The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Reading, Talking, & the Battle in Self

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue serializing the 1972 lecture Reading Itself Has to Do with Poetry, by Eli Siegel. It is surprising, playful, deep, hopeful, definitive. Mr. Siegel is showing that reading as such—what goes on as one reads, what reading takes in—is a poetic matter, an aesthetic matter: it is described in this principle—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

He speaks in particular about the opposites random and plan. These are large in the life of everyone, and people have been very troubled about them. For example: a person can feel that the matters in her life lack coherence, that she just goes from one activity to another, one thought to another, without a sense of composition, and therefore without a feeling of meaning. This is a randomness that has things seem disconnected and rather empty, and it makes one feel angry and ashamed. But a person can also be pained because she is afraid of spontaneity: Oh, why do I feel I have to map out everything—why can’t I meet life more freely?

In the lecture, Mr. Siegel quotes from the book Good Reading, edited by J. Sherwood Weber (1964). It’s a work that offers both advice about reading and lists of books with brief descriptions. As Mr. Siegel mentions various titles and as he comments on statements by contributing editors, he is illustrating through them what the world itself is: a oneness of randomness and plan. And there is this great fact, central to Aesthetic Realism: as we see, consciously, clearly, opposites as one, those very opposites become better related in us. “We are,” he wrote, “the way we know” (Self and World, p. 118).

Reading, Smartphones, & Trouble

From one point of view, there is much more reading today than ever before. People are reading, in terrific abundance, text messages, email, material on social media and throughout the internet. They’re reading these things on smartphones as they walk down the street, lie in bed—and are with others at meals, cultural events, business gatherings. The terms addiction and compulsion have been used for the attachment of millions of Americans to their smartphones.

I’m going to comment on an article that appeared on the New York Times’s “Well” blog this month: “The Phones We Love Too Much,” by Lesley Alderman. It’s about the feeling people have that smartphone use is interfering with close human relationships. The writer says, “When one partner constantly checks his or her phone it sends an implicit message that they find the phone (or what’s on it) more interesting than you.” This has been seen as a situation new in history, distinctive of our time. But the principles of Aesthetic Realism explain it and show it has to do with the human self of any time and all time. In fact, it is only through Aesthetic Realism that the excessive drive toward one’s smartphone can be understood.

Why are people so tied to their phones that, the article notes, they “check them, on average, 47 times a day”? Does it have to do with the opposites in everyone—the fundamental opposites self and world? Aesthetic Realism explains that the biggest need we have is to take care of our particular self through knowing and being just to the world that’s not ourselves. Reading is that—when it’s reading in the truest sense (whether on a smartphone or in an old folio): we use ourselves to meet deeply, authentically, the words, the feelings, of another person; they come into us and make us larger. Meanwhile, there are two battling desires in a person, and we need to know about them in order to understand how we see anything—from love to smartphones:

1) Every person wants to be related to what’s not oneself, to have to do with things, be affected richly by them. But, 2) every person also wants to have oneself to oneself, be unchanged by other things and people, be aloof from them, be un-had in hidden scornfulness. This second desire is a form of the most hurtful thing in us: contempt. Well, a smartphone can be a means of meeting both desires simultaneously but not in a full way, true way, accurate way. It can be a means of feeling somewhat connected while also having oneself, hidden, apart.

“The Buried Life”

The Times article says that excess smartphone use has stopped couples from having conversations, and the writer mentions a book titled Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. However, one cannot “reclaim” what one never really had to begin with. The problem of people’s not speaking satisfyingly with each other, of being unwilling or unable to talk, has been around for a very long time; it far predates smartphones. It used to be said (and truly) that people watched television rather than talking with each other. And long before that, and after, there have been painful yet taken-for-granted silences at dinner tables; or people not listening while another talked; or people shouting at each other. If people really liked talking with each other, no smartphone would stop them.

The poet Matthew Arnold lived from 1822 to 1888. He never owned a smartphone, though today his words can be found readily on one. In his poem “The Buried Life” he writes about the inability of people close to each other to express themselves to each other. For example:

Alas! is even love too weak

To unlock the heart, and let it speak?

Are even lovers powerless to reveal

To one another what indeed they feel?

