The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Keenness, Poetry, and Strategy

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Keenness by Eli Siegel. He explains what true keenness—a beautiful and kind thing—is: real keenness is that cutting through which "always means a destruction of the world as meaningless, as having nothing but surface and flatness, dullness or sameness" (TRO 1314). Yet day after day, people use their minds in ways that they think are ever so keen, but which really bring flatness, dullness, emptiness, and misery to their lives. There is nothing we need more to know than how, under guise of keenly taking care of ourselves, we are enemies to ourselves. And through Aesthetic Realism people can know this—and can have the keenness that is authentic, rich, proud, and happiness-giving at last. 

So I comment briefly on a form of fake keenness that people have made almost equivalent to keenness itself. It is the "keenness" involved in strategy, maneuvering, competition, "getting ahead," beating out other people. This kind of thought is an aspect of the thing which Eli Siegel showed to be the big weakener of mind and the source of all human injustice: contempt, the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." 

There are two tremendous desires in each of us, Mr. Siegel explained. The first huge desire of ours corresponds to the purpose we were born for: to like the world; to see and feel the meaning of things, the value of things; and to add to that value. The other desire, contempt, is the wish to conquer the world through conquering some segment of it; to have things and people succumb to us, make much of us, as we fool them and look down on them. So much of people's lives consists of trying to attain that second desire, through the "keenness" of plotting, manipulating, strategy. 

This goes on, of course, in business. It is horribly evoked in people by our profit economy—because profit economics is based not on being just to people but on the profit motive: on using them for one's financial aggrandizement and, to do so, sizing them up, capitalizing on their weaknesses, defeating them. However, similar "sharp" thought goes on in other aspects of life. A young woman can be strategic about getting invited to a certain party; about getting the attention of a certain man when she's there; about having him think another woman is inferior to her. She can use thought for that purpose with as much acute maneuvering as a person planning a corporate takeover worth billions of dollars. 

Strategy: Good and Bad

There is certainly such a thing as good strategy. It occurs when 1) you have an objective that is beautiful, just to all things and people, an objective that makes the world truly better; and 2) you want your mode of getting to this objective to be, every inch of the way, fair to the world. George Washington had this good strategy as he tried—not only with men and weapons but with thought, tactics, plotting—to have the Continental Army defeat the British. Had he not wanted to be as keenly strategic as he could, he wouldn't have loved America enough; he would have been untrue to justice, beauty, humanity, earth. 

But the kind of strategy that goes on in offices, at social gatherings, in people's thoughts as they shower in the morning, is mainly not of that sort. Mainly, a person plots, maneuvers, schemes, not in order to be more deeply affected by other men and women, but to beat them out; not to have them better off, but to use them for one's own advancement; not out of care for the world, but because one sees the world deeply as an enemy to foil and elude. 

And in every instance, this kind of "keenness" has an effect which is really the utter contrary of keenness, on a person's life. That is: to use one's mind this way—and millions of people are doing it—makes a person nervous; ashamed; less and less capable of deep feeling; bored; unsure; greedy; empty. That is because our minds were made to know and value things—not see them as either stepping stones or impediments to our supremacy. Let us take the person who is now our nation's president. It has been said that he began the engineering of a political career as a teenager; he started "networking" then, compiling lists of people who could get him places. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be president. But the question is, if (as most politicians do) you see people principally in terms of whether they can get you ahead, does that make you kinder or less kind; deeper about them or less deep; juster or less just? The answer is: less; less; less. 

A Muddle of Two Desires

Without Aesthetic Realism, people haven't understood and distinguished between their two desires—to see meaning in the world, and to conquer it. An artist, for example, has wanted to use paint on a canvas to honor reality, to show love for it; and he has also gone ferociously after buttering "the right people" so he could get ahead. He hasn't known that the maneuvering in his career is not only at odds with his purpose before a canvas, but interferes with it. 

A woman has wanted love in her life; but she has thought about a man mainly in plottingly conquistadorial terms: how she will catch him; how that dress will make him turn his attention from his work to her; how she can get him to do as she wishes, be hers. She doesn't know that her plotting thoughts make her unable to feel real love: because if you fool a person, you can't respect him; if you want him weak, you're not loving him; if you're conquering him, you can't feel you deserve for him to love you. 

The "keenness" that brings a deeply sick quality to people's lives has gone on in every field, including some of the most beautiful. For example, a person working in a union in behalf of economic justice to people and also going after a position of importance in the union itself, has the question the artist I mentioned has. If he sees that fine thing, the union, as a means of his becoming a big shot; if he hopes to find and exploit some weakness in a colleague he sees as standing in the way of his advancement; if he butters and plots; if he doesn't see going after power as the same as wanting justice to come to people—he will feel like a driven, self-disgusted mess within. That is because his purpose will be contrary to the kindness a union stands for: it will be as grasping as that of any boss. 

