The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Man Is

Dear Unknown Friends:

Aesthetic Realism arose from the greatest desire ever had by one person—to see all people truly and the world itself truly. This was Eli Siegel's desire. He was unswervingly and gracefully faithful to it, and he achieved it. As he began in 1941 to teach Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy he founded, he was teaching the true explanation of the world and every self—self white or black, Asian or European, woman or man, every self.

He wrote in “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict,” a chapter of his Self and World, “In all persons, tough and genteel, hard-boiled and dreamy, vulgar and elegant, the beginning, large problem is aesthetic: just that.” He defined every person's central, aesthetic problem: “How is he to be entirely himself, and yet be fair to that world which he does not see as himself?” (p. 91). He showed that the interference in everyone—the cause of all mental difficulty, domestic quarrels, war—is contempt, the “disposition in every person to think wee will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Because Aesthetic Realism has not been widely known, humanity has endured the ravages of contempt these decades.

We print Mr. Siegel's “Questions for Everyone,” first published in 1949. Because Aesthetic Realism understands man, it is able to ask the questions, not asked before, that people need most to hear in order to have the lives they want. In Aesthetic Realism lessons, as Eli Siegel spoke to a person and asked him questions, they were the kindest, most needed questions. They were completely particular: they got to the center of that person in all his/her uniqueness. They also made a person feel related to the whole world. It is the great good fortune of my life to have experienced this, richly. In Aesthetic Realism lessons taught by Eli Siegel, people felt—I felt—what no people had felt before in history: “A person knows me, really knows me, as I truly am!”

The 1966 lecture by Mr. Siegel reported on here contains two urgently needed things: the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing poetry, and Aesthetic Realism’s justice about race. Eli Siegel is the critic who explained what poetry is: “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” I learned from him that there is nothing more important than the difference between a good poem and a bad: it is the difference between a person’s expressing himself through being fair to the world, and a person’s expressing himself in a way unfair or insufficiently fair to the world. Lacking the knowledge that is in the Aesthetic Realism explanation of poetry, persons, including critics and professors, do not know the difference between verbal impressiveness and that most needed musical honesty which poetry is.

As Eli Siegel shows that black writer Sterling Brown stands for Man, he presents that way of seeing humanity—as the aesthetic oneness of sameness and difference—which the world must study. Aesthetic Realism is the only education that can end prejudice. Eli Siegel himself was completely without prejudice. He was beautifully just to every human being.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Questions for Everyone

To Be Thought about and Discussed

By Eli Siegel

  1. Do I feel the same alone as I do with other people?

  2. Have I thought that no one knew me or cared for me?

  3. Have I sometimes felt that I hated everything?

  4. Do I think I am two persons or one person?

  5. Would I be afraid to know everything about myself?

  6. Do I think that my family is apart from the rest of the world?

  7. Have I suddenly wanted other people to feel bad? or to be unlucky?

  8. Have I sometimes felt I didn’t care for anything?

  9. Does something in me want to be unhappy?

10. Do I feel more important when I’m unhappy?

11. In listening to someone, do I listen with all of myself? Do I find myself suddenly

not listening to someone?

12. Can I put together where I’m for myself and against myself?

13. Again, do I sometimes feel I don’t care for anything?

14. Do I get angry suddenly, without apparent reason?

15. Do I try not to be suspicious, and yet cannot stop from being suspicious?

16. Am I afraid of something I don’t know?

17. Am I against myself often?

18. Do I hate what I cared for a short time ago?

19. Do things often seem to have no meaning?

20. Do I feel that other people make me less?

21. Do I really know what would make me happy?

22. Do I like to hide?

23. Do I get pleasure despising people?

24. Am I glad I was born?

25. Have I thought sometimes I was far away from everything?

26. Do I tell lies, even when I don’t want to?

27. Do I like myself and what is not myself at the same time; or do I want to?


A Class about Poetry and Mind

Reported by Leila Rosen

The lecture Man Is Poetically Shown in Southern Road, 1932, given by Eli Siegel in 1966, is, I believe, one of the important events in the history of justice to humanity and poetry. In it, Mr. Siegel spoke about what he said was “the best book of poems by a Negro in American literature,” Southern Road, by Sterling A. Brown, who taught at Harvard and Howard Universities: “The question that comes up is whether this book has some of the poetry of America in it, and some of the poetry that other books by authors more known have not had. In the same way that Brown is better than T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and Allen Ginsberg, so he’s better than Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes.”

According to Aesthetic Realism, when a poem is authentic it is because the world’s structure—the oneness of opposites—has been felt and presented truly by the poet. The great sign that this has occurred, Mr. Siegel has explained, is poetic music. He showed that Brown’s poems have true music.

