The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Brightness, Dimness, & People’s Hopes

Dear Unknown Friends:

With this issue we are beginning to serialize a lecture that Eli Siegel gave quite early in the history of Aesthetic Realism. It is Poetry and Brightness, of 1949, and I find it amazing and beautiful.

Though the idea of brightness may not seem an urgent matter, it is. And here is a large reason why: While there are brightness and non-brightness in things, there is also the possibility of brightness or non-brightness in how we see, think, meet what’s not ourselves—with brightness here meaning vibrancy, vividness, awareness, active attention. The opponents of brightness in how a person sees are dullness, unfeelingness, dimness, non-awareness; and from these comes cruelty. A person dull to the feelings of others—someone to whom the lives, emotions, value of others are dim, someone who has made oneself in the dark about the hopes and fears and meaning of others—is unkind, and can be brutal. There is a lot of this brutality, including in governments.

In his book James and the Children, Eli Siegel writes about what ensues from the dimming of what other people are:

As soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person. These three things come out of the insufficient awareness of another person or another thing. [P. 55]

“Insufficient awareness” is an antithesis of mental brightness and ethical brightness. So, as I’ll describe later, is contempt itself.

Dullness, Radiance, & Humanity

In his lecture, Mr. Siegel shows that the idea of brightness is central to the things people of all times and places have seen as largest, most beautiful. These include religion, art, and love.

Meanwhile, it happens that one of the most widespread sadnesses in people is the feeling that one’s life is dull, flat. Men and women everywhere have felt that while occasionally they find something exciting, there is not an enlivening quality to their days. In other words, there is a tremendous and quite steady absence of brightness. And that is felt even by people who can put on quite a dazzling show.

Toward the end of the present section of his talk, Mr. Siegel comments swiftly and powerfully on what this feeling of dullness comes from. And elsewhere in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism he has described its cause with much fullness and subtlety. So I’ll comment a little further on the matter.

The feeling, so frequent, that life is dull, drab, boring, is a misery we inevitably inflict on ourselves through having the triumph of contempt. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” In wanting to feel superior to what’s different from us, in wanting to look down victoriously on other human beings, happenings, objects, we have to take the life, meaning, glow away from them. But then—if one has taken the meaning and interest out of things, one has to feel empty and bored.

At the same time: along with the feeling of dullness being a painful result of contempt, it is also in itself desired. That is because through finding other things gray and drab, we can ratify our feeling that we are superior to everything; we’re the only thing with real meaning in this world; somewhere in us, we scintillate with self-importance.

And our contempt goes after non-brightness in other ways. For instance, we can prefer to be hidden, to fool people. We can prefer, not to show ourselves honestly and see honestly, in the sunlight, but to arrange ourselves in the shadows, use ourselves strategically to beat out people and manage the facts. Then, not only do we find our lives lack real brightness, but we dislike ourselves very much. That is so even though we may show off coruscatingly and glamorously.

We Need to Know

And so, we need to know what brightness really is, and how much we want it. That is what Poetry and Brightness can teach us. As I say this, I say too, with enormous gratitude: Aesthetic Realism has enabled people to see and feel in life itself what art shows—the authentic, factual radiance of things. Seeing this vivid, bright meaning in things comes not through any kind of evasion but through being exact—and that includes looking at the ugly clearly. Aesthetic Realism, the lifework of Eli Siegel, is logic all the way. It is lively, rich knowledge; and, like art itself—it glows.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Poetry and Brightness

By Eli Siegel

The quality of brightness, being a quality arising from light, comes directly from what’s real. Light and dark, like other pairs, are fundamental in reality. It seems that light represents the principle of life and dark doesn’t, though both have their place. These have to do with light and shadow, light and dullness, brightness and dullness, and so on. Brightness can be seen as a combination of light, motion, effect.

Brightness is an important word, and we have come to use it in such ways that when a child wants to learn we say he or she is bright, and when things look hopeful we say they look bright. We have the deep meaning of light as being active.

