The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What the Novel Is—& Why It Matters

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to begin to serialize a lecture great in the understanding of art and of everyone’s life: It Still Moves; or, The Novel, by Eli Siegel. In this 1951 discussion he speaks about what the novel is, must have—the novel of any type, any year, any place. Later in the lecture he comments on many individual novels, some quite swiftly, but in every instance centrally, definitely. And as he does, his own prose—here, spoken prose—is some of the most beautiful in English.

He begins the lecture speaking about the elements of the novel, and the first section is about narrative, or narration. Many, many critics have discussed narration, and it’s a standard topic in writers’ workshops. But as Eli Siegel looks at narration, there is something that never occurred before and could only occur through the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism: he shows that the technique of a good novel is about us—it has what we want in our lives, does what we want to do. This lecture, this critical masterpiece, is an illustration of the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

For example, a large aspect of this first section is his showing that a novel, in its narrative, is always motion and rest. And, further: if the novel is good, it makes a one of those opposites—which are often warring and immensely troubling in our lives.

Novels Today

Eli Siegel gave this lecture 67 years ago, but what he describes is true of every novel before, since, and to come. Looking at issues of the New York Times Book Review published this very month, we can see that the matter of how well rest and motion are joined in a novel’s narrative goes on. On page 47 of the June 3rd issue, a reviewer writes that the novel she’s reviewing “moves like a skier tearing down the mountain”—and then she continues: “I appreciated the thrill of the run but would have appreciated a pause here and there to take in the view.” She’s saying that motion in this novel of our time is rather unfair to rest.

Meanwhile, on page 27, another reviewer writes that in another new novel there are “passages [that] become mere exposition dumps where the narrative pauses before continuing.” So in this novel there’s plenty of rest—but (at least in the passages referred to, and according to the reviewer) it’s rest that interferes with motion rather than strengthening it.

In the NY Times Book Review a week later, June 10, a novel that could only have been written in our time is reviewed: Disoriental, by Negar Djavadi, “an Iranian writer who fled her native country...and settled in Paris.” The reviewer, Dalia Sofer, praises this novel about “the ‘disorientation’ of exile.” But she has a demur—and it’s about the opposites of rest and motion in narrative. She says the narrative is interrupted, made to rest, too much:

If there is one element weighing down this rich novel..., it’s the exiled narrator’s compulsion to explain so much of her country’s past. The book contains not only extensive historical passages but also footnotes....Is it the job of a novel to engage in such overt exposition?

Any critic or reader looking at a novel feels things standing for rest and motion. But the reviewers I’ve quoted, like other critics, do not see what only Aesthetic Realism explains: 1) these are opposites, and they’re central to the structure of reality itself; 2) they’re also central to all beauty, all art, and how fully they’re one determines in a large way how good the artwork is; 3) they’re our opposites, present every moment in our lives. Motion and rest can take the form in us of agitation, painful restlessness, even frenzy—and tepidity, dullness, languor, the feeling of being stuck. We, unknowingly, are thirsty to feel motion and rest can be one, and that is a big reason we love novels.

Mr. Siegel, you’ll soon see, speaks about other opposites a novel’s narrative puts together. I love his discussion of suspense and what it does with opposites tremendous for everyone: hope and fear, the known and unknown.

The Greatest of Critics

I have said that Eli Siegel is the greatest of critics. He explained what art is, and why it matters—matters to our very lives. He explained that art is not an offset to life, but shows what the world truly is. And he made clear that every instance of art, including every good novel, arises from respect for the world; and that as such, it is an opponent of what he described as “the greatest danger or temptation” of humanity: “to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself, which lessening is Contempt.”

The novels of the world, whether Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji of the 11th century or a novel published this year, all present in some fashion the battle in people between the desire to respect reality and the desire to have contempt for it—though the novelists haven’t known that was the battle they were depicting. Now, because Aesthetic Realism makes the fight clear, novels of the past and present and future can be truly a means of having respect win in us, and in humanity.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


It Still Moves; or, The Novel

By Eli Siegel

Every person is trying to arrange the events of his or her life in terms of the good novel. By this I mean that as soon as we’re born things start happening to us, and most often we can’t make any sense out of those happenings—they proceed one after the other. So we forget a lot. And we give a meaning, out of relation, to some events. Some we just don’t want to think about. And there is generally vacuity and mess.

