The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

People in Novels—& Us

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue serializing Eli Siegel’s great lecture It Still Moves; or, The Novel. And in this issue we have the beginning of his discussion of character, personality, in fiction. He gave the lecture in 1951, and is commenting here on new ways novelists saw and showed the human self in the first half of the 20th century. Meanwhile, this Aesthetic Realism principle is true about what makes a novel of any century good, and that includes what causes a fictional character to be alive: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

We Are For & Against

Let’s take opposites that Mr. Siegel is looking at here as he comments on a famous character of James Joyce: the being against the world and also for it. These opposites are tremendous in everyone’s life. Men and women shuttle confusedly between liking things and being disgusted, and they also can use that shuttle itself, that rift, that continuous non-composition of for and against in them, to be more disgusted than ever. In a good novel though, even as the main character may be in a war with what’s around him, the novelist is showing—through the way the sentences are made, through description, through the way events come together and people come together—that there’s meaning in it all. And to see meaning is to be for the world.

A good novelist, even if he shows a character’s dislike of the world, is putting together in his writing the opposites that make up that world: rest and motion, surface and depth, unity and diversity, and more. And so, as we, the reader, are pleased, excited, engrossed, composed by what we read, we’re liking the world itself, the way reality as such is made.

Most anti-world feeling is contempt, “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” Aesthetic Realism has identified contempt, in all its ordinariness, as the most hurtful thing in the human mind. Novelists have described contempt in thousands of forms. But those descriptions, if honest, are never contempt themselves: they are always respect for reality. A good novel, like a good play, like a good painting, is evidence that anything seen and presented truly makes for respect for reality—even if the thing seen is repulsive itself or is an instance of human disgust. This is a fact, shown and explained by Aesthetic Realism, which people today need mightily to know.

Poems about Novels

Our last issue contained 3 poems by Eli Siegel about the novel. In the current issue we include 4 more.

1) “Balzac and People Living Nonetheless,” of 1960, is about one of the greatest of world novelists, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850). The poem is an Elizabethan sonnet. And in that tight 14-line rhymed form, Eli Siegel is writing about what this section of the lecture has to do with: characters. I remember his saying of Balzac something he also said of Sir Walter Scott: that thousands of people lived in him. In the poem’s lines we feel the aliveness of Balzac’s characters—and the energetic and deep mind of Balzac. The lines leap about as they are firm; they have Balzac’s own richness—and also his roughness; they’re vivid, excited in their logic. They too are living: musically alive.

2) “The Unbrought Me: Henry James Dearly Suffuses” appears in Eli Siegel’s Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, and it’s reprinted here with the author’s note. As our serialization continues, I may comment on his book James and the Children: A Consideration of Henry James’s “The Turn of the Screw” and his lectures on James. For now I’ll say this:

“The Unbrought Me,” though in rhymed and very musical lines, is written in the manner of James, in the style of his prose. It’s about the way of seeing people which James went for. The poem brings to us that way of seeing—with rich playfulness and depth, definiteness and mystery. And so it is about something Aesthetic Realism takes with the greatest seriousness: the tremendous desire in every person—even as one may go after pretense and fooling—to be seen truly, as we are. Mr. Siegel himself met that desire, grandly: he saw people, he saw me, in our depths, as we truly are. And Aesthetic Realism, studied honestly, is the means to doing so.

3) Eli Siegel wrote the short poem “Just Literary” in 1959. The two people mentioned are title characters of two novels much talked about for non-literary reasons. The poem is charming. But it’s also serious—because the quality of a novel does not depend on politics or carnality. It depends on how well what’s in the definition of a novel given in this lecture is accomplished: a novel is “a narrative of the impact of character, emotion, place, going for one purpose.”

4) “Thrills, Life and Reading,” of 1938, appears on page 77 of Hot Afternoons. This immensely enjoyable, much loved poem consists of 15 made-up passages that a (made-up) person has relished reading. Most of the passages, we can presume, are from novels—novels of not particularly high quality. From one point of view, the poem is a tour de force. But it’s also greatly compassionate and respectful, in keeping with what Mr. Siegel writes in his short note to it. And, even as it’s humorous, it is musical all the way.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Personality in Novels

By Eli Siegel

So far I have been dealing, generally, with two aspects of the novel: 1) the events and the way they are arranged musically and in terms of life; 2) the place—which is reality itself geographically speaking, and sometimes specific reality.

