NUMBER 1501. — January 9, 2002
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Human Self: Yours and Everyone's 

Dear Unknown Friends:

      There is nothing people need more now than to see other people justly. Therefore, to illustrate Aesthetic Realism — and to show something of how Aesthetic Realism explains the self of every person — I am going to comment on instances of Arabic poetry written between the 6th and 13th centuries.

     There is a sense in America now that many, many people who speak and think in Arabic resent our nation, and that some of the resentment is correct. We also know that various people used the Arabic language to plan a horrific, vicious crime against us. Meanwhile, through Aesthetic Realism, what humanity itself is — and that means what each of us intimately is — can be seen in these instances of poetry, written in Arabic.

     In the Preface to his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, Eli Siegel explains: "Poetry, like life, states that the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things." And so, Aesthetic Realism shows, the desire to feel related to other things and people, to feel what's different from me is not only different but like me too, is our deepest desire. But it is in a fight in everyone with another desire. Relation and respect are in a fight with contempt: the desire to feel apart and superior. Contempt in everyone says, I take care of myself by lessening what's not me. And out of this contempt, Mr. Siegel explained, all the cruelty in history has come, from everyday snobbishness to the killing of thousands of people.

Relation Is Honored

Abd-ar-Rahman I lived in the 8th century, first in Syria, then as emir of Córdoba, Spain. He had the fight between respect and contempt as steeply as anyone. But in the following lines, he looks at an instance of the outside world, a palm tree, and sees it as related to himself. This seeing of relation stands for the best thing in people. The translation is by J.B. Trend.
In the midst of my garden
Grows a palm-tree;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Away from the country of palm-trees.
I cried: You are like me,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You also 
Grew up on a foreign soil;
Like me,
You are far from the country of your birth.
May the fertilizing clouds of morning
Water you in exile,
May the beneficent rains besought by the poor
Never forsake you.

Poetry Puts Opposites Together

Eli Siegel is the critic who showed what poetry truly is. In every instance of authentic poetry — of any time, any place — a person is so fair to the object dealt with, sees it with such sincerity and depth and width, that the structure of reality itself is within his lines. That structure is the oneness of opposites. And we hear opposites as one in what Mr. Siegel showed to be the crucial thing in a poem: verbal music.

     There is music in the lines of Abd-ar-Rahman, who looked at an 8th-century palm tree, perhaps in Córdoba, far from his home. Even in translation, those lines are at once factual and tender; the opposites of fact and feeling are inseparable in them. Then, in their firmness of statement, their definiteness, the lines also have nuance, delicacy. The last two lines are particularly beautiful. They take in so much — with a great gentleness, they have compassion for many people; yet they conclude simply: "May the beneficent rains besought by the poor / Never forsake you."

     All of reality's opposites, including those I've pointed to in that 8th-century poem — richness and simplicity, strength and gentleness, factuality and feeling — are in every person, whatever his or her background. When we see a person that way, as having the opposites of the world, we cannot be unfair to him or her, exploit, mistreat him or her.

Our Need to Make Opposites One

The great need of every person, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to have the opposites in us work as one. And in two lines of a poem of the 6th century, by Imr El Kais, we meet huge opposites that torment men and women because these opposites have seemed so disjoined. He is writing about a woman he cares for:
Lighteneth she night's darkness, ay, as an evening lamp 
     hung for a sign of guidance lone on a hermitage.
Who but shall desire her, seeing her standing thus, ... 
     half in her woman's robe!
     In the first of these lines a man sees a woman as having Meaning, something one cannot touch, something ethical: she makes one clearer, is a light; she is like something that guides one to a hermitage — a place where a person is presumably more exacting with himself and thoughtful. In the next line, though, this same lady is ever so tactual; she is flesh, body, and desirable. Those opposites, flesh and meaning, what our minds can revere and what we want to touch, have mixed people up and made them angry in every century, every locale. And Aesthetic Realism explains why. The trouble has come because people have seen body, with its attractiveness, not as a means of respecting and knowing the world more, but as a means of having the world on their terms.

     In the lines of Imr El Kais, however, the two are together. There is no rift between the line about meaning and the line about body: a continuity of sound joins them. The translation is by W.S. Blunt and A. Blunt; and all the Arabic poems from which I quote here are from An Anthology of World Poetry, edited by Mark Van Doren.

The Desire to Like the World

The Van Doren anthology includes writing by Alqamah, also of the 6th century. It is about the creature so important to Arabia, the camel, and the lines are a terrific making one of humility and grandeur:
... I drive her unsparing on, with pantings that shake her breast 
     and throb through her ribs and flanks:
A fleet runner whose flesh over sides and where neck meets 
     hump has vanished beneath noon-tide's hot breath and 
     the onward press;
And yet after night's long toil the dawn breaks and finds her 
     fresh as antelope, young and strong, that flees from the 
     hunter's pack.
. . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I bring her to drink the dregs of cisterns all mire and draff; 
     and if she mislikes it, all the choice is to journey on.
     Pain and triumph are together in these lines, in their sound as well as what they describe. We hear that in the translation, by Sir Charles Lyall. There is much to say about what Alqamah has this camel symbolize. But I say swiftly here that the lines are about what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the largest desire of every person, whenever or wherever that person lived: the desire to like the world. 

