The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Power, Kindness, & Our Feelings

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 3 of the great 1972 lecture The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. And with it is an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll—the first section of a paper she presented this month at the public seminar titled “Can a Woman Be Both Kind & Powerful?”

The lecture is about something people do every day, usually don’t think about, and when they do think about it, generally consider it smart. But it is actually, Aesthetic Realism shows, a massive cause of self-weakening, pain, and cruelty. It is the right people give themselves to see their feelings any way they please; to assume that because they have a certain feeling the feeling must be right; to lie about their feelings, even to themselves.

Mr. Siegel discusses a text he sees as important: a passage from philosopher R.G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art. Collingwood writes about what he calls “corruption of consciousness.” And early in the talk, Mr. Siegel describes what that phrase and the passage itself are about:

We are the custodians of feelings, we are the custodians of ourselves, and we can think either that we should meddle with what we see or that we should try more and more to look upon our feelings as an explorer would a wilderness, trying to be just to it.

I think that is a beautiful sentence. And the meddling with what we see, with the facts, including those about our own feelings, is what Collingwood means by “corruption of consciousness.” It is a fundamental aspect of that which Aesthetic Realism identifies as the most hurtful thing in every person: contempt for reality.

Meddling with Herself, Power, & Others

The subject of the lecture is very much connected with what Ms. Driscoll writes about. To show something of how, I’ll comment on an early poem of Tennyson: his “Lady Clara Vere de Vere” (1833).

Clara Vere de Vere is a young woman of a wealthy family, with an aristocratic lineage. She likes having a big effect on men whom she sees as below her station: young farmers, or yeomen. Her technique is, after the man is smitten, to turn up her nose at him. The poem is spoken by a person whom she is now trying to affect—but who is critical. It begins:

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,

Of me you shall not win renown;

You thought to break a country heart

For pastime, ere you went to town.

At me you smiled, but unbeguiled

I saw the snare, and I retired;

The daughter of a hundred earls,

You are not one to be desired.

·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   ·   

Lady Clara Vere de Vere,

Some meeker pupil you must find,

For, were you queen of all that is,

I could not stoop to such a mind.

Clara Vere de Vere is after power. And how we go for power, our feelings about it, what kind of power we’re after, is one of the tremendous matters that people do not want to look at, and have lied about.

People haven’t known what Aesthetic Realism explains and Ms. Driscoll writes about: that there are two kinds of power and a means of distinguishing them. Nevertheless, we can be quite sure that Lady Clara did not want to see plainly what she was after with men: the power of making a person foolish about her, and of triumphantly looking down on him for seeming so foolish. With or without the social class aspect, that is what many men and women are going after right now: Can I affect a person, instill some big feeling in him or her, while being not so affected myself? Can I have the thrill of making someone foolish and weak over me? You can call it flirting, but, as Tennyson felt, it is ill will and contempt.

Had Clara Vere de Vere wanted to see what she was after, she could not have continued going for it, because her purpose would have looked so slimy to her. That is the chief reason people don’t want to be clear about their feelings: to do so would cramp their ability to have what they see as their way.

As the speaker in the poem describes Clara truly to herself and says he’s not taken by her, he is having good power and is kind—because to stop a person from succeeding in an ugly purpose is kind. And he has a good contempt for her, because it comes from respect for the world and humanity:

You sought to prove how I could love,

And my disdain is my reply.

The lion on your old stone gates

Is not more cold to you than I.

This poem has lines that thrilled people—and should thrill now. They say no person has the right to be considered superior from birth. We all have the same source—the most venerable heritage—here described as Adam and Eve:

Trust me, Clara Vere de Vere,

From yon blue heavens above us bent

The gardener Adam and his wife

Smile at the claims of long descent.

There are lines describing how the bad power Clara is after, and does not want to look at, weakens her:

I know you, Clara Vere de Vere,

You pine among your halls and towers;

The languid light of your proud eyes

Is wearied of the rolling hours.

That is so today. Contempt that people don’t want to criticize makes their lives dull and heavy. It brings them misery.

The Greatest Power

The speaker in the poem says something that Aesthetic Realism sees as not one bit sentimental, but as logical and tough: the only nobility, the greatest power, is good will:

Howe’er it be, it seems to me,

’Tis only noble to be good.

Kind hearts are more than coronets,

And simple faith than Norman blood.

