The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Poetry, Love, & Dissatisfaction

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of the magnificent lecture by Eli Siegel that we have been serializing. In this 1964 talk, he discusses his poem “A Marriage,” of 1930: it is, he shows, an early expression of the way of seeing the world and the self of everyone which would become Aesthetic Realism.

We print here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Steven Weiner, from a recent public seminar titled “A Man’s Dissatisfaction—What Makes It Right or Wrong?”

The Eye, the Rose, the World

I have written that “A Marriage” is one of the finest poems in the literature of America. It is fervent, philosophic, tender, logical, vivid, wide, throbbing—immensely musical. It is composed of twenty sections, and we have reached Mr. Siegel’s discussion of the final two.

Section 19, with its thirty lines, is the only part of the poem in rhyme. It can be seen as a poem in its own right, though it is certainly part of the whole. There are some lines in world poetry that have been, historically, memorable: lines readers have said stayed with them and came to their minds again and again. Two are here: “And don’t you, however, suppose / The eye is for the rose?”

What does this section, about the eye, the rose, and the world, have to do with the subject of the whole poem, love? Well, is our very being—as Mr. Siegel describes—organized in such a way as to have the world seen by us, known by us? Is the world, in the way it’s related to human beings, arranged so as to be increasingly known? And in love, is the person we want to be close to a particular representative of the world itself? Must our purpose with him or her be to see the world with increasing justice and care?

The answer to those questions is Yes. The deepest desire of every person, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to like the world honestly, through knowing it. And that is the purpose of love—the embraces, conversations, years, moments: “to feel closely one with things as a whole.” The reason love is so often not lasting, the reason for the fury and dullness, recriminations, bitterness, and shame between lovers, is that most often people use “love” in behalf of a different purpose: to have contempt for the world.

I Learned This

As illustration, it is an honor to quote from an Aesthetic Realism lesson I had at age 19 along with the man I was close to, whom I’ll call ND. We wanted to understand why there was trouble between us—including my often showing what ND called “sudden displeasure” with him. What Mr. Siegel taught us at this lesson is what men and women for centuries have ached to learn. He asked me: “Do you think that Mr. D is interested in you to respect other things more, or as a substitute for respecting?” It was the second. And Mr. Siegel explained to us:

Any person, any girl, who doesn’t think that a person close to her is trying to have her like herself and things in life, distrusts that person. This is not an Aesthetic Realism recitation: it happens to be life itself. There is that in a girl which doesn’t care so much for the liking of things—she wants to have an important time. Nonetheless the need to like the world never leaves one. And I say, Mr. D, that when Ms. Reiss repels you, it’s for this reason: that, one, you’re trying to have her like you as apart from the liking of things; and, two, you’re trying to make her important as apart from how much she respects things—to make her important because you seem to be under her spell.

Mr. Siegel showed me why I felt bad in relation to Mr. D—both angry and ashamed, as millions of women feel about a man right now. And as I look at the transcript of this lesson, I am moved tremendously. I am reading words said to me which are beautiful as prose, grand in their kindness, and utterly in keeping with the poem we see Mr. Siegel discussing here. I felt bad, he explained,

because you put aside your first purpose. Your first purpose happens to be to respect something; your second, to be approved of. You’ve made being approved of, as many people have, something by itself. Aesthetic Realism says the biggest desire organically is to respect something without the ego dirtying it up. That’s the one desire, and it is put aside for the being approved of, because the second is much easier.... Anything you do, including being close to another person, which is not for the purpose of respecting things more is against your life. There are no two ways about it, never will be.

I was learning what would enable me to love successfully—and to see, feel, know with largeness and pride.

In the final section of “A Marriage,” Eli Siegel speaks again about that important character in the poem, “a word.” I have said that no one valued words more than he did. I know of no greater kindness than the way he used them—no greater intelligence and love.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

A Reciprocity

By Eli Siegel

We’ve come to section 19 of “A Marriage”:

Eyes we may suppose,

Are made so that the rose

May be seen; this is the way

Something uses to convey

To us, it has made

Besides our eyes and us,

Something else; and thus and thus

This thing goes about its business.

