The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Understanding of Women & Men

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we begin to serialize an important lecture Eli Siegel gave on May 15, 1952: Some Women Looked At. And we print an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein. It is a portion of a paper he presented last month at the public seminar titled “Men Want Praise, Kudos, Cheers—but How Can We Be Sensible about These?”

So this issue of TRO spans over half a century, with Aesthetic Realism principles true about our very moment, all the centuries before, and, I’m sure, all that will follow.

Women, Truly Seen

Aesthetic Realism is great on the subject of women. With the many changes that have taken place since 1952, including the women’s liberation movement, there’s still a tendency to say that men and women are after fundamentally different things—that one sex is “from Mars,” the other “from Venus,” etc.

Aesthetic Realism explains—beautifully, richly, and clearly—that the questions of men and the questions of women are essentially the same. Our largest hopes are the same, and so are our largest mistakes. The big fight within every person is between respect for the world and contempt for it. Whether we’re Mike or Megan, Lola or Lyle, Craig or Kristen, we’re in a battle all the time between the hope to like the world honestly, to know it, be just to it, and the desire (in Mr. Siegel’s words) to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” That second desire, which is contempt, is the ugly, hurtful thing in man and woman. It’s the source of all unkindness, no matter what one’s gender.

And this great Aesthetic Realism principle is true of men and women alike: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves” For example, a woman right now wants to feel she can be both strong and gentle. She doesn’t know she’s pained because when she’s gentle she doesn’t feel she’s strong, and when she’s strong she feels she’s no longer considerate, delicate, tender. And she doesn’t know that the man she’s close to has these same opposites, that he too is troubled by them, and wants to make them one.

As we begin to serialize Some Women Looked At, I’m going to quote two passages from an Aesthetic Realism lesson in which Eli Siegel spoke to me and a man I was then close to. I’m doing so because they represent the grandeur, accuracy, and immortal kindness with which he understood both women and men. This understanding continues now in Aesthetic Realism consultations.

The person I’ll call Jim Blair and I cared for each other yet were giving each other pain. In the following passage, Mr. Siegel spoke to Jim about the fact that I, a woman, was a critic of myself—as a man is. “Do you believe,” he asked, “Ellen Reiss is afraid of her own criticism?” “Yes,” said Jim Blair, doubtfully. And Mr. Siegel continued, with cultural width and then kind humor:

ES. That is something that is hard for a man to realize: that a woman is criticizing herself.

Ms. Reiss does describe herself, and it is quite true, as George Sand described herself, as Mary Wollstonecraft described herself: she sees there are two forces in her that are not in the most blissful state of compatibility. Ms. Reiss can at any moment feel there’s no hope for her and she should be given back to the Aztecs.

You don’t know the power women have of dismissing themselves from reality. Do you believe that?

JB. Yes.

ES. You think that all inner turmoil is masculine.

So men—confused, even tormented, about women—have not seen that we question ourselves, sometimes severely. And women too have not seen that men are inward critics of themselves: that, like us, they inevitably object to themselves, feel agitated and low, because they (like us) have seen reality and people unjustly. Women have wanted to feel that we are the sensitive ones—that we question ourselves and hope to respect ourselves, while men are crasser, cruder, principally interested in sex, and selfish without any qualms or unease about their selfishness.

Yet we all have those “two forces” Mr. Siegel spoke of: the desire to be just and the desire to have contempt. And when men and women see that we both dislike ourselves for our contempt, a deep inter-respect between the sexes, new in human history, takes place at last. This occurs through the study of Aesthetic Realism.

The Tumult about Mind & Body

In the lesson from which I’m quoting, Mr. Siegel spoke about the tremendous opposites of mind and body, logic and sensation, the intellectual and the earthy. People haven’t known these are aesthetic opposites: we want to make them one in us in the same way that an idea and the senses are one in every work of art. He said, “Jim Blair has a question that is about two souls fighting for mastery in him,” and, speaking to him, explained:

ES. In the field of corporeal expression, enjoyment, or sex, we hope to be proud and pleased at once. Ellen Reiss hopes to be proud about her manner of taking earth—in the same way that she would take the page of a book. The difference between the two things is felt by man and woman: “I’m a different person making love from him or her who goes after knowledge.”  

Do you think if Ms. Reiss could solve this problem of somatic expression and cerebral expression, you could? 

JB. Yes.

ES. Do you think, then, the fate of man depends on the fate of woman?

