The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How We See Relation

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to begin serializing the 1972 lecture Hail, Relation; or, A Study in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. And we print here too part of a paper by Jaime Torres, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month: “What Do Men Need Most to Know about Self-Confidence—& Conceit?”

I remember hearing Mr. Siegel say that there is no word more important than relation. Aesthetic Realism itself arose from his passionate and scholarly search for the relation among things—all the things of the world. In a 1944 article on him in the Baltimore Sun, Donald Kirkley writes that years earlier, even before the time Eli Siegel won the 1925 Nation poetry prize,

he wanted to investigate the whole reach of human knowledge, past and present....He thought “all knowledge was connected—that geology was connected with music, and poetry with chemistry, and history with sports.”... He wished to find something, or some principle, unifying all the various manifestations of reality.

And as Kirkley writes, Eli Siegel found that all-inclusive, vital, inescapable, beautiful relation. It is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

As a prelude to the lecture, I’ll mention swiftly some of the ways that how we see relation is crucial in choices we make, including unconscious choices.

Why Love Fails

The chief reason for the suffering in love, the failure in love, is that a person resents the “loved one’s” relation to the outside world. The man or woman we care for has to do with everything: for instance, he has in him his whole past, with all its details; a book he cares for; the people he works with; a relative; a friend; things he’s confused about; events in the news. He is a particular composition of the opposites which are in all things and people. For instance: he is surface and depth—and so are a leaf; American history; a crying child in India. Further, sameness and change are going on in each of them—and him. And leaf, US history, crying child are, each, unity and manyness, order and stir—as he is.

“The very self of a thing,” Mr. Siegel writes, “is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things.” Yet people have seen love as separating another from the outside world and having him just to oneself. In wanting to annul someone’s relation to everything but us, we’re really murdering who that person is. Two people can do that with one another—including amid kisses and coziness—but their doing so is why they come to resent each other, battle, and feel empty and ashamed.

Real love is a kind, wise, thrilling celebration of two people’s relation to everything. We feel all things have more meaning for us, because this person who stands for them is dear to us.

Contempt Hates Relation

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which identifies and explains the most hurtful way of mind in every person. It is contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” To have contempt for any person or thing—to look down on, sneer at, dismiss it you have to rob it of its relations. That’s because as soon as you say, “This thing, this person, has to do with millions of things and persons—with everything—with me,” you feel wonder and respect: you may not like the thing or person, but you see it/him/her as having meaning.

Then there is the matter of contempt for the world itself. That has to do with relation too. If you do not see a relation you can respect among things, you feel reality is essentially a mess; and therefore you are superior, and can treat reality, truth, people, things, any way you please. This is why Aesthetic Realism is so needed, and so kind.

Cruelty, which arises from contempt, is always against relation. For example, that cruelty  which is  racism would not be without the feeling, “You are not related to me!” And that cruelty which is profit-based economics denies a fundamental relation of every person to the world. Mr. Siegel put it this way: “The world should be owned by the people living in it.” The profit system says a few people should own most of the world into which everyone was born, while others can have very little.

Education & Self-Confidence

Aesthetic Realism explains that education is relation. Mr. Siegel writes, “Education, principally, is the pleasant finding out of how things can help us know who we are as we see them.” This is why the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is so successful in the public schools. Through it children, no matter what their background, see that every item in the curriculum is related to themselves. For instance, they like learning about geography as they see that the various high-and-low of earth itself says something about their own risings and fallings, ups and downs.

There is the subject Dr. Torres writes of: self-confidence. It depends on relation. You are sure in the world, at ease in the world, when you feel that everything you meet will tell you something valuable about yourself. This is the feeling and knowledge Aesthetic Realism makes possible.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Hail, Relation

By Eli Siegel

Today’s topic has in it perhaps the most difficult subject about poetry, also about the world and oneself. It is a looking at relation. That looking will go on, has to go on. I’ve been looking at it now for quite a few decades.

To show how important the word relation is, it is well to say that the world consists of two things: one, things; and the other, how they’re related—and nothing more. Once you have things and how they’re related, you have everything. That is the way reality is constructed: of things and relation. And relation is also the most subtle thing in a poem. That is something to see. For instance, George Saintsbury takes the word uncertain in the line of Shakespeare “The uncertain glory of an April day” and hints that other words might have been used—doubtful, questionable, dim, ambiguous, perhaps incomplete. But he says uncertain is the right word to go with glory in that line. When you change a word, you change a relation.

