The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Land, Water, Philosophy, & the Family

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 7 of the great lecture Philosophy Begins with That, which Eli Siegel gave in April 1970. He is showing that philosophy is not an esoteric, remote study, but is as everyday as the sidewalk we step on, the air we breathe. That is because the structure of reality is in everything. The structure of reality, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the oneness of opposites, and it is in every object, happening, situation, person, thought, emotion. That is why, as people study Aesthetic Realism, they begin to see a meaning, a grandeur, an excitement in things; and to feel the world in its largeness is closer, friendlier to one than one has known.

We print here too an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Rosemary Plumstead. A retired New York City science teacher, she is one of the most respected educators in America. In professional workshops across the nation and at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York, Mrs. Plumstead teaches fellow educators the magnificent Aesthetic Realism teaching method. Her article here, however, is on another subject. It’s from a public seminar of last month titled “The Mistakes Daughters Make about Fathers; or, What Do We Really Want from Dad?”

Philosophy This Summer

In his lecture, to illustrate the philosophy in what we meet, Mr. Siegel uses a journal of Arnold Bennett (1867-1931), in which that novelist describes various daily happenings in his life. In the midst of summer 2012, we can use too, as illustration, something millions of people are desiring, going after, experiencing. I am speaking about the fact that there is a desire to be where land meets water. People are traveling in cars, buses, trains, planes, to fulfill that desire. Why (aside from its cooling properties) do we want so much to be where water is, to be on the shore of it, whether ocean, lake, river, stream?

Even as a woman may want to show off in her swimsuit, even as a man may want his muscles noticed, is there a larger reason, a philosophic reason? Yes. It is described in this Aesthetic Realism principle:“The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

The Eternal & the Immediate

Whether we can express it or not, there is a feeling as we are on land looking at water, or on or in water not far from land, that we are with something elemental. Water and land are what our planet is, and was a thousand years ago and much earlier. Even on a crowded beach with boardwalk concessions nearby, there is that sense of the elemental—the eternal, the large, the expansive in time and space—and the feeling that this wide elemental is friendly, immediate, intimate, for one.

There is a drive in everyone to make what’s not oneself unimportant, dismissible, also something one can manipulate. That drive is an aspect of the desire for contempt, which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the ugliest, most hurtful thing in the human self. Contempt has certainly been in operation at the seashore, and river and lake shore. Nevertheless, that situation of land and water represents the world at its beginning: it represents what is eternal, and mysterious in its largeness; and somewhere everyone feels it.

Motion & Rest

Whatever the body of water—from placid lake to turbulent sea—it is more in motion than the land. When we are where land and water come together, we are experiencing rest and motion as one. That is a huge reason we want to be there: rest and motion are two of the biggest opposites the world has, and often they are at odds in us, painfully. Millions of people are agitated; the same people can feel dull, stuck. To be where the stillness of land meets the motion of water gives us hope. It tells us that these opposites can be one, are one in the world.

The need to feel motion and rest as one is in a tremendously musical poem of Yeats, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” He tells of his yearning to go to that island. The poem ends:

I will arise and go now, for always night and day

I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;

While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,

I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

In “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore,” we find motion that is calm too. And so Yeats says it calls to the deepest need in him, to the center of him: “I hear it in the deep heart’s core.”

Hardness & Softness

Two other mighty opposites in the land-water relation are hardness and softness. Land, a solid, is obviously harder than water, a liquid. We cannot overestimate how much these opposites mean to us. We don’t know, yet long to know, how to be hard and soft at once. We can feel we’re too hard, insufficiently yielding; yet we also feel we’re too soft, haven’t stood up for ourselves. To see hardness and softness as distinct yet beautifully joined in the form of land and water, meets our hope for ourselves.

Sameness & Difference

The fact that land and water are so unlike each other yet need each other, complete each other, says something about the oneness of the biggest opposites in reality: sameness and difference. As we look at land and water and feel this difference and sameness, this simultaneous apartness and embrace, we feel excited. We also feel calm. We feel both because of what Aesthetic Realism explains: to see sameness and difference as one is to see the world as beautiful. That need of opposites for each other is in two short lines of one of the best poems of America, Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.” The lines are: “O madly the sea pushes upon the land, / With love, with love.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Discontent Is Here

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is commenting on Arnold Bennett’s Journal 1929.

