The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Spontaneity, Poetry, & Sex

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of Poetry and Spontaneity, a 1949 lecture in which Eli Siegel illustrates, with might, humor, scholarship, vividness, the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." We print too part of a paper by art director and Aesthetic Realism associate Harvey Spears, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this month titled "The Power Men & Women Want—What Makes It Right or Wrong?"

Mr. Spears writes about sex. And the fact that Aesthetic Realism understands that confusing, captivating, and tormenting subject and makes possible pride and kindness about it, I consider one of the biggest, most merciful happenings in the history of civilization.

Let us take the author of the poem Mr. Siegel speaks of in this final section of Poetry and Spontaneity: Matthew Arnold (1822-88). The poetry of Arnold, while thoughtful, graceful, is passionate too—including about love, and bodily love. Yet there is enough in his writing to show that he mistrusted sex—and it wasn’t because he was a Victorian. In "Absence," one of the poems concerning the lady he calls Marguerite, there is this quatrain, written when Arnold was in his 20s:

I struggle towards the light; and ye,

Once-longed-for storms of love!

If with the light ye cannot be,

I bear that ye remove.

These lines are about the fact that there was something large Matthew Arnold wanted to see. He felt the world, particularly the world as culture, was something he should know truly; here he calls that possibility of true knowledge "the light." He had wanted the "storms of love," a sweeping intensity, including bodily intensity. But he felt that what happened when his body was close to Marguerite's did not encourage the knowledge he was after—in fact, was against it. Therefore, he says, it is right that this bodily stir not be: "I bear that ye remove."

Matthew Arnold did not know—as last week I said W.B. Yeats didn’t—what made him feel bad about love, about sex. That is what Harvey Spears writes about here. So I say swiftly: the thing making Arnold feel that sex did not go along with thought about literature, and education, and justice to people in England, is described by this Aesthetic Realism principle—"The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt."

Sex has been tremendously usable for contempt: to get rid of a world that seems to question us, and turn reality and a human being into something that exists to please us, focus on us, be ruled by us. Contempt, Mr. Siegel has explained, is the only thing making sex immoral. What made Arnold so uneasy about those "storms of love" was the contempt they included.

One of the important critical writings in English is his 1880 essay on Keats, because of the meeting in it of discernment and large feeling. Yet in that essay, so honoring of Keats, there is a place where Arnold is churlish and, I believe, deeply uncomfortable. He quotes a love letter of Keats to Fanny Brawne, and describes it chidingly as having "the abandonment of all reticence and all dignity .... It has in its relaxed self-abandonment something underbred and ignoble." Keats certainly could have seen Miss Brawne better. But I believe that Arnold’s repugnance was really caused by his own despair: his feeling that to let oneself go as to love, to be in a terrific organic stir, had with it something that was against the large seeing, the kind seeing, he hoped for.

Matthew Arnold would have been grateful, enormously, for the knowledge Harvey Spears presents in this TRO. He would have had the gratitude I have for learning from Mr. Siegel that the purpose of sex is to like the world itself through a cherished representative of reality. He longed to know that sex has to be, and can be, good will, "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121).

Eli Siegel was the critic who understood Matthew Arnold. He spoke of a central theme in Arnold’s work: the idea that we do not know a person we are close to and are not known by that person. Mr. Siegel said that this situation, which deeply torments everyone, was something Arnold felt more with keenness and awareness than most people. I think he felt too: having one’s body palpitatingly proximate to another’s while feeling one’s mind was not seen by that person, as one didn’t see that person’s mind—this made for a rift that was unbearable. He would have rejoiced to learn from Aesthetic Realism that sex—every moment, touch, happening of it—should stand for our desire to know a person in all his or her fulness.

Then sex, with all its powerful spontaneity, would have exactness. That means it would be like poetry, not against it. How beautiful Aesthetic Realism is, Eli Siegel was—in their understanding of art at its grandest, life at its most confusing!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

A Happening of Freedom

By Eli Siegel

A fine example of a poem that is about spontaneity and is exact, is Matthew Arnold’s "Philomela." The nightingale has been used very often as an expression of tearful spontaneity. It is in the poem of Keats, the poem of Coleridge, the poem of Arnold, and many others. There is a very bad poem by John Crowe Ransom that makes fun of the Philomela spontaneity, and he says he doesn’t care much for the meaning of this nightingale. Be that as it may, the nightingale has been a symbol of spontaneity and pain. This poem by Arnold expresses pain that is of thought, pain that is likewise immediate.

The story it is based on is of how a girl is deceived into a tragedy, and the tragedy is so awful that she is changed into a nightingale. She is Philomela, and she expresses her pain through the years. Well, there is something mournful in the nightingale’s song; so it has been felt. And I care to respect the feeling that has persisted through the years. "Philomela" begins:

Hark! ah, the Nightingale— 

The tawny-throated!

Hark, from that moonlit cedar what a burst!

What triumph! hark!—what pain!

A birdsong is spontaneous. It is also orderly. Sometimes it is so orderly we are displeased by it.

Spontaneity is something which expresses the self without needless impediment. It is, one may say, a happening of freedom. Whenever the self does what it wants without needless slowness, it is spontaneous, and is where choice and instinct meet. Where choice and instinct meet we have civilization for one person. We also have the poetic state for one person.

Then the poem has a description of how people’s hurting each other has come from Greece to the Thames and London:

O Wanderer from a Grecian shore,

Still, after many years, in distant lands,

Still nourishing in thy bewilder’d brain

That wild, unquench’d, deep-sunken, old-world pain— 

Say, will it never heal?

And can this fragrant lawn

With its cool trees, and night,

And the sweet, tranquil Thames,

And moonshine, and the dew,

To thy rack’d heart and brain

Afford no balm?

