The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Sex, Intellect, & Real Integrity

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the historic lecture Poetry and Words, which Eli Siegel gave 50 years ago, in September 1949. And we publish a part of a paper by photographer Len Bernstein, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled “Is Kindness Possible in Sex?” Three weeks ago, we published a paper by Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman from the same seminar. And I said then that I love how Aesthetic Realism sees both subjects, words and sex. I spoke about the immense fact that the following principle explains the beauty of words and also is the means of seeing how sex can make for kindness and pride, instead of suspicion, conquest, resentment: All beauty,” Eli Siegel wrote, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Self and world are the chief opposites in the life of everyone. And Aesthetic Realism shows that the big question in sex is the same as the big question in economics, in education, in politics, in conversation, in every aspect of life: How can I be fair to myself and to what's not myself at the same time? It can take the form of: Can I feel I am gloriously pleased—and at the same time can I be ever so respectful of the outside world and a person standing for it? Because people have not known that justice to self and justice to the world at once is the central matter in sex, they have been terrifically troubled about body—despite all the pretense of ease on the subject. They have seen sex as in a world apart from, and discordant with, the other aspects of life. They have had the anguish of feeling less of an integrity because of how sex has been in their thoughts and life.

The lecture we are serializing is about words. And people interested in words have felt that as they tried to use them accurately and well, and as they got pleasure from words used well in a book or play, they had a very different kind of mind and were getting a very different kind of pleasure from the mind and pleasure present in sex. Writers have not felt that what impelled them as they tried to get to le mot juste was the same as what impelled them to the body of another—as scientists have not felt that their desire to be exact and their desire for sex were coherent.

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson years ago, Eli Siegel described this rift as it existed in me. He described it beautifully; and the way he used words to do so is great both as kind—ness and as prose. I quote from that lesson here, because as Mr. Siegel comprehended my pain and its cause, he was explaining what millions of people feel right now:

There are two things every person asks [about another person]: “You please me, but do you make me stronger? You make me stronger, but do you please me?” These are terrible questions. Their terror cannot be overestimated, because the fact that something can please one and make one weaker has brought ascertain sick quality to the life of man.

...In the field of expression, enjoyment, or sex, we hope to be proud and pleased at once. Ellen Reiss hopes to be proud about her manner of taking earth—in the same way that she would take the page of a book. The difference between the two things is felt by man and woman: “I’m a different person making love from him or her who goes after knowledge.”

It Was Felt by Matthew Arnold

We can see that rift between making love and going after knowledge, between being pleased and being strengthened in—for example—lines by Matthew Arnold. Arnold stood as much as anyone in the 19th century for the love of words well used. In his poem “Absence,” he says that his feeling about a woman doesn’t go along with his care for knowledge—which Arnold here, and elsewhere, calls “light.” If the stir about a woman can’t go along with knowledge, he says, he doesn’t want the stir. And yet, the closeness to Marguerite is something he so desires! All this is in the following qua—trains. They are very melodious, but they have in them Arnold's very real distress:

I struggle towards the light; and ye,

Once—long’d—for storms of love!

If with the light ye cannot be,

I bear that ye remove.


I struggle towards the light—but oh,

While yet the night is chill,

Upon time’s barren, stormy flow,

Stay with me, Marguerite, still!

Flesh & Intellect Can Be Friends

I love Aesthetic Realism, as I know Arnold would have, for enabling that desolating division between intellect and flesh to end. Aesthetic Realism explains that the thing—the only thing—which makes sex hurtful is the use of it for contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” That is what Len Bernstein writes about here. And sex in all its corporeality will go along with literature, care for words, culture at its largest, intellect at its most exact, when the purpose of sex is to like and respect the world and to have good will for a person—to want that person to be in the best possible relation to other things and people and to reality itself. I am infinitely grateful to know personally that we can have that purpose in sex. And when we do, pride and pleasure are tremendously one.

In Poetry and Words, Mr. Siegel is giving evidence that words and what happens to them in a language—the way their forms change to show tense, number, case, and more—all arose from the desire in people to see what the world truly is. It is a beautiful fact that sex can serve the same desire—and needs to. All the opulent proximity of body should be a form of knowing the world, being pleased by the world, feeling joined to the world, honoring the world—through a person who stands for the world and means much to us.

Because of Eli Siegel’s honesty and enormous knowledge, we can see every aspect of life in a way that makes for kindness and pride.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Words: Poetic and Logical

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing a passage by Samuel Johnson from his “Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language,” about inflections, or the different forms a word may have.

“The Forms of our Verbs are subject to great Variety; some end their Preter Tense in ed, as I love, I loved, I have loved....”

That took a long time—for verbs to be this way. What has the ed to do with time? What is the relation of ed to past? Why did it happen in the British Isles somewhere, and then later get carried over to America, and why is it now said in Tennessee? What is all this?

“...which may be called the regular Form.” Johnson needn’t be so tentative; these are regular verbs, the verbs that end in ed. “But many depart from this Rule, without agreeing in any other; as, I shake, I shook, I have shaken.”

So this is irregular. Why should it be that when you have the word shake and you want to put it in another time, you have to change the a to oo? Who said this? How did it happen? I take; I took: where did this ook business begin? Then, I have taken; yet, break, broke, I have broken. Why did people think of this?