Tennyson is an artist. The lines of this poem are musical: they are a beautiful oneness of severity and gentleness, sharpness and wonder. The poem has that wide, deep, vivid honesty about the world, which is art—and which, if we’re to be happy, needs to be the aim of our lives.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Seeing of What We Really Feel

By Eli Siegel

Note. The sentences by Collingwood that Mr. Siegel now looks at are about the unsuccessful expression that is in bad art.

We come to these sentences:

A person who on one occasion fails to express himself is a person quite accustomed to express himself successfully on other occasions, and to know that he is doing it. Through comparison of this occasion with his memory of these others, therefore, he ought to be able to see that he has failed, this time, to express himself.

The more something concerns ourselves, the more we are disposed to be dishonest. As soon as a matter is crucial for ourselves, we feel we have a right to meddle with the facts, or reality. This means we feel we have a right to what Collingwood calls “corrupt consciousness,” a right we usually take and usually don’t know we’re taking.

Collingwood uses the words “express himself.” His implication is that the self looking for comfort and shelter is not the whole self. When you “express” the fearful self, the self that is fugitive from all it can see or has seen, that self is not really expressed. It’s manifested, it’s exploited, but it’s not expressed, because it doesn’t become an object.

And this is precisely what every artist is doing when he says, “This line won’t do.” He remembers what the experience of expressing himself is like, and in the light of that memory he realizes that the attempt embodied in this particular line has been a failure.

It is important to ask, Why does a person not like what he has written? If he is a critic of himself, on what basis does he go? Why are there so many revisions and scratchings out?

According to Aesthetic Realism the purpose of everyone, no matter how one is placed educationally, is to do a good job in the seeing of what one feels. That is elusive; it is like trying to pursue a weasel with a power of infinity and a power of indefinitely changing itself. Yet the pursuit must go on, the seeing what we really feel. Most persons don’t see it. There are a few phrases used: “feel tired,” “feel bad,” “feel hopeless,” “feel angry.” But to see what one feels truly, in depth, and comprehensively and flexibly—that is something else.

Corruption of consciousness is not a recondite sin or a remote calamity which overcomes only an unfortunate or accursed few; it is a constant experience in the life of every artist, and his life is a constant and, on the whole, a successful warfare against it.

The artist, then, is more disposed than others to see what he truly feels. If art does occur, that happens. We can begin with Homer. Homer felt something. Something had happened in Asia and in Greece, and he was disposed to put it down. Ever since then, nearly, persons have talked of him in large terms. “Oft of one wide expanse had I been told / That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne”—that is from Keats’s sonnet. There has been a feeling that there’s something healthy, spacious, moving, and exact. Whatever else can be said of Homer, we can call him Homer the Healthy. It’s not the most magniloquent title, but there’s a feeling that he is. One thing said against Virgil a little is that, having lived so much later and seen some of the shows and subtleties of Rome, he is less healthy than Homer—which doesn’t mean that he’s not valuable. Homer to Virgil is like a girl still staying in the country to a girl who ’s gone to Radcliffe.

But this warfare always involves a very present possibility of defeat; and then a certain corruption becomes inveterate. What we recognize as definite kinds of bad art are such inveterate corruptions of consciousness.

We cannot believe in ourselves unless we believe in what our feelings truly are. If we don’t want to see our feelings, it’s the same as saying we’re not fit to live. That is, we’ve given up ourselves, because our selves are our feelings as they truly are, and if we don’t want to see these, then we’re interested in being somebody else—which everybody is interested in. Everybody wants to have some convenient disguise. It’s one of the big matters concerning mental health: be careful about the disguise you adopt.

Can We Be Both Powerful & Kind?

By Carol Driscoll

As a woman who once envied people I saw as having power, and who was driven to go after it in ways that often made me ashamed, I’m very grateful to have learned what it means for a woman to meet her own deepest hope: to feel she’s truly kind.

Eli Siegel defined kindness as “that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased.” And he explained: “A person is kind who feels a sense of likeness to other things.” In my twenties, in Boston, I remember feeling a surge of excitement as I demonstrated on behalf of striking telephone workers. Joining with them, using my mind, energy, and vocal power to fight for justice, I felt a deep identification with them and was proud of wanting them to succeed.