Now we go to the problem of personality, and personalities, as they appear in the novel. That is a long history. It is still going on. The technique of the novel is still fluid; the novel is definitely changing.

To give an example of some of the changes, I’ll read from a book of criticism that appeared in 1918, Horizons, by Francis Hackett. It is still important. It shows a point in the history of American culture, English culture, world culture in fact.

A person who influenced the novel, and about whom Hackett writes, is H.G. Wells. The reason he influenced the novel is that, though Wells dealt with personalities, he placed them in a political or economic way in terms of the fate of the world. In Wells’s The New Machiavelli we have a person who on the one hand has a big problem with his wife, and on the other wants to change England for the better. He’s a liberal, he’s in Parliament, and he is very much in the collective world. But then, he also has difficulty with his wife and has a big problem as to whether to leave her or not. It is still an important story, and the presence of politics in relation to personal life is still something that makes Wells notable.

I can’t deal extensively with that novel now. But what I’ll quote from Horizons has to do with the fact that though Wells is telling a story—very often, since he is so chockful of notions, he gets those in. And Hackett says that Wells does too much of this. Hackett opposes the construction of The New Machiavelli:

It is a matter of impeded and disconcerted narrative. The narrative is forever being halted for the sake of a sermon. No reminiscence seems to be complete without a debate, and no description without a moral. When one thinks of a masterly story like Jean-Christophe, this seems flimsy and ill conceived.

If a character is dealt with at length, there is a likelihood, if he is one of Wells’s characters given to thought about everything, including the situation in Rumania at the time, that the events will get out of line, or won’t occur as briskly as they might. Hackett is implying that that is what happens in The New Machiavelli. Still, Wells knew narrative.

The Character Complains

A book that is important is James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It was one of the earliest novels of autobiography with people who were described as meeting all kinds of oppression, stoppage, clogging, stifling, choking. This kind of writing was very much around in the late teens of the century, and also the twenties. Every hero was choked, and tried to find Freedom. The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is about a young man, Stephen Dedalus, who asks, What is going on with me? What shall I feel about my neighbors in Dublin, about my family? And though I must say that the way Joyce writes I can’t praise utterly, despite temptation given by so many critics, the book itself—with its title that’s so autobiographic—is something that should be known, because it represents the feeling of the world as stifling, but uses very careful sentences as it shows the character complaining.

I’ll read a passage from the book, quoted by Hackett. This is a boy asking what is he doing here? what is he doing in his family? And it began something: it was the beginning of the novel of the complaining person saying that life is repressive. Without this book, there likely would have been no Look Homeward, Angel, of Thomas Wolfe; there might have been no Irwin Shaw—without, at least, what the book represents. This is Joyce:

Stephen watched the three glasses being raised from the counter as his father and his two cronies drank to the memory of their past. An abyss of fortune or of temperament sundered him from them.

Already: the young man who says—whether it’s in Iowa or in Dublin: What am I doing here? I have thoughts that these people don’t understand. Here are my father and his two friends; they’re drinking—what have I got to do with this? I want to go to Thomas Aquinas. —Joyce continues:

His mind seemed older than theirs: it shone coldly on their strifes and happiness and regrets like a moon upon a younger earth. No life or youth stirred in him as it had stirred in them. He had known neither the pleasures of companionship with others nor the vigor of rude male health nor filial piety. Nothing stirred within his soul but a cold and cruel and loveless lust. His childhood was dead or lost and with it his soul capable of simple joys and he was drifting amid life like the barren shell of the moon.

Stephen is saying to the people about him: I can’t enjoy what you enjoy. I may be much worse or I may be much better, but I just can’t go along with this stuff. That is an aspect of personality, because in every novel the leading character is a critic of what’s about her or him.

I am using these passages of Joyce as an example, to show how the criticism of the world about one has been taking form. In a novel that was very popular in Russia a few years before the war [World War II], Artzibashev’s Sanine, there is also a person complaining, All you do has got nothing to do with me. That is a feeling had by people for hundreds of years, but it came out more at this time. Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe, which Hackett mentions, is a novel of that kind too. And this feeling was present in novels in America and elsewhere.

