The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

We Feel & Know—What’s the Relation?

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we begin to serialize The Scientific Method in Feeling, a 1973 lecture by Eli Siegel. It is a thrilling work about something very ordinary, something people take for granted—but which makes for daily misery and also for cruelty, sometimes on a world scale. The lecture is about the fact that people have made a division between knowing and feeling, and they do not see their own feelings as things to be exact about, to know.

Scientists have made this division too. They haven’t seen feelings as knowable—the way the structure of an atom is knowable, or the makeup of an apple is. Here, there has been immense conceit: the fact that oneself with one’s degrees is unequipped to know something, does not make the thing unknowable; yet that’s the unstated basis various persons have gone on in the matter of how much feelings can be known.

What Scientific Means

Since this lecture is about science in its true sense, I am going to quote from Eli Siegel’s comment to his definition of science in Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World. I love these sentences. They are amazing, exact, beautiful, and make for large feeling:

A person…is scientific: 1, when he goes after truth; 2, when he knows he’s going after it; 3, when the opportunity to go after something else is not taken advantage of.

Science, as I have implied, is knowledge aware of itself, or a going after knowledge aware of itself….Whenever we know that we want to know, we are that much scientific….Science as such has nothing to do with laboratories, graphs, footnotes, impressive terminology, and so on.

…A scientist wants to know more than he wants other things….He has therefore said, Knowing is the principal good. He has made an ethical judgment.

Knowing and feeling are opposites; and this great principle of Aesthetic Realism is true about them: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Meanwhile, our contempt, which Aesthetic Realism identifies as the most hurtful thing in us, has us see knowledge and feeling as apart.

People have seen it as unnecessary to be exact about their feelings because of this everyday contemptuous assumption: “What I feel must be right because I feel it.” Deeply, most people worship their own feelings more than they worship anything: they see them as unquestionable. So a woman, feeling ecstatically that she’s met the love of her life—“This must be right because I feel it so strongly!”—may later say, with anger, tears, and shame, “How could I have been such a fool? He’s not what I thought he was.” She didn’t want to know her feeling; and now that she has a different feeling, she doesn’t want to see that exactly either.

And There Is This

The rift between feeling and wanting to know has a national and international effect too. For example, many people feel, “Those other people”—of a certain nation or ethnic background or religion—“are against me, are my enemies. I should hate them. They should be punished.” The feeling in itself is hideous, but the lack of desire in the person who has it to know it, be accurate about it, criticize it, is even worse. From that lack of desire to know and therefore criticize one’s feeling may come the murder of African Americans in a South Carolina church, or a bomb in a French soccer stadium or nightclub.

Contempt has us not want to know our feelings truly because: if we have to be exact about our feelings, we won’t be able to see things any way we please. Instead, we’ll have to try to see and feel in a way that’s just—and this will just kill our ability to sneer at things and people, and manage them, and feel hurt by them because we’re made of superior stuff and the world is mean.

Meanwhile, even as people make their feelings holy and unknowable, they also despise themselves for how they feel. They see their feelings as shame-making and oppressive. And both men and women have the ongoing sense of being unwhole, disintegrated: the debilitating sense that one is a different person having feeling—including about love and body—from the person careful about thought.

I thank Aesthetic Realism with all my life for showing that this rift does not have to be and for ending it. I thank Eli Siegel for showing that to see feelings as to be known is practical and necessary; and to want to know them is the one way we can like ourselves, be proud, feel rightly and grandly. And I’ll say simply here: in Aesthetic Realism is the means to know our feelings with ever-increasing fullness and accuracy.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Scientific Method in Feeling

By Eli Siegel

It can be said about any trouble in mind, or imperfection of mind, that there is some mix-up between knowing and feeling. That is an exceedingly large matter, because both take in so much. The phrase in the title, the scientific method, is quite clearly about knowing. If there is such a thing as the scientific method, and I think there can be, it would mean the best kind of knowing, not all the other stuff associated with the phrase. The purpose of the real scientific method would be to know a thing in the best way.

The big lack or absence in past knowing has been of the other phase of mind: what we’re feeling. Consequently, people have gone to psychiatrists and felt that maybe what they were hearing was “true” but it really wasn’t about them, because every person who lives is made up of feeling. We don’t ask people “How is your scientific method today?” We ask them “How do you feel today?”

