The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Conversations in Marriage—& Poetry

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 6 of the magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Slowness, by Eli Siegel. And with it we publish portions of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What’s Missing When Husbands Talk with Wives?” Aesthetic Realism is that which understands, as nothing else can, the big, beautiful, yet so often painful subject of conversations. I have written on the matter in other TROs; but for now, I say this: What that seminar showed is that if men and women have trouble talking to each other, it isn’t for the reason given in current books—that the male approach to talking and the female are just different. The reason is, persons do not see reality and other persons justly. The man or woman you have to do with stands for reality and humanity; and as that person is in a close and crucial and prolonged relation to you, the amissness in how you both see the world will come forth in your seeing of each other, dealing with each other, speaking with each other.

The big interference with conversations, and with love, is that thing which Mr. Siegel showed to be the big interference with every aspect of life: contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self—increase as one sees it.” The fundamental way contempt works as to people is the feeling that to see another human being truly, justly, in keeping with all the facts, is unnecessary. Hour after hour, the people of the world do not feel they need to understand who someone else deeply and exactly is, though they may live with the person for sixty years. This fundamental contempt—that it is unnecessary to see a person truly—is, for example, in all racism. But it also happens to be present in adoration. Whether one longs for a person or loathes a person, or anything in between, one generally sees a person in terms of: how does he make me feel; does he make me seem important (either through his praising me, or through my ability to feel superior to him)?—not: who is he?; what are his thoughts, his feelings, and not just about me?; how does he see everything?

Amid dates and kisses, wedding plans and honeymoon, this is still largely the way a man and woman see each other, in terms of one’s own importance. And therefore when the thrill of conquering someone fades, there is a dullness, including conversational dullness—because neither has been interested much in who the other really is.

The Purpose of Love

There is another huge reason, inextricable from the one I just gave, why so often in marriage conversations have a feeling of resentment in them, irritation, and emptiness, and why there can be a disinclination to speak at all. The purpose of love, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to like the world. And as I write that sentence, I am struck afresh by how surprising it is. That to like the world, its people, objects, knowledge, is what love is for—this is backed up by the great literature of the world, but it is so far from what people generally think and what the advice columns and books encourage. What happens is that two people make the mistake of using each other to get away from the world, to feel they can be in a separate world together, where they are superior to everyone. This choice makes for inevitable resentment, narrowness, emptiness, and shame—because it is against the very purpose of their lives: to be fair to reality in its fullness.

Also, when two people make less of the world, there has to be boredom, and the conversations have to be flat—because they have flattened, in fact tried to wipe out, the source of everything interesting: reality itself. Since conversations are about the world, you can’t make less of the world and then expect to have good conversations.

Besides, Aesthetic Realism shows that a person is the world, in his or her particular form. Whether that person is a stranger or shares a love nest with you, he or she is composed of the opposites that constitute reality itself. “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Mr. Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” And in sentences I love, sentences great in English prose, he explains: “To know a person is to know the universe become throbbingly specific. It is always the universe on two feet, with two eyes, and an articulate mouth.” That is how people all over the world long to see another human being. It is the opponent of the contemptuous way of seeing a person, the possessive way, the bored way, the irritable way.

The World in a Person

Let us take the opposites with which the lecture we are serializing is concerned: slowness and speed. These opposites are often sources of annoyance and inter-punishment with couples: one walks too slowly, the other too fast; she wants things done in such a hurry, he waits so long before answering a question. But a woman can look at her husband, and a man at his wife, and ask: How are the opposites, reality’s opposites, of slowness and speed in this person I married? Is he, is she, trying to make them one?

A man might say: “This woman who woke up beside me in bed happens to be the result of centuries: it took evolution or history or biology so long to get to just her. Yet this same person runs swiftly into the ocean surf on a summer day!

“I have seen that she has thoughts that can linger, on a leaf, a cloud, a cat, a situation in the news; yet a memory can come suddenly, so quickly, to her mind. Also, I have seen her sitting quietly in a chair, while blood was moving rapidly through her veins and ideas were in much motion in her mind.

“I see too that these opposites may trouble her: she can feel lethargic, and also agitated. Yet even when they are awry in her, they are still the world’s opposites, art’s opposites: she may not know what to do with slowness and speed, but in having them within her she has what all music, for example, depends on. In needing to make sense of fast and slow, she has the problem Beethoven dealt with in all of his symphonies.”

Eli Siegel showed and honored all the time the true grandeur of every human being, and reality itself. Because he did, Aesthetic Realism exists. And people can learn to see another proudly and kindly at last, to love truly, and to have the conversations we thirst for!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Slowness and Wonder

By Eli Siegel

For another effect of slowness that is important, I use a poem of Tennyson. It is one of the most popular poems in the language, and that is, of course, not against it. Tennyson is one of the most multifariously rhythmed poets we have. He used many rhythms. So I read this very well-known poem that used to be intoned so often that people got tired of it. But how well-known a poem is, or how little known, has nothing at all to do with its goodness. A dollar bill that has been in a million hands is still worth more than a counterfeit coin in one hand. —“Crossing the Bar”:

Sunset and evening star,

And one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar,

When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,

Too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep

Turns again home….