An’ all dat Big Boy axes

When time comes fo’ to go,

Lemme be wid John Henry, steel drivin’ man,

Lemme be wid ole Jazzbo,

Lemme be wid ole Jazzbo.

“This is one of the beautiful stanzas in American poetry,” commented Mr. Siegel. “As I read this, a certain effect that can be called bodily occurs. There's that mingling of softness and strength that poetry goes after.” He showed the relation of this stanza to lines from Tennyson’s “Ulysses” that tell of Ulysses wanting to meet Achilles after death. “Jazzbo here corresponds to Achilles,” explained Mr. Siegel. “... In both instances there's a going for something good, powerful, kind about existence as such, through a person":

for my purpose holds

To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths

Of all the western stars, until I die.

It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;

It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,

And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.

“These lines are large as John Henry is large,” said Mr. Siegel. “The most outstanding example of mind gone wrong is smallness, cheapness, pettiness. Jazzbo and John Henry have largeness.”

He called Southern Road “the one good book I know with a name that matches the quality of Negro work without names—that is, the spirituals.” Mr. Siegel said an important question black writers have is whether they should write in dialect. As far as I’m concerned, the Negro dialect, like the Yiddish dialect, the German dialect, the Irish dialect, adds something to English, and there are certain effects that couldn’t be had without it.”

Mind Has This

Discussing Brown’s poem “When de Saints Go Ma’chin’ Home,” Mr. Siegel explained, “Mind would just love to strut and be sure of itself and go marching”:

Ole Deacon Zachary

With de asthmy in his chest,

A-puffin' an' a-wheezin'

Up de golden stair

Wid de badges of his lodges

Strung acrost his heavin' breast

An' de hoggrease jes' shinin'

In his coal-black hair.

Said Mr. Siegel, “We have this line, so stodgy, so earthy—‘Wid de badges of his lodges’—it’s lovely. This is some of the best writing in America.”

Commenting on another poem, Mr. Siegel asked, “Just what is the Negro woman; what has she been? It is not easy to say, because she did know how to be silent. We do know there have been Negro women lovely as anything. That is represented by a woman with a lovely name, Sojourner Truth. She ought to be known by everybody.” He then read “Sister Lou,” which begins:

Honey

When de man

Calls out de las’ train

You’re gonna ride,

Tell him howdy.

Gather up yo’ basket

An’ yo’ knittin' an’ yo’ things,

An’ go on up an' visit

Wid frien’ Jesus fo’ a spell.

“This is good,” said Mr. Siegel. “It shows the desire of the human being to be folksy, personal, chatty with the great forces.”

There Are Religion, Love, Sound

Before reading “Sporting Beasley,” Mr. Siegel explained that “the meaning of gaiety has some relation to religion,” and this can be seen in jazz. “Louis Armstrong at his truest, or Baby Dodds, ...did find the gaiety of the world become orderly and mighty sound.” These are lines from “Sporting Beasley:

Oh, Jesus, when this brother’s bill falls due,

When he steps off the chariot

And flicks the dust from his patent leathers with his silk handkerchief,

Don’t make him dress up in no nightgown, Lord.

Don’t put no fuss and feathers on his shoulders, Lord.

Let him know it’s heaven.

Let him keep his hat, his vest, his elkstooth, and everything.

Let him have his spats and cane.

Let him have his spats and cane.

Commented Mr. Siegel, “That line ‘Let him have his spats and cane’ shows poetry has occurred in America.”

Brown’s sonnet “Challenge,” he said, has “the complexity [about love] we find in F. Scott Fitzgerald or George Meredith.” It begins:

I said, in drunken pride of youth and you,

That mischief-making Time would never dare

Play his ill-humoured tricks upon us two,

Strange and defiant lovers that we were.

“There is a feeling among persons that what defeated others would not defeat them,” explained Mr. Siegel. The poem ends:

with you believing me, I made

My prophecies, rebellious, unafraid.

And that was foolish, wasn't it, my dear?

Said Mr. Siegel, “White and black have both had a hard time capturing happiness and then having it stay captured.”

Eli Siegel concluded this tremendously beautiful lecture by saying, “Poetry shows the mind of man, ... and consequently I think this book is worth knowing. It shows a Negro writing unquestionable poetry in two modes—primitive and cultured as anything—and also shows that mind includes the Negro and the Negro includes mind. And when we know that, there won't be any folk we'll be unfair to.”


Only Later; or, The First Line

By Eli Siegel

I heard a Negro child crying

And it sounded so much like a white child

It was only later

I found out what I said

In my first line.

[1970]