The “Free Soul”

Then, sometimes there is a decision, there is a being able to say yes to something. Joyce’s passage about the decision is also quoted by Hackett:

His soul had arisen from the grave of boyhood, spurning her grave-clothes. Yes! Yes! Yes! He would create proudly out of the freedom and power of his soul, as the great artificer whose name he bore, a living thing, new and soaring and beautiful, impalpable, imperishable.

Novels about the free soul or the artist were very popular even with persons who didn’t want to be free souls. Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence is another example. The novel of the young woman oppressed by her environment, the novel of the young man oppressed by his environment, and trying to get a personality despite their environment—that is a continuation of the person as hero in every novel, criticizing what’s about one and criticizing oneself. And even within that criticism we have event, along with the event that takes place externally. That is, we are affected by something we feel, just as we are affected by a cliff. And when we look at a cliff, the cliff in turn becomes something within us.

Well, that is an example of personality fighting the world about it. There are not many outward events in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Four Poems by Eli Siegel

Balzac and People Living Nonetheless

The energy of Balzac is for us today.

So, look! the volumes there with people there.

They live their lives in print; they say their say,

These people do, aware and unaware.

Before, they lived in Balzac’s manuscript,

A little earlier in Balzac’s mind;

For Balzac’s mind, you know, was quite equipped

For holding Frenchmen standing for mankind.

When 1830 Frenchmen lived, our Balzac saw

Them go about and do the things they did;

Saw Paris and the country, smooth and raw,

Saw violence flare, and strategy once hid.

These volumes tell of Balzac’s busyness—

Imagined people, living nonetheless.


The Unbrought Me: Henry James Dearly Suffuses

Author’s note. In Henry James, a person is, and is what he is, in keeping with how he is seen, and how he uses other people to see. We hope, according to Henry James and this poem, to be brought into full existence, actuality of self, by being seen, and by seeing, too. Comedy is not absent in this poem, I believe; a most respectful intention went along. Appeared in New Mexico Quarterly, 1955.

Thoughtfully he looked at her profile there,

Sensitive in the London air

Pervading the distinguished room.

Something in him began to flutter and loom,

If loom is not too utter a verb.—

Ah, but now the profile did not disturb;

From interior something there was access

Of saving, beseeched for consciousness,

Annulling Valton’s unshaped distress.

The lady said: It is not last year.—

Valton said: Ah, the fear

That once abided in such a phrase.

(Has, for you, fear ever abided in a phrase?)

How gratifyingly she said, Your fear does not amaze

Me a whit. Ah no, for where but in a phrase

Should one find fear? Certainly I know, others do elsewhere.

They do not know fear so well, Mr. Valton. No.

—With such assurance we can go

To apprehension that is fair.—

She no longer was a profile. She

At last had seen in Mr. Valton the unsuspected elsewhere,

The uncertain, unbrought me.


Just Literary

Lady Chatterley and Doctor Zhivago

Met in a bookstore in Chicago.

They said: Oh, things are merry, merry,

But when will we be just literary?


Thrills, Life and Reading

Author’s note. Reading moments are Vital Happenings.


7: And this ugly old witch was all the time, really, a most beautiful fairy.

10: “All you stand back! you varmints,” said the captain, with drawn pistol; “the first one of you that makes a move for Doubloon Island goes plumb to hell!”

13: With one well planted blow of his fist he sent the bully sprawling on the sidewalk.

15: “Well, boy, you made the team awright,” said the coach to Tom after the game was over; and he held his hand fondly on Tom’s shoulder.

18: The world is still waiting for its Dawn; it is the young who must bring the real sun to the real earth.

21: He drew her close, close; their lips met; the world swooned in loveliness.

24: “Life together, we together; the world bright, always.” She looked up at him. “Yes,” she said.

29: Life is a muddle to which, at times, sunlight comes; it is the dying sun within dirty waters, tingeing and streaking them with color.

34: The market rose: $2,000,000 he had not yesterday, and knew nothing about, were in Stevens’ hands.

40: The murderer was Tess, the barmaid, with that lisp and bad English; she had killed the Cardinal.

50: We are pleased to send you half per cent in excess of the common dividend.

55: “All you stand back! you varmints,” said the captain, with drawn pistol; “the first one of you that makes a move for Doubloon Island goes plumb to hell!”

60: He drew her close, close; their lips met; the world swooned in loveliness.

70: The murderer was Tess, the barmaid, with that lisp and bad English; she had killed the Cardinal.

80: God is a good witch who may have all sorts of pleasant tricks concealed in him.