The study of poetry would lead to the full comprehension of some of the words that I have been talking about.* And if you spend the rest of your life finding out what these words mean, you’ll be spending your life well. Nothing less than one’s whole life should be given to the study of the meaning of a thing like brightness.

It has a great deal to do with poetry, of course, because poetry, like painting and like music, is a relation of light and dark, sunshine and shadow, activity and pause. The dark and light effects are differently placed than in the other arts, but the principle is the same. There are words that are bright and others that are not. The word dull, by itself, doesn’t sound as bright as the word bright does. There are words like flat, which one doesn’t see as bright. Another word, point, is nearer to brightness. Then there are words like sky that are quite bright.

The notion, then, of brightness should be seen not as a contingent thing of reality, but as central to reality itself. At the present time the relation of gravitation and electricity, which has to do with light, is being studied. That means there is the study of reality itself, because reality is the immediate daddy of electricity, light, gravitation, among other things. But I say that the fatherhood of reality as to light should be seen as immediate; by that, I mean that out of reality came light. When reality was, light was at the same time. Through light or brightness, reality showed itself; and in time, it showed itself in man.

In Humanity’s Thought

Brightness fully understood has to take one into the very deepest places. It is interesting that people in their deepest mythologies meet people in their deepest philosophies. And there are some folk songs about brightness that show brightness is the same as God. This goes along with the Platonic idea that the First Form (also called the highest, or supreme, or ultimate Form) is like a light that no one can stand, it is so light. There is something in the Jewish religion like that, and in other religions.

In an anthology edited by R.L. Gales, A Posy of Folk Songs (1912), there is a poem showing that light, or brightness, is the same as love. The meaning of this poem can be studied for the rest of one’s life without wasting time; nothing less than the whole of life should be seen as for the study of poems like this. It is an anonymous poem, and is called here “Andalusian Folk Song”:

If my eyes might see Thee,

Flower of all delight,

Worth a thousand gardens

Were to me the sight.


White pinks and red roses

Bloom in trellised bowers;

In a ruined stable

Blooms the Flower of flowers.


If my eyes might see Thee

They might then grow dim,

Baby white and rosy,

Flower of seraphim.

In this poem there are four things that are one—they all represent one thing. There is the idea of a baby born; there is the idea of a love that is the finality of love; there is the idea of Christ, God taking a material form; there is likewise the idea of the ultimate Form. And all of this in a folk song.

“If my eyes might see Thee, / Flower of all delight.” “Thee” here is Christ or God; it is that child; it is love; it is that Form, here called “Flower of all delight.” This flower is the quintessential brightness of all flowers; it’s so dazzling that in seeing it one’s eyes “might then grow dim.” And the First Form is supposed to be so dazzling that in order for it to be taken in it had to divide into the forms we know, the beauties we know. It had to take on delegates, proxies, because if we saw it directly we couldn’t stand it.

In the Christian religion we have Christ called “the Light of the World,” and that idea of light is with the Buddhists, and the Jews too, because the idea of God is an idea of infinite brightness. That has been so all the time. The Devil and bad angels might go into the caves, but God is always bright. And the Devil that changed and went bad is a being whose glory and light had departed; that is, Lucifer, whose name means bearing light.

Darkness & Brightness Together

We go to another folk song, originally in French. It’s about shepherds coming to the manger to see the newborn Christ. The title is interesting, though it is a translation: “The Bright Midnight.” In Renaissance paintings we always see Christ with a light about him; there is the idea of brightness become human. The Virgin gets some brightness, of course; so do angels and saints. If you’re religious you’ve got to be bright—that is so in painting and in writing. The poem begins:

The shepherd Michant

His watch doth keep,

Hard by the village

He guards his sheep.

Lo! in a moment

The sky grows bright,

The night is aflame

With radiant light....

