The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Art, & the Insistence of Good Sense

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of the great lecture Mind and Insistence, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. In this final section, he speaks about a passage from Vachel Lindsay’s poem “The Congo.”

The poem was published 100 years ago, in 1914. And there are some things in it (not in the lines Mr. Siegel discusses) that are difficult to hear today. I am quite sure they would not seem as offensive if Mr. Siegel’s magnificent explanation of “The Congo” and of what was impelling Lindsay were widely known. Here, he shows that Part 2 of the poem is about various big insistences in all of us, and in reality itself.

The Matter of Poetry

For all the looking askance at aspects of “The Congo” in recent decades, it has been hard for people to put the poem aside altogether. It has gotten into two popular films (Dead Poets Society and The Expendables 2—I am not praising how). On the other hand, even when Lindsay’s poetry was at the height of its fame—say, the 1930s through the ’50s—there was a tendency in academic circles to see him principally as a showman in verse, not a writer of serious, significant, thoughtful poetry. Eli Siegel is the critic who understood and placed Lindsay. He saw Lindsay’s “The Santa-Fé Trail,” “The Congo,” “General William Booth Enters into Heaven,” “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight,” and other poems, as having high literary quality, and in some instances greatness. He saw them as poetry, in exactly the same sense that Milton’s Paradise Lost is poetry, and Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” and Hart Crane’s The Bridge. The criterion for art of any kind, anywhere, is in this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Then, there is the way Eli Siegel read “The Congo”—which thrilled people at literary gatherings and in audiences in the 1920s and ’30s, and in Aesthetic Realism poetry classes he taught in the decades that followed. For now, I’ll simply say that his reading of “The Congo” had a oneness of utter letting go, of the elemental—and structure, knowledge, order at its most alive.

About the World & Our Lives

We cannot include, for reasons of space, the entire passage that Mr. Siegel read in Mind and Insistence. One can see, though, that it was a means of his discussing some of the largest matters in the world; for example, the relation of knowledge and joy, logic and a good time.

He speaks about the two big insistences in everyone, which fight in us. These, Aesthetic Realism explains, are our desire to like the world, see meaning in it; and our desire to have contempt, to make ourselves big through lessening what’s not us. From the first desire, the first insistence, comes all that is good in humanity; from the second, all that is cheap, mean, cruel, evil.

Mr. Siegel speaks briefly too about that huge thing, the relation of good and evil. He did not expect anyone to simply agree with what he says about their relation; “easy” or feigned agreement was abhorrent to him. And on such a matter, one cannot agree without an enormous amount of careful, wide, scholarly looking and questioning. He wrote in 1973, in the 38th issue of this periodical: “The greatest question in the world is whether good and evil are in an aesthetic relation.” Can they, “like other opposites, be seen as one”? That idea, he said, can seem too much for people in the midst of life; yet it may be so nevertheless. “The beauty,” he writes,

of this century’s meat-paintings by Francis Bacon, of the fragment-paintings by Mark Tobey, of the shape-wilderness paintings by Jackson Pollock, are relevant here.

Why People Dislike Themselves

In this final section, Mr. Siegel also speaks about something huge in the life of everyone, which he was the philosopher to explain: We have an “ethical unconscious.” There is in every person an organic ethical objection to our own injustice. This ethical objection is beautiful, and is part of our greatest insistence. It arises from the very basis of ourselves. Our trying to evade this ethical objection is the cause of our nervousness, self-dislike, emptiness, guilt.

So we publish, with love, the conclusion of Eli Siegel’s Mind and Insistence, so fair to literature and humanity everywhere.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Double Insistence

By Eli Siegel

Insistence can sometimes be expressed in a melodramatic fashion. A poem that has in it the history of insistence, a strange poem, is “The Congo,” by Vachel Lindsay. The reason I’ll read from it is that the rhythm is insistent—it’s alive. Furthermore, in the second part there is an insistence on pleasure and rhythm without fear. There is also an insistence of fear.

The first part of “The Congo” is about how black people try to protest against imperialism in Africa, and how they want their vitality to be respected. The second part is about how people carry on in a gambling hall in Chicago and want to be joyous; and how, later, in Africa they go through a dance, and witch-men try to stop them and for a while do. But then the people insist on joy. Joy wins out, and the witch-men are forced to laugh along with the crowd.

Early in the second part there are the lines—

The ebony palace soared on high

Through the blossoming trees to the evening sky.

