The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Novel—What It Tells Us

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of It Still Moves; or, The Novel. In this great 1951 lecture, Eli Siegel has been explaining not only what a novel is, but that which other critics—also novelists, also readers—have not known: what makes some novels beautiful; and how, in the technique of a good novel, are the answers to the questions of our own lives. At the basis of this talk is the principle “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In the midst of this final section, Mr. Siegel says, “I mention for a while some novels of note.” And then he does something that is for me literally breathtaking. He comments on novels of many centuries, and because this is at the end of a single lecture, he has to be exceedingly brief about each; yet what happens stands for who Eli Siegel was, as critic, as scholar, and as a person. He gets to and has us feel what is central to each of the authors mentioned, and he also relates the various novels to each other—all in such a few words, and his sentences are beautiful.

Eli Siegel’s spoken prose always had what I have called spontaneous beauty. In his lectures he did not speak from an outline or notes; he did not plan his sentences. Because he loved knowledge so much, and went after it, and treasured it, it was alive and organized within him—ready to come forth in vivid, fresh, new, graceful, eloquent, living fairness to the immediate subject. Here, that subject was specific books and their relation to people and the world.

George Eliot Too

Mr. Siegel says that in this talk he is “not mentioning all” the “novels of note.” Some that he saw as ever so meaningful are not referred to in it. So I’ll point to just a few of the novels on which he lectured definitively and thrillingly but does not mention in the present talk: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Anatole France’s The Red Lily, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance, Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms.

And there was the lecture he gave in 1971 on the author whose real name was Mary Ann Evans: The Novel Speaks of Poetry; or, George Eliot. I’ll quote a little from my notes of that talk, because what Mr. Siegel described her as writing about is the most urgent matter for our personal lives and for our nation: the need for every human being to be seen with respect, not contempt. That is: be seen as fully real, be understood—not managed, flattered, exploited, looked down on.

“The goodness of a novel,” he said, “depends on how the novelist sees people.” He spoke about the power of George Eliot’s mind, and read this passage from her first novel, Scenes of Clerical Life:

Depend upon it, you would gain unspeakably if you would learn with me to see some of the poetry and the pathos, the tragedy and the comedy, lying in the experience of a human soul that looks out through dull grey eyes, and that speaks in a voice of quite ordinary tones.

He said George Eliot “agrees with Aesthetic Realism that the question in you is as illimitable as the galaxies. A constant thing in her novels is the showing of persons’ lack of true interest in each other.”

He spoke about Middlemarch, and said, “Dorothea Brooke represents woman or man, seeking, disappointed, and trying to understand.” And the following statements of his bring together a great novel and something central in our lives:

The beginning of pain is to assume you understand a person justly, when maybe you don’t. Why do people give each other pain?—that is the subject of Middlemarch. George Eliot did a great deal to make understanding look as important as it is. She helped in an unfinished cause.

A Poem: “Also”

In our serialization, I have been accompanying Mr. Siegel’s lecture with poems of his about the novel. One is reprinted here, from his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. (It had previously appeared in the journal Accent.)

“Also,” of 1928, is a wild yet logical poem about a not yet existing novel. This is the author’s note: “It is a world, this poem says, of addition; of addition, which, however strange, becomes instantly proper, once looked for.” And the poem uses a possible novel to represent that deep and encouraging philosophic idea.

In the poem the “however strange” feels “proper” in various ways: There’s the mentioning, quite naturally together, of four languages, of which one is well known and at least one does not exist. The possible novel’s title is strange, awry—because the somewhat romantic and humanly appealing main title is followed by a subtitle that sounds pedestrian, mechanical, purposely dull; yet the combination seems also fitting. There’s more to say about this poem, and the symbols therein, but it is agog, mysterious, sizzlingly hopeful, musical.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

A Way of Knowing the World

By Eli Siegel

The novel is both everyday, comfy, cozy—as in Jane Austen—and it has mystery. Coziness should be in all novels, no matter how windswept they are, how many moors they get in, how wild, how religious. A novel can be described as the hearth and mystery.