And for eyes is light and shade,

And for eyes is nothing less

Than a world and a rose,

Than a world and a rose.

The rose has lines and victories,

Despairs, defeat and hate,

Ugliness, terror, shocks.

The rose has all of fate,

The world has all of fate,

The rose has early and late,

The world has early and late—

And spears and stars and fires.—

And don’t you, however, suppose

The eye is for the rose?

Surely the world mocks

Us and so does the rose.

However one sees

Things; however strangely attires

Itself this earth of ours—

Both in steel and flowers—

See it—for don’t you suppose

The eye is for the rose?

Looking at this: “Eyes we may suppose, / Are made so that the rose / May be seen.” Whatever else, it does seem that there is a rapport between light and the eye; an oak tree and the eye, of a summer noon; and ever so many objects. The eye is a functioning instrument and it seems that the objects it functions with fit it. However crazy the world may be, there is a reciprocity of seeming accuracy between the thing seen and the seeing thing. This goes for all the beasts in the jungle and all the beasts in the barnyard.

The giraffe, for example, had to see the branch of the tree in order to use it. So, through evolution, in time the giraffe’s eyes took on a quality that was death on branches, or at least effective with branches.

Eyes are necessary to see, and some force in the world worked to have things seen.

“Eyes we may suppose, / Are made so that the rose / May be seen.” So far the world very often has put no obstacle between a rose’s being there and its being seen there. It’s very kind of the world. It’s not everything.

“This is the way / Something uses to convey / To us it has made / Besides our eyes and us, / Something else.” Our senses, which are a great part of us, are proof that objects exist, because without objects our senses would be ducks that never get to water.

“And for eyes is nothing less / Than a world and a rose”: something general and something particular.

What an Object Has

“The rose has lines and victories, / Despairs, defeat and hate, / Ugliness, terror, shocks.” A rose completely seen would have in it the manyness containing “Lines and victories, / Despairs, defeat and hate, / Ugliness, terror, shocks.” You can, as the cubists did, break up a rose so that the equivalents of these things are present.

“The rose has all of fate, / The world has all of fate.” Everything that exists has had fate working, because only something that can be called fate would permit that thing to exist. One can say, I am fated to be as I am; I am fated to exist. Anything can say that.

“And don’t you, however, suppose / The eye is for the rose?” Now, if the eye is for the rose, and the rose is an aspect of worldness, does this hint that there can be a friendliness with the world? It does. We can say poison is also in the world; and we get to what Aesthetic Realism says must be asked: What is the relation between the world as horrifying and the world as pleasing? Is there any relation? It happens that it’s exactly the same world in which we get our pleasures and have our greatest fears. The world is that which has given us our hollowness and our nausea along with, for a while, a trim feeling of lightheartedness.

Surely the world mocks

Us and so does the rose.

However one sees

Things; however strangely attires

Itself this earth of ours—

Both in steel and flowers—

See it—for don’t you suppose

The eye is for the rose?

You can see anything as an enemy to you. You can see a rose as an enemy. But perhaps the greatest success of the world so far is that things exist and there are eyes to see them—which has within it that very greatest effect: things exist and there is something that can think about them.


Then section 20, the final section:

Eyes and mind together,

In thunder a hand lying on a hand.

Wheels whizzing to reach an active page,

a learned page—a word.

And a hand lying on a hand,

And a cloud on a cloud,

And a mist over ocean,

And flower going off towards dazzling planets,

And a word meeting a word,

And a word meeting a word,

And a word meeting a word,

And North Carolina, Washington, Baltimore,

And a hand lying on a hand,

And a word.

The first three lines of this section are about the tumult that lies in all peace.

“And a word meeting a word.” A word here is a specific instance of something meant, seen by another as something meant; an expression that is seen for what it is, presented as what it is. And accurate seeing in terms of the word is the greatest kindness.

So I presented this poem as a prelude to Aesthetic Realism, a prelude to the first Aesthetic Realism lessons.