Then, there is the field of education. In his book Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes, with beautiful criticism and compassion, about a person he calls Hal Stearns. Stearns, teaching in a university, is interested in literature—and also interested in beating out others for power, glory, salary, and position. Here are sentences from Mr. Siegel's portrait of him. They describe the fight between two kinds of keenness, a fight which has brought this young professor agitation, ill nature, and domestic grief: 

Hal Stearns' personality harbors competitiveness of all sorts; still it is in the employ of a desire for documented learning....Stearns is learned, but he sees learned people, deeply, not as comrades but as adversaries. The charming and wide and subtle field of learning is for him a battlefield of egos....The desire, on the one hand, simply to excel another [person] and, on the other, to ascertain a truth of the past, have not been teamed by their possessor. These desires have proceeded in parallel paths consciously, but in paths that ran into each other, unconsciously. [Pp. 291, 294]

Shakespeare Observed It

People have told themselves, "I have to have a certain kind of thought—plotting, outsmarting of others—if I'm to get anywhere in the world, and not be walked over or be some nobody. After all, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there." But it happens, as Mr. Siegel explained in a 1970 lecture titled There Are Ambition, Money, Love, and Energy, "there is a desire to fool the world." There is a preference to see this world as something one can out-maneuver and manage, rather than as something to know, because the "keenness" of beating out people enables one to feel contemptuous and superior. 

There are various characters in Shakespeare with that kind of contemptuous "keenness." There are the Macbeths. And there is Richard III, who plots to become king of England through murdering the persons who impede him. In the 1970 lecture, Mr. Siegel described the purpose in behalf of which Richard used his mental keenness: "Richard has what everyone has—the feeling the world exists so that you can have your way with it." And Mr. Siegel continued, "People feel they can be selfish all they please. Selfishness has an effect on your corpuscles, your cells, your every doing" (TRO 986). 

I love Mr. Siegel for showing what people are thirsting to know: Our keenness, our ambition, our self-protection, our plans have to be aesthetic if we are to be truly intelligent—if we are not to trip ourselves up and waste our minds and lives. That is, the criterion for keenness is in this 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." The biggest opposites in our lives are self and world; and the only real keenness is the keenness that sees justice to what's not us as lusciously the same as taking care of ourselves. Any other "keenness" is punk and stupidity. We need to feel that our ambition for ourselves, and any thought, however intricate, that we use to attain it, are the same as good will for humanity and all reality. 

It is because Eli Siegel himself had none of the fake, sleazy keenness I have been describing, that he was resented by many people. Persons have been furious because his glowing, glorious, imaginative, wide, and constant fairness made their maneuvering and cheap ambition look unnecessary, stupid, and ugly. He would not butter people to "get ahead." His ambition, early and all the time, was to know the world, comprehend it, see with beautiful justice the things and thought and people in it—not carve out glory for himself in it, as he so easily could have done. And this ambition enabled him to come to the greatest body of thought in history: Aesthetic Realism. It made him the keenest person who ever lived, and the kindest. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Whole Vision

By Eli Siegel

In another poem, Emily Dickinson looks at a little bird very closely. This has some of her keenest effects. It begins:

A bird came down the walk:

He did not know I saw; 

He bit an angle-worm in halves 

And ate the fellow, raw. 


And then he drank a dew

From a convenient grass, 

And then hopped sidewise to the wall

To let a beetle pass....

"A bird came down the walk": that is sharp. And keenness sometimes means vignette; the image, in the true sense of the word; something seen, like a chimney in a clear day, having neatness. Most people don't go through that sharpness of whole vision. Perhaps they can see something definitely with their eyes, but they don't want to take the whole reality, neatly and completely, of an object. I use these words, neatly and completely, carefully, because perception is both neat and complete when it is true perception. In the first line you have the little scratch of the bird; the walk of the bird; the feeling, even, of the claws: "A bird came down the walk." There is neatness, and also completeness. 

"He did not know I saw; / He bit an angle-worm in halves / And ate the fellow, raw." This is charming in the truest sense of the word: you have to look at it and say, What is Miss Dickinson doing besides describing this rather selfish bird? One can say she saw herself in the bird. And that is not being portentous—because later in the poem the bird does things that some birds can be thought of as not exactly doing. 

"And then he drank a dew/From a convenient grass." There is a quality of neatness which men and women can have: trying to get things without slop, the pecking effect. The bird is described that way. And one can be sure that Miss Dickinson was very economical with herself: that she did not want to let herself be affected by anything which was sloppy or incomplete; and in feeling that way, she may have been fastidious. To be fastidious, you must have some unconscious keenness. You want to distinguish between what is good for you and what is bad. The bird acts that way. "And then hopped sidewise to the wall / To let a beetle pass." One can feel Miss Dickinson is hopping sidewise (maybe getting away from a relative). 

"He glanced with rapid eyes/That hurried all abroad,— / They looked like frightened beads, I thought." The bird is frightened; and I'm sure Emily Dickinson saw something of her fright in the bird. Still—which is what makes this a good poem—the bird can be seen as just the bird. There is no doubt about that. 

"He stirred his velvet head / Like one in danger..." Here the bird is given a certain ominousness which is a little too much freight for that lonely bird. 


I offered him a crumb, 

And he unrolled his feathers 

And rowed him softer home...

Here the poem gets blurry. Something is offered to the bird and the bird gets very suspicious. But describing the bird rowing himself "softer home/Than oars divide the ocean, / Too silver for a seam"—that is too much freight. However, Emily Dickinson was interested and keen about space. She wanted to divide space. I did something of the sort, I must say, when I wrote: "the list / Air has of all that through it goes," and "a mighty orange angle."* I think air can be divided. 

"Or butterflies, off banks of noon, / Leap, plashless, as they swim." She also leaped—she would sometimes leap into herself—and she has the bird, in a way, doing that. This description is interesting; but there is a huddle and a blur towards the end. 

However, the poem is keen—because when you can see into the inside of a bird and see the outside of the bird too, you are being keen. 

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*Mr. Siegel is referring to the poem "In Dark Discovered," now in his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems (Definition Press). The poem also has the phrase "this well-divided sky."