We find both of these effects in Dickens. It is interesting to read the ending of The Pickwick Papers; everything ends so nicely. Pickwick—well, that’s a whole department store. It’s a kind of novel with many incidents, some connection. It’s a great thing, because there are great people in it. But this is not the time to criticize Pickwick. I’ll read the end of Pickwick, to show the novel where it’s comfy and sweet:

Mr. Pickwick himself continued to reside in his new house, employing his leisure hours in arranging the memoranda which he afterwards presented to the secretary of the once famous club, or in hearing Sam Weller read aloud, with such remarks as suggested themselves to his mind, which never failed to afford Mr. Pickwick great amusement....Mr. Pickwick...retains all his former juvenility of spirit, and may still be frequently seen, contemplating the pictures in the Dulwich Gallery, or enjoying a walk about the pleasant neighbourhood on a fine day. He is known by all the poor people about, who never fail to take their hats off, as he passes, with great respect....He is invariably attended by the faithful Sam, between whom and his master there exists a steady and reciprocal attachment which nothing but death will terminate.

So happy! The novel is happier than life; it is also less happy than life. And both kinds of novel can be great, because one way of seeing life is to see what is more happy than life so far has been, and also less happy. Pain and happiness come to make a one. The deepest happy ending is that which shows the relation of pain and happiness.

That is one ending to a Dickens novel; but there is another kind. The ending of Pickwick is very cozy, very touchable, so sweet. Then, there is another ending: it is melodramatic—nearly everybody knows it—but it goes into space. It is the ending of A Tale of Two Cities, the sentence Sydney Carton utters just before he is to be executed. This has been in the movies. It is so different from the ending of Pickwick, but it is by the same man. Pickwick is so tidy, so homey, so cheerful. This in a way is cheerful, but it has the space around the stars in it. Sydney Carton says, just before he dies:

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

We should see the relation of this kind of ending to the ending in Pickwick. Dickens was about 25 years older when he wrote A Tale of Two Cities. Much had happened to him. But we should still see the same man. The world of the novel is touchable; and then, it’s so mysterious—it takes us to the night beyond the unseen star. A touchability and also a wonder are in all great novels.

The sense of what things are and what things are not is present in that aspect of fiction which is so important, the supernatural story or the ghost story. It can take people, because we all are affected by what isn’t, what might be. The novel is a relation of what is and what might be, as drama is.

Some Fiction of Note

I mention for a while some novels of note. I’m not mentioning all of them.

An instance of fiction that has affected people is The Arabian Nights, which wanders around, and has happenings arising strangely and surprisingly, a sense of much motion with hardly any definite place, and motion in wonder. But there is also a good deal of humor. And there is the sense of wonder with things happening, people looking for something, and meeting, and paining each other, the sense of much wandering. In a novel people do wander. In their effort to get dimension they can’t follow a line and be like the milk bottles I referred to, in a bottling plant, one after the other, or like people in line before a popular movie. There is a quieter wandering in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, of the late Middle Ages. And The Arabian Nights is very crowded.

Earlier I mentioned Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. He is a character who is the representative of a person alone, but he has a definite environment: that island of his. And we feel something very practical. He is a person alone who has his sense with him, and doesn’t lose it because he is alone.

Then, there is another person who is alone, and who, because he is so alone seems to have lost his sense and he begins fighting the bad world in that tearful way: Don Quixote. These books are great in fiction: The Arabian Nights, the Morte d’Arthur, and Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. In Don Quixote there is wonder, but Cervantes also had a sense of the touchable. He would have liked Mr. Pickwick. He knew what a good table was.

In another way, a person fighting himself and the world is in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, of the 17th century. It is a very dramatic thing, because we feel, despite the religious terms, that this person is saying, “I must have the world my friend forever, this world and any world, at this time and in any time.” And the obstructions that he meets are part of the drama. The self meeting obstruction within and without—that fight must be in fiction. It is in Pilgrim’s Progress; in a funny way, in Don Quixote; in Robinson Crusoe; and even in The Arabian Nights.

Voltaire’s Candide, I discussed recently. That’s a great novel too, of the 18th century. The topsy-turviness, the seeming malice of the world, are present, and how to make sense out of the confusion of the world. The happenings in it are faster than nearly anywhere else. There is a slowness in the happenings in Robinson Crusoe compared with Candide; there’s even a slowness in Pilgrim’s Progress, in Don Quixote. Happenings are so accelerated in Candide that the novel takes on a speed in pained wistfulness.

Then, the novel of tidiness and the close impact of persons, almost breathing mysteriously into each other, is Pride and Prejudice, of Jane Austen.

