The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Justice to Feelings—& the Novel

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the 5th section of Eli Siegel’s landmark 1951 lecture It Still Moves; or, The Novel. He continues his discussion of character—of the ways novelists have approached the tremendous yet everyday matter of what a person is. In this section, as he speaks particularly about novels of the first half of the 20th century, what he says is mightily relevant to novels today, and also to us, our lives, our feelings. His basis is this great Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Character in fiction, we see, is always a oneness of those huge opposites a self and the world not oneself. And that is what our own lives are about: how well do we put together a focus on our treasured self and the need to see rightly the wide and specific outside world—the world we were born to value, be affected by, know, like?

The last two issues of TRO included poems by Eli Siegel about novels. So does this one. We reprint something I consider great as both literary criticism and poetry: “Notations, in Verse, on the Novelistic Manner of Henry James, 1843-1916.”

In 1953 Eli Siegel gave a series of lectures on James’s novella The Turn of the Screw, showing what it is really about. And as a means of doing so he spoke too on other novels by James, including Daisy Miller and What Maisie Knew, and on writing by other novelists, including Dickens, Fielding, and Hawthorne. His 1968 book James and the Children: A Consideration of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” arose from these talks. And the “Notations, in Verse,” reprinted here, are part of the epilogue to that book. Reviewing James and the Children in Poetry magazine, Hugh Kenner wrote: “It is a reading so careful...and so candid it reduces most previous discussion to willful evasiveness.”

I am not commenting here on Eli Siegel’s great understanding of The Turn of the Screw. I am including the “Notations” because, along with being beautiful and about novels, they explain an immensely important way of seeing what the self is: the way to be found in the work of James. James’s manner, his technique, the way he deals with people, has seemed so subtle as to be far away from everyday life. James has not been seen as relevant to the troubles of this world, including daily cruelty, racial and economic injustice, wars. Eli Siegel shows that James is urgently relevant. He writes:

It happens that James’s propaganda is his technique. His technique is an asking of what is within a person, not seen,...the asking in as many ways as mind itself may ask for. His propaganda is that if we are not interested in the feelings of others, in the feelings walking about as people walk, sitting as people sit, lying down as people lie down—we may be either deceived by them or be cruel to them....As soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person. These three things come out of the insufficient awareness of another person or another thing. [Pp. vii-viii, 55]

That is what the “Notations, in Verse,” are about. And James, certainly, with his beautiful particularity, is in keeping with all good art—which sees the world with justice, not contempt.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Character Goes On

By Eli Siegel

What character in a novel is, goes on. One form character took was of events that were just within a person. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway the title character doesn’t do much of anything—she just thinks about what happened and is happening to her. The last part of Joyce’s Ulysses consists of Mrs. Bloom thinking. And we have the phrase stream of consciousness.

Dealing with events within, a person’s feelings within, was begun in a large way by Henry James. Then it was continued: there is the novel of the change of emotion, the trying to fish out something from the deep places in oneself.

I’ll read a passage by a rather witty woman, whose opinions, however, on some other matters I just couldn’t stand: Katharine Fullerton Gerould. She writes about the novel that deals with So I felt bad this morning. So I felt I shouldn’t take a subway, I should take a bus. Why wasn’t Joe there? The way Joe looked at me the night before was something. If I could only know what the evening would bring. Then the novelist would get in wisps of clouds, drip of leaves, tingle of fingernails in angry mountains. Then she’d go on: When should this happen? Should I go to the grocery now or put it off till later? What about tomorrow? Oh, I don’t know whether Junior is going to cry as much tonight as he did yesterday. And the writer would get in a few dots and all kinds of landscapes. I can’t describe it entirely, but that, often, was stream of consciousness; mostly bad consciousness.

Katharine Fullerton Gerould said, Look here you people—you’d better describe personality the way it used to be described. She wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature (10-27-27):

The mere series of images that passes through your mind as you idly let the law of association work is apt to be quite unimportant, quite uncreative of incident or attitude.

Which means that in the same way as you can’t have a novel by putting external events in the formation of milk bottles going down a chute, one after another, so you shouldn’t have one impression after another without an attempt to put them into a symphonic relation, to show some notion of something which unifies them, something which gets an order out of the difference of impressions. That is true. One could have something dramatic occur if there were a relation among impressions. But if the impressions go on in this one-after-the-other order, as people punching a timeclock, then that other dimension of the novel—relation in width and in depth—is not there.

There’s Dialogue

Personality in the novel has a mighty large history. And, as I said, the attitude to it is still going on. In personality we have thoughts within, meditations within, and also we have dialogue, conversation. When two meditations meet so we can hear them, we have dialogue. Some novels accent dialogue. Dumas is a great master of it; he is the speediest master of dialogue, perhaps, who ever was. The Three Musketeers, whatever else it may have, has mighty dialogue—swift.

To show how personality in the novel is getting along these days, I’ll read from a recent book on modern English literature, by Edwin Muir, The Present Age from 1914. This passage is about the novels of Ivy Compton Burnett. She’s supposed to be the fiercest writer in England as to the family. Her people are so repulsive that they become attractive; you can’t forget them. So say they who like her novels. Some people just can’t stand them. Muir writes:

Her novels consist almost entirely of conversation, and the conversation is a textually exact analysis of human motives, exposing a frightening world where, beneath the conventions of everyday life in comfortable English houses, a deadly battle for power is waged.