In the next passage, Bennett expresses discontent. It seems people have felt that the world wants you to be discontented. We have many statements of that kind: “Whom the Lord loveth he chaseneth”; “Ad astra per aspera” (“Through harsh things to the stars”)—it’s the motto of a famous state. There’s a feeling that trouble is necessary for the pure mind, that trouble stirs the impurity so you can have purity. There are people who do hope it’s possible to get purity another way.

Man’s discontent is a famous thing, and the purpose of philosophy, and also theology, is to be honest about that discontent. The purpose of philosophy is the purpose Milton, in the beginning of Paradise Lost, says he has: he says he’ll write about “man’s first disobedience” with the hope to “justify the ways of God to men.” It’s the purpose of art to show that there is something just in all that injustice of reality. The purpose of philosophy is to make a one of justice and injustice, and of good and evil, without any falsifying. If that isn’t possible, then philosophy is unable to do it. A purpose of philosophy is to look upon a bad thing in as good a way as possible. That can be seen, because there has been the consolatory purpose of thought about the world. Where a God is used to give you consolation, that is theology. But where consolation comes from the truth seen better, that’s more in the field of philosophy, including ethics. The two, of course, can join, as with Jonathan Edwards. He may have been affected by Leibniz; I have a notion he was.

Well, Bennett is discontented. He was one of the most successful people in England, but there is a petulance, an irritation, in him. Like Charles Lamb, he stammered. The Bennett stammer is famous. It is said he sometimes didn’t want to tell an anecdote because he felt he might get stuck. He was in an awful state: he’d want to tell an anecdote like nobody’s business, because once you want to tell an anecdote, it’s something fierce—if you really want to.

In this journal, he makes a lot of discontent. He’s traveling all over Europe, all over England too. This, about a hotel, has a symmetry of irritation in it:

Although I had telephoned and written to say I wished to arrive a day earlier than expected, and had been told that that would be all right, I was not expected on arrival, and there was no fire in the bedroom as ordered. I was expected the next day. No explanation of this was given. The manager did not know until the day after my arrival that I had arrived.

Philosophy has to do with arrival. The first statement of Raphael to God was, The world exists according to plan. Will arrive shortly. Arrival and departure (the title of a Koestler novel) are related to beginning, middle, and end, which is a philosophic idea. Everything can be seen as having a beginning, and duration.

Is the world an arrival, or an old friend that has been around for a long time? Arrivals have to be something new, but they must have something of what was. Reality has arrived: two people like it more—that could be said soberly. Meanwhile, here is Bennett complaining. What is the origin of complaint? How did reality ever permit people in it to complain so much about it? For every good word reality gets, it gets ten doubts and four complaints.

The next entry is written at “A Hotel on the Edge of the New Forest.” This is in England:

Nothing but cold meat at one o’clock. Some people staying in the hotel, however, had fish. No vegetables except potatoes. No greens. No salad. Only beetroot. No fresh fruit of any kind. Yet outside was a good fruit-shop full of fruit.

Bennett is like Samuel Johnson: he feels if he can enjoy something he eats, he can think better of the world. Johnson felt there was a mighty lot of religion in those calories. But discontent is here, and discontent is reality not so symmetrical.

What Daughters Want from Fathers

By Rosemary Plumstead

What every daughter really wants from her father is that he try to know her, and encourage her deepest desire, which is to like the world. This is good will, and it’s exactly what every father wants most from his daughter.

Even as a girl can rightly miss things from her father, as I did from mine, she can wrongly exploit what she misses to have contempt for him and the world he represents. I made that mistake with my father, Dominick Amello, and I’m enormously grateful to Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to see him with a depth and comprehension I never could have had. This made it possible for me to like myself and for us to become ever so much kinder and friendlier to each other.

All people, I learned, are in a fight between our deepest desire, to like the world, and the desire to have contempt, to lessen things as a means of making ourselves superior. These two desires are in a daughter as she is, perhaps, bounced on her father’s knee, awaits his return from work, or listens to conversations between her parents.

Early Mistakes

When I was a year old, my family moved to a lovely community in Bayside, Queens. I liked making igloos in winter, having picnics in the backyard, playing basketball with friends, and waking up to the sound of cicadas on hot summer mornings. My father wanted his children to be interested in culture and art. He encouraged my study of ballet, piano, and guitar, and I remember his taking me, on my eighth birthday, to my first Broadway musical, My Fair Lady.