The world was looking still for the wonderful place, the place that had in it mystery, and James Fenimore Cooper, who I think is a great novelist, provided it in The Last of the Mohicans. He is the master of the chase and of suspense. The chase is a big idea in the drama of the novel. The world of the fort, the Indian, the lake, was in Cooper. He is one of the great novelists of place, because the forest, the sea, the trees even, the mountains, took on a personal quality. He is almost contemporary with Jane Austen; he is somewhat younger. The novel can be seen as present both in Pride and Prejudice, with its tea and its tidiness, and with the space of The Last of the Mohicans and Cooper’s other novels.

The outrageous quality of man, his enjoyment of physical things and also a sense of wonder (because there is a big voyage at the end) is in Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel, of the 16th century. That is important fiction.

The novels of Scott should be taken all together because he is a man who mingles both the desire for the east-of-the-sun-and-west-of-the-moon and a great apprehension of the people around him. And he had a sense of the past. The past as a subject for the novel begins with Scott. He almost created the historical novel.

Balzac’s novels can be taken together. He is influenced by Scott, but he is the novelist who just had to see all his people together. He has them in one book and gets them in the next one. He had to make a whole city. I discussed Père Goriot but others could be discussed. Occasionally he wants to see something very precisely, and then he gets wild, and furniture takes on a ghostly form. Then he has all kinds of strange melodrama, with shipwrecks and pirates and such things.

Victor Hugo is likewise mighty important. There is something of the novel all through his work, including his poetry. One can say poetry is in his novels, in Notre Dame de Paris, Les Misérables, and in his other strange works—Ninety-Three, The Last Day of a Condemned Man, Bug-Jargal. We have a feeling of a world—something bigger than usual, more surprising, sometimes nicer, because when a Hugo person is nice he’s just so nice he’s unbearable.

Then, of course, there is Dickens. He is one of the great writers of the world. I have mentioned Pickwick. It is a great book. And when I think that Pickwick exists I think that the world can’t go too wrong—just as one can think of Don Quixote existing. Even David Copperfield is against the world’s being too wrong; even Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. That is a grand novel of the hopes and also the plans of women, and it is very well constructed.

There is Crime and Punishment, of Dostoevsky, which is about good and evil. Raskolnikov is fighting the world just as Robinson Crusoe is and Don Quixote and Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress are: the world of good and bad.

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is a novel about a woman trying to be happy and doing some very tragic things, or foolish. She represents the fight of good and bad.

And as the world was changing, and machinery came on, and things became collectivized for private industry, there was a novel which is at least worth knowing: Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt; and also there is his Main Street.

Might Be and Is

The understanding of these novels, the understanding of fiction, would be to see what they have in common: how they show the difference of the world, the difference of people, the difference of time, and how nonetheless they have in common the idea in a self of what might be and what is. We are a compound of what might be and what is. Out of that, music comes. And there is that other aspect: many things brought together, the use of events, the use of emotion, the use of place.

The world of the novel is a world that shows the world just doesn’t want to be—it wants to be rearranged, it wants to be known. Imagination is a way of knowing the world. And because we see how the world might be—sometimes worse, sometimes better apparently—we get a better notion of what the world is.

The novel shows that imagination working with form meets the world at its own beautiful and sometimes bad tricks, and is able to deal with it happily. That is why the novel should be read: as a means of finding out what we are hoping for by seeing truly what people have feared, what they have hoped, how they have planned their hopes and fears, in terms of the novel.

The novel is the imagination that has taken on streets and street numbers and architecture, a city plan, even a state plan—sometimes, in writers like Balzac, even a national plan. And we should respect it.

Aesthetic Realism therefore says that the novel is, at its best, the making one of the utmost entertainment and the utmost knowledge, the utmost freedom and the utmost exactitude. And we should be thankful that the writers of The Arabian Nights existed, that Rabelais existed, Balzac existed, Scott existed, Hugo existed, Tolstoy existed, Dostoevsky existed, and quite a few others. Because insofar as their imaginations were honest, they all say to us deeply: It is never too late to give the world another chance.


By Eli Siegel

Sometime, you know, a novel will come

From a wooded land, possessing the biting word,

The lulling clause; in it lines will be

That will cause ringing in the body,

Swayings in the eye. It will be a novel which

French will have, and French-Asian, Asian-Hani,

Asian-Trom. Twigs will be in it for wringing action,

Twisting motion. It will be a novel having

The graceful, light, much-moving cannon, and, see, too,

The delicate, definite, black battery, the dark, all-knowing regiment.

This novel will be called The Colonel’s Daughter

Or, Rivers Forded Effectively. Glamor, words, branches,

Also, this novel has.