Lindsay is trying to give the feeling of joy and freedom. These lines are about the fact that we insist on being tall and high—which doesn’t depend on size as such. Tallness in the deepest sense depends on whether we are right as to space and the ground underneath us. The idea of seeing height and what is underneath at the same time, is an idea of happy stability. There is an insistence on that, because the desire to enjoy life, to find life sensible, is in us.

No matter how much a person complains, something in him is against the complaining, even though the againstness may be muffled. It is like a watch under a heavy blanket: the watch keeps ticking even though no one hears it. That kind of insistence is in us. It can be so buried that we can’t discern it, but it is there. Life insists on being alive, and if a person lived to be 189, that would be so. And life insists on being liked. Reality insists on being liked. That may be hard, but it still insists—like a child who runs off and goes into closets: you think he wants to hide, but he really insists on being found. He doesn’t want to make it too easy, though. —Then:

The inlaid porches and casements shone

With gold and ivory and elephant-bone.

Shining is a kind of insistence. I remember speaking to a woman who said she felt awful—yet whose face shone, who looked pretty good. I said, “Something in you insists that you don’t feel just awful; your face looks quite shining.” She said, “Don’t mind that; I can’t help that.” Very often, without knowing it, a person who acts as if life were all up with him or her betrays something else: something insistently will come forth.

Yes, evil is insistent. But there is something in us which says, “Even though I cannot find any argument for anything good, somehow it all must make sense; God isn’t an idiot; evolution isn’t a numbskull; reality isn’t a dope. It must make sense.” This feeling that it must make sense no matter how many terrible or confusing things occur, is something which is in everyone. Water under heavy ice will not be seen, yet it still flows. And we may not know this feeling is flowing in us, but it is there. That is a good kind of insistence.

The other kind of insistence, which, even when we find something good, will try to make it less—that I admit. The insistence on finding evil because it suits our ego more, is present. There is a double insistence: on good and bad.

Joy—& an Opponent of It

A troupe of skull-faced witch-men came

Through the agate doorway in suits of flame—

Yea, long-tailed coats with a gold-leaf crust

And hats that were covered with diamond-dust.

And the crowd in the court gave a whoop and a call

And danced the juba from wall to wall.

But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throng

With a stern cold glare, and a stern old song:

“Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.”...

These witch-men are trying to awe one: they look so rich, and at the same time they look so terrible—they are skull-faced. They also try to overpower, with those suits of flame. Even so, Lindsay says that though they try to stop all the dancing—somehow from the very beginning the witch-men, with that gold-leaf crust, want to take part in the festivities.

The crowd in the court gets into action. “A whoop and a call” isn’t the most profound way of showing you’re having a good time. And dancing the juba, which I suppose is a pretty affirmative dance and shakes a floor no end, by itself may also have its drawbacks. That is, there is something wrong with the kind of hell-raising that doesn’t have a source—doesn’t begin with our care for the world itself. People want to be joyous. They cannot be joyous from the beginning out, so they insist on being joyous in another way. That is a bad kind of insistence, because whatever we affirm should be affirmed from where we begin, not from the third story. And a good deal of the gaiety that goes on at parties, and happens when people slap each other on the back and seem to be having a wonderful time, is that factitious or forced gaiety which doesn’t begin at the beginning.

Aesthetic Realism says that at the beginning is love of reality. And no gaiety is authentic unless it begins at the beginning. The other kind is only momentary, and it’s a substitute. One can insist on it, because one insists on not seeing the first, fundamental kind. So “a whoop and a call” taken as a final purpose is not the best thing. But taken as a kind of symbol that we see in a cock crowing, or sometimes even in a happy call by an infant—that affirmation is as deep as anything can be.

“But the witch-men suddenly stilled the throng.” In all history, there has been a going for joy, a going for pleasure, and also a going for that which will dampen pleasure, spoil it. It’s a little like a child’s getting some strawberry shortcake, and then seeing that some cigarette ashes get into it. This kind of thing is part of the double insistence.

The question is: is there a possibility that even reality when it’s dull and cold can be seen as interesting? Aesthetic Realism says yes. But the seeing has to be logical and have knowledge in it.

“‘Mumbo-Jumbo will hoo-doo you.’” Mumbo-Jumbo corresponds to those vague fears we have, those punishments we give ourselves that we don’t want to look at. If we felt bad and said, “I damned well want to know what makes me feel bad. I’m not going to do any discounting. I think that what makes me feel bad is something I should try to see, because otherwise I won’t respect myself. I insist on knowing why, and on getting in all the facts and not just some of them”—that kind of insistence would be a dealing with fear, and vague guilt, and self-punishment, in a good way.

