The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Always with Us: Lightness & Weight

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we publish two very different works by Eli Siegel. First, a poem of 1961, in which he writes about words, sounds, that have taken on a certain new meaning in our own time—tweet and twitter. Second, we reprint a work that is ever so literary, rich in culture, philosophy, kindness (also playfulness): “Death by Various Hands,” first published in the August 1930 issue of Poetry World. It is composed of short essays on the subject of death, written in the manner, and from the viewpoint of five different authors. And Eli Siegel is able to convey the quality of each of these writers, be within their various ways of seeing and expression. He doesn’t necessarily agree with what he has these persons say; but in each instance, what he has written is beautiful.

There is Max Beerbohm, much better known then than now. (He lived from 1872 to 1956.) In “Max Beerbohm: Somewhat, Anyway” his style is represented in prose that meanders, is graceful, has a chattiness that somehow becomes also grand.

Then there is Samuel Johnson (1709-84), represented by prose that is nobly, magnificently sensible in the 18th-century manner. Mr. Siegel has Johnson tell us that some thoughts about death are a means we have of chiding ourselves for making less of life. And he has Johnson write, at the end of that second essay, about the ugliness of death even as Johnson honors the mysterious bigness of the universe.

Next there is Walter Pater (1839-94). Mr. Siegel presents him as saying that death is an element of reality itself: death is an aspect of the fact that reality is rest and motion—with death an utter form of rest. And Eli Siegel gives us the quiet nuance and precision of the Pater prose style—its delicacy inseparable from majesty, power, life.

The fourth author is Aldous Huxley (1894-1963). He had, in 1930, not yet written the novel for which he is now most famous, Brave New World. And he had not yet become interested in Hindu philosophy and meditation. This short essay is in the manner of the early Huxley: Mr. Siegel has a presumed Huxley character, a woman, speak of death with, at once, intellectual ease, a tough scientific interest, and sensitivity.

The fifth writer is Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859). Eli Siegel gives us the magnificent, ornate, and honest De Quincey style wonderfully. It is a style that has majesty, as Pater’s also does. Yet the De Quincey prose accents motion, hubbub, while Pater accents rest. In both, though, rest and motion are one, in keeping with 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.”

Two Tremendous Opposites

This issue of TRO has dramatically to do with a pair of opposites that people are confused and pained by: lightness and heaviness. The 1961 poem is about something ever so light, slight: the sound tweet-tweet. Mr. Siegel did not know what tweets, tweeting, twitter would come to be in the 21st century; but I think what he shows here is relevant to our new use of those words. The poem tells us: tweets and twitterings represent the fact that the delicacy of things, the slightness and brevity of things, is also meaningful, deep.

So we have a poem about something very light. Then we have a prose work about a matter as big and weighty as anything: death. And yet: in “Death by Various Hands” we see how something that may appear unbearably deep and ponderous can be written of with grace! The monumental can be expressed with charm and variety! The mighty impersonal can be told of with personal style! Here too—with one of the most feared of subjects—we feel the lightness and weight of reality are one.

Meanwhile, every day people are troubled and ashamed about the way lightness and heaviness are in them. When a person—we’ll call him Nathan—is serious, he feels heavy, not freer, not joyful. And when Nathan is having a “good time,” trying to be lighthearted, he does not feel there’s large meaning to things; and soon he feels rather empty. In a 1965 lecture, Mr. Siegel called this “perhaps the most difficult subject in the world for oneself: the way one laughs and the way one is heavy doesn’t make sense.”

The Interference

With these opposites, as with all the others, the great falsifier and disrupter in everyone is contempt. Aesthetic Realism describes contempt as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Our contempt has us go for a fake, ugly lightness: for mocking, “making light” of things; dismissing, summing up. Contempt also can take the form of feeling we’re important through dreariness, through feeling weighed down and oppressed by what we meet—because that way we have the secret satisfaction of feeling we’re too good for the world, superior to the cads it’s filled with. We can also feel heavy because we haven’t been just to things and people—and though we may not articulate our self-criticism, our injustice “weighs” on us.

These opposites, in the world, art, and our lives, are immense. But for now I’ll say: Aesthetic Realism is the education that enables lightness and weight to make sense in people at last; enables us to have them in a way that makes us proud. They were beautifully one in Eli Siegel himself: there was no rift between his tremendous seriousness and his (sometimes wild) humor; between his constant respect for the world and his joyful like of things.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Saying Everything

by Eli Siegel

Tweet-tweet, says one of the voices

Of the universe.

