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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 
A  PERIODICAL OF HOPE AND INFORMATION
 NUMBER 1708. —December 26, 2007
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Confusion & Clearness about Praise

Dear Unknown Friends: 

his issue contains a short essay by Eli Siegel about beauty. It seems to be of the late 1950s, and is written as a letter to author Waldo Frank, who, it appears, had asked Mr. Siegel about what beauty is.

     In my opinion, Eli Siegel is the critic and philosopher who, after all the centuries, defined beauty. And he showed that beauty is not an offset to life or mere enhancement of it, but has what we need to know for our lives to fare well. “All beauty,” he explained, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” That principle is the basis of Aesthetic Realism.

     We print too part of a paper that Consultant Joseph Meglino presented this month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar. The subject was: “Men Want Praise, Kudos, Cheers—but How Can We Be Sensible about These?”

The Criterion

here is a large relation between the intense, perplexing subject of praise and what Mr. Siegel writes of in his essay: beauty. Aesthetic Realism asks this question: Whenever anyone praises anything honestly—really sees that thing as good—is it because he feels in it a oneness of the world's opposites? Yes.

     A lot of praise takes place for a fake reason. We can praise someone's violin playing because the performer is our cousin. This is a phase of what Matthew Arnold, in “The Study of Poetry,” calls “the personal estimate,” and it occurs because what we're after is to elevate ourselves by making someone we're connected with seem wonderful. We also can praise a violinist because she's been commended by the reviewers and is famous—another fake reason. But if we honestly like the way someone plays the violin, it's because we've heard in it opposites as one: a simultaneity of force and delicacy; a co-presence of adventure—even wildness—and precision; an inextricable union of surprise and continuity. We've felt a oneness of individuality—a person seeing this work in a fresh way—and terrific yielding, a giving over of herself to be fair to what the composer wrote.

     Aesthetic Realism explains that whenever we truly like anything, from a leaf (in its simplicity and richness) to a performance of Beethoven's Violin Concerto, we're praising the world, whose structure of opposites is present there in a particular way. When people can study this fact, they will stop being so mixed up and ashamed about the way they want praise and give it. They will also begin to understand much pain in their lives, and be able to change it.

Trouble about Flatness & Sharpness

et's take opposites Mr. Siegel speaks about, in the essay printed here, as at one in all beauty: flatness and sharpness. These opposites are the plague of domestic life. So much, at the family dinner table and in the living room, there is the feeling that things are flat, dull, routine, unsurprising. The presence of a sibling or parent or complaining child does not usually give people a tingle of excitement. Then, there is so often in domestic life a sharpness that is mean: people speak to each other sarcastically, stab each other with fast, cruel comments. In millions of homes, there are screams and boredom, causticity and dullness. And everyone feels both angry and guilty about it.

     What is it that makes opposites be apart in us, or mingle in an ugly way? It's that desire which Eli Siegel showed to be “the greatest danger or temptation” of everyone—for contempt , “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.”

     Let's take flatness. There's a desire in people to make the outside world uninteresting, flat, unworthy to affect us, because that way we can feel superior to it: the moment something really interests us, we can no longer look down on it. So a man and a woman, both of whom have two hopes—to be stirred by reality and to look down on it—come together. There's a tendency, arising from their contempt for reality, to feel, “Let's make one another the most important thing in the universe. Through each other, we can put aside the world.” And later, as they have a family: “We can make our children, too, apart from and superior to everything else.”

     So they flatten the world. But then, because each of them, and their children, is, willy-nilly, part of the world, they inevitably extend to the people in the household the same lack of fulness they gave reality.

     If we dislike the world, we'll do the following with an instance of it: 1) We'll make that thing or person less full, less rich, less vibrant than it or he or she is. 2) We'll see the thing or person in terms of ourselves —in terms of whether it/he/she makes us comfortable and important. 3) We'll get angry when it/he/she doesn't suit us. From the last two arises much of the sharpness in households and nations. Contempt of the world makes for both flattening and bad sharpness.

     In Aesthetic Realism consultations, people learn to see the world, including persons close to them, as art sees: with that vivid justice which is good will. A person, for instance, is asked to write a soliloquy of her mother at age 18. And as she thinks about what her mother might have felt then—years before she, her daughter Zoe, was even born—Zoe begins to see her mother, Collette, as real, as interesting! And Zoe's resentment of Collette begins to change to an eager desire to know.

     Good will is sharp, keen, truly critical. It also has a steadiness and width of thought: this corresponds to the beautiful, vibrant flatness Mr. Siegel writes of, on paper or canvas.

