The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

History Is Ethics and Aesthetics

Dear Unknown Friends:

We begin to serialize Poetry and History, a 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel. I love this lecture. I think the way of seeing history that it presents is tremendously beautiful—and true. It is a way of seeing the world, human beings, and the past which is central to Aesthetic Realism.

Mr. Siegel wrote and lectured much on history. His scholarship in the field was immense. And—whether he was speaking about Wat Tyler or John Adams, the French Revolution or the Spanish Civil War—the events and the feelings of the time became real to those who heard him, as close to you as the very clothes you were wearing. As Mr. Siegel spoke on history, you had a sense always (it’s in the lecture we’re serializing) of largeness—you felt the bigness of reality—yet you also felt this largeness was warm. Further, Mr. Siegel’s comprehension of events in history was so great, so clear as to be, in my opinion, unprecedented: he enabled you to see the meaning of the happening discussed—including its meaning for now, and for you.

Aesthetic Realism is based on this principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the lecture we are serializing, Mr. Siegel shows how history is a oneness of opposites. And as I have indicated, when he himself spoke about it, the opposites of knowledge and feeling were always one. He saw facts with love and sheer scrupulosity; he had great feeling about them, and enabled them to cause big, accurate feeling in others. And he saw the feelings had by people of the past as facts.

“Look on the Past Passionately"

Aesthetic Realism is based on the idea that in order to be ourselves, not go through our lives falsifying ourselves, we need to see the multitudinous outside world as something eagerly to respect and know. That world, as Mr. Siegel says here, includes the past. One of his earliest published writings is about history: “The Middle Ages, Say" appeared in the Modern Quarterly, December 1923, when he was 21 years old. Toward the end are these sentences:

We need to look upon the people living then, as men—there were “individuals” and “personalities” and “egos” in the Middle Ages too—like our friends, our enemies and the people we meet on the street we don’t care about much....We should look on the past passionately; we should see all reality passionately, not only the part we have right under our noses or nearly that. Our feelings should have no limits in either extensity or intensity....Then we shall see the Middle Ages, that man-made division of reality in time, as having along with monks, kings, wars, Charlemagne, Battles of Hastings, Catholicism, ignorance, guilds, Thomas Aquinas, serfs, feudal systems, Marsiglio, Battles of Tours, and all, all the rest of such things—to be found in some text book or other every one; complexes, moonlights, moments for every century, creative instincts, repressions, amœbae, dirty stories, pains and pleasures, individual aspirations, desires, frustrations, adrenal glands and the others, ravishments, deaths for every person with the death pangs for each person, named and unnamed, love with all the details of love, and lastly, possibilities.

In this excited yet very careful prose there is the beautiful respect for people and reality which Mr. Siegel always had. Part of that respect was the seeing that history is not only about someone like Charlemagne, but is about, for instance, a little girl living in a French village in the year 799 and what she felt about her mother, her supper, her doll. And he made clear: we need to see both such a girl and Charlemagne—and also people living now—as being as real as we are. But every person, Aesthetic Realism also explains, makes the awful mistake hour after hour of giving other people less reality than we give ourselves. That lessening of the reality of others is part of contempt, and is the beginning of all the unkindness and brutality that has ever been.

In Poetry and History, Mr. Siegel mentions his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana”; it contains, he says, the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing history. To give some idea how that is so, I quote several early lines of this majestically kind, enormously musical 99-line poem, which won the Nation poetry prize in 1925:

...Here, once, Indians shouted in battle,

  And moaned after it.

  Here were cries, yells, night, and the moon over these men,

  And the men making the cries and yells; it was

  Hundreds of years ago, when monks were in Europe,

  Monks in cool, black monasteries, thinking of God, studying Virgil.

  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

  Indians, Indians went through Montana,

  Thinking, feeling, trying pleasurably to live.

  This land, shone on by the sun now, green, quiet now,

  Was under their feet, this time; we live now and it is hundreds of years after...

Eli Siegel saw all reality as related — not in some vague, general way, but with terrific specificity. Medieval monks, and Indians warring in Montana fields, are usually not thought of as together, as of the same reality, deeply commenting on each other. Mr. Siegel says they are; they do: the scholarship of a monk and the shout of an Indian in battle are the same world, the same humanity. The poetry with which he says this is beautiful. For example, that short line “And moaned after it,” through its musical ache and strength and tenderness, goes within the feeling of the battling men.

Eli Siegel sees the Indians not just in their activity but in their humanity: they are “Thinking, feeling, trying pleasurably to live.” Musically, that line is firm; yet it also feels, with its l sounds, like a caress of comprehension. And there are wonder and drama in our relation to these Indians: “we live now and it is hundreds of years after.”

History Is Respect and Contempt

In my opinion, the necessary means for understanding the ethics of any historical happening and also for understanding ourselves, is what Mr. Siegel describes in the following statement: “The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality.” That, he says, is the “large fight” in “every mind of once, every mind of now" (TRO 151). The question for every moment of our personal lives is: Am I trying to respect what is not myself, see it justly—or am I after contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else”? And that is the question as to every historical happening: how are respect and contempt in it; which is the preponderant thing? 