Dissatisfaction—Right & Wrong

By Steven Weiner

Dissatisfaction, I’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism, is not a bad thing in itself. We should be dissatisfied wherever we see injustice, including in ourselves. Dissatisfaction on behalf of respecting reality is dissatisfaction that’s right. Wrong dissatisfaction comes from our desire to have contempt: to be important and superior through feeling that things and people don’t measure up to our high standards and are worthy of our disdain.

The Two Kinds—Early

By age seven I was already wrongly dissatisfied. I was angry because my family didn’t live in a large home in an affluent neighborhood and my father’s job was not one I could show off about. I began making up stories to impress people—for instance, that I had a relative who was a famous wrestler, and that my modest housing development was installing a fancy swimming pool.

There were many things I could have been pleased by: for example, my family lived in a friendly community in Brooklyn, and I went to good schools. But using the praise I got early from various relatives, I took myself to be a superior child too good for nearly anything.

Some of my dissatisfactions were right. I thought it horribly unfair that there was much poverty in our rich country, and I hoped one day to be a means of this changing.

But mostly, people and things meant little to me. By my teens, I’d say despairingly, “There has to be more to life than this.” I was desperate to feel the world had richness and worth; but I had no idea I was also using my feeling it didn’t to be victorious: “See—this is what it all comes to!” In his lecture Aesthetic Realism and Dissatisfaction, Eli Siegel explains:

We want to think that things have meaning, but something [in us] also wants us to think that nothing matters at all. This happens to be one of the bases for constant dissatisfaction; because if we think that things have meaning we have to be more serious than we want to be, and if we think things haven’t meaning, we’re disappointed. [TRO 769]

The world did stir me through the novels of Dickens and plays of Shakespeare, including this from Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!

But I did not look for—because I really didn’t want to find—what was “noble” and “admirable” in people I knew. That would have interfered too much with my supposed supremacy.

I’ve seen that no one should underestimate the hope in us to be dissatisfied; we even arrange to make sure we are.

As a young man I met JK, a very lively and serious woman. We began to see each other, and for a while I was very happy. But soon I was looking for reasons to be angry with her. And, telling myself I’d found them, I ended our relationship.

In a class about the aesthetics of self I spoke about our breakup, and Mr. Siegel asked me: “Where did Ms. K hurt you the most?”

SW. She didn’t act according to what I wanted.

ES. Do you think you know what you want? You have a terrific sense of grievance—but do you think you really have much of a case?

I saw I didn’t. And he explained that people very often “try to destroy the things with which they’ve been satisfied.”

That’s what I had been doing, and it had made me mean and unhappy. I’m grateful that I now have a very different goal with the woman I care for so much, Frances Finch. And I’m glad that my education about right and wrong dissatisfaction happily continues.

A World of Things

In an Aesthetic Realism class last year, I spoke about a way I had of seeing objects—a way my friends had said was disrespectful. Ellen Reiss asked me:

Do you think the world deserves your attention?—and is the world one thing and also many things? The idea that objects should matter to you, I don’t think you entertain.

SW. I want to live minimally. I don’t like clutter.

ER . So, what some other people care for, you consider clutter?

I was surprised, and said, “I haven’t thought about what things mean to people.”

Ms. Reiss suggested that I look at some of the objects that belong to Ms. Finch, and write sentences about them.

About one, a Dutch creamer, I wrote in part:

It is functional and substantial, and at the same time has delicacy. Different scenes are portrayed in blue on opposite sides: a landscape and a seascape, two aspects crucial to the very being of the Netherlands. So this creamer is both domestic and geographic—a reason I think it means a lot to Frances!

As I wrote, my respect for this object and the woman I care for grew. I’m seeing that my scornful dissatisfaction with objects has been wrong and stupid, and being interested in them gives me much more pleasure.

It’s a great thing that learning from Aesthetic Realism about dissatisfaction can make for true, exciting satisfaction—a proud relation of how we’re for and how we’re against. That’s what happened to me, and it can happen to all people!