The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Energy, Poetry, & Mistakes about Love

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the great lecture Poetry and Energy, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. And we print part of a paper by Lynette Abel from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this July titled “In Trying to Be Important, What Mistakes Do People Make?” As I said last week, in Poetry and Energy one can see some of the rich philosophic logic of Aesthetic Realism. Yet from this logic, in all its strictness, arises what Ms. Abel tells about: the understanding, so personal, so immediate, of an individual self—including the understanding of a woman’s purposes with men. So I’ll comment a little on the principles that this section of Poetry and Energy is about, and relate them to a big aspect of Ms. Abel’s paper: mistakes about love.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy that explains that every person is in relation, all the time, to the whole world. I love this idea. I have seen that it is not only true, and is not only the beginning for understanding the previously not understood confusions and turmoil and hopes of people—it gives an authentic largeness to the life of every human being.

Right now a baby is being born, not just to a particular mother and father but into all of reality. And Aesthetic Realism shows that the deepest desire of that baby is to like the reality into which she is born: to like the world. That is the desire which Mr. Siegel, in the present section of Poetry and Energy, calls “the Desire of Desires.” And honestly to like the world itself is our deepest purpose every moment: as we hold a coffee cup, or look intently into a mirror, or look across a restaurant table at a person. 

When Mr. Siegel says in Poetry and Energy that in each specific situation of ours there is also “the general,” he is speaking about the fact I have just described: “the general,” present all the time, is the world itself and our need to like the world. It is the world plus coffee cup we have to do with as we touch the cup to our lips. That is why, if the coffee is good, the world itself seems more pleasing to us. If we spill the coffee and say "Damn it!,” the "it” takes in the world as such. 

What Makes Love Fail

Aesthetic Realism explains that our huge mistake, the thing in us that interferes with our minds and lives—and also the source of all the injustice that has ever been—is the hope to have contempt for the world: to dislike it, rob it of meaning, get away from it, conquer it. I learned, as Ms. Abel did, what men and women for centuries have thirsted to know: the desire to have contempt for the world is what makes love fail! Here, swiftly, are two chief ways contempt for the world is right now amid the yearnings and the kisses of people on every continent. This contempt is the reason two persons will come to resent each other and feel ashamed: 

1) You use a “loved” person to make the rest of the world not matter. You use him to make a separate world in which you are the most important thing. And through this world just your own, you effectively thumb your nose at all other persons and situations. 2) You also use the chosen person to feel the world is at last conquered by you, succumbing to you, through him. You want him to approve of you utterly, see you as the only thing that really matters, because that way reality itself seems to be "nice” at last: it seems not something you need to understand, but something which will glorify you without your having to be fair to anything.

Though of course one doesn’t put it in such terms, what I have outlined is what people mainly call romance and long for. Meanwhile, in using a specific person to lessen that general thing, reality, we are really a horrible enemy to the person we say we love, because we are trying to take him away from his deepest desire: like of the world. We don’t want him deeply enthusiastic about, interested in, anything besides us. In contrast, Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of love is, through a particular person, to like the world in all its manyness and strangeness and width. This is the real romance, kind and sweeping!

The Answer Is in Poetry

Mr. Siegel implies in the paragraphs published here what he has stated resoundingly elsewhere: poetry, and art as such, do what we so much need to do—care for the world itself through a specific object or person. The reason is in the following principle: “In reality opposites are one; art shows this.” Let us take one short, famous line, by Edmund Waller: “Go, lovely rose!”  

Waller is speaking of, and to, a specific rose. Yet we feel in the line, hear in its music, what the world itself is: the oneness of opposites. Waller gives a command—and is so tender: the line is force and gentleness at once. Then, how tight the line is, in its three words; yet how it has nuance, wonder, expansiveness. And it is excited and also richly reposeful.

Aesthetic Realism is great in showing that a line of poetry is a guide to the just seeing of a person, including in love. Let us take a man, Craig, who a woman, Kerry, hopes will call her. He is a particular embodiment of the very opposites of reality that are in the Waller line. 1) He too is forceful and tender—and he longs to feel these two aspects of himself can go together. 2) He is concentrated and expansive: he wants to be firmly himself yet also be affected by ever so much else. 3) He wants to be excited, stirred, even agog, and also to have authentic composure, or calm. These opposites, and others, are Craig’s very life. The world not only accompanies a person, but is in him. So if Kerry, who yearns to forget the world through Craig’s embrace, thinks she is interested in Craig, she is completely wrong. Someone she calls "Craig” may occupy her thoughts intensely, but it is not he: she is not interested in who he is. 

Because of Eli Siegel’s courage and honesty, Aesthetic Realism enables people to be true to their deepest desire—including, grandly, in love!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Desire Is Energy

By Eli Siegel

We can see something about energy through a poem of the 17th century, by Thomas Traherne: “Desire.” It is a mystical poem, even a religious poem, and begins:

For giving me desire,

An eager thirst, a burning ardent fire,

A virgin infant flame,

A Love with which into the world I came,

An inward hidden heavenly love,

Which in my soul did work and move ...

Desire is a word that apparently has something to do with energy. If we desire something, we have more energy towards doing something. If we desire to put on our shoes, it helps us to put on our shoes. If we desire to go to a grocery store, it helps us to go to a grocery store. If we desire to kiss anybody, it does help us to kiss. The nature of desire, its depth, is the problem of psychology as energy.