Arnold didn’t know the cause—as today people with smartphones in their hands do not. It is explained by Eli Siegel in his great essay “The Ordinary Doom” and its Preface. In the following graceful, vivid sentences is the reason a person is using a smartphone to evade that showing of oneself and knowing another which constitute real conversation:

We haven’t yet come to the courage needed to have ourselves be seen and to see another fully....We have to think that what is to know us deserves to know us before candor will be cared for by us adequately or used adequately. Our attitude to the world is still one of fear, one of contempt, and one of aloofness. This means that whomever we know, our attitude to that person will be one of fear, contempt, aloofness....To know a person is to know the universe become throbbingly specific. It is always the universe on two feet, with two eyes, and an articulate mouth. It is the universe we want to skip.

In the article a “leadership coach” is quoted. How should you encourage your partner to interact with you rather than with his phone? “Emphasize the benefits of being more connected,” the coach says. But the “benefits” won’t be presented in a way that’s convincing unless the presenter herself is convinced that knowing the world and showing oneself to it is wise and thrilling. To something in the self, to have oneself, unruffled, unstirred, while seeming to take part in things, dwarfs every other benefit. That’s because, as Mr. Siegel explains, if we don’t like the world we won’t want to meet it with a certain fullness.

This fake joining of opposites—being somewhat “connected” with the world but aloof from it—also affects the kind of reading often done on a smartphone: the skimming, the jumping from one link to another, the “surfing,” the feeling that nothing deserves more than a few moments’ attention. In keeping with the opposites Mr. Siegel discusses in the lecture on reading: smartphone reading often has a bad randomness—bad because, while we’re meeting many things, nothing holds us, nothing does very much to us.

A Beautiful Fear—& Hope

There is a beautiful fear that can drive people to their smartphones with perhaps undue frequency. They are afraid of how they separate themselves from the world, afraid of being locked in themselves—and through their phones they feel some relation to the wide outside world. But we need to love our relatedness to things. We need to see that through knowing what’s not ourselves we take care of ourselves, are ourselves. When we see this, not only will phones be smart but our use of them will be too. The study of Aesthetic Realism makes that seeing possible at last, to the grand benefit of people’s lives, expression, and kindness.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Reading Is Casualness & Plan

By Eli Siegel

Professor Weber, in his address to the readers, says:

Good Reading is a selective, annotated bibliography ranging across the varieties of literature—“the literature of knowledge” as well as “the literature of power.” [Pp. 10-11]

That is so. In this work there are books on the exact sciences, and books on the nature of poetry. Under the heading “Physical Sciences and Mathematics” there is a book on magnets. Then, there’s a book that brings together poetry and exact sciences: Soap Bubbles and the Forces Which Mold Them, by Charles V. Boys. The person responsible for this section, Palmer W. Townsend, says:

This classic, both good science and delightful reading, describes simple experiments anyone can do to bring him into direct contact with many of the basic forces of nature. Anch, Dov. [P. 271]

Since a bubble is usually so symmetrical, it is a little imitation of “the spheres”—later called planets.

There is a book titled The Story of Engineering. Then there’s something formidable, The Physics of Television. But the opposites we have been looking at are still present, because if a person is going to write a work on the physics of television, sometimes in a sentence he’ll do something he didn’t plan on doing. Also, instead of saying “the usual antenna” he might say “the more frequently used antenna” or even “the preferred antenna,” and that shows he has a feel for choice, because there’s a difference between the usual and the more frequently used, also the preferred. The description is:

A clear account of how men have learned to control electrons, photons, and electromagnetic waves to produce instantaneous moving pictures at great distances. [P. 271]

“ men have learned to control electrons”—somebody else would have said manage here. Meanwhile, when the person summarizing speaks about “control[ling] electrons, photons, and electromagnetic waves,” I think he should be careful: I think now and then one gets by.

“ produce instantaneous moving pictures at great distances.” That they can do.

Palmer W. Townsend is identified as of “Air Reduction Company.” It seems that’s a large activity, air reduction. I think some of the greatest anger of man is shown in the phrase compressed air: as soon as he sees air as something to be compressed, well, he’s really determined.

Then, in this group, there’s a popular book, The Birth and Death of the Sun, by George Gamow. Also his Biography of the Earth, and One, Two, Three... Infinity. There’s a book with a very simple title, Gravity. There’s something that looks a little lyrical: Great Essays in Science. Then there’s a book with a metaphor in its title; it seems that even mathematics has a stream: The Main Stream of Mathematics. Some people prefer the creeks of mathematics, and inlets. There’s a person who was very popular for a while: Willy Ley, Satellites, Rockets and Outer Space. There’s a classic: Karl Pearson, The Grammar of Science. And there’s The ABC of Steam Boilers. (I remember seeing that book.)

