The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

A World to Be Just to—or Manage?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the important lecture Imagination—It Gathers, which Eli Siegel gave in 1971. And here too is an article by Harriet Bernstein, from a paper she presented this summer at the public seminar titled “The Fight in Women about Managing or Understanding—& the Beautiful Answer.” What do these two portions of the current TRO have to do with each other? What does the imagination that is in art have to do with a constant unseen battle in everyone—children, married couples, government officials: the battle of to manage versus to understand?

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that art is not an offset to life or even just a fine addition to life. Art is inseparable from what we are: art is how we want to be; it does what we want to do. This principle is the basis of the philosophy he founded: “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 everyone’s life are self and world. These opposites are central in imagination. They’re central too in managing, and in understanding.

We Do Things with the World

In the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel is illustrating how imagination gathers. Imagination brings together aspects of the world and composes them. In the present section he looks at a poem about spring by the Elizabethan writer Thomas Nashe. He shows that Nashe is using that self which is his own to do something to the world: Nashe is gathering together various things that show what spring is—birds, people, growing things. And there are other gatherings by the Nashe imagination. There is that gathering of sounds which is rhyme; and another gathering of sounds which is rhythm. And throughout it all there is a gathering—a vibrant being affected by and composing—of those elements of which the world is made: the heaviness and lightness of things, their rest and motion, sameness and difference, freedom and order. What impels this imagination of an authentic artist?

The answer has in it why art is an emergency for us. There’s a crucial difference between the way people usually deal in their minds with the world, and how an artist does. The difference is in these words of the seminar title mentioned earlier: managing versus understanding. While an artist certainly does things to his or her material, what impels a true artist is not the desire to manage but to see, know, understand, value both the immediate object and the world it comes from and represents. Aesthetic Realism explains that no matter how wild one’s imagination is, if that imagination is good, is of art, it does things to the object, changes the object, in order to be fair to it, see it and show it truly.

Meanwhile, we are constantly doing things in our mind with the outside world—people, objects, sights, sounds, happenings. That means we’re constantly imagining. And what impels us: the desire to manage or to understand? Usually it’s the former. And that is the terrible, everyday cause of hurtfulness and cruelty: the use of one’s thought, one’s imagination, not to understand but to manage things to suit oneself.

We may try to manage people overtly: treat them as beings designed to do our bidding, fulfill our desires. But there’s an even more frequent, indeed a constant, ugly managing that goes on in people’s minds: a seeing of things and persons as we choose instead of wanting to see what or who they really are. Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World:

The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please....

The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form. [P. 3]

To see people and things “as we please” is to imagine them, sloppily, inexactly. It’s to manage them and the facts in our mind.

Yet all kindness and justice come, not from the desire to manage people and facts, but to know: to see them in some fundamental way as real. For example, after the recent hurricanes many men and women tried to help others; some even put their own lives in danger to do so. Their action arose from a desire to see, be vividly aware of the plight of another: “These people going through so much have feelings. These people are real; they need something!” And now the anguish of devastated Puerto Rico cries out: See as real and answer this question asked by Eli Siegel: “What does a person deserve by being a person?”

Two Imaginations

There are many descriptions in literature of persons managing the facts in their minds; that is, having bad, contemptuous imagination. Take a passage about Lady Anne Newcome early in Thackeray’s novel The Newcomes. She does not want to see people truly; she sees them “in a way that seem[s] to go with comfort.” So she veers from praising them to despising them, depending on what makes her feel important at the time. Thackeray writes:

[She] was constantly falling in love with her new acquaintances; their man-servants and their maid-servants, their horses and ponies....She would ask strangers to [her home], hug and embrace them on Sunday; not speak to them on Monday; and on Tuesday behave so rudely to them, that they were gone before Wednesday. Her daughter had had so many governesses—all darlings during the first week, and monsters afterwards—that the poor child possessed none of the accomplishments of her age.

We meet Lady Anne’s bad imagination about people through Thackeray’s good imagination. His desire to see truly the world and his subject, makes for prose that is beautiful—at once symmetrical and chaotic, speedy and firm, comic and deep.

