NUMBER 1626.— November 3, 2004
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Always: Love of Reality

Dear Unknown Friends:

e approach the 26th anniversary of the death of Eli Siegel. And it is an honor to publish in this issue writing that, though brief, stands for the grandeur and kindness of his mind and the philosophy he founded.

     First there is a poem of 1960, “Balzac and People Living Nonetheless.” The poem is a sonnet. And bounding in the strictness of that 14-line form is Mr. Siegel's warm, exact, musical honoring of a writer: we feel the quality of Balzac as Mr. Siegel writes of him.

     We also print part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Jeffrey Carduner presented at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar this August. The seminar's title was “What Gets in a Man's Way—the World or His Own Ego?” We see instances of how Mr. Siegel, teaching Aesthetic Realism, spoke to a person (here Jeffrey Carduner). And we see an instance of the Aesthetic Realism consultations that are taking place now. They continue the new, aesthetic understanding of self that Mr. Siegel made possible.

May & November of 1978

have written every year at this time about the operation Mr. Siegel underwent in May of 1978, which was the cause of his dying 5½ months later. It was a supposedly simple operation for a benign prostatic condition. And it was performed at St. Vincent 's Hospital by a surgeon, Joseph De Filippi, who later admitted he had been angry at his own large respect for Mr. Siegel.

     Anger at one's own respect is a real thing. Fury that something or someone is great and honest is a real thing. Resentment because a person's knowledge, or ethics, or art interferes with one's feeling of superiority, with one's ability to look down on things and people: this has been in history before. For example, in chapter 22 of Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge implies that Wordsworth made various reviewers furious because he was so much greater than they were. Wordsworth, Coleridge writes, was a “genuine poet,” while they were “feeble.” And so they engaged in “systematic and malignant” attacks on him. Coleridge says “the commander-in-chief” of the critics attacking Wordsworth had expressed “private admiration of Wordsworth's genius”—and then made Wordsworth and also the poet's “friends and admirers, the object of [his] revenge.”

Eli Siegel Met This

hroughout his life Mr. Siegel too met resentment of, and revenge for, the largeness, newness, integrity of his thought. The poet William Carlos Williams describes some of it in his historic letter to Martha Baird. Williams writes at length about Mr. Siegel's literary importance, saying, “He belongs in the very first rank of our living artists....[He] has outstripped the world of his time.” Eli Siegel's work, notes Williams, stands for “the truly new”—and

the other side of the picture is the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new. It shows itself by the violent opposition Siegel received.*

     That “extreme resentment” of his respect for Mr. Siegel was what surgeon De Filippi, by his own admission, had, along with surgical implements. And after the operation he performed, Mr. Siegel's life was ruined. “I have lost the use of my feet,” Mr. Siegel wrote in the summer of 1978. There was an ever-increasing physical weakening.

     Though I am trying to write succinctly here, I cannot speak about this tragedy without saying something about the biggest shame of my life: my own coldness and cruelty when Mr. Siegel most needed comprehension and justice. He had not wanted that operation, though doctors said that he must have it and would die if he didn't. He said he would rather die than have it. Mr. Siegel's wife, Martha Baird, requested the opinion of some of his students, and all of us hurriedly said we thought the surgery should take place.

     To be sure, we, I, were fearful for Mr. Siegel's life. But it has become clear to me that the biggest reason I was in such a horrible hurry to agree with the doctors was: like Mr. Siegel's other students, I too was resentful that I respected him so mightily. I was uncomfortable that the person whom I valued so much through using my careful, critical, even skeptical thought, was not praised by the press. I see that I welcomed the chance to feel at last superior to Mr. Siegel: to feel I and others knew better than he did about his own health. We were horrifically wrong. He agreed to undergo the procedure, which he would later write of as “the operation so disastrous to me.”

Suffering and Grandeur

was a witness to Mr. Siegel's suffering and also integrity and grandeur in the summer and fall of 1978. Day after day, he felt his physical relation to the world worsen. Yet up to the middle of October he taught classes, lecturing, for example, on American literature, on drama, on literary criticism; and these classes had, unabated, his depth, style, humor. He wrote many poems, then dictated poems when he was no longer able to write them with his own hands.

