The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Sex, Poetry, & Self-Respect

Dear Unknown Friends:

What Eli Siegel explains in the section of Poetry and Pleasure published here is great, kind, true; was said by no one before him; and I love it. He shows in this 1948 lecture, and in Aesthetic Realism as such, that the human self is made so the only pleasure that can truly satisfy us is pleasure which has in it respect for reality. Any other pleasure makes us ashamed. The article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carrie Wilson printed here is, really, about that principle too. It is from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month: “The Most Popular Mistakes about Love—& How Not to Make Them!” And I comment briefly on that bewildering field of pleasure, sex. Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that makes sense of sex at last, and enables one to see it in such a way that one feels proud and kind.

The fact that in our time persons speak about sex glibly and seemingly boldly, and may have a lot of it, does not alter the fact they are as ill at ease about sex deeply as people ever were. In the media and in conversations there is a display of ease, to cover up the fact that one is tormented about body. Then, one person looks at another and feels, “I wish I were as comfortable about sex as he is”—and doesn’t see that this “he” is putting on a show, trying to convince himself, as well as others, how very comfortable he is.

Eli Siegel was the philosopher to explain that how we see sex arises from how we see the world itself. And in everyone there is a fight between the desire to respect the world, see meaning in it, and the desire to have contempt for the world—“to get a false importance...from the lessening of things not [one]self.” Husbands and wives in their bedrooms, men and women on dates, people thinking to themselves, need to know that sex can be used either to respect the world or to have contempt for it.

Sex is so usable for contempt, because through it you can feel you are finally getting back at a cold, unappreciative world by having this human representative of it act as though his or her chief purpose in life is to give you ecstasy. All the everyday functions of the world seem to stop, and you are now its caressed ruler. That is how people mainly use sex. And that is why they feel bad about it: because through it they have lessened and deeply sneered at the world and the person pleasing them.

Men and women deserve to know that their inner qualms about sex exist not because of anything old-fashioned or puritanical in them, and not because of their parents, or society, or religion. Those qualms come from the best thing in them: the deep though unarticulated insistence, inescapable as blood circulation, that they be fair to reality. Men and women deserve to see that the questionable thing about sex is not the sex itself: it is the contempt and ill will for which one uses sex. And they deserve to see that both sexes are alike here: a man wants to respect himself as much as a woman does—and he too despises himself for using sex to have ecstatic contempt. All this, Aesthetic Realism mercifully and grandly makes clear. And Aesthetic Realism explains what it means for sex, with its sweeping pleasure, to be a source of kindness and self-respect.

This Aesthetic Realism principle is true about sex: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Sex is a oneness of the tangible and intangible. It is a oneness of the terrifically personal and the tremendously impersonal. That is, it is body and purpose; it is feeling about a particular person and the whole world. The purpose of love and sex, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to like the world itself, and to encourage another person to do so.

The purpose of all the rich tangibility of sex is for us to say, “I am now embracing a person who comes from the whole world, and who stands for the world in a way I have valued enormously. And as we touch and our bodies join, I am showing my care for reality itself.” When that is how we see, the pleasure and passion are big, and so is our respect for a person, and for ourselves.

I love Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism for many things—for the world seen truly. And I love them, personally and in behalf of humanity, for enabling sex to be a means of our having more integrity, intelligence, and kindness, not less.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Greatest Pleasure

By Eli Siegel

There is another 17th-century poet who, like Donne, was very much aware of God, very much aware of ethics, but also was aware of the delight of this earth. Andrew Marvell has a very fine poem which is a debate about pleasure: “A Dialogue between the Resolved Soul and Created Pleasure.” Persons who have been confused by the kind of talk prevalent today will not understand this poem—because on the one hand, there is a desire for great pleasure, but on the other hand, there is a desire for something infinite, divine, godlike, even religious to be present. Marvell is not saying, “I don’t want pleasure”; he is saying, “I don’t want pleasure at the price of seeing the world in its very depths.”


... On these downy pillows lie,

Whose soft plumes will thither fly:

On these roses, strewed so plain

Lest one leaf thy side should strain.



My gentler rest is on a thought,

Conscious of doing what I ought.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .



All that’s costly, fair, and sweet,

Which scatteringly doth shine,

Shall within one beauty meet,

And she be only thine.


If things of sight such heavens be,

What heavens are those we cannot see?



Wheresoe’er thy foot shall go

The minted gold shall lie;

Till thou purchase all below,

And want new worlds to buy.



Wer’t not for price who’d value gold?

And that’s worth nought that can be sold....

I’d shudder to have some psychological persons look at this poem. What they would do with it would remind me of what boys would do with a banana stand if the boys had no impediments at all. However, this poem is really—though it seems to be puritanical—about art; and art in its fullest meaning.

A great deal has been misunderstood about the fight with sense. But what an artist feels is: “Look, here’s a peach; here’s a person; a tree; a panther; and what you are to do is to see these things as if they had form—to see that which gives meaning to the sense."

Painting, for example, is not just representation; it is the form behind what is obviously apprehended. However, if someone in the 17th century or later says, “We should go beyond sense,” immediately there is a feeling, “Oh, he’s afraid of the flesh! He’s a puritan; he’s afraid of pleasure. He’s a Victorian; he’s not emancipated.” The point is, Andrew Marvell was emancipated; John Donne was emancipated. They are more emancipated than some of the “emancipated” people on Park Avenue. What they didn’t want to do was to sell out themselves. The greatest pleasure, they felt, was to have a composition and a depth of self. And if pleasing an aspect of self would interfere with that composition, they didn’t want it.