We want to see the way art sees. Aesthetic Realism is the magnificent education in how to do so.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Imagination about Spring

By Eli Siegel

The Golden Treasury of Francis T. Palgrave, originally published in the 1860s, is the most famous of all anthologies in the English language. The first poem in it has a fairly often met title, “Spring,” and it would be well to compare the poem to many others about spring. This is Thomas Nashe (1567-1601):

Spring, the sweet Spring, is the year’s pleasant king;

Then blooms each thing, then maids dance in a ring,

Cold doth not sting, the pretty birds do sing,

Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!


The palm and may make country houses gay,

Lambs frisk and play, the shepherds pipe all day,

And we hear aye birds tune this merry lay,

Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!


The fields breathe sweet, the daisies kiss our feet,

Young lovers meet, old wives a-sunning sit,

In every street these tunes our ears do greet,

Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!

Spring, the sweet Spring!

So how does Nashe see a phenomenon of the world which will be, and affects everyone: that is, spring—the chemical, biological, physical, and sometimes sociological renaissance?

Rhythms Gather Differently

Nashe uses a meter that is very lively. The effect is different from Spring cometh on gentle feet and pervadeth the restless soul of man and giveth it some of the peace it was looking for and did not have as snows fell and the unweeting sharpness of the world came to man. That’s a different rhythm. Nashe makes spring trip about, lilt. Also, he has a value judgment. Most people would agree that spring is the “king” of the seasons, but they wouldn’t put it that way. They might say, I like spring best. Nashe says, “Spring, the sweet Spring, is the year’s pleasant king,” and the rhythm is of a fast kind.

“Cold doth not sting.” That’s not entirely true. We know that even in spring, the cold, not caring, cometh and bringeth its discomfort.

“The pretty birds do sing.” There could be an objection: not all the birds are pretty. Then we have those sounds, and, I must say, this is not what I hear in spring. But we have poetry where it began—a series of interjections: “Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!” And it’s likable.

Then there are two kinds of growing things: “The palm and may make country houses gay.” The fine thing here is that the way this is said has in it beauty and conviction. “Lambs frisk and play, the shepherds pipe all day.” All day?

Stanzas Gather & Are Gathered

If we were dealing with this technically we could say that the poem consists of three stanzas, each with three lines having the same rhyme (also internal rhyme) and then a refrain that doesn’t rhyme at all: “Cuckoo, jug-jug, pu-we, to-witta-woo!” The third stanza then has the extra line “Spring, the sweet Spring!”—which has in it a swiftness and suddenness.

“The fields breathe sweet, the daisies kiss our feet.” This is a putting into motion of things that are not so fast, because the fields don’t breathe that fast. “The fields breathe sweet” is somewhat like The cream rushed on. But there is an effect: “The fields breathe sweet” brings a cheerfulness.

The rhythm makes the daisies seem to be really hoydens: “the daisies kiss our feet.” But that happens to be the fineness of the poem: that Nashe brought a speed, as Mayakovsky did later, to some slow ideas. That is what Bach sometimes does in his Brandenburg concertos—he makes things patter and shows that the Lord also has swift fingers.

The poem makes for a feeling that things have come to life. The slowness of what was has stopped.

Managing or Understanding?

By Harriet Bernstein

A manager? That was the last word I thought anyone would use to describe me. I considered myself agreeable and easy to please. But, beginning very early, there was a fight going on in me: between wanting to know and have big feeling about people and things—and seeing people as foolish and inept. I thought they didn’t know how to manage themselves and that I knew better. That fight, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is a form of a person’s fight between respect and contempt, the feeling we’re superior to the world and can manage what we meet with no thought of what it deserves. Contempt, I have seen, makes us ashamed, lonely, and cruel.

Two Ways in a Child

Aesthetic Realism shows logically and beautifully that our deepest desire is to like the world through knowing it. This is why, for example, in grade school I was excited learning about the solar system. I remember being enthralled by the beautiful rings of Saturn and in awe of the fact that they were made up of ice particles, rocks, and poisonous gases!

But I didn’t see the people closest to me with that wonder and interest. There were times at dinner when my father and older sister got into loud arguments, he objecting to the way she dressed and whom she dated, and she yelling back that she would do what she wanted. I had no desire to understand what they felt, and would run to my room. “Why can’t they just behave!,” I’d think. I got a satisfaction in sweepingly dismissing them and telling myself it was wiser to be distant from people. That distance grew and grew, and ultimately had me despair of ever being close to anyone.