This is a fine mastery of syllables that seem to be profoundly hesitant and, when they do occur, seem to want to remain. And the thought is such that it makes wonder slow. What the world may be like can make anyone stop. When we think of the mysteries this world has, we can’t be brisk, unless we want to run away from them. That is the way, in fact, that people want to deal with mysteries—by being brisk and saying “Never mind.” But if we look at them, we are appalled. That is why we have the words stupefied, astonished. Astonished means stunned. When we feel something is so strange that we can’t explain it, willy-nilly we are going to slow up. The next moment we may scamper like anything, but while we recognize the astonishment we have to be slow.

The astonishment in this poem is about what oneself is. Some words can be objected to; it is a trifle too noble. But it is essentially a good poem, and one of the reasons is that there is a kinship between slowness and tremendous wonder.

What’s Missing?

By Ernest DeFilippis

The thing missing as a husband talks to his wife is good will—for her and the world itself. Eli Siegel defined good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” (TRO 121).

I am enormously grateful that with the woman I love, my wife of 12 years, Maureen Butler, I am studying Aesthetic Realism. Because of our study, our love for each other is more passionate, deeper, more exciting, more intellectually stirring, and kinder with each month!

How a husband talks with his wife, Aesthetic Realism explains, begins with how he sees the world and people. I didn’t see people as whole beings, with insides as real as mine. Growing up I thought, as many children do, that adults were insincere, more interested in flattering and kidding others along, or complaining about and making fun of them, than in knowing them. As I listened quietly to adults talk, I felt superior to everyone, particularly when these same people showered me with praise while I just stood there, acted polite, and didn’t say a word.

I felt my mother existed to serve me. I remember, with regret, the pleasure and power I felt as I sat sulking at the kitchen table while she tried to cheer me up. Unwilling to speak, I would scornfully mumble “No,” “Yeah,” “I don’t know,” “Maybe.” To get me to talk, she said, was like “pulling teeth.” Years later, in an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel explained: “You just want to have a mother with whom you don’t talk very much. She is in reserve. You can use her quietly against other people. [You say,] ‘If my mother can care for me, even if I am what I am, why can’t other people?’” Mr. Siegel gave form to how I judged whether people, particularly women, cared for me.

The Conversations with Ourselves

The person we talk to most is ourselves, and if the conversations we have with ourselves about people—how we think about them—are not to know and be fair to them, what we do say aloud may be hurtful both to ourselves and to another. For example, when I was attracted to a woman I’d say to myself, “She is gorgeous!” or “Wow! What a doll!,” and imagine just the two of us together—and the picture did not include us talking. I wanted to use a woman to get away from thought. I’d try to impress and entertain her, to get what I saw as the ultimate pleasure, which did not require talking or thinking: sex. What she said didn’t matter, unless, of course, it was to praise me. If she was critical of me I would defend myself, carefully explaining how she had “misinterpreted what I meant.” And if there was sex, afterwards I’d usually feel empty and dull, unable to look into her eyes.

I felt something was missing, but just how big, beautiful, and luscious that thing was and what in me interfered with my having it, I found out when I began to study Aesthetic Realism!

In one class, Mr. Siegel described why I was angry with a woman, Rose Lindelli. He explained, “You have a desire to capture”; and he asked, “Do you want her to fall into your arms and say, ‘I accept you unquestionably’?” I said, “I feel her desire to understand is not great enough.” But Mr. Siegel—and I love him for it—wanted me to see the mistake I was making. He said, “Ms. Lindelli would like to be cared for, and she is also independent and critical. Do you want to see that, or is it a subject of displeasure?”

I answered, “It is a subject of displeasure.” And I asked Mr. Siegel how I had hurt Ms. Lindelli. He explained: “At ascertain time you took for granted that you knew her well enough, and that even if you didn’t, you should be approved of. You weren’t deeply interested in her questions. Do you think you acted like a plantation owner on the plantation called Lindelli?” “Yes,” I said.

The Delight of Respect

What I was after with women was so utterly puny compared to what I feel now as I see that a woman has in her the whole universe. I love talking with Maureen Butler, having my thoughts known by her, and knowing hers.

I have the good fortune to be learning in Aesthetic Realism classes how to be a better person and husband. For example, shortly after we were married, I found myself irritated at having to think of what concerned Maureen. When we were alone, under the guise of giving “useful criticism,” I’d pompously lecture her. She was critical of this. And when I spoke about the matter in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked: “Has Maureen Butler gone from being a human being to being an appendage of you—not someone to know, but someone to bring you praise or disgrace? Do you think she stopped being a person when she became a wife?” As the discussion continued, Ms. Reiss explained, “You’re angry with Ms. Butler because she makes you think. Your marriage won’t fare well if you don’t want to think.” Hearing this criticism, I was able to change!

As we’ve talked, Maureen has encouraged me to see the insides of people with greater warmth and depth, and to see value and beauty in things—an aria sung by Maria Callas, the drama of light and dark in a cloud formation at dusk. I thank God we are learning how to have conversations we’re proud of, which make for respect, joy, and kindness to each other and other people—that we are able to ask as we speak about people, “Are we fair to them?”