So Mumbo-Jumbo is that gathering of hesitations, timidities, doubts, foolishnesses, conceits, which can take an outside form and be called Mumbo-Jumbo as a kind of god. The god, however, arises from ourselves.

The Oneness of Opposites Is Here

Just then from the doorway, as fat as shotes,

Came the cake-walk princes in their long red coats,

Canes with a brilliant lacquer shine,

And tall silk hats that were red as wine.

And they pranced with their butterfly partners there,

Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair,

Knee-skirts trimmed with the jassamine sweet,

And bells on their ankles and little black feet.

And the couples railed at the chant and the frown

Of the witch-men lean, and laughed them down.

(Oh, rare was the revel, and well worth while

That made those glowering witch-men smile.)

These cake-walk princes represent freedom and order. A cake-walk is a sort of routine thing which, however, represents the release powers of man. Now, joy should be affirmed by logic. Joy is looking for logic, for knowledge. If it doesn’t get knowledge, it is incomplete. The deepest thing in man is to see knowledge as ecstasy. Still, what is presented here is the beginning of joy, and as such it is pretty honest.

There is in these lines a rhythm of lightness and heaviness. All of reality is that which is most insistent. Lightness and heaviness is more insistent than lightness by itself or heaviness by itself, because the combination represents the greater power.

“Coal-black maidens with pearls in their hair, / Knee-skirts trimmed with the jassamine sweet, / And bells on their ankles and little black feet”—is a study in lightness and order, and solidity and motion. These are the things which are the most insistent in the world; and out of these, life came. They are represented by life.

Because at this time the spirit of joy is so strong, the couples say to the witch-men, Who are you to scare us? Who are you to bring in your Mumbo-Jumbo? Get out, or join us! They have been encouraged by the cakewalk princes in their long red coats. These princes represent joy as orderly.

The question is: does evil want good to win? Aesthetic Realism says yes. Evil will fight good, but deeply evil is on the side of good: evil is that which tests good, pushes good to its utmost strength. Deeply, it wants good to win. The bad unconscious does want the good unconscious to win.

There is the power of rhythmic joy in the repeated line “Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, boom!” The logic of good sense began with the first animal expression of honest joy: there is no discrepancy between logic at its utmost and primal accuracy—only they should know each other. The nature of our most fundamental responses is the deepest and most constant question of logic.

Then the witch-men, with their hoo-doo and Mumbo-Jumbo, are sort of convinced, and join in:

(Oh, rare was the revel, and well worth while

That made those glowering witch-men smile.)

“Revel, and well worth while” puts together ethics and high jinks—which is a good combination.

The Big Insistences

What we are going to insist on, is a mighty question. What have we a right to insist on? What we have a right to insist on happens to be what we must insist on. The things Aesthetic Realism says we must insist on are: 1) that we know ourselves and not an imitation, something that we show to others and to ourselves; 2) that we know what ourselves have to do with; 3) that we feel this knowing of ourselves and knowing what we have to do with concerns everything that we may do, have done, can do. In the acceptance of that relation, we are insisting on our unconscious rights.

A person who is not trying to know himself is a person who has insisted on injustice for himself while insisting on being comfortable.

These two insistences—the insistence on being comfortable, and the insistence on knowing who we are, and what makes us want to be comfortable, and what could really make us comfortable—these two insistences are in a battle all the time.

The value of Aesthetic Realism is that it insists on making the two insistences go for the same purpose. And it says there is no reason why one’s desire for comfort needs to be against one’s desire for self-respect.

An artist is important because he insists on making sense out of the world. A person who wants to know things, who goes after truth, is important because he insists on making sense of and liking what is, and also himself.

The Unifying Purpose: Justice to Reality

The insistence on taking every motive and making it go for one thing—that is the insistence which, I think, man is after. Every specific insistence ought to go for this general insistence. It is the insistence for joy that is deep and wide and doesn’t play tricks with things. And as you look at it straight and with courage, you get joy in the looking. That is the only kind of insistence that makes sense.

Any person, therefore, who does not insist on coordinating his insistences is a person who has consented to the diminution of oneself. But then what happens? Because we diminish ourselves, we do get those things which, in their fashion, are all insistences: the obsessions, compulsions, insomnias, depressions, fears, forgetfulnesses, dullnesses, discomforts of all kinds. They will insist on being in oneself unless we insist on saying to our insistences: Work for one thing; see that art is the Great Good Sense.