In a novel there must be happenings. There must also be happenings in a certain arrangement. If we could find some arrangement in the happenings of our lives, we would be prouder of ourselves, and happier, stronger. It is that arrangement of events, with all that goes with events, that novel criticism is trying to understand. And it is that arrangement, likewise, that we must try to understand if our lives are to make sense. Very few lives have made sense. Novel criticism, in its deepest meaning, is the same as criticism of events in any person’s life. We shall see if that notion holds good.

Things Happening Are Individual—& Related

In events in our lives there is a time relation. Something happened to all of us 20 years ago, 22 years ago, 9. Things are happening all the time, little and big, sometimes very big. Sometimes things seem little and look big later. Sometimes things look big now and seem little later. But things are happening. So in a way our lives are like the events in a novel. They are also like the notes in music, because in music too, whatever else may be, there is a succession. A symphony may take three quarters of an hour, and something is happening in every minute. We don’t think of it only as a succession—that is, like a succession of freight cars, or of spoons on the table: we see some other dimension, a certain mingling. More things are happening than just one spoon after another. There is another kind of relation, a deeper relation and also a wider relation.

This goes on in music, in novels, and should go on in our lives: that along with one thing happening after another there is a relation between something that happened once and something that happens now, a relation also to things on the side, and a relation also to things that are underneath.

To show what that means, I’ll use some texts.

We Want Things to Happen

In the first place, a novel is narrative, which means that it is about motion, or happenings. When people read novels, they want things to happen. It is quite clear we also want things to happen in our lives—but not too much. We want things to happen, nice things; big things, but nice. So we want things to happen both in our lives and in a novel. They happen in time, and there is, in a novel, a certain order, though the event or happenings are of various kinds.

I’m going to read some sentences about what I’ve just said, from a college textbook of 1895 by a sensible professor of rhetoric at what was then Columbia College (now Columbia University). The book is Specimens of Narration, by William T. Brewster. In his introduction he quotes this from Scott and Denney’s Paragraph-Writing:

“A narrative is the presentation in language of successive related events occurring in time.”

Narrative would be, then, like placing one milk bottle after another as one sees it done in a milk bottling plant. But of course that isn’t all. Minutes in our lives go one after the other, no matter what happens; whether we have a toothache or are meeting the person we love most, minutes just go on like milk bottles. That is one aspect of narrative: it is in time. —Then Brewster says:

Narration is, then, that method of expression in language dealing with things as they move; and as such the method is obviously applicable to all forms of literature, good and bad, permanent and ephemeral, to poetry and to prose.

One thing in common between a Western story we can call The Big Shooter of the Pecos and a novel of Tolstoy is that things happen. The way things happen is different, but things happen in War and Peace—much happens—and also in The Rarin’ Kid of Powder River. Maybe more things happen in The Rarin’ Kid of Powder River, but Tolstoy’s book is longer. In any novel things happen. Whether the man, before he kisses the girl, reads all kinds of psychology books, and that’s the novel, or whether there is a slipping from one dark lady of a Marseilles street to another, there are happenings. There are happenings within or happenings without, but there are happenings.

A Novel Is Motion & Rest

Another passage. I won’t go into the dramatic niceties of it, but what it comes to is that the way a novel has narrative and description is like what goes on in a sentence:

Narration meets description at almost every turn, as is seen in every novel. Indeed, in no one part of speech, except the infinitive and the participles of the verb, can narrative be said to exist in a pure form. Nouns and adjectives are, ipso facto, descriptive. The moment a noun, or even an I , is prefixed to the verb, that moment there enters a suggestion of the descriptive element.

So the sentence has a noun (or pronoun) and a verb. The noun stands for something at rest; the verb stands for something in motion. We ourselves are like a noun and a verb: we are something, and then we move. The novel is narrative, but just as a sentence has something happening in it with also the necessity of there being something at rest, so in a narrative there is the motion, which is the happenings, and also the rest, which generally can be called description.

It is the combination of these two, just as in life, that makes up the novel, from one point of view. The happening is brought out by what is—what is at rest. How this is done is a long business, because in a novel if one thing happened after another with nothing in between, we’d soon be tired of the roller coaster. We’d say we want to go to a sofa. Sometimes novels are that way. The old-time serial was that way: things had to happen in each installment—the villain had to get the heroine to a saw mill or an opium joint or somewhere else.