Marvell is saying this. He wants to see meaning. He wants to see the meaning of reality as such in this pleasure. And if the pleasure is going to stop him from seeing it, he does not see it as pleasure.

Popular Mistakes in Love

By Carrie Wilson

As big a mistake as any that women make in love, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is thinking we can love a man without liking the world he comes from. In fact, love has been equated with having the right to make less of the world, with having a world apart with a man, where we are made the most important thing in all creation. The popularity of this mistake can be seen on an Internet love site, where more than one woman has chosen as her favorite quotation, “To the world you might be one person, but to one person you might be the world.”

Every woman is, I learned, most deeply hoping that through a man she can come to be in a wider, kinder, more just and exciting relation with the whole world. And every man is hoping for the same thing through a woman. The deepest desire of everyone, Eli Siegel explained, is to like the world. So when a woman uses a man to make herself superior while the rest of the world is dismissed and turned into dim dishwater, she is going against her own, and the man’s, deepest desire.

That is what I needed to know as a young actress in New York looking for parts and also for love. I thought I wanted a man I could look up to—someone with a sense of social justice, who loved the arts. Yet I wanted even more to have a man treat me as if I were the most beautiful thing in the world. I was a glutton for admiration, dating sometimes three men at the same time. But as soon as I managed to get a man to act as if I were the answer he was seeking to life, I felt at once victorious and disgusted—both with him and with myself—and didn’t want to see him anymore. I didn’t know why this happened again and again.

I once wrote to a man: “I know I have always been a mystery to men. At times they make me believe I am an exalted being.” But in the same letter, I called myself “something of a vampire.” I felt unkind, predatory, and also half-alive—unable to have the feeling I hoped to.

Posted on the Internet, the following description by a woman of the man she is looking for is not far from something I might have written:

I am…cultured and educated....Please respond only if you too are stable, selective, unique, and feel you are my cerebral counterpart. I am using this forum to eliminate the “average” man. Mediocrity is not something I can accept.

This woman, without knowing it, wants a man to satisfy her vanity, as I did.

Do We Know How to Love?

At the time I began to study Aesthetic Realism, when I was 24, I was seeing a man, Keith Morris, with whom I had broken up several times. I admired his care for Shakespeare, Sean O’Casey, and Dylan Thomas, and his admiration of me. But I also felt, disdainfully, that he was not refined enough, and that he got too angry. Though it was I who had broken up with him, I was annoyed when I heard that a mutual friend had told him, “There are plenty of other women out there; she’s not made of diamonds.” I wanted him to think I was made of diamonds.

In an Aesthetic Realism class, I told Mr. Siegel there had been trouble between Mr. Morris and myself, and he asked: “Ms. Wilson, do you believe you know how to love?” I answered, “No, I don’t.” And he explained: “We are ashamed when we feel our care for another is only a care for ourselves. A woman has to ask, ‘If I’m uncomfortable with a man, how much is it the man, and how much is it something in me?’”

He gave this example: “A woman in Philadelphia is using a man to make a pleased heroine of herself. There is torment, shame, because she misuses a man for false glory. Then, she feels the man himself is imperfect. Is there any answer to that?” “I don’t know what it is,” I said. Mr. Siegel explained: “You can be dissatisfied with a person and the way you see him at the same time. Is there a tendency to feel that it’s the other person exclusively who’s causing the problem?” “Yes, there is,” I answered. Mr. Siegel said then: “No one is wholly satisfied with the way one loves. We can’t rest until we like how we see. Every woman has this question: ‘How can I meet the right person, and also have the right way of seeing that person?’”

Another crucial question Mr. Siegel asked me was: “Do you think women want men to place sex in their lives?” I answered, “No.” “That’s right,” he said. “Women want men to be silly about them.” Then he told me: “Ms. Wilson, you’ll never be happy unless you have good will. Good will is the desire to have the other person as completely coordinated, as strong, as fortunate as he can be."

Mr. Siegel was so right! I saw that the way I had been with men—seeing them as beings to be exploited for my own glory—was terrifically disrespectful and hurtful, and that this was what had made me ashamed and feel despair about love.

What I Really Wanted

As I studied in Aesthetic Realism classes, I heard men speak with honesty, and saw men wanting to learn how to be fair to a parent, a woman, an art. I had new respect for men, and for everything. Seeing Mr. Siegel’s desire to know and strengthen people; seeing how he, a man, comprehended, respected, and criticized the minds and selves of women so deeply, was a turning point in my life. I saw that wanting to know another person, I could know the world and myself better. This was far more pleasurable than the hollow conquests I had gone for, and made me honestly proud. And I came to see what I really wanted was to feel I was a true friend to a man—that I made him stronger, in a better relation with everything, and that he did the same for me.

I am very grateful that because of what I learned this is possible for me now in my marriage to composer Edward Green. Together we are learning about love and so much else in richly cultural, kind classes taught by Ellen Reiss. I feel fortunate to be in the midst of seeing what it means to know a man deeply and have a good effect on him. This includes learning about such representative mistakes as the desire to make how my husband sees me more important than how fairly he sees as such; and the desire to get glory through having an accomplished husband. It is a beautiful thing to be able to learn about one’s mistakes, instead of having to repeat them because you don’t know what they are—and to get better, and happier, the more you learn!