The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Sex, Nature, & the Decisive Criterion

Dear Unknown Friends:

One of the biggest reasons humanity needs to study Aesthetic Realism is that people don’t know what it is in them that weakens them, interferes with their intelligence and happiness, has them be cold and unkind, has them dislike themselves; and they also don’t know what the best thing in them is—that which makes for strength, largeness of mind, kindness, pride. In terms of history and culture: people do not understand what in the self has made for “the best that has been known and thought in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it; and what in the self has caused the brutality present throughout the centuries—has caused what Burns called “man’s inhumanity to man.” The explanation is in Aesthetic Realism. And it is in the great 1950 lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing, Aesthetic Realism and Nature. Never before had nature been talked of as it was that evening fifty years ago. 

Aesthetic Realism explains that the thing in us which weakens our minds, interferes, often ruinously, with every aspect of our lives, and makes us mean is our desire for contempt: the desire to get “an addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The best thing in us, the source of all kindness, intelligence, and art, is the desire to respect reality, to like the world honestly. We are using everything we meet—whether a lake, a movie, an article of clothing, an embrace, a happening in the news, or garbage on the sidewalk—either to respect the world, or have contempt for it. As I tell of this explanation here, I feel with new wonder its might, its grandeur. This knowledge, presented by Eli Siegel, of our two defining purposes, is as much a turning point for civilization as the coming to be of the alphabet. 

Sex and the Internet

Let us take a matter that seems so unlike the subject of the present lecture. An article in the New York Times of May 16 had the headline “Cybersex Gives Birth to a Psychological Disorder.” “Fully a third of all [Internet] visits” the article informs us, are 

to sexually oriented Web sites, chat rooms and news groups....Experts in the field say that the affordability, accessibility and anonymity of the Internet are fueling a brand new psychological disorder—cybersex addiction—that appears to be spreading with astonishing rapidity and bringing turmoil to the lives of those affected.

The so-called “experts” do not say, because they do not know, what causes this misuse of sex—in fact, what makes it misuse. Technology may bring into one’s home or office a certain kind of temptation (to use an old-fashioned word). But technology did not create that in a person which is appealed to, and impelled, or compelled. 

The Criterion

The thing that makes the use of another’s body wrong—be it in a brothel in the 14th century or through images on the Web in the 21st—is the same thing that makes the use of anything wrong, including, as Mr. Siegel describes here, a blue sky, leaves, clouds. Also, what would make sex right is the same as what would make one’s enjoying clouds, sky, leaves right. 

People want to be pleased. And the question, Aesthetic Realism explains, is: will it be through respect for the world and other human beings, or through contempt? With sex, something so explosive, so comprehensive takes place as to one’s body, that there is the opportunity to feel you have made the whole world something that exists to please you. There can be a feeling of having the world at last on one’s own ecstatic terms through another human being. The complexities of reality and people have been annulled; you do not have to think, try to understand anything. Through someone’s lavish intimate attentions, through someone’s seeming to give himself or herself over to you utterly, you make insignificant all those people who confused you, and turn the world into a fleshly servant of yourself. 

It is this contempt to which “cybersex,” and pornography as such, appeal intensely. Meanwhile, people can also have contempt through the most customary sex in the sanctity of the marriage bed. The only thing ever wrong with sex, Mr. Siegel explained, is the contempt and selfishness in it. And the two big questions about cybersex, and any sex, are: 1) Are you respecting the person whose body you are looking at or thinking about or dealing with; or are you having contempt for that person? 2) Do you respect the world more through these sexual thoughts and happenings, or do you have contempt for it? 

The only real answer to the allure of contemptuous sex is for people to see knowing as tremendous pleasure; to see respect for reality as luscious. While people don’t like the world, they will want to have the world punished and serving them—through sex, likely, and other means: perhaps through food, greed, the managing of other human beings, in the family and out. For cybersex to be a draw no longer, people also need to see what Eli Siegel describes in his great essay “Obscenity Weakens; Art Strengthens”: 

A person having a choice between weakening himself and being pleased in some accented way, would, if he saw the matter clearly, choose not weakening. We are for sex very much, but we are for not being weaker even more. [TRO 900]

People need to see that sexual conquest via the Web weakens them—and not only because, as the Times indicates, it interferes with their marital lives. They need to see it weakens them because it is sheer contempt and against what their minds are for, and therefore it makes their minds less whole, less keen, less deep, less organized, less alive. 

Sex Can Be Respect

Aesthetic Realism is magnificent in explaining that sex can be respect for the world—as listening to music can be, and admiring the flight of a bird can be. The reason sex, or anything, is right, can be found in 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.” The largest opposites in our lives are self and world. And Mr. Siegel was speaking of them when he explained in passionate, logical sentences that I love: 

There is only one thing that is immoral in the world: liking oneself too much and the outside world too little....Once you feel what is owing to yourself is more and what is owing to other people is less, you can rob people’s purses, tell lies, keep back things that would do good to people, start wars.

Sex has had this disproportion, but doesn’t have to. Sex can be a means of feeling one is taking care of oneself lavishly through finding value in what is not oneself: the world, as represented by a person one respects and treasures. Sex can be a means of saying, “This is a world I don’t want to keep away from, hide from—it is a world I want to give myself to fully. This is a person—and a world—I want to know richly, and be known by richly.” And then, sex is kind, and proud. 