How much feeling has to do with knowing is a large problem. If the best kind of knowing is the scientific method, the question is: can there be scientific method which isn’t at the same time fair to feeling? As soon as we are in the state where we say, “I know something and I feel something, and for my own sake I’d better have these two in the best relation”—at that moment we are being sane and also going for scientific method.

To see the relation of these two, knowing and feeling, needs a great deal of looking, and that’s why I began last week with a rather copious work, the College Book of English Literature, edited by Tobin, Hamm, and Hines: so there be instances not made by myself but part of English literature.

Last week I read from Chaucer, who is regarded as one of the hundred important minds of the world, more or less. And after Chaucer in this book is a work that has a great deal to do with ethics: Gawain and the Green Knight. At the present time, October, a big change is in process: the change from summer to fall. And the first passage I’ll read is about the great change that takes place in nearly every part of the world, which can be called a change from green to brown. This is mentioned in literature so often. There’s a poem of Keats, “To Autumn”; and a poem about November, beginning “The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year,” by a good-natured poet of America, William Cullen Bryant; and there are many others. With all that has been explained about it, that change is still mysterious: why does green change to brown? In Gawain and the Green Knight we have a good description. This is the Jessie Weston prose translation:

The leaves fall from the trees and light upon the ground, and all brown are the groves that but now were green, and ripe is the fruit that once was flower.

There’s ripeness too. It happens that while autumn is given to fading, pumpkins fare well. The fact that this passage makes for feeling is quite clear. “The leaves fall from the trees and light upon the ground...” This is one of the surefire things in poetry—to say how a leaf falls. And you have to be affected. “...and all brown are the groves that but now were green.” Why the change? We can see ourselves involved with scientific method as we feel something. It’s obvious that there is some meaning to brown and green, and also to the ripening that occurs in fall.

So we have two things that are the most important in life: we know something and we feel something as this sentence, or part of a sentence, from a work of the 14th century is read. And according to Aesthetic Realism, once we think of emotion and knowledge as making up the same moment of mind, we’re in the midst of education. We are also in the midst of the full meaning of scientific method. We’re also in the midst of literature and poetry.

A Challenge & a Shield

Gawain responded to a challenge by the Green Knight and cut the Knight’s head off. But the Green Knight had the power of getting his head back and having it work. And as part of the challenge, Gawain is supposed to find the Knight the next year and have the same thing done to himself—some prospect!

Gawain has a shield with a pentangle on it. The writer is taken with the idea of the continuity of the pentangle, or star. He says:

Then they brought him his shield, which was of bright red, with the pentangle thereon in gleaming gold.

We have metal, and then there is bright red. Instead of green and brown we have red and gold. Those are facts. I don’t think anybody would deny that red is in the world or gold is in the world. And the relation of the two is important. Red and black, as in Stendhal’s novel, are important too. Red and blue are certainly important. And you can get something a little mixed up in red and mauve, or red and magenta. But magenta has to do with scientific method too. Color is a study, the technical name for which is chromatics. Then there is a matter of shape, and a five-pointed star is a kind of shape, or an arrangement of shapes.

The Personal Is a Fact

The writer says:

And why that noble prince bare the pentangle I am minded to tell you, though my tale tarry thereby.

We come to the relation of personal and impersonal in telling a story. This writer talks in the first person, and he says he is digressing. He talks a little about the meaning of the pentangle—he knows his story is being held up and he says so. That is important, because we have the right to talk about things and to get ourselves into our talking about things. The I is, after all, indestructible in terms of telling about things. Anytime something is told, an I is present. The me cannot be banished. And one of the important things in scientific method in feeling is what to do with the me. The me has a right to be entirely me, but hasn’t been given that right, or hasn’t given it to itself. And what does that mean?

One of the things in the scientific method is to look upon the utmost in the personal as a fact. The deepest thoughts anyone has, and the most shameful thoughts, and the ones that we like least, are facts. A secret is as much a fact as something put on a billboard. And a thought doesn’t have to be told, or expressed, to be a fact of this world. The me is there: everyone can say, “I am a fact trying to be a happy fact.” Happiness itself is a fact.