In numbers that is so too. The relation between 5 and 6, in 5/6, is tenser than between 3 and 6, or 2 and 6. Then, if you say 7/6, your cup is full to overflowing. It’s another kind of relation. In grammar, the verb is a kind of relation, and the adjective is, and the preposition, adverb, conjunction—because the only two parts of speech that are not relations are noun and pronoun: they are things. All the other parts of speech show relation.

So it can be said that relation is everything except things, and it is a thing itself. Meantime, it is the decisive thing in what makes good art different from bad. In good art the things in it are related differently from the way they are in bad art.

Relation Can Be Asserted

In order to see what relation is, many examples are needed. Occasionally relation is obvious, asserted, blatant, unmistakable. And in various poems, that is so. A relation is asserted in Sonnet 18 of Shakespeare. The first thing to see is that Shakespeare felt a relation between the person he was writing about, his friend, and a summer’s day: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Then, there is the poem itself, which consists, as every poem does, of a number of relations among a variety of things. And it happens that every self is an instantaneous coalition of relations, like bones and flesh and size. How relation, after being so inevitable in reality, becomes a subtle aesthetic term, or critical term: that is a question that I am speaking of. —The poem:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate:

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimm’d;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course, untrimm’d;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade,

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st;

So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

When some years ago I talked closely of Shakespeare’s sonnets, I said they are not about a person in the ordinary sense. And one of the reasons has to do with the import of this particular sonnet, where Shakespeare says the friend is different from the thing mentioned, because he is eternal, he doesn’t change. I don’t think that Shakespeare saw any individual in England who just didn’t change. It couldn’t have been Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton. It couldn’t have been Willie Hughes. I have a notion that Willie Hughes was quite changeable.

There Are Meaning & Sounds

“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? / Thou art more lovely and more temperate”: where there is relation, comparison can follow. “Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, / And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” Shakespeare says there’s uncertainty in May, and summer itself is too short. However, with all this there’s a certain relation among the sounds. And relation of sounds is a big thing in poetry, as it is in music: a quarter note of a certain kind related to an eighth note that is of a certain kind, higher or lower, related to another note, with a chord somehow getting in. Chords, notes, bars—in whatever we talk about in music, there are relations. That is what we hear. And if the relation pleases us we may say, “That’s pretty”; or if we are in a religious mood, “It’s divine.”

The words in this poem have a relation among each other—a relation of meaning, and a relation of sound. “And summer’s lease hath all too short a date”: this way of saying it has remained. The poignancy of summer’s ending is in the sound of those words. And poignancy comes from relation. If you miss a train or a plane by a minute and a person you’ve wanted to see for years has just left, the poignancy is in the relation of the missing, the person, and yourself.

We have the strongest line: “But thy eternal summer shall not fade.” That is said in a certain way. And impersonality is given to the person. We have strong vowels and weak vowels. Thy is strong and fade is strong. Eternal is weak in vowel sounds, but very strong in consonant sounds. Summer is weak in vowel sounds, very strong in consonant sounds. Shall is strong in vowel and also in consonant sounds. These things, these modes, values, are related in poetry, and in this line. The relation is felt instantaneously: in the same way as we are all our bones in a second, many things can be seen as one in terms of relations.

“Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st.” There’s congestion in that line. It means whatever you have that is fair, you’ll never lose. “Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade”: that presents death in a certain way, as bragging. And the vowels get in each other’s way and seem to fight each other, but they should fight each other for this purpose.

There are sub-relations, various kinds of relation, but the poem, as I said, is obviously about relation: “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”

Self-Confidence vs. Conceit

By Jaime R. Torres

Men all over the world are trying to feel confident. What we most need to know on the subject is what Aesthetic Realism makes clear: there are two ways we can go after confidence, which are as different as real money is from counterfeit. One is based on respect for the world and people, and one is based on contempt. “True confidence,” Eli Siegel explained, “is to be able to say, ‘I like the way I see the world.’”

As a boy growing up in Puerto Rico, the times I felt truly confident were in school. I loved science and felt it had a logic I could count on.

