The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Art and the Purpose of Our Lives

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we conclude our serialization of The Opposites Theory, by Eli Siegel: the second half of the last chapter is published here. Its author, I believe, considered this work unfinished; he became engaged in other important writing, of both prose and poetry. Yet looking at The Opposites Theory now, some fifty years later, one can see that this work about the opposites in art—with its scholarship, ease, might, and charm—is definitive.

It illustrates that which Eli Siegel was the philosopher to show: what art is. Art—of any time, any place, any medium, any style—art is always, he explained, “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.”

The final chapter of The Opposites Theory is about Repose and Energy. And we print too part of a paper that actress and Aesthetic Realism associate Carol McCluer presented at a recent public seminar. That seminar's title points to energy—and dissatisfaction—in people's lives today: “Busier Than Ever—but Why Do We Feel Something's Missing?”

Contempt Does Things with Repose & Energy

As I have done throughout this serialization, I'm going to comment on the opposites in relation to another great contribution of Aesthetic Realism: Eli Siegel's showing that the thing in every person which weakens our lives, hurts our minds, and makes us unable to like ourselves, is our desire to have contempt. Further, contempt, the feeling we'll “be for ourselves by making less of the outside world,” is the cause of all meanness and injustice.

In the life of every person right now, contempt is doing harmful things with those big opposites Repose and Energy—opposites which we can see as one in oceans, music, puppies, molecules, automobiles, dance.

In his preface to Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes that we go after contempt because contempt “is so much the repose that the tossed-about human mind is looking for.”1 People today, as at other times, are agitated, mixed up, angry, unsure. Oh, how people desire repose! The abundant prescriptions for calming pharmacy are evidence of that desire. Yet much more frequent than the use of those things once called tranquilizers is the use of contempt. Without knowing it, people feel that if they can sneer at something or someone, look down, be disgusted, they'll feel more confident: they'll have the serenity of superiority.

Contempt does two big things—temporarily, very temporarily: it makes you feel important, and it makes you feel calm.

Take a little boy, Terry, age 9, who has been feeling quite turbulent and confused. His teacher was telling the class something about numbers, and he didn't understand her; his friends did better at soccer than he did, and that made him uncomfortable, and mad; his mother yelled at him for messing up the living room and he thought she was mean, but at the same time he felt bad that he'd been so careless. He's pretty mixed up, and stirred up—he feels like he doesn't know where he is. Then he sees his little sister, Sophie, drawing, and he says scornfully, “Don't you have anything better to do? You sure are a numbskull!” For a moment, Terry feels reposeful: he has settled a score with a confusing world—put it in its place through being able to look down on a representative of that world, a little girl of 6½ with crayons in her hand.

The Reason, Continued

People of all ages are like Terry. There is a lot of sneering in the homes, streets, offices of America now. There is much “insult humor.” There's an abundant use of obscenities, and also of horrible racial epithets. The reason is that people are trying to get to ease and composure through looking down on representatives of a world that confuses and angers them.

Because men feel deeply ill at ease and puzzled about women, they make contemptuous remarks about them, and for the moment feel everything's settled, everything's clear. Women do the same as to men.

Contempt as a means to repose is always ugly. And it is also inefficient. The ego-soothingness of contempt doesn't last—a fact which is a tribute to the inescapable ethics within the human self. Our contempt inevitably makes us dislike ourselves, however much we may pretend; it makes us feel ourselves to be failures.

The purpose of our lives is to be ourselves through valuing the outside world. Therefore our going for contempt discomposes and disorganizes us. It makes us both nervous and empty. It brings us that bad relation of repose and energy which is dullness and agitation. Then we go after more contempt—more sarcasm, more looking down—in order to feel better, and instead we feel worse and worse. Further, since contempt was the fundamental cause of our nervousness to begin with, the tranquilizing drugs mentioned earlier bring only a deadening, never a true composure.

Art, Eli Siegel showed, is respect for the world. And that purpose, to respect reality, is what I saw him have all the time. The study of Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to have our lives as much like art as possible. It is education that succeeds magnificently.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Being as Exaggeration; or, Repose & Energy in Art, cont.

By Eli Siegel

Humanity is shown by “To be, or not to be: that is the question,” but is also shown by “Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler”—in “ Chicago,” by Sandburg.