For example, Mr. Siegel was passionate about the fact that the French Revolution was in behalf of respect for people. The Reign of Terror, of course, could not be praised; the use of the guillotine was sickening, awful. But that did not change the fact that the French Revolution as such had France owned more justly, by more of the people; it had human beings be seen with more dignity, and be more able to get that which they needed for their bodies and their minds. 

He was also passionate about the fact that the US’s role in the Vietnam War was sheer contempt. We bombed and napalmed earth, hospitals, children; we sent our citizens to kill human beings there and be killed; and the purpose was solely to stop the Vietnamese from having their land owned the way they wanted it to be — by all the people. All the burning and maiming and dying were solely to have an Asian land be owned the way real estate in Texas or a business in New York is owned: on the basis of profit for a few persons. No matter how many years go by, America will be hurtful to ourselves and others until we see, state, and regret clearly the deadly contempt we had.

Here, now, is Eli Siegel, presenting a way of seeing the world which is not only beautiful but true, not only true but necessary for civilization to be sane and kind.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Poetry and History

By Eli Siegel

As Aesthetic Realism sees it, history is poetry with the facts—which are seen by Aesthetic Realism as adorning and completing the wonder of things, rather than opposing it. When we think of history as a means by which the past is more and more seen as if it were present, it seems to be a relation of remoteness and immediacy, and a relation of the unknown to the known. A person must make some kind of beautiful relation between his present and the past; and history is a means of keeping, in a deep fashion, the past alive.

The first thing that poetry wants to do is to be just to what’s real. Not to be just to what’s real is a crime against yourself, and profound foolishness in the bargain. It also makes you feel bad. There is a deep desire which says, “Be fair to all that!” What is all that? All that is the world; and the world includes the past. There is an abstruse and subtle kind of selfishness which makes one want to say that the past is not of one’s concern. To a degree that is true about everyone, because it seems that we have our hands full or our minds sufficiently occupied in dealing with what seems to be the present. Yet there is a desire to see the past.

It is true that the past can be used in a bad way. It can be used to interfere with and disfigure the present. But the past can be used to explain the present. It can be used as if it were the present. It is a way of giving completeness to reality, because reality does consist of what has been, what is going on, and what will be; and when these three things are seen as one, we are being beautifully sensible.

So if we are to be just in the largest sense, we must feel that we are fair to the past. Every person in the past asks this of us. The sight of epitaphs in graveyards, the sight of records, the propensity in everyone to be remembered, is an acknowledgment of the fact that everything wants to belong to everything. And, quite sentimentally, Aesthetic Realism sees the people who died three thousand years ago as wanting to be around. They prepared what is now, and they should be acknowledged. Our best way of acknowledging them is to know about them. So if the past is seen as indispensable, and also as beautiful, and furthermore, as definitely existing—well, we are on the way to being just to it.

The writing through which I am still best known, “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” is essentially the making history poetic. It is a way of saying that reality through what it has been, adorns what is.

The Feeling That Has Been

One way that history is poetry—and of course aesthetics—is this: when we think of history there is a disposition to think of trends, institutions, periods, organizations, dynasties; then, there is a disposition also to think of people. Everybody is in history. Not many persons get into textbooks or printed records, but everybody is there. And, as much as possible, we should feel the feeling that has been in the past. The purpose of history, in the long run, is to feel the feeling that has been. When we say we want to understand the past, it means we want to see the past from the inside. There is a kinship between understanding the past and understanding a person.

The Duality in History

When we see that the past consists of such things as the Eighteenth Dynasty, the feudal system, monasticism, 18th-century laissez-faire, 19th-century dynastic turmoil; and then, when we think that along with all these general ideas or general situations, everybody was one person and there were individuals everywhere—we see that duality that is in history. A man like Carlyle would say that “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” Then there are persons like Marx and Buckle who, though politically speaking they were different, say pretty much similar things: that is, that the individual is not the big cause of history—there are general ideas. Whereas Buckle would accent geography, climate, ways of economics in general, and Marx would accent the means and the control of production, there is a similarity.

Some people have gone at history as if it consisted of movements. Others have wanted to deal with individuals. Some have seen history as a series of periods, of conditions. Others have looked upon it as narrative. History itself is a compound of specific individuals. Whether those individuals were in the Eighteenth Dynasty, or in the period of monasticism, or in the period of monarchic turmoil of the 17th century, or in the 18th, or in the 19th, they were single people. Nobody yet has really outgrown the restriction and also the glory of being a self: that is, of being one self—no more and (it may be said with some reservations) no less.

History is Relations

So history has been a necessary seeing of individual and of institution. It has been a necessary seeing of that which was a situation, and that which went on—a happening or narrative. Furthermore, it has been in its deepest sense—something making it nearer to poetry—a collection of musical relations in time. By this I mean that when a person writes history, what he tries to do is to give the truth of a situation and yet place it in such a way that there is a likeness to the way notes are placed in music, objects or forms in a painting. There is no falsifying—there is a presentation of the whole reality.

Suppose a person said of Lincoln: “In this talk he had some of the religious fervor of Oliver Cromwell.” Let us suppose this was true. Cromwell would be likened to Lincoln, and there would be a mingling of the two civil wars. Let us say that there was a relation found between something happening in 1843 and something happening in 1883; further, that there was a place put together with a person. Then, while all this was true, there would be a disposition of elements that would make for a heightening of reality.

Continue reading the lecture.