In sixth grade, after learning about the properties of chemical elements and the movement of the tectonic plates, my classmates and I were assigned to build a model of an active volcano. After each failure, we re-examined the facts and gained more confidence as we became more exact. At last, with the right proportion of baking soda and vinegar, a red, foamy mixture rose over the top of our “volcano” and flowed down its slopes! We were thrilled. What we experienced is evidence for what I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism: the desire to know makes for self-confidence and pride.

But often my “confidence” had a false basis: that I knew best—period. I used the praise I received from parents, grandparents, aunts, and neighbors to bolster my conceit. I relished being told that I was more polite than Alberto, better behaved than Peter, and smarter than Andres. Father Elias even chose me to be altar boy for the best attended mass on Sundays. I took all this as proof that I was superior, and I wanted others to know it.

“Conceit,” said Mr. Siegel, “can make one satisfied where one shouldn’t be, but also can make one dissatisfied where one shouldn’t be....Persons would rather be dissatisfied with the world than...with what they take to be themselves.” Being so easily satisfied with myself and dissatisfied with the world was the reason I blamed a teacher in college for a bad grade on a paper to which I had not given much effort. And it was why I inwardly cursed a traffic agent for giving me a ticket, though the meter had expired; I justified myself with sheer contempt: “I was seeing a patient, doing something important—not like what you’re doing!”

Meanwhile, I felt increasingly unsure, and often spent weekends alone in my bedroom feeling depressed. In one of my first Aesthetic Realism consultations, I was asked, “Has your conceit made you lonely?” Yes, it had. I began to learn that when we contemptuously elevate ourselves, we will inevitably punish ourselves for that contempt: we’ll feel weighed down, low, apart from things, unsure. Writes Ellen Reiss:

There is nothing more burdensome than the false weight of conceit: the concentration on ourselves, the being laden with ourselves, and not wanting to see that we are related to everything. [TRO 1694]

Love, Self-Confidence, & Conceit

Like many men, I wanted to have large feelings for a woman but also felt, “I am a big catch—my family told me so. A woman would be lucky to be with me.” In an early consultation I began to learn, to my relief and joy, why my attempts at amor had failed. After I described my first date with Ms. López, and my instant feeling that she was the one for me, my consultants asked: “Do you want to know who Ms. López is—the many aspects of her life?”

JT. Not wholly, but I think I’ll be hearing wedding bells soon!

Consultants. As long as you don’t want to know and strengthen a person, do you think whatever bells you’re hearing are being rung in behalf of your own self-love?

I am very happy to be learning that for a man to succeed in love, his purpose with a woman cannot be to glorify himself but to know and like the reality she richly represents.

Soon after I began seeing Donita Ellison, I found myself having feelings that were big and new. I liked the way she spoke about the land and history of her native Missouri, and admired her knowledge of art history and her passion about education and the young people she taught as a New York City high school teacher using the Aesthetic Realism teaching method. Her perceptions and excitement about everyday happenings encouraged my interest in the world. The way she was lively and thoughtful, graceful and strong, affected me tremendously, and I was swept by a woman as never before. When I asked her to marry me, she said yes.

I saw myself as a modern man—we shared household chores, and I even liked doing dishes. Yet some aspects of a conceited way of seeing persisted. Donita was critical of me for taking her for granted, and I felt, “We’re married; things are settled; no questions please. You should be happy with this enlightened husband!” Yet I also felt unsure and agitated. When I described this situation in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss enabled me to see the mistake I was making. She spoke about a noted character in Spanish literature: the hidalgo, which in English means, literally, “the son of Something” and carries with it a feeling of aristocracy. She asked: “Do you think you have the hidalgo feeling?” I said, “I think I do.” And she continued, “Is Ms. Ellison the hija de nadie, ‘daughter of nobody’? Have you felt in some way that you’ve done her a great favor in being in her company at all?” Yes. And Ms. Reiss explained, “You can feel you are an hidalgo—but then, you can have various unsurenesses.”

Knowledge & Real Love

Learning how to oppose my conceit and value more and more fully the world and people, has given me honest confidence and tremendous pleasure. One result is: Donita and I have a love that grows bigger every year.

Dr. Torres is president of Latinos for Healthcare Equity, a not-for-profit organization.