The title, “The Bright Midnight,” is a way of putting together sunshine and shadow. And we have: “The night is aflame / With radiant light.” There has been felt to be a light which is the source of light.

As o’er the hillside

The song they hear,

To simple Michant

His mates draw near,

They go together

That night like morn,

To find the Mother

And Child new-born;

Brighter gleams the Mother far

Than the moon or morning star.

Here again, in “that night like morn,” we have the idea of putting blackness and brightness together. And the poem says the Virgin is brighter than anything in the astronomical way. That is to be expected. This is a very good poem, by the way. It has honest simplicity, and French folk poems are very often big things.

What is in these lines is part of religion; Buddha also is seen as the light of the world. And it seems that when we can change matter into light we have in some way the equivalent of the religious happening—because light or brightness is such a big thing in religion. Even now, the fact that so much is made of candles and light and white in a Jewish synagogue, shows the importance of brightness.

Mary is seated

By the hard bed,

There in a manger

Where beasts are fed;

Joseph a-praying

Leans on his stick,

The stable is bright

Without candle or wick.

Even the notion of the humble child becoming the magnificent ruler of the world is also a putting together of lowness, or non-brightness, and brightness, because magnificence comes out of the humble. So the child is in a manger or a stable.

Light is associated with knowledge, and with seeing more deeply. That is why we use the phrase “I saw the light.”

The poem ends: “Brighter shines the Little One, / Sevenfold brighter than the sun.” So this little being who represents the principle of all things is sevenfold brighter than the sun.

We see how important brightness is in religion. It is important in poetry too, because the purpose of poetry is to make reality brighter than is customary; that is, to give it all the brightness it deserves, despite what people say. Even a pessimistic poem has as its purpose to make pessimism brighter—which means to annul it.

And There Is Love

Brightness is also associated with love. Religion, love, and art do come from a source which is reality itself. So there is a connection among them, because these are deep things, and the deeper they go, the more they have one source in common. We have poems that deal with brightness which seem to have love predominant. The one I’ll read next does. Its title is “At the Door.”

My heart it is aching

For lost delight;

I come to your door

In the deep dark night.


My fire it is ashes,

My candle is dead,

I shiver with cold

While you lie a-bed.


Thro’ the deep darkness

I come once more,

For the dear God’s sake

Open the door.

This means that without love, things are not bright; they are dull, torpid, massive, heavy, sluggish. One of the things we look for in life is to take the subconscious mass which is dull, and put it into motion. We want the world to put us into form; we want the world to make us bright and shapely, and the shapeliness and brightness would occur at once. So in love we want to be brighter. Our purpose is to take the dullness that we have and to have it stirred so that it become something else.

Every one of us can be dull. We can be dull by not wanting to have to do with things. A bright person or sharp person is one who wants to have to do with things, and to be dull is to want to be separate. A dull thing is that which invites nothing; therefore it is that which is separate. And many persons, in their desire to be individuals, have become dull. This is a misfortune that Aesthetic Realism is trying to remedy.

“My heart it is aching / For lost delight.” This means there is something real that we can hope for, but also remember. “I come to your door / In the deep dark night. /... / I shiver with cold / While you lie a-bed.” Of course, there is something of sex here, but there is also something more. There is a desire which is the feeling that if I meet this thing I will become brighter. “Thro’ the deep darkness / I come once more.” Why use all this darkness?

The history of life is a history of giving shape to darkness. Darkness corresponds to the unknown, or in one sense of the word, to the unconscious. But the dark can be made light. We can say that dark, in fact, is hoping to be light.

Brightness Ensues

These are poems having to do with the fundamental meaning of brightness: when there is the taking of inertia and setting it into motion, the taking of matter and finding the motion in it, brightness ensues. A thing that is in motion, or goes for motion, or stands for motion, is brighter than a thing that wants to contract and not move at all.

*That is, in the series of which this lecture is a part. It included, for example, Poetry and Time, Poetry and Anger, Poetry and Speed, Poetry and History, Poetry and Logic.