There are books that are trying to make mathematics delightful: Mathematician’s Delight. And a book on light—well, even there, there will be the approach and sometimes the victory of whimsy.

We are looking at reading in its planningness and casualness.

We can find ourselves reading something and not knowing we are reading it, as, let’s say, we read an electric sign.

What We Know & How We Feel

The statement of Professor Weber that I read earlier uses the De Quincey phrase “literature of knowledge and literature of power.” That’s the most important duality for everyday life: what we know and how we feel, what we want. The literature of knowledge is: 10 + 3 make 13. But: Thirteen times I knocked at the door. I almost fainted but still there was no answer. I knocked for the fourteenth time and I heard a squeak. We have the matter of knowledge with 10 + 3 make 13. And Thirteen times I desolately, hopelessly knocked at the door—that’s the literature of power.

De Quincey’s essay “Literature of Knowledge and Literature of Power,” in his writing on Pope, is still to be read. And his showing that books were of two kinds began something. There is, let’s say, the racing form, which tells you what horse is going to run and who may win; you have a notion it’s rather limited. It and also the box scores for baseball are literature of knowledge. If somebody, though, writes a racy description of the game—and occasionally that is done—that is more the literature of power. Info belongs to the literature of knowledge; woe belongs to the literature of power; and to-and-fro, to both.

Journals, Ethics, Crime

The authors of Good Reading also tell about journals, and here they are somewhat careless. They confess that one cannot read the classics all the time; journals are to be read. The writer of the section “On Reading,” Atwood H. Townsend, says:

Things move so swiftly these days that a consistent reading of a good newspaper such as The New York Times or a news magazine such as Time or Newsweek is essential. [P. 16]

I think any person wanting to be accurate would not say the great desire of the New York Times was to tell the whole truth, and that goes for about any newspaper or newsmagazine. At the moment the journals are greatly affected by what is going on financially in the world. One phase of ethics is to give all the facts what they deserve. That is not done because, for one thing, there are persons who run these papers.

Then we have a silly bit of advice:

Concentrate on the important national and international news stories, the editorial columns, and letters from readers—not on crime, sports and comics. [P. 16]

But let’s say that there was a crime—at least many people think so—in what’s called the Watergate episode, where some of our nation’s rulers began listening without permission to what was going on at the Democratic Party headquarters. That is a crime. It’s an invasion of privacy. It is also a stealing of information—and is generally inconsiderate. And there is a legal action going on. However, this is in relation to what I just quoted.

Why don’t you read the Daily News? Because I get all my crime from Dostoyevsky. Some of the greatest writing is about crime. There’s a book that is seen as a novel of importance, William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, which is an ethical novel having a touch of detective story, and it is about crime. There are many other novels that have to do with crime, and there are plays. Aeschylus’s Agamemnon is about crime in ancient Greece, and Sophocles’ Oedipus is about unconscious crime, or something that looks like crime. It happens a few crimes are committed in Hamlet. So if you’re going to keep away from crime why should you just pick on the newspapers? We know what is meant, but the problem is to distinguish a significant crime from an insignificant. Meanwhile, in all insignificant crimes, something may be found.

What Is Important?

“Concentrate on the important national and international news stories, the editorial columns, and letters from readers—not on crime, sports and comics.” That is careless. Occasionally a sports story, like Ring Lardner’s “Alibi Ike,” is more important than a story about the seeming depths of one’s soul, because you can do a bad job with the depths of your soul while you might do a good job with a baseball player who has an attitude. Very often baseball players have an attitude. As somebody once said, The manager, Hixon, put me in left field because I have an attitude. He thinks I’m so good at catching grievances, I might be good at catching the ball in left field. We’re told not to concentrate “on crime, sports and comics”—but some comics too are quite important.

Then we have a statement about book reviews. The fact is that book reviews are also in the control of persons. And when we look at the history of reviewing, how people review what they want and leave out what they want, we see that this shouldn’t be said so easily:

By reading book reviews with some regularity you will discover what new books you want to read—

Well, it’s not inevitable.

—and you will have at least some idea about all important new publications, whether or not you have time to read them yourself. [P. 16]

That is too easy.