     Alqamah wants to like the world through seeing something great and beautiful in it, something that is stronger than whatever pain may be, yet which somehow includes the pain. This writing of his is like a Western poem which seems so different: W.B. Yeats's "The Rose of the World." Alqamah makes the camel stand for reality at its most beautiful; we can say it stands for what Yeats called Beauty with a capital B. Reality-as-beauty has endured very much, has been kicked around tremendously by people; yet it goes on, and is the strongest, most countable-on thing there is. That, I think, is what Alqamah has this camel take in. The manner and symbol and emphasis are different. But when Yeats, at the end of the 19th century, made Beauty a woman with a "lonely face," and wrote,

Bow down, archangels, in your dim abode:
Before you were, or any hearts to beat,
Weary and kind one lingered by His seat;
He made the world to be a grassy road
Before her wandering feet
— he was writing about something like Alqamah's camel. Both this lady and the camel are "weary and kind"; and each travels over the earth with "wandering feet." Both Alqamah and Yeats ask that the world be respected because the strongest thing in it is steady and kind.

Two Lines about Death

I quote the famous Abu 'L-'Alá Al-Ma'Arrí of the 10th and 11th centuries, on the subject of death:

No need, when in earth the maid rests covered over,
No need for her locks of hair to be loosed and plaited.
The terrible negation which is death is joined here with something lovely and warm, and sweetly ordinary: a girl's arranging of her hair. Though the lines have pain, they have wonder too. As we feel the opposites of fearsome nullity and warm tactuality at once, we like the world. The translation is by R.A. Nicholson.

Humanity Wants Rest & Motion

The next lines, anonymous, are about the beloved fruit of Arabia, dates. In fact, the dates are speaking the lines. This is from the Thousand and One Nights, likely of the 13th century:
Palm tree daughters,
Brown flesh Bedouin,
Fed with light
By our gold father;
We are loved of the free-tented,
The sons of space, the hall-forgetters,
The wide handed, the bright-sworded
Masters of horses.
     The dates are so plump, with their "brown flesh." They are there, solid, stable. Yet wanderers, "sons of space," care for them. Matter and space are together here, and rest and motion. Wandering and staying put are big opposites in Arab lands, as they are in the history of America. America has been gone across, traveled, explored; and also settled. She has had cowboys and front porches. And Arabia has had wandering Bedouins and also an enormous feeling for place, for home. There is grandeur in the sound of the last four lines of this passage; yet they are about those humble, ordinary things — dates.

     So I have used five instances of verse from the Arabic to show the desire in all people to put opposites together, and the desire of all people to like the world. Mr. Siegel described the world as the other half of ourselves; and it is that, wherever ourselves are and whatever language we speak, or think in when we're alone. It is my opinion that Mr. Siegel is the person who saw humanity most truly. And, simply, when Aesthetic Realism is studied, people will be kind to each other at last.

     In this issue we continue to serialize his landmark lecture It and Self, of 1968, about the relation of art and science. As we reach the following section, Mr. Siegel is showing that however imaginative art is, since an artist wants to see reality justly, truly, art is scientific too.

Science in Art
By Eli Siegel

Note. In his discussion of Walter Pater's 1888 essay "Style," Mr. Siegel has reached the phrase "an all-pervading naturalism."

The 19th century had two things, if not more, that went after science in art. These things are realism and naturalism, and Parnassianism. Balzac saw himself as a realist. Fielding, in the 18th century, though he didn't use the word, saw himself as a realist. He didn't want to pretend. He wanted to show Tom Jones, a person, as he really was. Thackeray would have called himself a realist. But the term realist was given to Stendhal and Balzac.

     In the field of the novel, however, with the Goncourts and Zola, there was a feeling that that wasn't enough. You had to have naturalism. That is, anything that a sanitation inspector could find, you shouldn't leave out. So there was naturalism, which was called la vraie verité, the true truth. Then, in the field of poetry, there's Parnassianism, which went after impassibility. That is associated with Leconte de Lisle and somewhat de Vigny.

Was de Vigny after Truth?

It would be well to read a passage from Alfred de Vigny that is early Parnassianism. De Vigny is a romanticist, but he is seen as a forerunner of Leconte de Lisle or Sully Prudhomme, particularly Leconte de Lisle. I'm going to read this passage because what it describes may not be true; and what verse shows is that you can deal with an imaginative thing as if within imagination it were precise and true. This is the beginning of de Vigny's poem "The Mount of Olives." It is, like Racine's plays, in couplet form, but it is very strict. I'll read a translation of it.* "Le Mont des oliviers" was published in the Revue des deux mondes, June 1, 1844.
Then it was night, and Jesus walked alone,
Garbed in white as a dead person is in a shroud;
The disciples slept at the foot of the hill,
Among the olive trees, that an ill-boding wind bends;
Jesus walks with large steps shivering as these olives do;
Sad unto death, his eyes somber and dark,
The brow bent, crossing his two arms over his robe,
Like a thief in the night, concealing that which he steals,
Knowing the rocks better than a continuous road,
He stops in a place called Gethsemane.
He bends, is on his knees, with brow against the ground;
Then looks at the sky, calling: "My Father!"
But the sky remains black, and God does not answer.
He rises astonished, walks still with large steps,
Brushing against the olive trees that tremble. Cold and slow
Flows from his head a bloody sweat.

There Is Precision

The language is very precise, and it seems more precise in the French because of the rhyme: seul, linceul; colline, incline; eux, ténébreux; robe, dérobe; uni, Gethsémani; terre, Père; pas, pas; lente, sanglante. Many people would say, If Christ did go to Gethsemane, it wasn't the way it is told here. Still, there's a kind of truth within the thing not seen as true. And that is an important matter, because when imagination is true it is like the truth of what is seen just there or just externally. So we are with this matter of truth and self in art and science.

*This magnificent translation is by Mr. Siegel.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1.  The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

2.  The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it ....Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.

3.  All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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