The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Point & Width—in Love & a Nation

Dear Unknown Friends:

This issue of TRO is about eternal aesthetics and urgent life. Here is part 2 in our serialization of Has Poetry Point?, the rich and surprising and great lecture that Eli Siegel gave on July 9, 1969. Mr. Siegel is speaking about opposites which, he has explained, are made one in all poetry, and he is showing how they meet in life itself. These opposites are width and point, or area and center. And in the present section, he looks at an instance of width become point in America of that time—in the midst of the Vietnam War. We are at the very basis of Aesthetic Realism, the principle “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

We print here too part of a paper by Michael Palmer, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled Can a Man Be Intelligent about Love?”

So let us look a little at width and point in ourselves; and as to love; and as to a nation.

The way our lives are always point and width is told of in these beautiful sentences from Eli Siegel’s Self and World:

We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves.

We are a point to ourselves. And the world in all its variousness is the unlimited width we are always meeting. The fight in everyone, Aesthetic Realism explains, is: How do I take care of that most precious point which is me—through respect for that wide world not myself, or contempt for it? The big mistake, the beginning of all human injustice and trouble of mind, is the preference in people for contempt—the feeling one will be for [one]self by making less of the outside world.”

So we are points; and we are looking for love. Aesthetic Realism is magnificent in explaining why love fails in people’s lives. It is because we use another person not to see the world in all its width more justly, but deeply to despise that wideness of people and facts and objects and happenings: to feel we don’t need it—we’ve made a separate world with this person and we’re superior to all that mess out there! This contempt is the beginning of all the trouble in love. Real love, Aesthetic Realism shows, like poetry, is a oneness of point and width. It is the using of one person, in his intense particularity, to like the world itself, from which he came and which he is affected by all the time.

The mistake about a nation is like the mistake about love. One’s country, like oneself, is a point in a wider world, which surrounds it. When a nation relates badly itself as point to that width, it may be the cause of massive anguish and death. For now, I put the matter in terms of three questions:

1) Should we use the point which is our country to want to understand and value the rest of the world—or should we feel that we’re superior and what surrounds us is to be managed by us?

2) An individual can see herself as vivid and that world which spreads beyond herself as dimmer: she can see other people’s feelings as much less sharp, much less real, than hers. Similarly: do we want to use our vivid sense of our own country to see that people elsewhere have lives as real as ours, feelings as deep as ours; to see that if these people are wounded they will be pained as much as we would if it were happening to us? Or do we want to make people elsewhere unreal and therefore feel we can do anything we choose with them?

3) A person interested only in her own opinion, who regards the views of people different from her as inimical and to be scorned, is using that point which is herself against the width of things. Such a person, it’s generally agreed, is ignorant, prejudiced, and not to be trusted. Is that true of a nation?

There are lines in Walt Whitman’s poem Salut au Monde” in which a person, his country, and the world as wide join well. Whitman mentions people of many, many nations, their activities, their music, aspects of their earth. He writes this line, which is a beautiful emergency for America: I see distant lands, as real and near to the inhabitants of them as my land is to me.” And he says: Health to you! good will to you all, from me and America sent!” That line represents how America needs to be, also thirsts to be. And through the knowledge Eli Siegel gave humanity, she can. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Emergence of Something

By Eli Siegel

Yesterday appeared one of the loveliest advertisements ever in a newspaper. It showed a change in America and also showed something unconscious taking a conscious form. And when the unconscious suddenly becomes visible and manifest, it is like unknown wideness and unknown circumference and area taking on, showing, a seen center, a visible center. This particular advertisement is about something which is becoming more conscious in America: that the resources of the country have been going too much to the military personnel; they have been going too much to the chaps of the Pentagon.

In a full-page advertisement yesterday in the New York Times, the American Institute of Architects presented the idea: Taxes for schools and things like that, yes!; money for war, no! Years earlier such an idea had been seen as unpatriotic. In fact, as soon as anybody ever said that the military should get a little less money than last year, there was an immediate feeling that all the subversive capitals had hired as an agent the person who said so. The idea of a general getting less money, or the air force receiving a few less drachmas or shekels, seemed the most unpatriotic possibility. However, the American Institute of Architects came through; and you could see them as like the white hand of the Lady of the Lake appearing above the misty gray water.

So this ad has something of what poetry has in it: an assemblage making for a point. One way of describing poetry is an assemblage, through music, making for a point. The architects say this:

It has become clear in both moral and economic terms that our nation can no longer intervene in the political and military affairs of nations throughout the world...and at the same time rebuild our decaying cities...and finance domestic programs needed to solve pressing social problems.

And now, in big type:


One. We call upon the President and the Congress to assume responsibility for a comprehensive reexamination and reordering of our national priorities, recognizing...that we cannot sensibly hope to instruct other nations... when we are increasingly unable to demonstrate that we know how to maintain a viable society at home.

Two....An efficient and humane environment is basic to the maintenance of a harmonious and prosperous society....Only a wholehearted commitment of will and money will enable us to apply the skills needed to erase the shame of urban America. 

Approved and adopted by the American Institute of Architects at its annual convention in Chicago, Illinois, June 26, 1969.

Well, that took a long time saying by these persons, but it’s the emergence of something. Form can be seen as the emergence of something within non-form. Art implies that all the unformed, the weltering, the wallowing, the shapeless, the pulpy, the viscous, has form, and it can be seen there, and the artist in a good way extricates it and even extorts it. The silver dollar is taken out of the mud.