There Is Georges Rouault

n the essay, he describes the painter Rouault's distinctive black outlines as being at once thick and sharp, or deep. I am looking at a reproduction of Rouault's “The Old King” in the 6th edition of Helen Gardner's Art Through the Ages, revised by Horst de la Croix and Richard G. Tansey. There are those wide, cutting black lines; and the opposites in them— our opposites—are present in other ways in the painting too.

     De la Croix and Tansey note that the King's “fierce aquiline features...recall some ancient Assyrian despot in brooding reverie.” Fierceness and reverie are related to sharpness and width, sharpness and soft spreadingness. We have fierceness and reverie—usually at odds—and Rouault has made them one.

     The writers call this King “pitiless”—yet he is holding flowers in his hand, a hand both clenched and gentle. I cannot give in this space all the reasons I think Rouault, through the painting, is asking us, and himself, to reconsider our desire to impose ourselves regally and fiercely on reality, and to find a true strength in thoughtfulness. But the opposites, especially width and sharpness, are here. And they constitute beauty, and our own hopes.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

About Beauty
A Letter to Waldo Frank

By Eli Siegel

t seems to me I am always defining beauty, because I am always concerned with the opposites you can't help meeting. As I write I am aware of the flatness of a white sheet of paper; of wideness on white; and as I relate flatness to edge, something like beauty, I think, occurs. And as I think of the wideness of this sheet of paper at the same moment as the sharpness, fineness of the edge or edges, something, again, like beauty occurs.

     Well, the definition of beauty according to Aesthetic Realism is the seeing as one of the opposites all reality or every thing has. This means that if we see the sharpness, straightness of the line a cigarette has, along with its roundness, soft palpability, beauty is being seen; the effect of beauty is there.*

     In an ordinary object the opposites in it, seen together, can make for beauty, but it is the same opposites, developed, orchestrated, subtilized, organized which make for the beauty of poem, sonata, novel, building, painting.

     The wideness and sharpness of Rouault are like the wideness and sharpness of a sheet of paper. Wideness and sharpness have been organized by Rouault, to suit what he is.

     Rouault is different from Tennyson; but the way Rouault can use, for meaning, a black “ribbon” or “stream” which is narrow, thick, deep at once is like the way Tennyson uses a “stream” in these two beginning lines from “In the Valley of Cauteretz”:

All along the valley, stream that flashest white,
Deepening thy voice with the deepening of the night.

     The question for the moment is whether wideness and edge in a sheet of paper is within the artistic problems of Rouault and Tennyson.

     This could be thought of.

 

Can We Be Sensible about Praise?

By Joseph Meglino

hen, at age ten, I saw my first play and heard all the applause at the end, I was sure I wanted to become an actor. Although I didn't pursue acting, I did make a career out of getting praise. Men want praise, kudos, cheers from their wives, bosses, co-workers, and friends, and are often hurt when we don't get them.

     To be sensible about praise doesn't mean we have to give it up. Praise, when accurate, is a form of criticism—of seeing the value of a thing—and it can be a means of our knowing ourselves better. For instance, when learning to play the piano, we need to know where we played well and where not.

     To be sensible about praise is, first, to ask if the praise we want or are getting is accurate, and second, to use it to know ourselves better, as well as to have a greater desire to know and be fair to what's not ourselves.

The Mistake

he large mistake I made was to see being praised as a shortcut to really liking myself. I used it to see myself as wonderful and to look down on everyone and everything else. That is contempt. It dulls a man's mind, makes him cold and self-centered, and has him despise himself.

     What we really want is described by Ellen Reiss in issue 1684 of TRO:

There is only one way we can like ourselves: by doing all we can to see the world—what's not ourselves—truly....It is a magnificent fact that nothing else will work. That is the basis on which we inevitably... judge ourselves, and no amount of praise from others or telling ourselves how wonderful we are will change it.

To Be Praised—or to Know & Be Known?

s the only son in an Italian-American family, I received a good deal of praise, for my looks, for being smart, and for how well-behaved I was. I so much relished this that I went after adulation from everyone I met. In St. Mary's elementary school, getting good grades and always volunteering to clap out the erasers got me smiles and approval from the nuns. With friends, I became the “nice guy,” doing favors, flattering, being agreeable.

     One day the leader of our Boy Scout troop took another boy and me aside and said that he had tested everyone and we two were true scouts, because we were honest, didn't lie. I remember feeling so special, thinking this clinched my superiority. But I also thought, “What a dope—he doesn't know me!”