There must be in the novel, as in music, as in life, a placing of pause as to the motion. The pause, we can generally call descriptive (there are other aspects of pause). So the novel is like life insofar as it is a making one of rest and motion. And rest and motion is a principal thing in aesthetics.

As I say this, it is well to look at ourselves once more, to ask ourselves whether rest by itself is enough, whether motion by itself is enough. Somehow, we want rest and motion together. The way rest and motion come together in a happy life, according to Aesthetic Realism, is the way narrative and description come together in a good novel, or sound and pause (or the motion aspect of sound and the rest aspect of sound) in music.

Kinds of Movement

Something else in the novel or narrative is kinds of movement. These are many. I’m talking today about some of the things that should be understood about the novel—I’m not going to deal with all of them. I think that to deal with all of them would be delightful, I think life needs that, but enough can be done without dealing with all the aspects of movement now. Quoting from Brewster again:

Most important of all factors in the structure of a narrative is movement....A narrative...should progress in time and in the sequence of cause and effect. The narrative must be built so as to aid that movement....A steady method of progression is ordinarily the most typical for narration, a progression which always moves forward and leaves nothing to be explained. This is well illustrated in the steady jog of Miss Austen’s narrative, in the sweep of Hawthorne’s best work, and especially in the carefully prepared effects of the modern French story. These stories do not back and fill, as does the plot in Ivanhoe; they are fortunately devoid of retrospective digressions, such as in David Copperfield weary all but sentimental readers; they do not put several threads of action side by side, as in Middlemarch and many histories; and their progress is not a mere succession of brilliant leaps, as in Mr. Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd.

The idea isn’t presented by Brewster in the best way, but it is this: There should be a constant feeling of motion—just as no person wants to be bored—but there should likewise be the presentation of things in relation to motion so that the motion is not looked on simply as breathless or wearying. Further, in the lowering of motion, in the rest aspect of motion, there should not be something to clog the motion itself; there should be rest within motion but not rest as against motion. Brewster sees rest against motion—whether it’s there or not—in Ivanhoe, passages where Scott seems to nod a little and want to go to sleep; in passages of thought of a certain kind, which he seems to see in George Eliot’s Middlemarch; certain bits of self-description or retrospective that he feels he sees in David Copperfield; and so on.

But the principle is that in a novel there must be a feeling of motion, with the motion so arranged that there is also a feeling of satisfaction or repose. This, again, makes it like music or a happy life.

As in Drama

There is another thing in a novel, as there is in drama: there is suspense. In life, suspense is the feeling that something of great meaning may occur, that we are looking for something. If we were sure of it, it wouldn’t be so interesting: we can’t look for something we’re entirely sure of. But also, if there were no chance of getting it, we would not feel good. Suspense, then, is a dramatic arrangement of hope and fear, and in life we want the accent to be on hope. Suspense in a novel is good because it is only happening in a novel: whether this person is going to get out of jail or not; whether the villains are going to get the main character or not; whether the ship is going to sink and the little boy is going to be drowned forever or not.

There are other kinds of suspense. There is the suspense of people telling things to each other. But suspense, the feeling that something is in the air and we don’t know yet whether it’s going to be good or bad but we’re interested in the next showing of destiny or the future—that can be well arranged. It is part of life. The heartbeat shouldn’t be too sure.

Suspense is a very deep thing. The pleasure from feeling what is to be—whether good or bad—is suspense in the novel. In the deepest sense, that is what it should be in life too: the looking upon the future as having a mystery which is getting closer and closer to us. It should be pleasant, but most often suspense in life is something people don’t want. It’s hard to bear. —Brewster writes:

Suspense...heightens the action. Suspense gathers together details and accumulates them, like the gathering of thunder-clouds on a sultry afternoon: suddenly the rain drops down, soon the sky clears, and the narrative flows on unimpeded. Good examples of movement vivified by suspense will be found in Stevenson’s Kidnapped and in Scott’s romances.

Suspense is very necessary, and is something that the dramatist, the movie director, anybody who is telling a story, has to deal with. Even in telling a joke you have to use suspense—you can’t give the point away too soon. Suspense is one of the most wonderful things in life. We don’t wholly want to know what tomorrow will bring forth, yet we want to feel that it’s good. And it is that relation of known and unknown that is at the very midst of the idea of suspense.

So far, I have shown that the narrative idea of the novel brings together those things that are at the basis of everyday life, and that to understand them would mean to know more about what we are.