The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Words and Our Lives

Dear Unknown Friends:

It moves me very much to begin a new century with the serialization of Poetry and Words, a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel that is at once great, exact, warm, and amazing.

No subject is more important than the subject of words, both for our personal lives and for what will happen nationally and internationally. What kind of words do we—each of us as an individual person—want to hear, from the leaders of nations and from people close to us? There is no longing larger in us than our longing to hear words that come from real sincerity: words that are exact and deep. There are no disappointment and fury bigger than the disappointment and fury that exist because people do not hear such words. And how do we use words, both to others and as we think to ourselves? Our character, our life, our opinion of ourselves depend on our honesty with words.

I am tremendously glad to say, in the year 2000: Eli Siegel was the greatest friend to words. No one used them with more integrity, and with more beauty. I never heard him use words to flatter, as people so often do, or to evade, or to impress. His sentences, spoken and written, had might, charm, beauty of construction. And always they were just, magnificently just, to the subject they were about—including when that subject was a person, was oneself. I could say very much about Mr. Siegel’s integrity with words. It was the most beautiful thing I know in this world. And the lecture we are serializing is an instance of it.

Words are evidence for what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the biggest desire of the human self: to like the world. The fact that human beings thousands of years ago wanted to name the items and aspects of reality, was a love for them. Words are a means, perhaps the richest there is, of getting the world into ourselves: we can have within us knowledge of another person’s feelings, of a happening 300 years ago, of what a certain plant is like—all through words describing these. And through words, what is within us can go out to the world and be known there: we can tell about our thoughts with words, so our thoughts can get into the thoughts of someone else. (This is happening right now: words are bringing my thoughts to you.) Through words, our self and the world become of each other.

Aesthetic Realism shows what has not been understood elsewhere: the way we use words is governed by how we see the world. The various troubles people have about words—inability to read, difficulty in writing, dyslexia—these come from dislike of the world. A person who sees the world deeply as an enemy will be in some unconscious war with that enemy’s representatives, words. If he wants to protect himself from and conquer the outside world, he may not welcome words—which stand for it—into his mind. Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of this fact is one of the reasons public school teachers who use the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method have such monumental and continuous success in relation to words: they have enabled students, whom others couldn’t, to read, write, and really care for books and words.

The Mystery of Sameness & Difference

The principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism is the means of seeing what words are:

“All beauty,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” A crucial question in the study of linguistics—though it is not put this way—is What is the relation of sameness and difference between a word and the thing the word stands for?

The fashion in the last decades has been to say, as the linguist Saussure did, that there is no intrinsic sameness between the word (the “signifier”) and the thing it represents (the “signified”); that the connection is arbitrary—there is no underlying relation between the sound shrimp and the small crustacean, or between the sound whale and the massive seafaring mammal, or between the sound hurry and what hurrying is. Aesthetic Realism disagrees with that fashion. The fact that college linguistics departments may not understand why persons centuries ago felt a certain sound was right for a certain thing, is no reason for saying the word and thing are not deeply related, with all their obvious difference.

How many other sounds were tried—for a shrimp or a whale or the act of hurrying—which didn’t last, because people didn’t feel they were right? Then someone said “shrimp”—and others wanted to repeat it! That was because they felt it fit. And plainly shrimp, with its little vowel, feels more like the object than the heavy sound shroomp. Whale, with its wide vowel, and spreading consonants, seems closer to that large object than, for instance, a sound like kip would be. Hurry, as sound, has a rapidity, a closeness to the activity named, which the more leisurely sound ramble does not. What I am saying of English is true of every language. For instance, in other languages the word for whale has various likenesses with the animal: expansiveness is present in the German Wal too; and there are heaviness and fullness in the French baleine and the Spanish ballena.

In his Definitions, and Comment, Mr. Siegel writes:

One of the important mysteries of the world is the relation of the sound mountain to the thing mountain....Words can be said to be the results of a successful love of objects. Once a word sticks to an object, as in a language, there is a relation of word and object like the best in love, from a logical point of view.

I think that last sentence is beautiful; and it is true. The fact that there is some fittingness, however hard to discern, however mysterious, between words come to by human beings and the world those words tell of, makes one respect both humanity and the world more. It makes one feel the world is wondrous yet warm.

The Misuser of Words

Yet words have been used too with ugliness and cruelty. People have used words to give a false impression, to belittle and smear others, to aggrandize themselves, to lie. That goes on quietly every day. Aesthetic Realism explains what impels every use of words to falsify, from a child’s fibbing to the propaganda of Hitler. It is contempt, which Mr. Siegel identified in the following great principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”

Words—our words, politicians’, the press’s—will be either in the service of the desire to be fair to reality, or in the service of the feeling, “I can change any fact to suit my ego. Whatever doesn’t give me my way, whatever doesn’t make me look good as I see it, is my enemy—and I can use words to hurt it. I can use words to justify myself for anything. The facts should bow to me, not me to them—and I can use words to make them do so.” I have just described the ugliest state of mind in the world. Everyone has some of it; and the most important thing about us is how much we are against it.

