The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

People, Literature, & Evolution

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is section 5 of Poetry Is of Man, by Eli Siegel. In this 1974 lecture, informally, sometimes playfully, yet always carefully, he shows that humanity and evolution itself have an aesthetic structure. He is illustrating this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” He does this through discussion of an article written nine years before Darwin’s Origin of Species.

We also print an article by actress Carol McCluer. It’s part of a paper she presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Why Are People So ‘Difficult’—& Could It Have Anything to Do with Me?” She describes some of the everyday forms and results of that way of mind which Aesthetic Realism identifies as “the greatest danger or temptation” of every person: contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

In households across America, contempt is what has a sister find her brother boring; a son sum up his father; a child see his mother as existing to make him important; a girl feel she has the right to boss around her sister; a boy feel triumphant calling his little brother “you jerk!”; and the whole family feel they’re far superior to the family next door, whom they often mock at dinner together.

Meanwhile, contempt is also the cause of the largest cruelties in human history. It is the cause of slavery and genocide. These take to its fulness that same feeling “I am more through lessening you.”

The one effective opponent to the having of contempt for people is aesthetics. It is to see that reality’s opposites—such as rest and motion, high and low, mystery and everydayness, hope and fear, wildness and containment, complexity and simplicity, history and the moment—are richly, vibrantly, inevitably in every person we may meet or hear of, from our uncle, to a stranger on the street, to a person with a different skin tone a continent away.

In Aesthetic Realism consultations, a person angry with or scornful of a parent might be asked, “How do you think a novelist would see your mother? Do you think Henry James could spend many pages describing her feelings, and readers would be gripped, and moved?”

I am going to give three swift instances of novelists presenting reality’s opposites in a character. Usually we don’t see those opposites neatly and overtly described. We feel them, though we may not be conscious of them, as the story unfolds and the character acts and speaks and responds. For example, all through Pride and Prejudice we feel Elizabeth Bennet is both sharp and yearning. These opposites help make her charming, help make her big; they can fight in her and mix her up, and she longs to make them one. —But the instances I’ll give are succinct. I take them from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1983).

There Are Sinking & Rising

We can begin with Dickens, and this description from David Copperfield of the unemployed Mr. Micawber:

I have known him come home to supper with a flood of tears, and a declaration that nothing was now left but a jail; and go to bed making a calculation of the expense of putting bow-windows to the house, “in case anything turned up,” which was his favorite expression.

Every person is a mingling of hopelessness and optimism. Every person’s spirits, like Micawber’s, droop and rise. The lowness and height of the world, its heaviness and lightness, are in everyone.

When you see reality’s opposites in a person, you can’t have contempt for him or her. You may be critical; you may object to the person, intensely. But there won’t be the scorn, the making someone meaningless, the triumphant looking down.

Self-Justification & Self-Doubt

Here is Jane Austen, from chapter 31 of Sense and Sensibility. The speaker is the admirable Col. Brandon:

Where so many hours have been spent in convincing myself that I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?

Every person is a relation of confidence and uncertainty. Every person is impelled to justify himself and doubt himself, as Brandon does. A person may not do a good job with these opposites, but he has them. They are an aspect of the world in him—as a tree in its firm-rootedness seems to say “Yes, I am I!” while its leaves tremble in a breeze.

Forethought & Just Going Ahead

This is the opening sentence of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760):

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.

The novel, written in Sterne’s famous chatty manner, begins with its narrator telling how his parents conceived him. This first sentence points to the fact that the opposites of carefulness, mindfulness, forethought, and just being driven, going ahead, are in people—including as to sex. They’re in the mind of Tristram Shandy. And he indicates that they were aspects of his parents, which they didn’t deal with too well the night he was conceived.

Those opposites mix people up. But when we see that both are in a person, even if he or she is wrong about them, we feel the person has to do with something large. And it happens that the opposites of thoughtfulness and just going ahead are central to the prose style of Sterne: it is notable for its rambling, but its exact rambling.

A good novelist sees a person, a character, so deeply and widely that one feels the structure of the world itself—the opposites—has to do intimately with that person. Seeing this way makes for art. It makes for style. Now we can learn from Aesthetic Realism how to see our fellow humans aesthetically—which means truly—so that that necessary art which is justice can prevail at last.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Species Have the Opposites

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is quoting from an unsigned review of five books, in the Quarterly Review of January 1850.