Dominick Amello wanted us to live in a safe environment and worked hard to make that happen. A first generation Italian-American, he was a self-employed salesman who worked six and a half days a week driving and selling, to mainly Italian families, freshly ground coffee, provolone, olive oil, and household items. His van, and at times our family car if he used it for work, smelled like an Italian deli. He’d return home exhausted and impatient, and didn’t want to talk.

I had no idea what his day was like, and I’m sorry to say I wasn’t interested. All I saw was a man who didn’t want to have to do with me, a girl, but preferred his two sons. He was often tyrannical and demanded things be done his way—how the food should be prepared, when the chores should be done. He’d say, “Do it because I said so” and “Don’t buck me.”

I remember a sense of outrage I had early at the way he treated my mother: as an inferior being. I can’t say I was wrong in feeling that. So what was my mistake? It was this: when I saw things about him that were unjust, I didn’t try to understand what was going on inside him and why he did what he did. The chief reason I didn’t was my desire for contempt: I got an importance looking down on my father, feeling superior to him. It never occurred to me to ask whether he was against himself for the way he saw people, including women. I also made no relation between the way he could be remote, dismissive of me, and the times he showed kindness.

For instance, there was the time he stayed with me overnight in the hospital because the doctor thought I might have appendicitis and I was afraid to be there alone. I remember how he sat outside the door until morning when he had to go to work. But I conveniently forgot such things. I often got a grim pleasure in defying my father openly. I battled with him verbally at the dinner table, teamed up with my mother against him, and used him to have a case against the whole world—which was my biggest mistake.

I Learn to See My Father Newly

When I had my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, I began to see the world and people with new eyes, and that included my father. I arrived at the consultation a jumble of anger and guilt about him. I had a sense of relief as my consultants asked me questions through which I began to see Dominick Amello as a complete person—not only in relation to myself. They asked me, “Do you think your father has an attitude to the world?” This was a new idea to me. Yes, he did have a way of seeing the world, which included his first family, books, work, baseball, his wife, his two boys, my younger sister, me, and so much more.

I was asked, “Is your father an aesthetic situation: is he trying to put opposites together?” The first opposites I thought of were for and against. I realized that I was for and against both myself and the world; could this also be true of my father? He was, I thought, proud of providing for his family, but ashamed that he was too impatient, often against things.

I saw, too, that we both were trying to make sense of rest and motion: my father wanted to feel the man who was in motion as he drove all day, or climbed the stairs to a sixth-floor walkup two steps at a time, was the same man who loved to read, just as I wanted to feel that the young woman who loved sports was the woman who wanted to be a teacher.

In issue 1581 of The Right Of, Ellen Reiss writes that when a person sees the aesthetic structure of the world in another person, “A new feeling comes to be, a respect that is exact.” That is what was happening to me.

In consultations I did many assignments about my father. I wrote five ways Dominick Amello and I were the same and different. And I wrote a soliloquy he might have had at age 18. In preparation, he and I had conversations—something I’d never imagined possible—in which he told me about his early life. He had loved to read and play baseball but often couldn’t do either because he had to work. And I learned he had many feelings for and against his own father, who struggled to support seven children during the Depression. I started to see my dad from within, to see what he hoped for, what disappointments were in his life. As I did, I saw him not as my enemy, but as an interesting, increasingly friendly representative of humanity.

Later, I had the honor to attend classes taught by Eli Siegel, and in one of them he asked me, “Can you write a composition, ‘My Father, Dominick Amello, & My Attempt to Understand Him’?” He suggested that I study Arthur Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, about Willy Loman, a man worried about his job and very pained by how he and his sons see each other. Dominick was surprised and happy when he learned I was reading the play in order to understand him better. He told me he was very thankful to Mr. Siegel that his daughter was seeing him with new eyes. And shortly after, he himself decided to study Aesthetic Realism in consultations.

My new seeing of my father made it possible for me to change the way I saw men as such—and to be married to Rev. Wayne Plumstead, whom I love!

Dominick Amello died in 2008. It moves me very much to close with sentences from a letter that he wrote:

Dear Mr. Siegel,

I wish to express my deepest and humblest gratitude to you for the good effect Aesthetic Realism has had on the lives of many people, including my daughter Rosemary. She has changed through her study of Aesthetic Realism. We are friends where once we were not. What a future! The world needs you and your thought, Aesthetic Realism.