Both of these lines have energy and repose: the difference is that the Shakespeare line seems to begin with philosophic decorum. In it, though, are the energy of the arranged syllable and the energy of much previous, arduous pondering. The Sandburg line begins with energy—seemingly—but has at the same moment a grace in weightiness and wideness, the repose of the powerful disposed musically and in lightsome space.

Repose and energy, present as death and beauty, color and swiftness, are in the “Chorus” of Edna St. Vincent Millay. When she writes of a girl who has died—

Give away her gowns,

Give away her shoes—

She has no more use

For her fragrant gowns.

Take them all down—

Blue, green, blue,

Lilac, pink, blue—

From their padded hangers.

She will dance no more

In her narrow shoes;

Sweep her narrow shoes

From the closet floor—

the quietness of death has joined deeply the color of gowns, the swiftness of feet. The picture-and-swiftness of the poetic syllable has done this.

Wordsworth Too

Repose and energy are in these renowned lines of Wordsworth:

Dust as we are, the immortal spirit grows

Like harmony in music; there is a dark

Inscrutable workmanship that reconciles

Discordant elements, makes them cling together

In one society. How strange, that all

The terrors, pains, and early miseries,

Regrets, vexations, lassitudes interfused

Within my mind, should e'er have borne a part,

And that a needful part, in making up

The calm existence that is mine when I

Am worthy of myself!2

Repose, then, can come from the unknown, energetic organization—“a dark inscrutable workmanship”—of “regrets, vexations, lassitudes.”

Energy as form works to bring vividness out of blankness, inertia, inanity. Repose as form works to bring calm, organization, quietude out of the turbulent, the gyrating, the violently broken, the unsettlingly fragmentary. Both energy and repose are deeply forces. We say, for instance, “With repose, I shall get new strength and clearness.” What gives us strength and clearness is a force.

A large phase of the history of art can be put in this way: 1) unacceptable repose; 2) accurate energy; 3) more acceptable, more authentic repose. Or one can begin with energy, and by the use of the repose in form, get to more acceptable energy.

There Are Gardens

Meanwhile, rivers are flowing in a disturbed and calm way. The sun is shining with energy and calm. Clouds go about with cloudlike energy and restfulness. The waves of ocean and ocean itself are tranquil and busy. Metals contain energy in a state of metallic quietude. Wood grows peaceably and strenuously. And there are gardens, which are of great value, because they are such a fine compound of nature as itself and man as thoughtful arranger. Every garden, like the earth itself, like art in its entireness, is some relation of energy and stillness. This passage from From a New Garden, by Mrs. Francis King, implies that in a garden there may be not such a successful relation of energy and stillness, but that there is always a relation.

There are gardens so bright during the summer and spring that benches of a wild green are an affront (and by a wild green I mean a green verging strongly upon either blue or yellow). Soft greys here may be better. And much depends upon the scale of the furniture—a seat of huge proportions in a little garden throws the whole out of scale. The pergola, heavy and without reason, is a fearful gardening offence. The coarsely designed arbour, the too thin trellis-work, these affect the garden badly, and even more the feelings of those who see it who may be sensitive to design. The pretty painted iron settees and chairs, rather French in type, with grape and flower designs, are delightful in the small gay garden.3

According to the Theory of Opposites, what is true about Mrs. King's garden is true about Mozart and galaxies, Bernini and Lake Superior, Léger and the Susquehanna. Art studies energy and repose for their oneness, because it is the task the universe is and has.

Something's Missing—Why?

By Carol McCluer

Do you recognize yourself in this? Someone says—maybe her name is Joanna Denton, and she's in New Castle, Pennsylvania —

From the second I wake up, I'm checking things off my to-do list....There's Dave and the children....I squeeze in a little exercise once in a while; on Wednesdays, I volunteer at the hospital; then on Saturdays, soccer games; Sundays, church; most nights make dinner (a lot of heating up in the microwave). I try to read at least part of the newspaper every day, and I listen to books on tape in the car. I talk on the phone while I put dishes in the dishwasher, and watch TV while answering emails. I'm really busy doing a lot of things I want to do. But sometimes I feel lonely inside—I feel like something big is missing.

Though the details differ, like Joanna, people are busier than ever and yet feel something's missing. That's what I felt before studying Aesthetic Realism.