I said earlier that there is no greater longing in people’s personal lives than for the hearing of a certain kind of words. This longing is bigger even than for sex. People long to hear someone using words to show who he truly is. They long to hear someone using words to find out who they truly are. The thing in people that wants to hide and pretend and have contempt makes them also afraid of such words; but the longing is there nevertheless. Aesthetic Realism is the education that can enable such use of words, such conversations, to be in people’s lives. As we begin to serialize Poetry and Words in this new century, I thank Eli Siegel for enabling me to love words. I thank him for putting into the kindest words in the world what humanity most longs to know.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Poetry and Words

By Eli Siegel

We can never get over the great wonder of the fact that words exist at all: that in a person’s mind there can be sometimes thousands, at least hundreds, of words, all of which can come forth with an emotion appropriate, if not with correct emotion.

Words themselves are successful poetry. I mean by that: It is a wonderful fact that we have a word, thump, which has been used today perhaps a couple of hundred thousand times in the United States and the far-flung dominions of the once flourishing British Empire. And today the word bump may have been used a couple of hundred thousand times—“You trying to bump into me?!” and so on—and that word, it seems, suits hundreds of thousands of people. And there is a certain relation we feel between b‑u‑m‑p and the thing which is a bump. And the word gossamer, which may have been used a couple of hundred times and is quite different, also seems to suit. And then we have words like silk and steak and concept and trivial and mama and murmur and whisper and giddy and dizzy and tizzy and hither and whither, and all sorts of words like daughter and son and baby, and they each seem to stand for something. Each one of these words I’ve just mentioned is in your mind.

They are poetry. Every word had to fight its way from the infinite not-word, because most sounds are not words, and when they come to exist in a language there is already the making one of thing and form of thing. That is, when we have a word like flash and it remains, it means a successful junction has occurred between what a thing is and something which can be taken to be that thing. It is a mighty important matter.

Words and Reality

Poetry, of course, has to deal with words. And in the same way that poetry wants to show how good the world can be while seeing it as it is and, as I have said, even changing it for the purpose of showing what it is, there also is the using of words in the best way. There is such a thing as a lover of words. If you love reality, it is impossible not to love words, because words are the witnesses to the fact that reality exists. Every time you use a word, you not only say that something exists, but you see it definitely. A word by itself is a pretty successful expression. Then, through placing words together, things can happen. These things are mighty important. A person who doesn’t respect words cannot respect reality, because words are the signs of the fact that reality has come to be seen, to be apprehended, in order to exist in a mind. When words are doing their utmost, there is poetry.

We have to look at words, and most people don’t want to look at words. People don’t love words because they don’t love reality. When we have a “love for words” without a love for reality, the love is spurious. Many persons who take writing courses go after words; they go through glossaries and through dictionaries, and copy words down from the best authors—Sir Thomas Browne and Walter Pater. But to love words we have to love reality as flexible and reality as existing.

There Is a Kinship

We can never get over the wonder of words, because the fact that we have words in us at all means there is a certain kinship between us and things. That we learn how to talk—that is so important in the life of a child—that we learn how to put words together long before we ever heard of grammar: all this is a mighty testimony to the kinship between things in ourselves we may not know and how other things are.

We can love each word, because every word is a great poetic success. The word the by itself is poetry. So is the word so. So is give, and bosh. Every word that has come to exist and be used by people is a success. Otherwise, why would it be used?

Since all poetry is a matter of words and their relations, it is good to look at some words closely. I take the best-known stanza of Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude.” What it says in language other than Gray’s is: when a person has been sick and gets out of bed, the way he sees things is so pleasant that it is wonderful.

See the wretch, that long has tost

On the thorny bed of pain

At length repair his vigor lost,

And breathe and walk again;

The meanest floweret of the vale,

The simplest note that swells the gale,

The common sun, the air, the skies,

To him are opening paradise.

A person, I think, who reads this stanza and doesn’t see anything big or beautiful in it is a person quite out of luck. Looking at it in terms of each word for a while, we find some very wonderful goings-on.

The Word See

If we take the word see, which we all use, we are dealing with a mighty point in history. Somehow, through one section of the world, and perhaps all sections of the world, there is a certain relation of sound felt between these three letters and a thing called seeing. Any person who thinks that in the rest of his life he is going to get through finding out the meaning of the word see or what seeing is, is complacent, smug, and should stop it, because you will never get through.

The word see is different each time we have another word going along with it. If we say “the antelope sees,” it is different from “the grandmother sees.” “The antelope sees” happens to be a pretty effective phrase, because we don’t think of the antelope seeing. “The grandmother sees” is also affecting, because we may not think of a grandmother seeing, for a different reason. So the word see can be used dramatically in relation to what goes with it.

This happens to be the first word in the stanza, and it· is used in the imperative mood. The word is used as a request, so it has a sharpness to it. If it were “You see,” it would be softer; “See” has a sharpness.

Words have all the qualities of steak; words have all the qualities of caterpillars and mosquitoes. They happen to be the representatives of reality, and reality is the most versatile thing there is. So the word see is already a rich thing, but here it is used sharply.