Later, Arnold gets tender and also ornate:

Poor Fugitive,... 

... once more seem to make resound

With love and hate, triumph and agony,

Lone Daulis, and the high Cephissian vale?

Listen, Eugenia— 

How thick the bursts come crowding through the leaves!

Again—thou hearest?

Eternal passion!

Eternal pain! 

Spontaneity begins with the earliest sounds in nature: the sound of a cricket, the mewing of a cat, the bark of a dog, the flowing of water, the hissing of steam, the cracking of ice—there are thousands of sounds—the whirring of insects, the imperceptible sounds of the butterfly’s wings, the lucidly swift whir of the hummingbird. All these things and many others are spontaneous, and they all express something. Some of these sounds we find in words. When they occur it is because there has been a happening, and in that sense the outside world is present; but also—even amid instinct, even amid the unconscious—there has been a choice. Whenever we have the sight of something happening without impediment, and also an object declaring a preference, a choice, we have spontaneity. We have in a poem spontaneity that couldn’t be bettered by the utmost prudence.

In poetry, spontaneity becomes prudent insofar as the poem is good. Spontaneity that is also prudent—the feeling of don’t-give-a-damn that is also cherishing and love and care, the feeling of tremendous relaxation that is likewise vigilant—that feeling we can never be wrong in going after, and we should never tire in going after it.

What Kind of Power?

By Harvey Spears

Like most men, I once equated power with being able to get a person, especially a woman, to do what I wanted. But by my mid-20s I felt increasingly empty and despaired of having love in my life. These clear, kind sentences by Eli Siegel explain why:

Power is good when you respect a person because of his or her consent to undergo it, be affected by it, find meaning in it. To want a person to do something and not respect that person if he or she consents is contempt, and we are right in the midst of bad power. [TRO 1081]

I love Aesthetic Realism for showing me that the power a man really wants, the only power he can respect himself for, comes from seeing meaning in things and wanting to strengthen people. Studying this has given me a happy, successful life.

Growing up, I loved the drawings of Gustave Doré in Puss in Boots, and I liked building things with my father. I would watch with admiration as he carefully constructed a wooden toy boat. But I also had another notion of power, in which the thing being honored was me.

I used being made a lot of by relatives and others to feel very important. And I thought having money was power, and was angry we didn’t have so much. I remember being especially polite with my well-off uncles, who gave me silver dollars, while with other relatives, who had less money, I didn’t feel I had to be polite.

Once, when I was 9, my aunt and uncle from Maine unexpectedly came to visit. Though I knew them well, I wouldn’t let them into our apartment, saying I was told not to let anyone in if my parents weren’t home. Later, when my parents learned of this, they were shocked and angry, but I sneeringly told myself, "They aren’t the rich relatives, so it doesn’t matter." Meanwhile, I felt ashamed. In his book James and the Children Mr. Siegel asks: "Do children go after power?... Do they get a pleasure in thinking other people are in an inferior position?" (p. 39).

Power and Love

As a young man, I was very much affected by girls. By my 20s I opened doors for women, bought flowers, complimented women on how they looked. But I wasn’t interested in who a woman was, what she hoped for. I saw love as a power struggle in which a woman had the upper hand because a man seemed to desire her more than she him. This made me angry and I wanted to even the score. I punished a woman who didn’t want to have sex by acting sulky and obnoxious, trying to make her feel bad that she had "led me on." Then I would curse myself, call myself a heel.

"The chief thing wrong with sex," Mr. Siegel writes, "is that it so easily can be used as a means of ecstatic revenge on a world which we see as not having been good to us. Sex often is revenge, not expression." That is why, though I had pleasure in sex, later I often felt irritable. Sometimes in the arms of a woman I felt stony, as if I were mechanically going through the motions. As soon as I was successful in having my way, I would lose interest. I would never admit it, but I had a constant sense of shame and fear that I didn’t understand and that troubled me greatly.

In an Aesthetic Realism class when I was 22, Mr. Siegel asked me questions that men throughout America are desperate to hear. "Do you think you use sex for your strength or weakness?" he asked. I said, "I think for my weakness." And he explained: "People confuse a good time with a good effect. Wherever sex goes wrong, there is a way of seeing the world that is with it. Sex [is often] a desire to conquer the world instantaneously." That was the contemptuous purpose I had had with every woman I knew. It had made me so ashamed that often during sex I couldn’t look into the eyes of the woman whose body was so close to mine.

Mr. Siegel once described me as being tortured by the way I saw women, and that was absolutely true. The only reason, I was learning, a man feels bad about sex is that he has a purpose that is unjust, that is selfish and narrow. Mr. Siegel asked this surprising question: "Mr. Spears, do you think you have sex or has sex got you?" When I answered, "Sex has got me," he said: "You should ask, Is the meaning of orgasm good will, or is it power of a bad kind?"

The Power a Man Really Wants

I learned that if a man does not want to see women as standing for the large world he needs to be fair to, he will be angry. In one class, when I told Mr. Siegel that I was uncomfortable because I felt women had too much of an effect on me, he asked: "Do you think that women made their own charm, or did the universe have a preliminary hand in it?" I learned that every woman has the aesthetic structure of the world, the opposites, in her—including straight line and curve, light and dark, hard and soft. A man is affected by the particular way woman puts reality’s opposites together. To want to know a woman truly, to want her to be all she can be, is the one power a man can respect himself for in love; and I thank Mr. Siegel and Aesthetic Realism with my whole heart for my being able to learn this.

As I am close to the woman I love, my wife, Carol Driscoll, what I feel is different from anything I felt before: I feel, passionately, that I am with a friend, trying to have a good effect, to make her stronger. I’ve never felt more powerful as a man!