—We go now to Aesthetic Realism and Nature. Eli Siegel himself loved nature. And he has been speaking about a person whom he respected, the writer Richard Jefferies (1848-87), and explaining the deep trouble in his life, which no one else understood. Jefferies, Mr. Siegel shows, unknowingly used his ardent care for nature against people—to care less for them, not more.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Dilemma of Jefferies

By Eli Siegel

There was in Jefferies a tremendous love for nature. When I say tremendous love—he makes most nature writing going on in the world right now look like thin milk, too much warmed over. He had the inside of nature. One thinks all the fields are in him. But he could not see that nature was also London and the hurly-burly, though he was interested in London. He suffered a good deal. He died early. 

I read now some passages from this very intense book of Jefferies, The Story of My Heart, which was published in 1883: 

Moving up the sweet short turf, at every step my heart seemed to obtain a wider horizon of feeling....The very light of the sun was whiter and the more brilliant here. By the time I had reached the summit I had entirely forgotten the petty circumstances and the annoyances of existence.

Good. But what is in that word forgotten?

I felt myself, myself....The view was over a broad plain, beautiful with wheat, and inclosed by a perfect amphitheatre of green hills....Woods hid the scattered hamlets and farmhouses, so that I was quite alone.

This is good to see. But if Jefferies had said, “All the people whom I’ve seen were made by the same force that made these beautiful sights, and therefore some of the meaning of all this is present in them too—in perhaps a father who didn’t understand me, some relative who was unjust to me”—then Jefferies would have been using this beauty in a true fashion. I’m not sure that he did. I doubt it, in fact. 

This is some of the most intense nature writing in all literature: 

Lying down on the grass, I spoke in my soul to the earth, the sun, the air, and the distant sea far beyond sight. I thought of the earth’s firmness—I felt it bear me up; through the grassy couch there came an influence as if I could feel the great earth speaking to me. I thought of the wandering air—its pureness, which is its beauty; the air touched me and gave me something of itself. I spoke to the sea:...I desired to have its strength, its mystery and glory. Then I addressed the sun, desiring the soul equivalent of his light and brilliance, his endurance and unwearied race....The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky drew my soul towards it, and there it rested.

I commend this. I think it is fine. I also know that it can be used for a purpose that is not good. When Jefferies says, “The rich blue of the unattainable flower of the sky drew my soul towards it,” that in itself is most praiseworthy. But having known people who have looked at the blue sky not for the purpose of understanding their neighbors or relatives or others, I can say that the beauty of the sky can be used for a wretched purpose, for a purpose that is false to the heart of man and false to his very purpose in being. The blue sky then joins such things as morphine, gambling, some of the lesser and even the more terrible aspects of fascism-all the things that are used to say that the world is a bad place and the only way to deal with it is to conquer it or to get away from it. 

Now, Jefferies was in a dilemma which he didn’t understand. He wanted to like people, but already, in being so involved with nature, he had a solution that did not involve the full understanding of people. That is why, in his writing, when he deals with people in everyday action, he is not so good. —But going on: 

Touching the crumble of earth, the blade of grass, the thyme flower,...holding out my hand for the sunbeams to touch it,...thus I prayed that I might touch to the unutterable existence infinitely higher than deity.

What He Wanted to Feel

Jefferies was not a religious man, but he does use the words prayer and soul. He doesn’t say what he means by prayer. Real prayer is the desire to feel that whatever the world wants is the same as what we want, and the desire that the world, in its power, go along with a true want. Prayer, where it’s good, has as its objective the desire to see this: that whatever the world is, whatever the world does, is in keeping with our wishes. We pray, in other words, that not only God be on our side, but that we be on the side of God—which, as Aesthetic Realism would put it, means that not only the machinery of the world work to please us, but that we feel we’re on the side of the deepest machinery of the world. And the soul of man is the same thing, in the long run, as the unconscious of man where it’s going for something good that we don’t see clearly enough. The unconscious as having good force is the soul of man. There is also an unconscious that has a bad force: that’s contempt, which is likewise conscious. 

We have that word pray, and Jefferies doesn’t say what it means. But he did want to feel that the whole world, including the world of cities, was on his side. 

With all the intensity of feeling which exalted me, all the intense communion I held with the earth, the sun and sky, the stars hidden by the light, with the ocean—... with these I prayed.

When one thinks of all the people on Sunday who will be on the beaches, and will put sand over their heads, and will sometimes get face-down on the sand if they can manage it, and will put themselves in postures in which they will be taken for mounds and protuberances of earth; and when we think of all the people, likewise, who will lie face-down on the grass, and will sometimes lie on the grass and lose themselves in the sky—I can say this is all, from one point of view, quite nice; but from another point of view it’s a hellish business. 

Looking at the sky, and lying face—down on the earth, and getting oneself in a whole canopy of sand—all those things look decidedly innocent. But they go along with the desire which people use in sleep, in going to the bathroom, in sometimes not wanting to talk, in sometimes eating too much, so they can’t move. This tendency is present: the desire to have a fort around oneself, to cover up oneself. It can be done with gaiety, apparently. But still, contempt, the desire to despise the world, is on the job. When I think that this tendency on the part of people to assert themselves by making a separate universe of themselves can use anything, I think of all the people who will bury themselves in the sand tomorrow at Coney Island and think themselves great boys in doing so (or great ladies, or great girls), and I say, Well, the thing in you that you were born to make less, you are now making more. 

A Good Way

It could be done in a good way. I’m not against lying face-down on the grass—if one says, “I’m doing this for the purpose of knowing,” and that means not knowing just one thing, but knowing what things are about.