The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Words Are For

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing a lecture by Eli Siegel that is great about one of the greatest subjects in the world: Poetry and Words, of 1949. Words are coming to and from us in new ways now, through the Internet. But whether the words went from one person to another by means of email this morning, or Greek letters on papyrus 3000 years ago, or a conversation on a Paris street of 1612, these three questions were the crucial, burning ones: What is the purpose of words? What does it mean to use words in a way that strengthens you, another person, and reality itself? What does it mean to use words—both in your private thoughts and outwardly—in a way that is hurtful?

Through Aesthetic Realism we can see that every word which has lasted, in any language, arises from the deepest and best purpose of the human self: to be just to the world, to like the world truly. Words are the results of people’s desire to name the things reality has—to get the world into their minds with specificity, and be able to say things about it. The existence of every word is explained by this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Words are the oneness of the biggest opposites humanity has: self and world.

Meanwhile, words, which are infinitely beautiful and have been used with might and loveliness and kindness, have also been used to lie. Every day, people take part in conversations which make them meaner and emptier. And they have inward conversations—they use words to themselves about reality—which weaken them day after day.

Aesthetic Realism shows that the biggest matter in every person’s life is: Shall I be fair to the world, or shall I lessen it, have contempt for it? We are using words in behalf of either the first purpose or the second. In his preface to Self and World, Eli Siegel writes that there is for everyone a “human obligation to. see everything, living and not living, as well as one can.” That is what words are for: “to see”—and tell of—“everything, living and not living, as well as one can.” He continues:

The fact that most people have felt there is no such obligation, that they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form. [Pp. 2-3]

As I said last week—the feeling in people that they don’t have an obligation to be fair to the things of this world, is the reason, every day, people lie, change the facts to suit their egos.

Talking Too Little, & Too Much

Contempt for the world makes, too, for other verbal amissnesses. It is the chief reason people want to talk little or not at all, want to be laconic, sparse with words. An uncommunicative person may be one who feels confused, sad, stymied—but he has also used such feelings to see the world and people as deeply unworthy of having his thoughts, not good enough to show himself to.

Contempt for the world is also the reason a person talks too much. Prolixity, the going on and on with words, is a way of putting oneself forth without wanting to be affected by what is not oneself. It is a way of having a war with reality. To chatter, to take over a conversation, is to ward off other people; conquer them; seem to show oneself while actually hiding. It is to make what one can say about something be much more important than trying to understand that something.

Very many of the difficulties for which psychiatry is now seeking a genetic cause, actually arise from the way people tell about the world to themselves—from the way they use words in their minds. Eli Siegel is the person who showed that the big weakener of the human mind is contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt, certainly, can be wordless. It can be a feeling of disgust, a sneer, a yawn of boredom, an aloofness. But contempt also has much, much to do with words, because we are constantly using them to ourselves about things. People are constantly saying to themselves that someone is “stupid,” something is “disgusting,” someone “stinks,” and more. And year after year in their thoughts, people have intricately used phrases, sentences, paragraphs to present persons, situations, happenings, reality as repulsive and unworthy. Of course, disapproving words may sometimes be the correct words—but contempt is the hope to find things not good, and the relish of superiority at finding them not good.

Depression & Words

Let us take the subject of an article that appeared in Newsday on December 28. It told about the desire of a Canadian psychiatrist to find a gene that causes “seasonal affective disorder (winter depression) and bulimia.” The huge—and unsuccessful—hunt in the past decades for genes that cause mental distress has occurred because psychiatry has been a failure. The psychiatrists and counselors have not understood what makes people feel bad, and they have been unable to change people deeply for the better. So rather than say they themselves are ignorant about human thoughts, motives, feelings, they have gone on the following logic: There must be a biological cause; after all, we, the mighty ones, don’t know of any cause in people’s thoughts and feelings, and since what we don’t know does not exist, the cause must be sheer biology!

Eli Siegel is the person who understood the human mind. He showed that “all mental disorder or disaster” arises “from the common human inclination for contempt” (Self and World, p. 8).

The big question on the subject of the Newsday article is: If a person were trying—in how he spoke to himself, in how he used words to himself—to see the world justly, to see its value, would he be depressed and have bulimia? The answer is No. A depressed person is one who has come to find the world overwhelmingly displeasing. Does the world seem awful because he has told the truth to himself about it or has deeply lied about it? The latter. And the following sentence by Mr. Siegel explains why we lie about the world by making it look ugly to ourselves: “To see the world itself as an impossible mess—and this is often not difficult at all—gives a certain triumph to the individual” (Self and World, p. 11). We can go for that triumph when we have met misfortune, but we go for it at other times too; and our doing so is the central cause of depression. Then, Aesthetic Realism explains, because of the ethical nature of the human self, our being unjust to the world has us also despise ourselves!

About “seasonal depression,” the tendency to be depressed in winter, this can be said: A person who goes after seeing the world as a cold, darksome place from which he should be triumphantly though miserably separate, can use the advent of winter to ratify such a picture. There is more cold and dark then, and the increased staying within doors can back up his desire to be apart from a world unworthy of him. He uses the season to “clinch” his contempt; therefore he is depressed.