However, I had a different purpose in my work as an office manager. I was after power and I didn’t know what I would later learn from Aesthetic Realism: “Anything making the world more beautiful is good power. Anything making you feel you won and to hell with the rest of the world, is bad power.” I was pretty determined about winning as I sat behind a glass enclosure, imperiously scrutinizing the staff to make sure everyone was busy. I remember the time I raised my voice so everybody, including my department head, could hear me point out what I saw as the “stupid” mistake Roberta had made. Then, to my chagrin, someone showed me that she hadn’t made a mistake at all: I was the one in the wrong. I wanted to crawl away and hide. But I made no connection between my meanness in wanting to show a person up, and the nervousness, unsureness, and tearful outbursts I often had.

Studying Aesthetic Realism, I began to learn what I most needed to know: how a woman can feel she’s powerful and kind at once.

A Child Wants to Be Both

As a child, I remember being so affected reading about Father Damien, the 19th-century priest who cared for people with leprosy, that I wanted to become a missionary so I could help others. I had an authentic desire to be useful, have a good effect on people. This desire was for power that was kind, and I liked myself for wanting it. But I was also after something very different.

I used the difficulties between my parents, and ways my mother could be, to feel I was born into a world that was unkind, even cruel. I couldn’t make sense of the two things in my mother, Ann Driscoll. She loved to listen to music and sing Italian songs around the house, and she spent hours making our angel costumes for the Christmas pageant. But I also saw her ready to feel insulted by someone and get into a rage. Then, with a stony look on her face, she’d retreat into the bedroom, lock the door, and stay there while my father begged her to come out. I didn’t know then that as a woman shuts the world out, gets others to worry about her, and gives a man the message, “You can’t do me any good,” she’s after power that’s punishing, unkind, and hurtful.

Meanwhile, though I was angry with my mother, I secretly admired her seeming ability to have her way. In a class some years later, Mr. Siegel asked me, “Do you think you want power, supremacy, and praise?” The answer was Yes. At age 16, working in a hospital kitchen, I flirted with the cook and saw I’d made a big impression. It was a different story with his assistant, Jimmy, who was not charmed by me. I was furious. I remember asking him sweetly, “Would you like an ice cream cone?,” and then handing him a cone filled, not with vanilla ice cream, but with hot mashed potatoes. While this could be seen as a playful joke, my feeling inside was not at all jocular but vengeful and mean. The incident was representative of my feeling that I was entitled to power and that if I didn’t get it I had a right to be angry and punish.

In an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel asked me, “Do you think a person would like to have another person under their thumb?” “Oh, yes,” I answered. “All right,” he said, “but having a person under your thumb hurts the thumb.” It did very much. In going after the wrong kind of power, I couldn’t feel that I was kind or deserved to be loved.

As I studied Aesthetic Realism, my life changed dramatically and importantly. I learned that for a woman to like herself, she needs to criticize her contempt—the impulsion behind all unkindness and bad power—and to have, as her conscious purpose, the hope to respect other people and be a means of their being stronger. I was learning how to have this purpose when, in a class, I was asked questions about my father, Henry Driscoll. I knew he felt bad about my mother, who had died some years before; and while I had sided with him against her, I had also blamed him for her pain. Mr. Siegel explained that my father might say to me, “Carol, as you know, I sometimes don’t think well of myself. Why do you think that is?” I answered, “I don’t know.” Then Mr. Siegel asked: “What do you want your father to think of you? Are you interested enough in your father’s having a good opinion of himself and using you for that?"

He continued: “You have a good opinion of yourself through another if you use the person for knowledge. Do you want your father to use you to know the whole world better, and be kinder to all people?”

After this discussion I began to be interested in how Henry Driscoll saw the world, including his past, books he was reading, current events. I spoke to him self-critically, about how I’d wanted to put my mother aside, hadn’t wanted to think of how she could have a better opinion of herself. There came to be real warmth between us, so different from the coldness of before. My father gratefully wrote to Mr. Siegel, thanking him for the good effect of Aesthetic Realism on my life.

The Distinction

A distinction that every person needs to be clear about is in this description Mr. Siegel gave:

The way that good power can be distinguished is through asking the question, “If this desire of mine were to be successful, and if I were to have power over this person, would the world look better and would the person himself or herself be stronger?” Any power that a human being has over another that doesn’t make the person it is exerted on stronger and the world in which the power takes place look more beautiful is bad power.

In my marriage to photographer Harvey Spears, I see daily evidence for this beautiful fact: when a woman wants a man to be stronger, and encourages his relation to other people and things, she feels both powerful and kind.