The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How Should We Use Ourselves?

Dear Unknown Friends:

The great 1948 lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing, Poetry and Technique, and the article by Aesthetic Realism associate Kevin Fennell printed here and presented at a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar—“Mistakes about Ambition”—bring up a question intensely insistent in America now. That question is: How do we want to use ourselves and the world?—what is the self for?

Eli Siegel is the critic, philosopher, historian who explained that the fierce fight within every person is, should we use ourselves to like the world, to see meaning in it; or should we use ourselves to have contempt—a “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self.” This intimate fight within each individual is also behind the events of history: contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, is the source of every unkindness, including racism and the feeling of the people of one nation that others are less real than oneself and one has the right not only to look down on them but bomb them.

Mr. Siegel also showed the following—his doing so is great in the history of criticism, and I love him unboundedly for it: the distinction between using oneself with fullness to like the world, and using oneself with some or much contempt, makes the difference between real poetry and an arrangement of words that is not poetry. That is, many instances of what literary journals put forth as “poems” are really a person’s using words, things, feelings as material with which to make himself or herself impressive. But a real poem comes from a person’s seeing a subject and his or her own feeling with such passionate honesty and accuracy and width that, Mr. Siegel writes, “the words then take on a music, which is the poetic music.” That music—arising from a great like of the world—is a oneness of reality’s opposites: activity and calm, rightness and surprise, power and grace. “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Eli Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

There is nothing I consider more beautiful or crucial than Mr. Siegel’s explaining that the question a writer has in using words is the same as the central question for our nation’s economy. The question is: Do things, the world, other human beings exist as material to make somebody important-or do they deserve to be seen justly?

For centuries, Mr. Siegel explained, economics, like false poetry, has been based on contempt: it has been based on some few persons using the needs and labor of many others to make profit. And he showed that at this time in history, profit economics, economics based on the seeing of people in terms of how much money can be made from them, has failed—forever!

It is because of this failure of contempt as the basis for an economy that businesses are ferociously “downsizing.” They are trying to save their ability to squeeze profits out of human beings by throwing people out of work and forcing those who remain to do more work at longer hours for less pay. The announcement early this month that AT&T, concerned about future profitability, will fire 40,000 men and women—13% of its work force—is a tremendous sign that something has failed. For AT&T seemed once to stand for the U.S. economy at its most solid, steady, unshakeable. “AT&T,” Mr. Siegel said in a 1975 lecture, “is seen as the store window for all of America.”

Meanwhile, amid all the anguish about jobs, amid the terrible worry about how one will pay for clothes for one’s children—I think as deep a matter as ever occurred in the minds of the American people is now taking place. Americans are questioning what their lives should be used for. The profit system encouraged people to use themselves to beat out other people, to get that more impressive position, larger salary, all those possessions. Now people are feeling more and more that this acquisitive way of dealing with the world and people is not only no longer so possible, but is ugly. Every week Americans have a sharper, angrier sense that the way they are made to work—or not work—the amount of money they get, their need to worry about health care payments, is all hideously unfair to them.

And so people are more ready to see that there could be another better ambition for them and America than the feeling, “My power consists of acquiring what I can and being superior to somebody, and if possible making him serve me.” In 1996—with an election coming up in which Americans will feel their hopes are not represented by any candidate—I think people are more ready than they ever were to ask truly: “What should the basis, the purpose of our economy be? What should the purpose of my life be?”

It is from Aesthetic Realism that they will learn the purpose of both, and how to have it. That purpose, Mr. Siegel explained, is ethics—kind, practical, magnificent: “the giv[ing] oneself what is corning to one by giving what is corning to other things.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Technique: True and False

By Eli Siegel

Another poem that has an honest technique is by Sir Walter Raleigh. One can take it to have been written in the first or second decade of the 17th century:

Our youth, our joys, and all we have!

And pays us nought but age and dust;

Which, in the dark and silent grave,

When we have wander’d all our ways,

Shuts up the story of our days.

And from which grave, and earth, and dust,

The Lord shall raise me up, I trust.

The reason this is good is that it has in it the quality of spaciousness, and then that spaciousness changes to something contracted. There is the grave and its narrowness; and then the grave seems to get into motion-not complete motion, but enough motion to please. And there is subtlety. The line used in the poem is an iambic line, and is very simple.

Robert Lowell and False Technique

I have read enough poems of Robert Lowell to see that he sees a topsy-turvy world, a world of sudden dark and strange, unexpected light; that he feels afraid and shivering even. In a poem of his, quite well known, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” we have some expression that can be commended, because there is respectable feeling; but the language is false; it works hard. There are these lines:

The boughs are trembling and a gaff

Bobs on the untimely stroke

Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell

In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It’s well;

Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,

Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:

Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh

Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers,

Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil.