     I didn't realize that this drive to fool people and get continuous praise was hurting my life. I saw about everything I did through the lens of “Will I get applause for this?” When I started college and could no longer shine as I had before, I suddenly became less interested in my subjects, including the one I most cared for, science.

     I had the uncomfortable feeling of constantly pretending to be someone else, so when I did get praise I invariably felt, “It's not me they're talking about.” As time went on, I felt more and more like a fraud. I needed to know what Eli Siegel writes in his essay “The Ordinary Doom”:

Our desire for praise, so common and often so hurtful, is really a substitute for our desire to be known as we are....If we are praised without being known, no matter how intense and multitudinous the praise may be, we are not wholly alive. To be taken for someone else is hardly a way to be alive in one's own right.

     In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, at age 20, as I spoke of feeling shy and uncomfortable around people, I was asked if my shyness had anything to do with snobbishness: did I think people were good enough for me to know? I was also asked, “Are you angry that people aren't giving you the adulation you think you need? Do you want to be a person who likes people only if they like you first?”

     As my study continued, I began to see that the purpose I was born for was to know the world, be affected by it, not have contempt by feeling I was made of superior clay. A turning point in my life was when I was asked to read Walt Whitman's poem “There Was a Child Went Forth.” It begins:

There was a child went forth every day,
And the first object he look'd upon, that object he became,
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,
Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
The early lilacs became part of this child,
And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, 
     and the song of the phoebe-bird.

     As I read these lines out loud, I surprised myself by bursting into tears. Why was I so moved? This poem, with its wide, expansive sound and specificity, is a statement that the way to be oneself is to see truly what other things are, to have them become part of one. And it was a criticism of my feeling that to value anything not me took away from my glory. I saw that I wanted to be like the child in the poem. And through Aesthetic Realism, that is what happened. I came alive as I had a new purpose: to know, to have things and people truly in my mind.

     As I studied this principle—“The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites” —everything, including science, took on new, large, and lovely meaning for me.

     For instance, one of the pillars of Quantum Theory is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Even its name is a oneness of opposites. It is a definite principle which states that one cannot measure exactly both the speed and location of individual electrons or photons of light, because the very act of observing has an effect on what is being observed. Yet the amount of uncertainty in the measurement is precisely known! This principle, I was thrilled to see, shows that reality at its beginning is precise and mysterious, a oneness of subject and object, affecting and being affected.

     While no one graduates from the question of how we use praise, I have seen that there is a great pleasure, at one with pride and self-respect, in wanting to see reality as it is—a pleasure that makes the ego-victory of being told you're wonderful seem very pale by comparison. That is why through studying Aesthetic Realism, my mind was freed. And through what I learned I was able to have love in my life—something I'd once despaired of.

Love Is Valuing Another Truly

y desire to see people in terms of how much praise they gave me had made real friendship and love impossible. In a class, Mr. Siegel described my attitude to love when he asked me:

Are you too good to love anybody? There is a self in us that says, “I should be loved without doing a damned thing, because I am I. All I do is collect feminine dividends.” That is one aspect of self we are disposed to be true to. Then there is another: “I must be true to my desire to like reality through caring for this person.”

     Through this discussion and others, I changed how I saw women and love. One reason—there are many—I fell in love with the woman who is now my wife, Pauline, is that she didn't flatter me but instead wanted to see me for who I was and be a critic with good will, including of my conceit. I liked it, and we became closer. In a beautiful Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel encouraged me not to take Pauline and her care for me for granted, which is a mistake men have made. He asked me:

     ES. Now that Pauline Fanning cares for you, how are you taking it? If you had to thank her for anything, what would it be? 
     JM. For helping me be more myself and happier.

“That,” Mr. Siegel said, “is a big thing.” He asked if I'd once had the feeling no one would honestly care for me. I had. “Did she upset and revolutionize that?” he asked.

     JM. Yes, she did. 
     ES. Do you think you are seeing its true value? Do you value sufficiently Pauline's interest in you?

     I hadn't, and I'm grateful to have that question with me every day. In the years we've been married, I've known I have a friend I can trust. It is my happy purpose to use Pauline to know the world better, and to use reality to value her accurately—and I am having the time of my life!   


*It is perhaps unnecessary to note that Mr. Siegel is writing at a time before a cigarette was seen as the hazard it is—and he is, of course, writing about the structure of this object, not its use.

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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Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
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Lord Byron | Harry Potter  |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns  |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources
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Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
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[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method

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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