Personality Continues

Then, we have personality in relation to time. And though Muir doesn’t think much of Arnold Bennett as a whole, he says: “By far his best novel is The Old Wives’ Tale, in which there is a profoundly realised sense of the passing of time.”

In the English novel there is also a new sort of melodrama, going further into oneself. We can see that in the novels of, say, Graham Greene, who wrote The Man Within. There is the proletarian novel, and the novel that has a religious solution about personality. And so on, both in England and America, and, for that matter, in France.

The question of what makes a character live—that, I hope to deal with, but I’m not doing so now. If I took a passage or chapter from a book and made clear how through the words of a character that character showed himself in motion and showed what he truly was, that would be a technical discussion of the effects of the novel. The discussion today is about what good novels have had, what good novels will have. But I am not now showing in particular how the effect is got. The reason a character takes on life would have to be discussed in terms of the sentences, the paragraphs.

Meanwhile, we find that what a self is, is still the big subject of a novel: what the self is in itself, going deep; also in relation to what’s outside. And the relation of a storm to emotion, a storm to thought, is a mighty big thing.


Notations, in Verse, on the Novelistic
Manner of Henry James, 1843-1916

By Eli Siegel

1. There Are Non-Goings On

Henry James

Is distinguished

By his great

Non-goings on.

2. A Happening Is Completed by Observation

What is observed is what happens in H.J.;

In other authors it is just what happens.

3. Sometimes It Is Kind to Watch a Person Watching

H.J. is kind enough

To watch a person watching;

He is not stodgily there, Oh Minerva!

4. How Much Is the Soul an Adverb?

With other authors

The soul is a noun;

Or a fable or a violent verb;

With H.J., the soul

Is an adverb.

5. Parenthesis

The greatest desire of the unconscious,

According to H.J.,

Is to be delicate;

There is delicate sweeping

And delicate penetration.

6. Happening and Being

Happening in H.J.

Is muted

To polite, surprising Being.

7. James’s Novels

James’s novels

Are a victory

Of fingertips

Over claws.

8. Henry James Looks at Virtue

Virtue, with H.J.,

Is comfort arising

From unimpeded awareness.

9. It Is Kind for Us to Be Aware of Others’ Awareness

According to H.J.

The awareness of another possible awareness

Is the kindest deed ever.

10. To Be Observed Is Not a Misfortune

H.J. sees that person as fortunate

Who is unceasingly, indefinitely observed.

11. A Thing Denuded of the Ways It Can Be Seen Is Low

A thing without its aspects

Is vulgar,

According to H.J.

12. Definition Is Not Bleak

Definition is aroma

With H.J.

13. Time Has This Use

The purpose of Time,

According to H.J.,

Is to make observation possible.

14. Space Defended as Purposeful

Space exists, according to H.J.,

So that people have somewhere to be

While they think of themselves

Or others.

15. Love Is Erudite Yearning

Love, according to H.J.,

Is erudite sensitivity yearning

For erudite sensitivity.

16. Raison d’Être for Colons

A colon exists for H.J.

To mark a rather unexpected fluctuation

Of a heart entangled

In dim awareness.

17. Rapidity Spoils Essence

According to H.J.,

It should take years to say

You like somebody;

Otherwise you are impetuous.

18. A Ghost*

A ghost

Is that part of your feeling

You don’t see;

It looks to exist, your ghost,

Like a tree established,

A professor established.

19. Heroic Quality of the Implicit

The implicit

Is hero and

Heroine, in H.J.

20. What the Greatest Event Is

The greatest Event

In H.J.

Is the acquisition

Of new information.

21. A Ghost Once More

A ghost with H.J.

Is what we shouldn’t have been

Or what we wanted to be—

A feeling, of course,

That can roam visibly near masonry

Or look at you across a well-made round table.

22. A Smile Is Not Just for Simple Folk

A smile with H.J.

Is as complex as the battle

Of Waterloo with Victor Hugo.

23. A Gentleman’s Knowledge Is Never Adequate about Anyone

A gentleman, according to H.J.,

Is someone who doesn’t assume

He is wholly informed

About anybody.

24. The Heart, Yes

The heart

With H.J.

Is a beating landscape.

25. Possibility Visits

Possibility sits at

The tables

In H.J.’s novels.

26. Our Names: Downfall and Goal

People try

To live

Up to their names

In H.J.’s novels.

27. Forms Participate

Forms shake hands

And invite each other to tea

In H.J.’s novels;

The tea is a means

Of the forms’

Taking on more solidity.

28. Conversation Can Confirm Existence

Conversation of people in H.J.

Is a means they have

Of deciding more

That they exist.

29. What Is Not a Beginning?

Even when something happens,

It seems

As if it were only

Beginning to happen.

30. Falling Petals May Reveal the Flower

As petals fall

In the guarded pages

Of the American novelist,

Now present,

The flower of fictional intent

May be better seen.

*Two characters in The Turn of the Screw are ghosts. —Ed.