Lowell in this poem is trying to use the startling word and trying to pack meaning. But he is burdensome. The reason he appeals is that most people have burdens; and when they see their burdens dealt with in such an imposing strain, somehow they feel that they are next to big stuff.

I think a line like “Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors” comes from Mr. Lowell’s desire to think less of other people, and his desire to make this world ugly and be subtle about it. And a line like “Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers"—there is no music there.

The Real Thing

I am willing to stake my reputation as a critic that the stanza from the South I am so fond of—

Such a gittin’ upstairs,

I never did see.

Such a gittin’ upstairs—

It don’t suit me

—has more poetry than Mr. Lowell has shown so far. That stanza has technique: it has up and down; it has forwardness and accuracy. It’s the real thing. I’'m not trying to be paradoxical, because, as I said earlier, I do care for the poems of Wallace Stevens, I do care for Edith Sitwell, I do care for the early work of Robert Graves, I do care for the difficult poems of Lautréamont and Rimbaud. But this stuff is to me dull, and badly motivated.

Mistakes about Ambition

By Kevin Fennell

Aesthetic Realism is beautiful in showing there are two kinds of ambition: one that makes a person proud, strong, and another that weakens our lives. In his great lecture Mind and Ambition, Eli Siegel said: “A good definition of ambition would be, ‘the desire to get as much power and as much approval as possible’ and if the power and the approval were well based, people would have ambition in the fullest sense of the word” (TRO 467).

For the power and approval we go after to be well based, I learned, they have to be based on what Aesthetic Realism shows is our deepest desire: to like the world. I will be grateful all the days of my life to Aesthetic Realism for criticizing my secret, contemptuous ambition to look down on other people; and for showing me there was a grander, far more satisfying ambition I was thirsting to have and teaching me how to have it. This study has made possible my very happy life, including my marriage to Carol McCluer.

I Had True and False Ambition

Growing up in Yonkers, the youngest of four children, I had two very different ambitions. I felt good trying to learn the multiplication tables, or taking a photo of the Hudson Valley with trees blazing in autumn colors. But I also went after getting people’s approval without deserving it and without respecting them.

I found it easy getting praise for being well behaved and seeming innocent. And while I had a true care for singing and would perform at family gatherings, I used singing to feel superior. Years later in an Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked: “When you were first 'on stage' with people applauding you, did it have you care more for the people who were there, or did they become shadows who existed to applaud you?” I did see people as shadows. I looked at the adults who gave me such adulation and felt, “I’ve got a special quality that sets me above them.” I didn’t know that this contempt was why I felt so unsure and ashamed.

Meanwhile, I was angry that the general population did not come across with the same ready approval my family gave me. “Right now,” Mr. Siegel explains,

there are millions of children who, if they are applauded by their playmates, will play; but if they are not applauded, the first thing they want to do is to be sulky....If they are not approved of they will get ambitious in themselves, because one kind of ambition is to say, “What do I need their approval for? They don’t even exist.” And that has to do with why people are shy and are not interested. [TRO 469]

That describes how I was. Rather than look for other children to play with, I would often sit on our front steps and feel hurt that no one came to invite me along. By junior high school I spent most days going from class to class, talking to no one and blaming my loneliness on others. But in my mind I had a raging ambition to show everyone up. I would suddenly break my silence, for example, in a math class when I knew I had gotten the answer before anyone else. I hated to see someone do as well or better than I did. And I would daydream about myself as a great rock star and people I went to school with coming backstage and saying, “Kevin, I had no idea how talented and how cool you really were!”

But with every year the heavy fog of boredom that surrounded me grew thicker. I was very attracted to the numbing effect of marijuana. And I worried about how separate and depressed I felt. But I made no connection between those feelings and my secret ambition to show I was superior to everyone.

The Real Ambition

In Aesthetic Realism consultations I was asked, “Have you wanted other people to fare well?” I answered no. And my consultants explained, “Eli Siegel stated this principle: ‘Every person in order to respect himself has to see the world as beautiful or good or acceptable.’ So in keeping with that, do you think that whenever you see good in a person, you are fulfilling your greatest purpose?”

Questions like these opened my eyes to a whole new view. I had never considered that another person’s strength could be good for me. I began to look at people—on the subway, at my job, on the street—so differently: with a desire really to know what they felt and for them to be stronger.

When Aesthetic Realism is known and studied—when people understand the contempt that is behind the desire for drugs and learn that the world can honestly be liked as it is—drugs will lose their allure. This is what happened to me—my desire for drugs simply stopped.

I love what Ellen Reiss said to me in a class: “The question is, What makes a person shine, and what makes a person glorious? You have a chance to shine every day by looking at the world and saying, I want to be fair to it! —not to get applause; although when you want to be fair to the world, it happens that you may get applause.” It is a source of tremendous pride to me that the great ambition of my life is to be fair to Aesthetic Realism and have all people know it truly.