There Is Ethics

The Green Knight, then, came to King Arthur’s Round Table on Christmas day and presented his challenge: that someone cut him with his own ax, with him having the chance to do the same to that person in a year. He is a hard person to see. He is a giant of a sort, but he also has large ethical feeling. There is something jovially religious about him. Gawain keeps his word: he said he would be there in a year—he’d find where this large man is. The next year the man, who is a lord, sees Gawain looking for him, coming to his castle—and because Gawain is ethical, the lord seems to be merry:

The lord, for gladness, made merry jest, even as one who wist not what to do for joy; and he cried aloud to the knight, “Ye have promised to do the thing I bid ye: will ye hold to this behest, here, at once?”

The promise is still to be fully kept. But if a person keeps his word, it encourages everyone else. That is the first thing in ethics. People are looking for somebody who will keep his word, because to get ahead is almost the same as doing nearly everything with your word but keeping it (at least if it’s difficult). So the ethics of the matter is here. And a large question is: does ethics belong to fact? If it does, what does scientific method have to do with it?

The word ethics is in feeling. Feeling is that part of mind concerned in any way with value. You feel cold, and the feeling of cold as such is factual. But as soon as you feel you don’t like the cold, at that moment it becomes value, because in all value there is like and not like. The same thing is so in liking or not liking the character of Frederick the Great. There are two great powers a person has: one is to see, to know; the other is to like. How they are together is the large question. When they’re not together, we can have calamity.

The lord goes hunting and has Gawain stay in the castle. And the lord’s wife visits him. The character of the wife is also difficult; there’s a Kafka-esque feminine approach. She’s not given a complete character. She seems to be a woman seeing what a man will do, provoking him a little but not exactly forcing him. She also judges Gawain, as her husband does.

So Gawain is left in the castle. And we have another aspect of knowledge and feeling: simultaneity. That is a large thing. Reality is real, but it can do something else as it does this. How much it can do something else, no one can say. This is a strong sentence in the Jessie Weston prose, showing people busy chasing the fox while Gawain is sleeping:

The huntsmen shouted and threatened, and followed close upon him [the fox] so that he might scarce escape, but Reynard was wily, and he turned and doubled upon them, and led the lord and his men over the hills, now on the slopes, now in the vales, while the knight at home slept through the cold morning beneath his costly curtains.

So there is a great deal of motion while there is a great deal of repose, rest. The idea of feeling and fact at once can be seen in many phrases related to this sentence, one of which is over the hills and far away. It’s completely scientific. It can be about a place, or a person, or one’s thoughts. At the same time, you can’t help but get a certain feeling from over the hills and far away. It’s not the same as There are three dozen pencils. Well, that is related to what is told here about hunting the fox.

Beauty, Sex, Ethics

How much is the feeling about beauty a fact? The greatest mystery in the world now is the relation of beauty, on the one hand, to ethics, and on the other, to sex. What the relation is of sex and beauty has not been answered yet, and sex and ethics. Gawain happens to be one of the virtuous people in history. There are not so many. Henry Fielding made fun of a virtuous person, Joseph Andrews. He was like the Joseph in Egypt whom Potiphar’s wife did not affect too much. Galahad, of course, is out of the question. But Gawain seems to be a knight and strong, and he presents virtue here. At the same time, he is very much affected by beauty and sees beauty as on the side of good. One sentence is important:

He saw her so glorious and gaily dressed, so faultless of features and complexion, that it warmed his heart to look upon her.

Which isn’t the same as saying he wants to acquire her, because he doesn’t. She makes moves that way, but Gawain has a feeling that this should not be. The story of Gawain and the Green Knight can be called a story of the romance of abstinence. There are not so many stories that have that. But Gawain is presented as having feeling enough. He’s not one of the sticks of the Round Table. He’s a person.

We’re Asked to Listen

Gawain doesn’t know yet that his host is the person whose head he cut off. The writer gets personal—he gets himself into the story:

Let him rest awhile, for he was near that which he sought, and if ye will but listen to me I will tell ye how it fared with him thereafter.

This is frequent in stories: “Listen, my children, and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” (That’s Longfellow.) And there’s “Casey Jones”: “Come all you rounders if you want to hear / The story of a brave engineer.” That is, you act as if you had an audience. You get yourself in: “...if ye will but listen to me I will tell ye how it fared with him thereafter.” But you’ve got to listen if you want to know. No listening, no chance to exert the scientific method—that’s the moral.

Gawain ends chastely and happily, so it’s a story quite different from many. When I dealt with it as poetry, I couldn’t say it had real poetry. But that as narrative it’s important, I said then and I say again. And the question of what is narrative is on the one hand something belonging to scholarliness, and on the other has feeling in it so much.