For the universe is not stodgy,

Nor thick,

But fleet

And thin;

And therefore utters tweet-tweet

Basically. The universe is lightsome

And opposed to the grave

Often. The universe twitters

And says tweet-tweet whenever fittingness is represented.

There is nothing more indicative of the universe and its ways

Than the sound of tweet-tweet

Heard often, many places.

Silliness in melody

Exemplifies the universe.

The delicate and chirping

Exhibit being

To hearing things, to all things. The cry of tweet-tweet

Shatters the ponderousness of being

Into silvery bits, each shining with thin sound,

Saying everything.

Death by Various Hands

By Eli Siegel

Perhaps Necessary Preliminary Note

These are not parodies at all. I think parodies are rather menial. What these paragraphs aim after is the showing of how Old Man Death or Old Conception Death could meet, and be met by, certain English writers of representative importance. Call these things then “infusions” or “mergings” or “soul-likenesses.” And when I say “various hands,” I mean various, because if ten fingers of mine are also here, they are.

1. Max Beerbohm: Somewhat, Anyway

“Death,” avowed my friend to me, with the austerity and grace that are distinctive of him (grace he adored; he used to tell me that whatever good his and my nineties may have not possessed, it wasn’t grace; our nineties possessed ease, nicety, delicacy, and for these no other period seemed to care considerably), “is a way of the universe, and the fairness of the universe here is wonderful.” People have complained of the rude, unmindful way the fates have dealt with them, as living beings, and have longed for different lives, painedly; and have looked at the stations and powers of others, enviously and sadly—“how fortunate he is, how unfortunate I”—and I must say that while, as is known to you, my inclinations do not run reform-wise and the talk about improving the lot of the masses leaves me impassive, quite unwilling to do anything about it, it has yet seemed to me that the world was careless, slatternly, knavish in putting people so far apart in their lives’ conditions; making one stupid person rich and another poor, two intelligent persons poor, and one intelligent person rich and another poor, and the like. Life is hideous, mostly, but death I’m sure will be mysterious ever, and great beauty always has the mysterious or strange about it.

We go to death unknowingly, and I, how I do not know, view its coming to me without great apprehension. I have never been impressed much by the writings I’ve read, fostered and written by church-going persons; writings which have put forth intensely, if not logically, the reasons we human beings—O, what “we” takes in here—should look on death with a large measure of fearless expectation. Death is the most aesthetic aspect of the universe; tragedy to me is the highest form of art, and tragedy’s partner needs to be ever death or the feeling of death.

We may come to be satisfied with the prospect of death in various ways. There is the way of him who looks on life as a mere interval in something or other called the Infinite or Eternal; and he, seeing there is something like his feelings engaged in this interval, this little moment and action of the Universe, says, Why I notice that my feelings go unfailingly and unceasingly towards a thing called pleasure by men around me, doing their part in adorning or filling this interval of the world, along with me, and since I don’t know much about just what I am to do here, I imagine giving my feelings what they seem to be going after is proper and best; and this he does. And there is he who has meditated on the Universe, God, Immortality, and, through much meditation, sees death as a thing needing to be experienced to come into a better life; and as far as I know, people of this kind really feel that happiness greater than they have had will come to them after their dying; this is imagining nobly, one way; see what a beautiful thing we make of existence, looking on death in this manner. And there is he who hopes by his good doings here to make up for his dying, by living dearly in the minds of others; who will, after his death, see him as a man who has done well with them, made their happiness greater. And lastly there is he who is well-intentioned, puzzled, tries to do good, more than evil, assuredly, but who sees the world as such a misshapen thing that death—something no man he has talked to has felt—seems to him as darkly beautiful, something that offers romance to him, with existence as its subject, a kind of romance that he has not seen at all, living; and so death seems benign and not at all fearsome to him.

—But death, death, my friend, it yet needs such intelligence, such feelings, to understand it. Love and Death, to know these, is the unconscious ideal of all men’s minds; once we understand these, if we do, we shall have taken from the world, for ourselves, great powers. Perhaps, even, we can be happy in some considerable way at this time.

2. Samuel Johnson: He Is Not Away

The common termination and conclusion of all those troublesome motions we call life, is that awful and hidden thing men know as death; whose terrors have been belittled, whose mightiness has been called in question, but which still is a frightful thing to contemplate. Men are wont to be insincere about the things that engage their minds most, and they try to banish painful thoughts by bestowing upon them words belittling and deriding them. Death is the ever-present emissary of the power of God in our minds; when we are disposed to mock by our foolhardiness the majesty and meaningfulness of existence, the thought of death comes to our minds, invades our hearts, and restores our proper feeling that human life is the greatest work of our Maker, and that in it, as in no other thing, there is His Spirit; we are the representatives of the wishes and power of God, and therefore it is unbecoming any time to be forgetful of our exalted station among his works.