By the age of 25, though I had a laid-back California manner, I was ambitious as a singer and actress. And I was busy—going on auditions, performing, and working with an improv group. I put a lot of energy into creating a character named Bambi, a languorous and eccentric California girl who lived in an apartment with red, flocked wallpaper. She mostly talked on the phone, ate Fritos and angel food cake, and flirted with a man who lived upstairs.

Though audiences liked her, as time went on I found I couldn't play anyone except Bambi. Even as I got laughs, I felt stunted and despairing. I think this character was an unwitting attempt to criticize myself for the shallow, cold person I felt I had become. And the psychologist I went to, the self-help books I read—none gave me any solid basis for a way to change.

Ellen Reiss has described vividly the root cause of a person's feeling something's missing:

People need, desperately need, to know that there is something in them—contempt—which gets a triumph feeling this world is not good enough to have them, to engage their thought fully. They are made of material too precious to be sullied by other people or things, so they will go through the various motions of life, but there is a self within that will be victoriously and smugly untouched. And so people feel that as they do things they are not entirely there. Even with friends, even amid the family, even in love,... they feel they are affected only with part of them, but the depths of them are wandering, or waiting, or sinking, alone. [TRO 1208]

As I started to see how much I had limited being affected by the world outside myself, my despair, which I had seen as unavoidable, began to change.

The Knowledge I Thirsted For

While I saw myself as a sunbeam in other people's lives, I could be very droopy and often heaved big sighs. In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked, “Are you tired?” I said, “I feel like I'm fighting—I don't feel tired.”

Consultants. Do you think the reason you're fighting so hard is that there's something in you that feels, “I'll go through the motions but I don't give a damn”—and, in a way, you're fighting to give a damn?... 
What do you think is the best thing in you?

CMcC. I can make people feel things. I can affect people.

Consultants. Do you feel that another person can do as much for you as you may do for another person?

CMcC. No.

Consultants. Are there emotions that other people can evoke in you—or do you think that's not possible?

I was amazed and relieved by these questions. I began to see that I had felt other people couldn't evoke deep emotions in me. I had used, from early in my life, the over-indulgent praise I'd gotten from my parents and others—for playing the piano, writing, doing skits, or telling a funny story about my day at school—to feel I was a bright, entertaining phenomenon in a bleak world full of dull people. I'd wanted to affect other people while remaining inwardly superior and cold, and this drive to be unaffected was the central cause of my desolate feeling of “something's missing.”

As my attitude to the world was explained and criticized, and my desire to like things encouraged and strengthened, I began to be deeply affected, excited by things, as I had yearned to be. For instance, as I studied acting in the class taught by Anne Fielding at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, I learned that the central opposites in both life and drama are Sameness and Difference, and that I needed to ask when preparing to play a part: How am I the same as this character? How am I different? What has this character's life been—her thoughts, her fears, her hopes? I even began to see the large advantage to learning lines made up by people other than myself—like, maybe, Shakespeare!

And in consultations I learned that the way I needed to see my mother, Annie Rose McCluer from Jackson, Mississippi, was the aesthetic way, the same way an actress needs to think about a character: Who is she? What is she hoping for? How many things and people is she related to? How am I like her? How am I different? As I learned to see both my parents as full human beings, not just as backgrounds to myself, I became warmer. I began to see other people as mattering to me and deserving of my respect in a way I was incapable of before.

Love and Knowledge

Because of what I'm learning, I have a marriage I treasure, to Kevin Fennell, who is a singer and a critic of popular song, including rock 'n' roll. I love his clear and sweetly powerful singing voice, his passion for justice, his ready sense of humor, and his observations of the world and me.

An example of how Kevin is a means of my being more deeply affected by things outside myself is something that occurred at a very intense time, when my brother Russell had been in a car accident. I wanted to have a good effect as I talked to him; meanwhile, Kevin pointed out that I went after telling Russell to cheer up much too quickly—it wasn't thoughtful enough. He encouraged me to think more about the many emotions my brother could be having. I did, and it made me a kinder sister and person.

Through Aesthetic Realism, I'm learning how to see meaning in the world—instead of rushing by things because I think I'm too good for them. I'm proud that my education continues!

1 (NY: Definition Press, 1981), p. 10.

2 The Prelude, I, 340-350.

3 (NY: Knopf, 1930), p. 12.