     Here, for example, is “O Broken Dish.” In it he clearly uses an altered dish to comment on himself. There are courage and honesty in these lines; there is charm given to anguish, but the anguish is real. And in the last lines in particular there is a oneness of rhythmic might and poignancy:

                 O Broken Dish

O broken dish,
Lying on the table with oilcloth on it,
Three weeks ago you were shining in wholeness,
And you could be picked up and have tea poured in you,
And the water would not fall, the tea would not fall
Anywhere but in you.
It would not stain the tablecloth or wet wood unnecessarily.
Something has happened to you, O broken dish,
      which many people would say makes you useless.
People do not collect broken dishes.
A dish that is whole is valuable.
The only way, therefore, O broken dish, that you are valuable
Is because one can study through your brokenness
The fall of dynasties,
The sadness of human beings,
And what can happen to any living being, happen to any tree,
And, some people say, even to the world itself.

     Mr. Siegel, as he lived, and also in dying, was true to the philosophy he founded: his purpose was to be fair to the world. He could not bear to be in it in that increasingly and agonizingly broken way. And so, in the glowing autumn of 1978, he died. His love of reality, even as death neared, is told of in the words he chose for his headstone: “Continued by the world.” And he is. And his lifework is alive in that world which he was fair to and which continues him.

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education 

Balzac and People Living Nonetheless
By Eli Siegel

The energy of Balzac is for us today.
So, look! the volumes there with people there.
They have their lives in print; they say their say,
Those people do, aware and unaware.
Before, they lived in Balzac's manuscript;
A little earlier in Balzac's mind.
For Balzac's mind, you know, was quite equipped
For holding Frenchmen, standing for mankind.
When 1830 Frenchmen lived, our Balzac saw
Them go about and do the things they did;
Saw Paris and the country, smooth and raw,
Saw violence start and strategy once hid.
Those volumes tell of Balzac's busyness—
Imagined people: living nonetheless.

What Gets in a Man's Way?
By Jeffrey Carduner

eginning as a boy, I came to feel that people—my family, teachers, friends, and later women—were constantly stopping me from getting what I wanted. In his lecture Mind and Antagonism, Eli Siegel describes the central fight in me and everyone. It's

between the part of us that wants to say “Fie on the outward world!” and the part of us that wants to feel that, though [the world] is an antagonist, an opponent even, it is a friendly antagonist and a friendly opponent. [TRO 424]

    Early, I did have a desire to like things, even to see problems as possibly friendly, as useful challenges. For example, in fourth grade, as we studied the opening of the American West, our teacher assigned the class a project to build a covered wagon. I knew nothing about how a covered wagon was made, but I was eager to find out. So instead of acting (as I often did) like a know-it-all, I happily worked with my classmates to learn about how the canvas was put over a wood frame, how the wheels worked, how to place the driver's seat, how to hitch horses to the wagon. I was excited. And it thrilled us children to imagine the feelings of the courageous settlers who traveled west into the unknown.

The Two Drearinesses

owever, I also had another way of mind. Mr. Siegel describes it in Self and World as he writes about “the two evils, distresses, and drearinesses of ego”: “to acquire an object without respecting it—or to grab it—and to put it aside, be aloof from it, not care for its existence” (p. 46).

     My ego was given a big boost through my family's acting as if I were the second coming because I was the firstborn of a “successful” Jewish family. I used the fact that my father, two sets of grandparents, and five great aunts showered me with praise to feel I was put on earth to get accolades; and if I didn't get my way easily and fast, I sulked. “What is better,” Mr. Siegel was to ask me years later: “to like the world, or own it?” I had seen the world as something I should be able to own, manipulate, have power over, not value or know, and this came to include how I saw women. Meanwhile, as time went on, I felt more and more disgusted with myself.

     Because most men see the world as a place in which to get our way, we don't see the feelings of a woman as mattering too much, in fact as even existing. I was very much attracted to girls and women, but it seemed to me they constantly stopped my achieving what I wanted, and it made me mad. Once, in Vermont , I insisted that Brenda go skiing with me even though conditions were somewhat dangerous because the snow was melting, making it easy for a ski to get stuck. Brenda was worried, but I felt she was silly—how could anything happen to her with me around?—and after a while she relented. Then, during one run down, halfway before we got to the bottom, I heard her scream in pain. Her ski had gotten caught in the snow and her leg was broken. As the ski patrol carried her down the mountain, I felt horrible. I knew it was my fault that she was in so much pain. But I tried to push that feeling aside, and nothing really changed in me.

