The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

We Are Related to Everything!

Dear Unknown Friends:

As we continue to serialize Eli Siegel’s magnificent 1950 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature, I am tremendously happy to describe this principle on which it is based, because I see the principle as not only scientifically mighty, but thrillingly kind and beautiful: Aesthetic Realism explains that every person is related to the whole world. There is nothing—no object, happening, or person—with which we do not have to do. All reality is everyone’s heritage. Meanwhile, everyone has a constant desire to make the world less than it is, and this desire is the most hurtful thing in humanity.

The lessening of reality is contempt. It includes the hope to see things as ugly, repellent, shoddy, and people as stupid, mean, and fake, because that way we can feel we are superior to them all. But it also includes our making reality smaller, narrower than it is, dismissing huge portions of it, making so many things and people insignificant.

Most people go through life choosing to see a few things and persons as important, and everything else as insignificant. People make their family important, and most other humans quite unimportant. A person sees baseball or his career as important—and all the emotion on all the continents of earth, all the years of human thought, are things he does not feel he needs to bother about.

Aesthetic Realism says: it’s obvious we can’t be aware of everything, and can’t give equal attention to everything we are aware of; yet we should feel there is nothing we’re not related to. I heard Mr. Siegel give this clear, kind logic: he would mention something a person had likely not thought of, and ask, Are you related to this? And the answer was yes—because that thing was now in the person’s mind. There was always a feeling of wonder, and pride: because you saw that your self took in more than you had imagined. So I ask you, who are reading this TRO: A little girl in 1845 was playing with a doll at sunset in a very run-down tenement in Manchester, England—are you related to this girl with tangled brown hair, whom you likely hadn’t thought about? Are you related to a sparrow hopping on a street in Boston, a little unsure what direction to take?

The ego of everyone prefers a smaller world, because the smaller we make the world, the less we feel we need to respect it, and the more we feel we can run it. Meanwhile, Mr. Siegel showed—and, again, his doing so is scientifically great and humanly merciful—that our lessening the world not only makes us narrow: it is the thing that causes us to be nervous, ill-natured, depressed, ashamed. It also makes us mean. He showed that all the brutality in the world—including racism and Nazism, economic exploitation, the desire to drop bombs on places where other human beings live—all this begins with the ordinary lessening that men and women engage in every day. Every human horror begins with the making of people who are not yourself or of your family—or your nation, religion, skin color—less existent, less real, less endowed with feelings.

We include in this TRO part of a paper by Derek Mali from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled “What Effect on People Does a Man Most Want to Have?” In the lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature, Mr. Siegel has been discussing Richard Jefferies (1848-87), whom he called “one of the very greatest writers on nature.” Yet he shows that Jefferies suffered because he used the nature of grass blades and sky and sun against people and the tumult of cities. Mr. Siegel defined nature as “the way the world goes about being itself and changing.” And amazingly, yet logically, he showed that there is no true division between the mechanical or man-made and nature: “The city is just as much nature” as the country, because it “came out of the instincts of man” (TRO 1417). Central to Aesthetic Realism is this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In the following paragraphs, Mr. Siegel is speaking of such opposites as the lovely and the repulsive, the soothing and the terrifying; and I think the way he speaks is not only exact, graceful, sometimes humorous, but enormously courageous.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Is It Still Nature?

By Eli Siegel

Jefferies says: “I hid my face in the grass, I was wholly prostrated,... I was rapt and carried away.” He came to be aware of himself, and he felt himself in relation to something—but he skipped everything in between. If he could say, as he lay face-down on the grass, “Now I know Southwark, or Whitechapel, or Kensington, in London, better,” that would be all right. But I’m afraid he used the lying with his face in the grass to think that Kensington or Whitechapel or Southwark didn’t matter.

He says: “I see now that what I laboured for was soul-life, more soul-nature, to be exalted, to be full of soul-learning.” Now, the deepest desire of the unconscious is to realize itself through a variety of things, all kinds of things, not just one kind of thing. And so, when he says he was after “soul-nature,” “soul-learning,” “soul-life,” I can only say, Yes, I think you were, but you didn’t go. after it entirely, in this manner. When you can find God present also in a cobblestone, and you can see the relation of a cobblestone to this grass, then you are going more fully after “soul-learning.”

He does feel as if he were meeting God face to face. And this idea, if its full meaning is got, can be very useful. But if it rests there, it is quite bad. It is just as bad as a lady going to synagogue and saying, “I’ve given up all my relatives; I’ve got only you, God.” And that is what many people do go to synagogue for. How often God has been used to ditch one’s relatives hasn’t gotten into the World Almanac, but it’s happened again and again. Other things can be used too.

Sometimes on lying down on the sward I first looked up at the sky, gazing for a long time till I could see deep into the azure and my eyes were full of the colour; then I turned my face to the grass and thyme, placing my hands at each side of my face so as to shut out everything and hide myself....I now became lost, and absorbed into the being or existence of the universe.

—All of which can be wonderful. And it is said wonderfully. But after that great time, I believe mischief began. Mischief had already begun.

He says his “own soul” has a “resemblance to the ideal of spirit, infinitely nearer than earth, sun, or star.” What he means by spirit is the whole world, the meaning of the whole world. The question is: How was it that through the whole world we came to a Detroit, with its big industries? How was it that we came to the Ruhr mines? How was it that through the “spirit” of the world we came to all the machine shops in Lafayette Street or Canal Street? How was it that we came to rusty iron too? Is rusty iron natural? Did the “spirit” stop and have somebody else take over?

