The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Originality, Convention, & What’s True

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize a 1963 lecture that is historic—great in what it says about both life and art. It is Romanticism and Guilt, by Eli Siegel.

Part of its greatness is Aesthetic Realism’s explanation of guilt. Whether guilt is searing or murky, whether it shows itself as agitation or emptiness or “low self-esteem,” it is the sense that we have been unjust to the world. Guilt does not come from society or religion or our upbringing. It comes from what the human self is. If we are unjust, whether we’re clear about that or not, we have to dislike ourselves—because our purpose from birth is to be ourselves through seeing truly what’s not ourselves. This purpose is in keeping with the aesthetic nature of the human self: each of us is, all the time, a situation of opposites needing to be one, and the chief opposites are self and world. Writes Eli Siegel in two clear, resounding, and beautiful sentences:

The basis of the Aesthetic Realism method is that every human being is a self whose fundamental and constant purpose is to be at one with reality. It is impossible for that self to evade this purpose, although he can curtail it, obscure it, limit it.

That is how “The Guilt Chapter” of his Self and World begins.

And There Is Art

In the lecture Romanticism and Guilt Mr. Siegel is explaining something huge. Every important movement in art, he shows, has arisen from guilt felt keenly and welcomed. It has arisen from the feeling, “We, and art, have not been fair enough to the world! We’ve put fake, reprehensible limits on where we could find beauty and meaning. We’ve put restrictions on what has value. We’ve lessened what things are!” In particular, romanticism, which began in Europe at the end of the 18th century, was a resplendent attempt to give justice where it had been denied—to everyday things, to people who were seen as lowly, and also to things that seemed far off and strange.

Convention & Originality

In the present section, Mr. Siegel speaks about William Wordsworth. And he speaks about two large matters which, in a sense, are opposites: convention, conforming; and originality. People today are terrifically confused and pained about these—including people who present themselves as ever so at ease and sure in the field.

Let’s take the matter of originality. It’s wonderful, of course. People want to be original. In fact, people knock themselves out trying to be original, in both art and life. You want to make your mark. You don’t want to be just like everyone else. You want to stand out. But it happens that there are a true originality and a false—and this lecture explains the difference between them.

In order to understand what makes some “originality” spurious—really unoriginal and also hurtful—we have to understand that which Aesthetic Realism has identified as the most harmful thing in everyone. That thing is contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Ever so much bad art has come from persons’ feeling, essentially, “I can use this subject, this object, this idea, these words, to show how brilliant I am—how original.” When art is bad, the impelling thing was not a drive to be fair to the object, but to use it to make oneself impressive.

I’ll mention swiftly an example (and some people, I know, would disagree with it). It’s the phenomenon of E.E. Cummings in the 1920s. There was a sense, for a while, that something quite original had occurred because Cummings dispensed with punctuation and capital letters. A word often used of him was unconventional. But it was a fake “originality”—not because of the lower case letters or lack of punctuation, but because neither they nor the poems’ statements came from the one thing that makes for art: the desire—authentic, passionate, constantly seeking—to use oneself to be fair to the object.

That is what has made every good poet—whether Chaucer, Keats, or Hart Crane—original. Because if we want to be just, there will come from us a justice which, while in keeping with other justice, will have our own individual self within it.

The same principle is true in our lives. Every day, people try to stand out, not through valuing other things and people, but through looking to diminish them. A woman, Liz, prepares for a party. She feels that the way she’ll be notable there is by arranging herself so the other women will seem less lovely than she, less stylish, less striking. She takes this logic for granted; doesn’t think there’s another way to be important. And a man, Ron, engaged in a conversation right now, is trying to be an individual through showing he’s much more brilliant than the others taking part.

Both Liz and Ron may succeed. Yet they’ll feel sort of sick later, perhaps faintly and naggingly, perhaps sharply. The reason is: this dislike of self, this guilt, is inevitable if we have not gone after the one thing that is original: justice from ourselves. In fact, Liz and Ron have been doing the most unoriginal thing in the world, the most unglamorous, tawdry, dull thing: having contempt.

Convention vs. Truth

Then, there is what seems the contrary of originality: conforming, convention. People want to be safe, think well of themselves, get approval, through uncritically going by what others—those in power—have presented as correct. This conforming is contempt too. It’s a terrible contempt for truth—because you’ve made truth valueless; what you value and are after is fitting in. Going by convention is also, as Mr. Siegel says, contempt for your own mind. The big matter in both life and art—and he was passionate about it—is: Do you want to see? Do you feel the world is for you to understand, know, be fair to? Do you want to see what you yourself feel?