That is just a little from one of the many Aesthetic Realism lessons it was my good fortune to have. Aesthetic Realism is that in the history of thought which understands the self—the feminine self, the masculine self. Everyone is particular, and when Eli Siegel spoke to me, I felt comprehended in all my individuality. At the same time, what he explained about me, and about every individual person he spoke to, is classic knowledge for all humanity.

As one can see in the passages I quoted, his spoken words have a prose style powerful, charming, important as English literature. That is because of his honesty and scope of knowledge. The fact that he, a man, so deeply understood women, is itself the greatest evidence I’ve seen that men and women can be kind to each other, can know each other truly.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Some Women Looked At

By Eli Siegel

In this talk I shan’t pretend, of course, to say everything about woman. Both men and women don’t understand women, and men also are hard to understand. However, there are some descriptions that can be brought together usefully. We get a sense, in looking at how women have been written of, of how various they are, and of how people, including women, puzzle themselves. When we see how women have been written about, we can have a very useful sense of the diversity of things themselves, because woman represents Things: that is, reality.

I’m going to start with an Elizabethan poet, a musician, also a doctor. He is a very good poet, whose fame was rather late in being affirmed: Thomas Campion. At one time he was “among those present,” but when the Cambridge History of English Literature gave him a chapter to himself, a difference was stated.

Thomas Campion has written about angry women too, but he has praised women in an obvious way. Then also, in a little treatise defending the non-use of rhyme in poetry, he includes a poem praising woman abstractly.

There is a popular poem of his sometimes called “Cherry Ripe.” This is in the Elizabethan style, and the first line is very famous indeed. The poem begins:

There is a garden in her face

Where roses and white lilies blow;

A heavenly paradise is that place,

Wherein all pleasant fruits do flow.

There cherries grow, which none may buy

Till “Cherry ripe” themselves do cry.


Those cherries fairly do enclose

Of orient pearl a double row,

Which when her lovely laughter shows,

They look like rose-buds filled with snow....

There are other poems like this, where woman is represented as a careful delight. Still, it is a good poem. Campion lived from 1567 to 1620, which makes him almost an exact contemporary of Shakespeare.

The abstract poem by him, which is even more honoring of femininity than “Cherry Ripe”—definitely more—is “Rose-cheeked Laura.” It is not in rhyme, and was an instance of what Campion felt could be a new way metrically in poetry. This compares woman to music. [The word concent means sounds in harmony.]

Rose-cheeked Laura, come;

Sing thou smoothly with thy beauty’s

Silent music, either other

Sweetly gracing.


Lovely forms do flow

From concent divinely framed;

Heaven is music, and thy beauty’s

Birth is heavenly.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Only beauty purely loving

Knows no discord....

That is a good poem too, and very quietly makes a concrete something one with an endless abstraction.

As everyone knows, that is not the whole story about women. Hardly. But it’s a part of the story that should be remembered, and is still true. The newborn girl infant can include the best aspect of “Cherry Ripe” and the best aspect of “Rose-cheeked Laura” as music.

I go now to another aspect. Some of the harshest critics of women have been women, but occasionally a man arises who is a critic with a sense of mischief. One of those men is Anthony Trollope, whose novels were very popular during the war. People used to read Trollope to forget the bombings. He came into his own because he represented a lot of stir and activity in a quiet field. And he made mischief look profound. He is poetically mischievous. His Barchester Towers is very much read, and likewise novels like Doctor Thorne, The Last Chronicle of Barset, even things like Is He Popenjoy?, are read.

This is a character sketch of a woman, Miss Thorne, from Trollope’s Barchester Towers, his most popular novel:

In her person and her dress she was perfect, and well she knew her own perfection. She was a small, elegantly made old woman, with a face from which the glow of her youth had not departed without leaving some streaks of a roseate hue. She was proud of her colour, proud of her grey hair which she wore in short crisp curls peering out all around her face from the dainty white lace cap. To think of all the money that she spent in lace used to break the heart of poor Mrs. Quiverful with her seven daughters. She was proud of her teeth,...proud of her short jaunty step, and very proud of the neat, precise, small feet with which those steps were taken. She was proud also, ay, very proud, of the rich brocaded silk in which it was her custom to ruffle through her drawing-room.

This is not exactly “Cherry Ripe,” but there is something of the quality. She is a very interesting lady, who gives interesting parties. And she is a woman too. We feel the coming to be of vanity and competitiveness and scorn and such things—because women are subject to those matters, as about every living thing is.