In religious terms: God made the bedbug and the rusty bedspring and the factory and all the things that have wearied and distressed and made miserable. Otherwise, what we are saying is that God does all the good things and doesn’t do any of the bad ones, and nature doesn’t. That is not true. Nature makes the hummingbird, but it also makes cancer. And if nature makes cancer, and nature is the way God behaves, then God makes cancer. The only way that can be explained is that God has to be everything, and therefore he has to be everything bad and good, and cancer is a very terrific way of being bad. And it seems God has the talent.

The grasshoppers called and leaped, the greenfinches sang, the blackbirds happily fluted, all the air hummed with life. I was plunged deep in existence, and with all that existence I prayed.

So the proper thing to do here, after seeing the grasshoppers (and I’m very fond of them, and I think I like greenfinches, and I’m more or less for blackbirds—chiefly more), is to ask: How did the world come to make the greenfinches and grasshoppers and the blackbirds, and also heavy safes and all the machine tools that are on Lafayette Street? How was it? Did something else take over? That’s the question. How did nature make the subways, or television, or even the atom bomb? One shouldn’t say, Here nature is all good, and there it became bad. The question is: ls it still nature? Aesthetic Realism says, Yes, it is.

“I prayed with the glowing clouds of sunset and the soft light of the first star coming through the violet sky.” The prayer should be: How, seeing all this loveliness, can I understand how the loveliness came from a world which has in it so many bad things? How can I face this tormenting question without making it less or running away from it or going through some shell game?

This writing of Jefferies is an important thing in English literature. The questions it brings up have had beauty with them, but they are not wholly dealt with. There is the question of what it is to have a “full soul,” and what is the relation of a full soul to strife in apartment houses. Is the soul operating? Is the soul present in a greasy coffee-pot? Is it present in a bunch of dirty dishes in a kitchen? Is it present in all the stenches, in all the bandages, and the visceral wounds? Aesthetic Realism says yes. And if you want to say the soul isn’t, then you’re unfair to it.

Since the purpose of the unconscious is to make some sense out of good and bad, just to go away to nature-as-good to get away from the city-as-bad (which is the way most people use nature) only intensifies the question. It does not deal with it honestly. And it tends to make a person more and more against himself.

Nature is a very big thing; and as I talk about it and question how it has been used by people, I want it to be seen that Aesthetic Realism is for nature. The ways of seeing nature have been very many. Jefferies’ way is what can be called mysticism without religion. He saw the earth closely, and he came to a most tremendous sensation that was tremendously deep too, which he could not understand and yet he knew was going on in him. People have sometimes had it—sometimes people coming out of the house in the morning and seeing the sunrise where they didn’t expect it, and even people seeing a sudden full moon, have had feeling of that sort. They’ve had it in other ways. But nature is seen every time there is lettuce on the table.

What Kind of Effect?

By Derek Mali

Aesthetic Realism explains that in every action of ours, every effect we try to have, we have a purpose that is in behalf either of justice or contempt, the desire to make less of things in order to make more of ourselves. The disposition to have contempt is so quietly pervasive that having it is as easy as sliding down an icy hill; and it always has a bad effect on both others and ourselves. Yet Eli Siegel writes: “We all of us deeply would like to make what we meet better through our having met it.... [A person] cannot respect himself unless he has meant something good to what is outside himself” (TRO 925).

As I was growing up on Manhattan’s East Side, I felt that my parents wealth and our distinguished Quaker ancestors simply made me superior to most other people. I was accustomed to having things done for me by the household staff, and I felt it was natural that other people should work for me too, that my classmates should call me up, invite me to take part in activities, engage me in conversations. If they didn’t, I felt they weren’t worth my time or energy. My life was a bad relation of richness and emptiness: I had more material things than I needed, yet I had so little feeling for other people.

I told myself that it was much more refined to be a good listener than a good talker, and when people spoke I would appear most attentive, so as not to “intrude” on their conversation. This behavior, I felt, showed my good breeding and manners. But my “passivity” was really a way of having power over people: “Let them knock themselves out trying to get a reaction out of me—why should I make the effort to work for them?” It was contempt, and made me dislike myself intensely. I was terribly, yearningly lonely—because who wants to be friends with a “Silent Sam” who expects everything to come to him and doesn’t give a damn about what he owes to others?

By the time I met Aesthetic Realism, I was more like a tall ghost than a truly responsive person. In the first Aesthetic Realism lesson I was honored to have with him, Mr. Siegel asked me this beautiful question: “Do you think your self is worth expressing?” I was surprised, and said with some hesitation, “Yes.” Then Mr. Siegel asked: “If you did express it, what would you do? What would be the things that you might say?...There’s a quotation from Terence: ‘I am a human being, and nothing human is alien to me.’ Aesthetic Realism goes further. Every time we meet something—we meet a cork or we meet a pencil or an insect or an animal—we think that our reaction matters to us, or our response. The way anything strikes us, we think matters. Do you feel your responses to everybody matter to you?” I answered, “Yes, I do.”

As this lesson continued, I began to see—for the first time, really—that I was related to other people; that they were not “alien,” as I had felt, but that their feelings and hopes were more like mine than I'd had any idea of. Because I saw this, it came to matter very much to me that I have a good effect on them. I am grateful to have that purpose, and result, in my work as an Aesthetic Realism consultant.

I’m grateful too for the conversations I have with friends, and with my wife, Sally Ross, who is a New York City high school science teacher, and whom I love very much. And I am proud that through our study of Aesthetic Realism, she and I can have a good effect on other people, close to us and across this nation.