The intense overeating which has been called bulimia is a way of conquering a world we dislike. Every culinary item, from pastry to bacon, is the outside world and represents reality. To eat excessively is a popular way of making the enemy world serve you at last, please you lavishly while you don’t have to think about it or be fair to it a bit.

In the 21st century the people of the world will know, study, and love Aesthetic Realism. They will meet what I love passionately: Mr. Siegel’s showing that poetry is justice with words—justice so large and sheer that the words make for music. Eli Siegel is the person who, with his tremendous courage and complete honesty, used words greatly all the time.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


A Tremendous Instinct

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing words in a stanza from Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude,” and we have reached the second word. Here are the stanza’s first four lines.

See the wretch, that long has tost

On the thorny bed of pain,

At length repair his vigour lost,

And breathe and walk again.

Now we have the word the. We all use that. And if anybody wants to worship the word the, I wouldn’t call it idolatry. It is a tremendous thing; it is the most democratic word in the language, and it happens to be an article. A is an article, and is very democratic too. But the, along with having to go with everything, has a certain point quality. We can say “the idea,” “the tomato,” “the disappointment,” “the French language,” “the warehouse,” “the radio station,” “the scream.” It is just wonderful. So the second word is the—quite different from see. See has sharpness: one can think of a weather vane, looking at that word as it is placed here.

Then we have the word wretch. And we have the feeling of somebody who has been miserable, sick, and somewhat twisted. I cannot go into all the things that are in words, because each letter has its dramatic place; then, each word also has with it the aroma of history; and there is, even, the spelling of the word. So far in this line we have words in three functions: the first tells what a thing does, the verb see; the next points out, the; then we have the noun, wretch.

The purpose of Aesthetic Realism as to poetry and words is to take the idea of parts of speech away from the pottering, customary approach to grammar and show that the parts of speech correspond to a tremendous unconscious instinct, to a tremendous logic. That words do various things is a great victory for the organizing power of man and the organizing power of the world.

Then we have the word that. This again is one of the tremendous words. It points more than the, and it is used in various ways. It happens to be a pronoun; it happens to be a conjunction; and it happens to be a demonstrative adjective. When one hears those terms, there can be a feeling, “Oh, what is this? It’s technical.” I say, Technical, my eye! If you want to know what you are doing, you’d better find out what your words are doing, and you'd better find out what the instincts of man come to—because the parts of speech were not made by any professors. They were made by people once upon a time, who hunted, and maybe got food out of the ground, and went fishing, not for the fun but because they needed the fish, and who were early men.

They were the persons who came to the parts of speech, not because a professor told them, “Look here, you fellows, now that you have a little time you'd better get to those parts of speech.” The parts of speech correspond to a necessary instinct of man. So when we have here a relative pronoun, that, it is a mighty thing.

The Words Help Each Other

One of the things making up a line of poetry is the grammar, present just as it would be in a sentence. At the same time, there is a certain relation among the words. We have a word like see, which is sharp, and a word like wretch, which is confused and wide. We have a word like long, which gives a different kind of feeling, nearer to the word see. Then we have a word which is likewise quiet, has. Then we have the word tost (that is, tossed). Each word does something. Each word is supposed to be a buddy of the other words, is supposed to help them—and furthermore, offer, insofar as the line is good, the very best help possible. A word has new power brought from it because of its placing.

While words stand for things, there is also a music to them. A word like perilous sounds different from a word like imagine. The accent in perilous is on the first syllable. The accent in imagine is on the second. Persons may say, “So what?” (The words so what? sometimes are the most miserable words in the world.) It is important because unconsciously there is a kind of atomic hearing that gets, from a word like perilous, a feeling different from the feeling from a word like imagine, and these words can serve each other. So the music of a word is also part of the word.

When we are interested in all this, we can say that we love words. The first thing love wants to do is to become accurate, because where there is love without a desire for accuracy, it is spurious love—just as it is about persons. Any love that just depends on impressions, that doesn’t go for accuracy, is spurious. Love without knowledge is spurious in the social field; it is also spurious in the intellectual field.

In has tost we have a construction. It took a long time to get to this construction; it happens to be the present perfect. Has and tost are together, and that has to do with time.

Love and Accuracy

The whole line is arranged in such a way that after the first syllable, which is see, we have a short syllable, a long syllable; a short syllable, a long syllable; a short syllable, a long syllable. I could go into the makeup of each word and how each syllable is placed against another syllable. We hear all of this instantly if we are disposed to look on words as music and meaning, and we are closer to seeing all the good and also discerning all the not-good in a line. But this doesn’t come by just listening. In the same way as it takes a happy sort of attention to find the good in a person, even the good that the person may not know about, so it needs a happy, steady attention to find the good that words put together may give rise to.

This line is a good line. It is a good line because the words themselves are chosen with love and accuracy. It is a good line because the choice comes from a desire to be affected and a desire also to be precise.