     “Do you believe,” Mr. Siegel would ask me, “not giving complete feeling to someone else is a form of contempt?” When I answered yes, he asked:

     ES. So the more you don't grant feelings to people, the more you go ahead to suit yourself?

     JC. Yes.

     ES. All right, we have to look at this, because I feel you're worried about your cruelty.

     I was worried, but I'd never told that to anyone, and I thank Mr. Siegel for enabling me to understand what was running me. “You have an association that goes very deep, of your individuality as being against things,” he said. “The question is: was a man made to fight his environment or born to feel it's friendly to him? When we're for something, we can feel we're giving in. When we're against something, we feel we're taking care of ourselves.” This was so true!

Women and the World

s Mr. Siegel spoke to me about how I saw women, I was learning how to see the world itself, not as something to be conquered, but as deserving my respect and desire to know. At this time I was coming to know Devorah Tarrow, a young woman whom I admired for the seriousness of her thought and her kindness. But while I was very affected by her beauty and her keen, scientific mind, I was also angry I was so affected by her. Seeing this, Mr. Siegel said to me in a class:

Suppose you said, “I don't like myself for the way I see women”—what would you give up? If you have a conversation with Ms. Tarrow, are you comfortable?

No, I wasn't, and I kept feeling she should just see what a great catch I was, not ask so many questions, and yield to my advances.

     ES. Every person has a desire to settle questions through body: [a man can feel] one takes up too much time by being intellectual and talking to people—ravish the woman! Are you impatient now?

     JC. Yes.

     ES. Do you want to get what you want quick?

     JC. I do.

     ES. Does it make you more comfortable or less comfortable? Why don't you use this occasion to be more thoughtful?

     This was very kind, and I immediately felt relieved. I began to see that through wanting to know Devorah, including what she most hoped for, I could really like myself. In fact, I began to see I wanted something much larger than I'd any idea of: to see other people fairly and have good meaning for their lives. A big change began to take place in me. —And I'm grateful to say Devorah and I have been married for 32 years.

Aesthetic Realism Consultations

endrick Meyers, a 38-year-old investment banker, told his Aesthetic Realism consultation trio he was on the “fast track” to success. But underneath his confident and breezy exterior, we saw a man who was worried about himself. “I seem to have everything,” he said, “great job, great apartment, but things are going very badly with my girlfriend, Lisa.” She had told him he was cold and uncaring, and he said, “I try to say there's something wrong with her, but inside I feel it's me —but I don't know what.”

     We asked: “How do you think you've seen women generally?”

     KM. Well, I have thought they were foolish.

     Consultants. Do you think they deserve much of your thought?

     KM. Probably not. I do tend to sum people up.

     Consultants. Have you had the philosophy: you can't trust the world too much?

     KM. Yes!

     Consultants. If you see the world as against you and as something you have to have your way with, does it stop just there? Will it include a woman you hope to care for?

     KM. I don't know.

     Consultants. Do you think the desire to own and manipulate the world can kill the ability to care for a person truly?

     KM. Yes, I see the logic. This makes a lot of sense to me.

     A little later we asked: “Do you think you can be so enamored of yourself, it's hard to see a woman, or anyone, as being real?” He laughed and said, “Yes. What does it mean to see a woman as real?” We answered:

A woman has the same deep question as a man: how should I see the world—as a friend or an enemy? Do you want to know Lisa Kerns, her hopes, how she might be against herself? Or do you just want her to be a praise-giving machine for you?

     KM. I've wanted the praise.

     Consultants. Lisa Kerns wants to put together reality's opposites, the same opposites that are in you: tenderness and toughness, sweetness and fierceness, herself and the whole world. She's a person who has a right to be known by you, not a financial number to be manipulated by you for your own personal ego satisfaction.

     KM. Wow, that's what I need to hear!

To Be One's True Self

Kendrick Meyers wrote to his consultants:

I'm thinking how grateful I am...for the beautiful, encouraging questions I heard....Aesthetic Realism has enabled me to have love in my life, to feel for the first time proud to need a woman to be more my real, true self!

     It is urgent that men see the damage ego can do, and also the exciting, fulfilling alternative that Aesthetic Realism makes clear.   


*Something to Say, ed. J.E.B. Breslin (NY: New Directions, 1985), pp. 249-251.

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

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.

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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO)
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Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature
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Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
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Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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