In this poem the implication is that when a person is born he has a desire which he doesn’t know about, and this desire is the Desire of Desires, to which all other desires are subsidiary. It is the chief instinct. The chief instinct, people would say, is happiness, the desire to feel good. Whatever one may call it, there is something which seems to be the source of all other things; and what is our deepest desire would be our unconscious insofar as we didn’t know it.

One cannot say that in looking at a specific thing our biggest desire has been put aside: it must be there. So we have a presence of a general, unknown thing and a specific situation. This is the situation of poetry. In poetry, as in all art, we are all the time up against something specific—and through that, a desire to be pleasant with reality or to have reality pleasant to us is likewise present.

If, for example, Renoir were painting some ladies in a Paris suburb, he could say, “I am painting the world through these ladies.” And if a person were going after a certain kind of drink, he could say, “I am desiring to enjoy the universe through this drink.” The general is always present; and the general in the very deepest sense is the unconscious. Where this has to do with poetry is that when poetry succeeds, this general feeling can be seen. Every poem is a little world that pays happy honor to the great world. Every poem, also, adds something to that great world, because the great world wants to be a little world. And how this occurs is through the same energy that we see in the world itself.

Mistakes about Importance

By Lynette Abel

As I attended Florida State University, my attitude was that the more men who seemed captivated by me, the more important I’d feel. By my senior year, at age 22, I had gotten a lot of attention from men—yet I did not like myself. These had been the most painful years of my life.

A few months later I began to study Aesthetic Realism; and to my tremendous relief, I learned that my deepest desire is to like the world. In my second consultation I was asked whether I thought I would be happy by having men interested in me—or by seeing people and the world “in a way that is honest, beautiful, and just.” And I began to understand the big mistake I had made with men: I had used them to have contempt—to get, as Mr. Siegel defined it, “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [my]self.”

Early Mistakes about Importance

“We will either,” Ellen Reiss wrote in TRO 1211, 

go after importance through contempt—through trying to own, manipulate, and be superior to what is not ourselves—or we will feel we are important because we are related to everything that exists, ...and because our very self is magnificently demanding we be fair to that world.

Growing up, I went after those two opposed kinds of importance. For example, I loved singing in my high school chorus. I felt so good—so proud—working with others, trying to be fair to the notes, the words, the intention of the composer. But I also liked thinking I was better than other people, that my family was superior, more cultivated: we had a grand piano and a Hammond organ, and my parents were both singers—which I thought made me, through association, more cultured than others.

I thought I would be impressive based on whom I was related to and what I owned. I had very little feeling for people who were not economically well off. In fact, I remember, to my tremendous shame, feeling I was affronted each time my family had to drive through impoverished areas where fellow humans lived in shacks without doors.

I was coming to feel it was smart not to be too excited by anything, and I thought I was more refined and important than people who showed enthusiasm. Though I was a cheerleader in high school, I was afraid of people. I did not see that my fear was the result of my scorn for them; I just told myself I was terribly shy. Meanwhile, I wanted to make a big impression on boys and men, whom I saw essentially as material to make me important.

Years later in a class Mr. Siegel was to ask me, “Do you feel men deserve your honesty?” No, I hadn’t. “When you are with a man,” he continued, “is your be crafty, or to get to your feelings more, to show what you feel?” “To be crafty,” I said.

In college, while I wrote letters every day to my boyfriend John, who was stationed overseas, I also began dating Tom. I stayed part of the time with him off-campus and part of the time at my dorm. I saw myself as a woman of the world; and I thought my roommates saw it as a privilege to do me favors as I would fly into the dorm to change my clothes or borrow something. In his lecture Mind and Importance, Mr. Siegel describes what I was after: “To be selfish in the bad sense means are going to get your importance even if other people are made unimportant” (TRO 661).

Seeing people in this contemptuous way has a big kickback. As months went on, I felt like a fraud and was nervous all the time. I saw each day as an effort just to get through.

Good Will: The Real Importance

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson I had some years later, Mr. Siegel explained: “The chief reason we don’t like ourselves is that we don’t want to like people for a true reason .... I think that you have two purposes with people: one is to wash your hands of them, be able to get rid of them as soon as possible; and the other is to care for them more as time goes on.”

In another class, Mr. Siegel described the one purpose that can have us like ourselves in relation to a person. It is good will: “the wanting, through your effort, to have the person you’re talking to a better and stronger person.” And he said to me: “You have no notion how tremendous your desire to be just is. Sex is pale next to that desire. The desire to be just is deep, but it’s made boring in terms of ordinary life. When a person is born, the question is, ‘How can I be fair to the persons around me?’”

Through my Aesthetic Realism education I learned to criticize the purposes I had with men that made me dislike myself, and I learned what true importance is. When Michael Palmer, the man I love and am married to, asked me out for the first time, I had a new purpose: I wanted him “through [my] effort” to be “a better and stronger person,” and I felt proud. As Michael and I talked, I was deeply affected by his wanting to be honest, his keen, lively mind, and his desire to understand me. I felt important learning from him as he spoke about music he cared for, books, baseball, and of his great respect for Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism—and I fell in love with him!

I am grateful to Mr. Siegel with all my heart for his passionate love of justice, and for bringing out the desire for justice in me. Today, because of what I have learned and continue to, it matters to me in a big way that people—all people—get what they deserve in this world.