So the architects at last have seen that there is something wrong. If you are going to build a lot of new buildings, you’ve got to have money, and a good deal of it is going for something else. You can’t build buildings with the money that goes to maintain various kinds of characters in Saigon. That’s a big discovery, but it’s pretty poetic as far as it goes.

The architects don’t have the interest that various other people would have—defense contractors. Some might, but most architects would simply like to build another public library, or a fairly good apartment house. Also, if they have any aesthetic sense, they are affected by the way half of the buildings in America are in a state of ungainly frailty.

So there is a debate going on: how should the money be used? There also are dramatic ideas: one is that before you start reforming people, you might as well look at your own ethics. This idea occasionally takes a funny form. For instance, in Dickens’ Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby is sending handkerchiefs and all kinds of Christian products to the Africans, and in the meantime her children are running around in a state of unkemptness. Dickens had a good time making fun of that: don’t worry so much about Africa; worry a little more about what’s right here in London. The same idea is present in “The Courtship of Miles Standish,” when Priscilla says, Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?”—Why are you trumping up so much for Miles Standish?

Intelligent about Love?

By Michael Palmer

I’m enormously grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism that a man can be intelligent about love when he sees that the purpose of love is to like the world through another person. That is very different from what I once thought.

Growing up in the Bronx, I came to feel, like many people, that love was strictly a matter of “chemistry": you saw someone, your eyes met, and the music started. I didn’t know that I had an attitude to the whole world and the people in it which made love impossible: I felt I was somehow very special and what was coming to me was the most important thing. This attitude began early and was completely opposed to intelligence—which Mr. Siegel defines in his Definitions, and Comment as “the ability of a self to become at one with the new.” He explains:

Every self is surrounded by otherness: what is different from it. There is a way, however, of taking otherness dully for granted, of diminishing it, of acting as if we had seen it.

That is what I did.

My father, a traveling salesman, was on the road a good deal, and I spent a lot of time with my mother and grandmother. I got the idea that my mere presence enlivened their days. They often referred to me as a “krasavich,” a Russian word meaning "beauty.” I came to feel that love meant being praised very much and not having to do much to get the praise.

When little girls my age didn’t make a similar fuss over me, and even had the nerve to criticize my superior attitude, I saw them as mean, sarcastic, out to make less of me. I tried to ignore them, deciding it was better to be by myself, even though I often felt lonely and empty. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel once said: “We either look on people as a convenience for ourselves, or as realities in their own right which it is good for us to know." Not having this knowledge, I was unintelligent about love.

A Desire to Dismiss

As a young man, I noticed a secretary at the job where I worked who was very attractive and seemed quite unhappy. For several days, each time I passed her desk I would say something to cheer her up. I didn’t seem to be making any progress, but about a week later she greeted me in the elevator with a big smile and hearty hello. Instead of being glad, I found myself annoyed. I nodded coldly, walked away, and never talked to her again. I felt bad about this for a long time, and several years after I left the job, I wrote to her, apologizing. But I didn’t know why I had responded as I did.

When, to my great good fortune, I met Aesthetic Realism, I began to understand myself and motives I had with people that made me hate myself. In an early class I attended, Mr. Siegel said to me: “There are two things people do all the time—accept and dismiss. Do you think there’s a great desire in you to dismiss?” Yes, there was. He continued: “You’ve dismissed many people. It’s a tremendous pleasure. There’s joy in dismissing. Do you think all disdain is a triumph?”

MP. Yes, I think so.

ES. You are asking for warmth from people before you are ready to provide it. You have to know yourself.

Towards that knowledge, Mr. Siegel told me in another class: “I would say there’s an esteem of yourself that you’re not sure of, and this attitude to yourself interferes with how you see other people.”

That “esteem” of myself, I learned, was contempt: building myself up by disdaining others, by manipulating people to have them do as I wanted. And because the having of contempt was against my largest purpose—to like the world—I was deeply unsure of myself.

Hearing criticism of this attitude and seeing how it worked in me made for a big change. I began to think about how much I could respect people and learn from them, and I became warmer, and smarter too. Through my study of Aesthetic Realism, the world truly came alive to me. I learned about things I had ignored—art, literature, poetry. And love, passionate and kind, came to be in my life!

When I met Lynette Abel, I saw an intelligent, lively, and very attractive woman. She, too, was studying Aesthetic Realism, and when I heard her talk with feeling and logic about how much what we were learning needed to be known all over America and the world, I was swept. Soon I knew I wanted to marry her.

A Beginning Point 

As Lynette and I were becoming closer and I was very happy, there were still some old, hurtful ways I was trying to hold on to. For example, I preferred it when things were, as I saw it, rather calm, and I found myself becoming irritated at Lynette’s energy and enthusiasm.

In an Aesthetic Realism class, when I said I was worried that I didn’t have a large enough desire to know Lynette, Ellen Reiss asked me questions that men are desperate to hear and that enabled me to change—such as: “Do you think you still have a very big desire to be unbothered?”; “Do you feel in knowing Ms. Abel you have a chance to know yourself, a chance to know the world?”; “Do you think you should see Lynette Abel as a beginning point for seeing all human beings more happily and deeply?” This, I am so glad to say, is what occurred—and has been occurring in these ten fortunate years we have been married!