Life is a continual trying of our powers; we are called upon to show our moral strength at all moments of existence; and God is waiting, carefully observing, how we fulfill the delegated life-tasks we have received of Him. And Death, too, He has made; it is the great, sorrowful companion of life; Death is the ever-present, mysterious thing, which out of a living thing with a body unceasingly bent on fleshly joys, and a mind stormy, proud, rebellious, will make a motionless, ugly object, a body now ready to decay, and to transmute itself into that which is also the essential possession of stones, trees, earth and the beasts of the earth.

3. Walter Pater: It May Be

And the poets have ever informed their words with the presence of death, the awaiting and ever abiding conclusion of all these waverings, disillusionments, frustrations, perhaps ecstasies that come in life. Death comes out of the first things of the world; it is of the very elements of existence, and to a mind with that appreciative awareness of the offerings and values of Being that a poet possesses, it will be attractive most deeply, in the terror, austerity, and that quality of unknownness and darkness death has.

Great poetry is the imagination of man moving meaningfully, mournfully, it may be among the shadowy depths and far-away places of thought; and death is a quality of existence; than death there is nothing truer to existence, and more of its very soul. In Being, there must be rest; there must be cessation, quiet stillness, and therefore has it come to be that death fills the world and is everywhere in it.

When one’s mind contemplates death, however weakly, however sadly, it is exercising its noblest functions, highest powers. For the meditation on vague, vast, terrible things is most healthful to mind; trivialities deaden it; and the busying ourselves with the meaning of Not-being will give the joy that Tragedy gives in poetry; philosophy cleanses us, purifies us, and death, so great in existence, must be seen justly and unfearfully so that it too may cleanse us by its meaningfulness and greatness.

4. Aldous Huxley: One of His Ladies of the Arts Talks of Death

“Presumably,” said she, “death is a delightful experience. I am sure, anyhow, that the idea one may have of its delight (which, I confess, I have largely) cannot be disproved empirically; and you of course are aware that the present pronounced and ruling trend of thought in science is that before a thing which has been called true or untrue can be shown to be either, the strictest, fullest, sternest empirical justification must be present.

“—Besides, when I contemplate with any care at all the present condition of the world, the situation of man, and the situation of life, death never, as far as I know, could be more attractive, or at least more tolerable, than now. The human species has been misbehaving terribly, and soon nature won’t bear it; never were there such ignorance, foolishness, hurtfulness in man’s actions as there are now. I don’t see where death has now any more pleasing, and so, conquering, rival in life; death has unknown, unexperienced silences, perhaps blisses.

“O, yes, maybe we do need a newer, rapter, stranger Christianity. For all I know, Tertullian and Saint Augustine may be the intellectual rulers of industriously thinking men in the immediately coming years. We need to look on death differently and be more appreciative of its possibilities.” —She concluded quietly, sweetly.

5. Thomas De Quincey: Death and His Words Somehow Together

And O, there is that soft and dark-winged spirit, whose visitations are sure, unmistakable, and irremediable; the Spirit of Death, the accompaniment and consummation of life. Whence it comes, man’s mind in all its haughtiness knows not; how to escape or soften its terrors, cajole it, man’s mind knows not. There is a fearful, somber flapping of wings, and a man’s life is over; his feelings have ceased; his desires are no more. O, Death, thou art the servant of Existence, and thy mission is to show its Mystery and Terror. Hour thou knowest not, and hast not; favors and hates thou hast not to give; thou comest unquestioning, and there is no questioning when thy task is over, and thou hast gone.

What darknesses are in thee? Out of what deeps comest thou? What bodest thou to the life of the world? My heart, my soul, is rapt in quiet and awe at thy coming; I do not fear thee, but thou art so grave in thy mien, so hushed, light-and-terrible moving in thy ways, that my spirit halts in its motions contemplating thee. Death, thou mayst be most beautiful, in essence, in thy deepest meaning. But we weak men can do no other than deride thee, avoid thee, talk of thee in whispers when we are not deriding thee, and rob thee, by this circuitous means, of the terrors thou hast in thee to bring us.

I love and I fear thee; yet, O Death, when my spirit is at its strongest, and my mind is at its highest, I love thee rather than fear thee.

From Poetry World, August 1930