At the time of this article the idea of the cell came to be generally known—that all life began with protoplasm. In a note, the writer refers to “the curious cellular structure which appears, from recent research, to form the nucleus of all the textures of organic life.”

There is a general agreement that protoplasm in the tiger is like protoplasm in the pigeon. Protoplasm is a study in roughness and definition: insofar as it’s first life, it is shapeless; but then, since it has a cell with it, it also has shape. The note continues:

That species so numerous and distinct are actually evolved from that structure, proves that there is an agent of life, independent of the cell, though working through it.

If there’s an “agent of life” working in everything, that is some approximation to the divine principle, and so it has been described in some of the bolder biological works.

Permanency & Change

Then Charles Lyell is quoted as to what makes for change in living beings within a species. This is the second of the six points he gives:

When the change of situation they can endure is great, it is usually attended by some modifications of the form, color, size, structure, or other particulars; but the mutations thus superinduced are governed by constant laws, and the capability of so varying forms part of the permanent specific character.

Qualities of All Matter

So in dealing with species and man, we come to things of the sort that Locke dealt with: what are the qualities of all matter, of all tangible reality? Living matter has some qualities in common with non-living matter. That is, a fish can weigh exactly as much as a cube of oak. Also, while a fish doesn’t look like a cube, you can have wood look like a fish.

Size, which Lyell mentions, is something all matter has. There can be a bit of rock, basalt, that’s just the size, five foot six, that someone you care for can have.

There are similarities of form. There are some jewels that look like viruses (though one doesn’t know exactly how a virus looks). Then, color is a large thing. It has to do with surface. There is structure. The structure of things is definitely poetic. I remember seeing a fish that had been eaten very neatly, with the vertebrae picked clean. It did look like a harp.

Unity & Variety

The world is, as thought is, individual, dual, and plural. All reality is that way. This writer gets intense talking of the individuality of species:

We cannot hesitate, then, in believing that the permanent individuality of species is the intention and general law of creation. We consider that the variations themselves of which species are rendered, by the limits imposed on their extent, express the same general law. And if objection be still taken to the immensity of the numbers of species thus presumed, we answer that he must be indeed an infant in physical science, who would limit the scope of creation by his own conceptions.

In keeping with the last sentence: Somebody who had studied zoology was given a picture book with all the animals that went into the Ark. He said, “Is that all?”

The universe can be as various as it chooses. It can make, if it wishes, ninety varieties of ladybug. Just why it should, is another question. Entomology is a sign of the universe’s looking for pluralistic fun. Meantime, people work: they go around classifying. Classification has come to have a mode pretty well accepted. A thing has a first name, a second name, a third name. It belongs to a genus; then, it belongs to a species; and that has variations. Sometimes a thing even gets four names, as a means of tracing it so we know who it is. Usually it has three names.

“Difficult” People & Me

By Carol McCluer

When I was 18 I had a job at a department store, in the jewelry department. My boss instructed me to be sure to put certain necklaces into a safe before I left for the night. I forgot. The next day, after being reprimanded, I apologized, went into a stockroom, and sobbed. Back out on the floor, another salesclerk expressed sympathy and I burst into tears again. The following day they put me in the television department. I wrote in my diary, “I guess what happened is an example of the big, bad world that everyone talks about but I’ve never really believed in.” People were being so difficult, and it had nothing to do with nice, demure (perhaps a bit forgetful) me!

Aesthetic Realism taught me—and it changed my life—that we have an attitude to the world as such, which includes how we see people. “If, after much fuss and evolution, reality took the form of people,” Eli Siegel said in a lecture, “we have to respect that happening” (TRO 607). Respect, though, is not usually what impels us when we interact with or think about people. Most often, we base our likes and dislikes on what makes us feel comfortable and important. Contemptuously summing up a person as “difficult,” we wipe out his or her hopes and fears, memories, usefulness, observations, experiences—the person’s meaning. In the process, we rob ourselves of the usefulness that can come to us from the so-called “difficult” person.