Years later, I was fortunate to begin studying Aesthetic Realism with the teaching trio There Are Wives, who explained in an early consultation:

Everybody feels that if they could tailor the world to their specifications it would be great, [and that] “If the world does not meet my standards of how it should be, how do you expect me to like it?”

In order to like and express yourself, you have to like the way you see what’s not you.

In Aesthetic Realism consultations I began to learn why I felt despairing and disliked myself. It was because I’d gone against that central need: to use the people and things I met to see the world in a way I could honestly like.

I had been misusing the persons in my family to come to a way of seeing that hurt my life. I had decided that showing what you felt made you look like a mess and that, instead, I would hide my feelings. I was managing the world by making a manicured, quiet place where I did not have to be disturbed by what went on inside other people. I even thought it clever to turn my managerial aloofness into a social advantage. For instance, I felt I knew how to “handle” my father better than anyone else did: I could bring calm to him simply by looking placid and staying quiet; and I had a victory as he’d then look sweetly at me and call me his “Hasselah” (little Harriet). I cultivated this manner: this way of being in the midst of people while contemptuously keeping my feelings hidden. But I often felt unsure of myself, and more and more lonely and cold.

“There is a cozy superiority,” Ellen Reiss explains,

[in] seeing ourselves as too big a treasure for others to know. Meanwhile, we can have fun fooling people and managing them. If we let people see our feelings, be within us, we won’t be able to manipulate them. But this...seeming power that hiddenness provides, makes us feel deeply alone, even as our lips touch another’s, even as we are in the midst of the family. It makes us feel we are frauds. It makes us dislike ourselves very much....

We need to feel that the victory of knowing and being known is greater than the victory of managing reality while being unhad by it. [TRO 1300]

My technique of being hidden as I quietly managed people got new material when I was a teenager. I discovered I could have power wearing miniskirts and watching young men get stirred up while I pretended to be unaware of my effect. I daydreamed about having a meaningful relationship, but the idea of being with someone for an extended period of time terrified me. I felt I had to be in control, and made sure my “relationships” never lasted for more than one or two dates.

When I met Len Bernstein, something unexpected happened. I was drawn to his lively manner and liked him right away. He showed his excitement about things, including photography, which he had just begun to study. And he made it clear that he was interested in me. But I worried that if he knew what I was really like, what kind of thoughts I had about people, he would run the other way. Once, I got so angry with a friend that I cursed out loud, and when I realized Len had heard me I ran out of the room. He followed, and when I said, “You heard me curse—you must hate me,” Len wasn’t fazed; he just asked what I was angry about. This gave me hope—that it might be possible to be close to another person and not always hide. Three months later we moved in together, and three months after that we were married.

But I didn’t understand why I could abruptly change from acting as though I approved of Len unconditionally to being annoyed and giving him the message that nothing he did or said could please me. In a consultation, There Are Wives asked me: “Why do you think a wife would make a husband better than he is and at other times worse than he is?” “I don’t know,” I answered. “Do you think,” they asked, “it’s because you’re not interested enough in who he really is?” They gave me an assignment to write a soliloquy of Len at age 18—to try to see and express what he felt to himself—and my education in understanding who Len Bernstein truly is began.

The Desire to Know Makes for Romance

I’m fortunate to have a basis for criticizing a big element in managing: my drive to think I know better than others without any evidence to back up that judgment! For example: Early in our marriage I was surprised when Len said he was going to try to make a blueberry pie, and I respected him. As he carefully used a rolling pin to create a delicate crust, I offered advice about how to do it better. “Oh,” he asked, “is that how you do it?” Embarrassed, I admitted I’d never actually made a blueberry pie. He continued his work, and the pie was delicious.

While this instance has humor, the contempt it exemplifies drains the feeling out of marriages every day. I could give many other ordinary examples, including times when I tried to dampen Len’s enthusiasm for things that were not me. There was the time Len said, “You know, I really like our living room curtains,” and I responded caustically, “They need to be cleaned.” That may seem unimportant, but it’s an instance of something cruel that goes on steadily in thousands of ways: a person’s trying to manage another into being untrue to his deepest desire, to like the outside world.

I’m grateful to Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to look at my contempt and change; for enabling me to know my husband more deeply each year of our marriage; for giving us the means to understand and strengthen each other; and for the daily romance this has made possible!