He Was in the Midst of These Opposites

A person who, with all that could be criticized in him, courageously tried to put together opposites related to conforming and originality was Abraham Lincoln. Conforming has to do with representing what other people want; originality, with representing oneself. Lincoln took as seriously as ever a president did the need to stand for the American people and what they wanted. He tried to stand, not for their shabby, comfort-seeking desires, but their deepest desires. Eli Siegel wrote in a poem: “There was something in Abraham Lincoln that saw what America hoped for.” At the same time, Lincoln was trying to see what his own feeling was and be true to it—and that feeling included his intense desire to do away utterly with slavery.

The Civil War itself stands, in various ways, for two other opposites related to convention and originality. That is, convention is a phase of maintaining what’s established, or sameness; and originality is a phase of newness, change. The North was fighting to maintain something that had been established: the Union, the United States herself as a nation in wholeness. It was also fighting (though some denied this) for a vastly and agonizingly needed change: the freeing of slaves. Lincoln wanted both. He was criticized by some abolitionists for his feeling that if he went after the second, emancipation, too rapidly, the first, preserving the Union, would not succeed. Whoever may have been correct in this matter, it is clear that Lincoln was tormented about it. He was trying adamantly, sincerely, to have both occur.

The South was a horrible relation of convention and originality. Slavery—the utter contempt that is the owning of human beings—had become a convention. It was, in all its viciousness, a beloved established institution, to be conformed to and protected. Then, when Lincoln was elected president and slavery appeared threatened, the South went for the other opposite—an abhorrent change: it had the phony, ugly originality of trying to secede from the Union. In the Confederate South, maintaining and change were in one of the foulest relations in human history.

How much Abraham Lincoln saw the Civil War as about the doing away with slavery—how much he felt that the maintaining of the Union and the change from slavery to freedom were inseparable—pulsates eloquently in his Second Inaugural Address. There is this, toward the end:

Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondmen’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Those words, and the entire address, are history, and they are art. They are original, because their writer was ardently trying to be in conformity with what is true.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Wordsworth & Two Ways

By Eli Siegel

Wordsworth has been dealt with by some of the most noted critics in any language. A famous late 19th-century dealing with him is by Walter Pater, and in that 1874 essay Pater writes about the two aspects of Wordsworth’s poetry. First:

He has much conventional sentiment, and some of that insincere poetic diction, against which his most serious critical efforts were directed.

It is well known that Wordsworth wrote much that isn’t great. He wrote a great deal, and much fun has been made of what some persons have called three quarters of it. There are quite a few things that are not good; there’s no doubt of it. Wordsworth could mistake himself. When he didn’t know his feeling, and mistook the ability and energy and will to write a sonnet for the inspiration, he was guilty of something—guilty, at least, of not knowing himself. Whenever we are unjust to ourselves, inaccurate with ourselves, we feel guilty. And to take the ability to write grammatically as the equivalent of inspiration is an awful mistake.

Pater says Wordsworth “has much conventional sentiment.” Conventional sentiment is the sentiment one gets because one doesn’t want to see what one’s sentiment really is. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Warsaw, and London are lousy with “conventional sentiment”—let alone Delhi.

“That insincere poetic diction”: there is some of that in Wordsworth. He could write something that came from a deep place in him and then, maybe on the same day, gallantly go on to something that’s just a collection with capital letters and high-sounding ethical statements. —Pater continues:

The reaction in his political ideas, consequent on the excesses of 1795, makes him, at times, a mere declaimer on moral and social topics.

Occasionally Wordsworth would get to true feeling, but then he could also talk like a prompted Englishman—that is, he felt he had to say this. There’s a mingling of the two even in his prose (as there is in Coleridge’s, by the way): you get to what you are, but then something else takes over and you begin talking in keeping with the geographical lodge.

...And he seems, sometimes, to force an unwilling pen, and write by rule.

Has this got to do with ethics? The beginning of ethics is the ability to be just to what you are and to all things. If you “write by rule,” force your sentiment, be conventional—that is not ethics, and makes for guilt. The romanticists said, as the imagists did in a way, as the symbolists did: Get to the true nature of the world; get to your deepest, truest feeling—whether the word true was used or not.