In his lecture Mind and Antagonism, Mr. Siegel explains:

Anything that gives you trouble is an antagonist. But the trouble can be beautiful....A writer can say, “I love the English language because as I try to use it beautifully, it sure asks things of me.” [TRO 426]

Reality, I’ve learned, is always asking something of us, and we’ll either see it as an interference or an opportunity.

The Choice: To Be Angry or to Want to Know

Growing up in California with a sister and two brothers, I still remember the joy of recognizing the word look in first grade. Learning to read was hard; I felt, as Mr. Siegel said, “It sure asks things of me.” Even so, I relished the challenge, and loved reading biographies of people like Benjamin Franklin and Louisa May Alcott, and stories like Caddie Woodlawn, about an adventurous girl who lived in Wisconsin during the Civil War. The people in these books affected me and I liked it!

Meanwhile, when it came to people I knew, it was another matter. I saw my mother as “difficult” because she was the disciplinarian. My father was easier because he brought us presents from business trips and called me his “sweetheart.” I knew I was his favorite and used it to feel superior to everyone, but I wasn’t too interested in knowing him.

I came to feel: whoever gives me my way or praises me is good, while anyone who doesn’t is difficult. I adored my fifth-grade teacher because he treated me like a ten-year-old genius. Then along came sixth grade and Mrs. Safier, who saw me as mostly like all the other children. I was furious.

In my early twenties I went after a career in show business. Though I had a true care for music and dance, I felt nothing mattered much except my ambition, and I got angry with people I saw as holding me back. When I was working as one of several back-up singer/dancers in a Las Vegas show, we did a routine like the Rockettes, and every night I would kick a little higher than I was supposed to. This did not endear me to my fellow performers. Their objections caused some ugly scenes offstage that I tried to dismiss with “They’re crazy!”

Once, while I was on a visit home, my mother told me frankly that she thought I was becoming a selfish person. I said something angry, but I knew she was right. I was ashamed of myself, and hated the way I wouldn’t admit I was to blame for anything.

When I began studying Aesthetic Realism in consultations, I learned, to my great relief, that I could have a completely different purpose with people, a purpose for which I could really like myself: to understand them. My consultants asked: “Do you think that your mother was easy to understand?”

CMcC. No.

Consultants. Did you get angry with her because she mixed you up? 

CMcC. Yes. 

Consultants. And did you use it to feel that anything she said, you couldn’t listen to? 

CMcC. Yes!

What they said next, with its humor, broke through my self-righteous smugness: “It’s good for everyone to think about what in them could annoy the heck out of someone else.”

Aesthetic Realism shows we’re thirsting for kind, accurate opposition to our contempt, and I am everlastingly glad I found it. I began to see that there were things in me that other people could honestly object to: my coldness, selfishness, and ingratitude—things I objected to in myself. Learning to criticize myself, and consciously hoping to know people more, freed me to be the person I was hoping to be.

Scorning People Always Leads to Difficulty

An important instance of my study occurred some years ago, when I was troubled about a readiness I saw in myself to feel people were “difficult.” They included, I’m sorry to say, my husband, Kevin Fennell, and some coworkers at my job as a computer trainer. I had tried to help one particular woman with a software problem and had felt offended by her saying angrily, “When you figure it out, come back later!” I brought this matter up in a class taught by Ellen Reiss; I love the good will and knowledge she has in these classes.

Ms. Reiss asked if I hoped to respect people more whether they were sweet to me or angry. And she asked, “Do you think this woman felt frazzled, and then saw you as calm, seeming like peaches and cream, but scornful?” I realized, yes: something a person was concerned about, I’d been treating lightly, and she could rightly resent that.

Ms. Reiss asked whether I thought I had the same question with people at work that I had with my husband. I said I didn’t know—I knew I felt bad about how I could become impatient with him. She said something I found very surprising: that the question in common between how I saw Kevin and how I saw my coworker was, “Do you think you can have a determination: This person will not mean more to me?”

Yes, it was true. That ugly determination was a major factor in my seeing other people as “difficult,” and realizing this made me want to change. I saw that hoping to respect people, wanting them to mean more to me, not less, made me like myself. For example, now I’m glad to say I want my husband to mean more to me every day—and he does!

I’m seeing what Mr. Siegel described in his lecture Aesthetic Realism and People: “Every person who lives, whether in Greenpoint or Persia, gives us a chance of knowing ourselves better. People are a means of finding out what we want.”