesthetic Realism itself, the magnificent result of the way Eli Siegel was affected by and used his mind on all reality, as the greatest achievement of expression in the history of human thought. Studying it can have every person feel truly expressed.
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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