But There’s the Authentic Wordsworth

Then Pater says:

By making the most of these blemishes it is possible to obscure the true aesthetic value of his work, just as his life also, a life of much quiet delicacy and independence, might easily be placed in a false focus, and made to appear a somewhat tame theme in illustration of the more obvious parochial virtues.

Around 1830, Wordsworth seemed to be two people. He was known then as one of the leaders of perhaps the greatest poetic movement in English literature. But he was also Distributor of Stamps for the county of Westmorland. He served His Majesty as an agent for the revenue stamps of the land [stamps showing the required tax on certain products had been paid]. Yet he also was that person who had renovated sentiment in literature. It was hard to distinguish.

If you take Wordsworth from one point of view, he seems very tame and conforming by the lakes, conforming on Rydal Mount, one of the most going-along-with persons ever, and resplendent in good British behavior. But Pater says there’s more than that.

What Is Originality?

No matter how many people agree with you, if you see something for yourself you are original. If you see, for example, that millions of people are right not to want to slip on the ice and break their leg, you don’t become original by slipping on the ice and breaking your leg. If you find stars in the skies and millions of people have also found them there, one way to be original is to say that’s where they are—because you’ve seen them for yourself. You didn’t have to be told; you looked. If others have looked and you come back with the same answer—well, you’re still original. It’s not how much company you have; it’s what you did in the first place.

Where Wordsworth agreed with the people of England, he still might have been original. If he really had seen quality in George IV or William IV, or later in Queen Victoria (it was from her that he got the laureateship), he would have been original, sincere, and gone along with romanticism. The big message of romanticism is Look again, and don’t stop! If you stop looking and don’t have to, you’re going to feel guilty.

New Value

Pater uses the word value. That word brings together art and ethics. He writes, of Wordsworth:

What are the qualities in things and persons which he values, the impression and sense of which he can convey to others, in an extraordinary way?

If there are values in the world and we could see them but don’t, why shouldn’t we feel guilty? Not to value things truly, is to feel guilty. Wordsworth, for example, carried on a tremendous campaign: Reform the way you have seen daffodils! Daffodils cannot be seen in the old way! I, Wordsworth, will lead you on to a better seeing of daffodils! Any person who didn’t feel guilty after reading Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” didn’t get the message.

The purpose of art is to get to new values. And if there’s a chance to get to them and you don’t get to them, you more than ever feel guilty. We have a vague sense that we haven’t seen all the value of the world; but if we haven’t had a chance, our guilt is that much less. However, if there is a chance and we don’t take it, the guilt is insistent. Guilt arises from the unwillingness of self to see anything as being as good as it really is.

Pater says that Wordsworth saw qualities he valued in things and persons. Art is a looking for the value of the world, and if any aspect of art is successful and points out that a value is there which you didn’t see, the only sensible thing to do is to feel guilty but happy. You didn’t see it, and now you see it! The question in art is, Where were you all my life?

So new values were got to by Wordsworth. The later phrase was new forms; it took on an ethical meaning: We must develop new forms. We must shatter the old containers! Around 1920, this was a fury.

Greater Justice to Nature

Pater says, as others have, that what nature had in it, Wordsworth showed. He made nature more alive. Pater puts it this way, describing Wordsworth’s effect on later writers:

An intimate consciousness of the expression of natural things, which weighs, listens, penetrates, where the earlier mind passed roughly by, is a large element in the complexion of modern poetry.

Pater says poetry in 1874 (to him, “modern poetry”) was more penetrating. It asked more what a fir tree on a mountainside was doing. It asked more what a hydrangea was doing. And Wordsworth helped to bring that about.

“An intimate consciousness of the expression of natural things, which...penetrates, where the earlier mind passed roughly by.” To be superficial where you might penetrate in order to see, is to make for your guilt. Romanticism penetrated where other ways of thought had glanced and passed by.

In romanticism there was a seeing of what grew and what lived and what went on in people. Romanticism said man hadn’t looked at himself well enough; he hadn’t looked at growing things well enough; he hadn’t looked at the world well enough. And if the romanticists were successful, your pleasure and your guilt were the same thing. In becoming aware that you saw something which you hadn’t seen before, you had the shame of discovery, but the rapture of discovery too.