Are Men Sensible about Praise?

By Bruce Blaustein

It’s hard to be sensible about praise. And the reason is that we haven’t known we have two opposing desires: 1) to find meaning in things, and 2) to have contempt—give ourselves the right to look down on anything that exists.

To be sensible about praise, we need to ask: is it accurate? At age nine, after my fifth piano lesson, I played “Lightly Row” for the neighbors, and my grandmother told everyone that my strong, long, agile fingers would make me the next Rachmaninoff. I was soaring! But soon I became embarrassed and uncomfortable, knowing very well she was hardly a qualified critic of musical genius. “It’s not the praise that makes it bad,” Eli Siegel explained: “It’s the inaccuracy. The truth is what is important, but people most often go by whether [something is] pleasant or unpleasant.” And he wrote: “The most important thing about praise of yourself is that you should be able to believe it and be proud that you believe it” (TRO 1064). The logic of that is clear and very kind.

A Contemptuous Use of Praise

Most often I used getting praise to feel I was a big shot. I was strategic, flattering people to have them like me. I once told my friend Jeff’s father, “Mr. Carney, I’m so impressed by how hard you work, supporting a wife, three children, and your sick mother.” A few days later my father said, “Bruce, I’m proud of you. Mr. Carney just told a whole group on the LIRR that your understanding of adults is amazing.” I'd had a victory, but I felt like a fake.

I went after that kind of admiration again and again, and had no idea there was any relation between my drive to be lavishly approved of and my feeling inwardly nervous. Recently my mother told me, “You used to love praise and it didn’t matter if it was true or not—you ate it up!” And she said, “I’m grateful to Aesthetic Realism for how you’ve changed.”

     In Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes:

We want to be praised, to have power, but we also want to deserve this. There is such a thing as the ethical unconscious. Well, if we praise ourselves and we know we have been unfair to outside reality in doing so, there is a nervous conflict in us.

A dramatic instance is when I dressed up as the “Chanukah Man,” wearing a clown mask and carrying a laundry bag filled with presents for all the relatives. As I reached into my sack and heard the oohs and ahhs—“Bruce, you’re so thoughtful! What an imagination!”—a surge of excitement possessed me. Hidden behind the mask, with each gift I gave I made a mocking face and mimicked the person to whom I gave it, thinking I was very clever.

Later that night as I looked at the clown mask, I became terrified, feeling it was laughing at me. I didn’t understand why I was so scared. Then, years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me about my desire to please: “As you made people smile, was it honestly or dishonestly?” She continued:

ER. I think you could honestly want to cheer up people. But also, did you want to fool people and control them? Was this cheerfulness a way of running the world? 

BB. I think it was with me.

She asked if I’d wanted to charm people. I said yes, and she asked, “Alone in your room, did you charm yourself?”

BB. No, not at all.   

ER. The charming, cheering up person is not the same as your thoughts about people to yourself.

As Ms.Reiss spoke to me, encouraging me to look straight at both the worst and the best in myself, I felt a weight lifted from me.

How Should We Use a Woman’s Praise?

When I asked Lauren Phillips to marry me, I took her yes as tremendous praise and used it to be complacent. I saw myself as enlightened, but in truth I had a conceited notion of how she should behave as a wife, including as to our apartment, our meals, etc.—in such a way as to make me the shining center of the universe. One day while Lauren was ironing my shirts, a job I assumed she felt privileged to do, she accidentally dropped the iron on her foot, injuring herself. I felt very bad—and as somehow responsible.

When I spoke in a class about what had occurred, Ms. Reiss asked me, “What do you want more, your wife’s honest respect, or for her to do what you want her to do?”

BB. I think I’ve been complacent. 

ER. Do you think you’ve made Lauren Phillips into a possession? Do you want to feel “I now have a wife,” or “I have a chance to comprehend a woman deeply”? Should you see that your purpose in getting married is to encourage Lauren Phillips—her mind, her like of the world?

I said yes, and meant it.

I love my wife with all my heart for encouraging me—with depth and humor and a beautiful exactness—to be a kind, ethical man. Lauren is a New York City public school teacher who uses the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, and being close to her has me respect and feel honestly closer to other people, to children and parents of many different backgrounds. The wonder and happiness I felt when I first met Lauren grow every day. And I am so glad we’ve been learning from Aesthetic Realism about love, marriage, and parenthood, together!