We can understand how they looked at a little stream and said, “Oh, the stream murmurs”; or they heard a wind going through the trees and said, “The wind whispers.” That is onomatopoeia, which means that the sound is like the meaning of the thing itself, or as the thing seems. But why do we get to these inflections, both inside a word and outside a word—why is it I think; I thought? We can say it didn’t happen by chance, and it didn’t happen by plan. So, how did it happen? You have I sing; I sang. Why the change from i to a?

The first thing about words is that when they reach the mind of man they want to do poetic yet logical things showing their relationship: their relationship to themselves, and their relationship to time, to degree, to function, and so on.

Is Kindness Possible in Sex?

By Len Bernstein

Once it would never have occurred to me even to put the words sex and kindness in the same sentence. I did want to see myself as considerate; but when I was close to a woman I mainly wanted her to be in a rapture over me while the world disappeared; and I felt it was impossible for a man to touch a woman and be kind. Sex, I thought, was the kiss of death to friendship between a man and woman, bringing pain and resentment, and I didn’t know why.

Eli Siegel defined kindness as “that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased.” I have seen on the most intimate level that when a man is truly interested in having the woman he is close to care more for the world, be in a better relation to it, there come to be pride and pleasure that are unmatched. I count myself one of the luckiest men in America because I experience this in my marriage of 25 years to Harriet Bernstein.

The first time I met Harriet, I was smitten by her looks and calm, graceful manner. And I respected her very much for her field of study, the speech and hearing sciences. But I regret that from the beginning of our relationship I turned every instance of warmth on her part, a touch on my arm, a kiss on the cheek, into an overture for sex, and was much more interested in Harriet's showing devotion to me than in wanting to know who she was or what she was most hoping for. This was contempt, and it made me unkind. When she had the “nerve” to question my purposes with her, I pouted, whined, and accused her of being cold.

I thought sex was sheer animal instinct that should not be denied, and like most men, I felt justified in any subterfuge to get it. Meanwhile, inwardly I despised myself for this attitude. When I read these sentences by Eli Siegel, I felt enormous relief and gratitude:

Love is either a possibility of seeing the world differently because something different from ourselves is seen as needed and lovely; or it is an extension of our imperialistic approval of ourselves in such a way that we have a carnal satellite. [TRO 150]

Men have had their imperialistic selfish—ness encouraged by the way sex is written of in the press. Take, for example, these representative sentences, from an article titled “You’re Hot, She’s Not,” in Men’s Health magazine (Jan. 1999):

In a new relationship, a man’s testosterone is usually driving him to fulfill his sexual desires. So he’ll find all sorts of ways—gifts, compliments, extra attention—to make a woman feel special enough to open herself to him sexually. In turn, she feels desired, loved, and trusting—all of which makes her more amenable to lovemaking.

This description is demeaning of both women and men. Men are portrayed as ethical wastelands who need to use fake kindness—“gifts, compliments, extra attention”—to get what they want from a woman. Women are seen as simpletons, unaware they're being duped.

I felt new pride learning from Aesthetic Realism that every man judges himself on whether he is ethical or not, kind or not. “Love,” Eli Siegel explained,

should be attended by kindness, but it most often isn’t....The idea is to put together the utmost in carnality, the utmost in fleshly ecstasy, with the utmost good will or kindness....Most often love goes along with a known or unknown cruelty; and then, the sex is bad. [TRO 648]

I love the scientific logic and beauty of Aesthetic Realism in its understanding and ending the centuries—old agony between men and women. Because of what I am learning, I no longer feel that sex is a private demon to be caged and dealt with, but a means of greater love for my wife and a like of the world she stands for, including in my work as a photographer.

To Like the World, or Kick It Out?

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that long before a man and woman embrace, they have an attitude to the world itself; and heir contempt for the world has them see romance as synonymous with getting away from the world, kicking it out.

Early in our marriage, Harriet and I would spend a whole day not seeing or talking to anyone else. I’d take the phone off the hook, enjoying the cozy feeling that nothing besides the two of us existed. But later I would feel ill at ease, get into arguments with Harriet, want to be by myself. In The Furious Aesthetics of Marriage, Mr. Siegel explains what makes for the doubt and mistrust that so often follow “successful” sex: “This situation has to be considered: Is it possible for a person to have a triumph of a biological kind, and still be further from the liking of reality?”

And in TRO 1248, Ellen Reiss describes with clarity the two possibilities in sex—respect and contempt:

Do we want to use our self to have another person be in a better relation to the whole, wide world? Or do we want to use sex to...feel that we're finally running the world...[through a person who will] make it seem all reality is meaningless compared to us?

The Warmest Thing in the World

In a class several years ago, when I spoke with some arrogance about feeling I wasn’t getting enough approval from my wife, I was fortunate to be asked by Ellen Reiss how I would see a woman who did my bidding and approved of me unquestioningly. I said I wasn’t sure. She asked, “If five women right now said, ‘How wonderful you are!’ what would you think of them?” I knew right away. “I’d have contempt,” I answered. “And do you think somewhere you'd have contempt for yourself?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. I’m very grateful for what Ms. Reiss then explained: “We do have to ask what we’re really looking for. Do you think you can see respect as what it really is—the warmest thing in the world, and also the most romantic thing in the world?”

I’m in the midst of seeing the meaning of this. My study of Aesthetic Realism has made me kinder, and as I hold my wife in my arms, I feel the whole world is closer to me.