The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Common Destruction


Dear Unknown Friends:

Good will is an aesthetic matter; for it is the oneness of criticism and praise as something useful and kind. To point out something which a person is given to and to show this person that the preferred thing is detrimental to his life, may be kind and useful. Likewise, to praise something, to encourage the continuation of a way a person has, or to affirm this person’s choice, may be kind. Perhaps the oneness of opposites most necessary to be seen in the everyday life of people is the oneness of opposites in good will: the fact that a person can be made stronger both by the questioning of a way of his and by praising a way of his.

However, in the life of man so far, there has been a rift in mind as to good will. Good will is seen often as insincere praise, unfelt approval.

A person wants to be liked, and he doesn’t see criticism as making for like of himself. He does see insincere approval as helping the approving person. Insincerity as to praise and blame is the continuing inward misfortune of man. Persons don’t see their praise and blame as deeply sacred, involving some judgment of the world.

And, dear unknown friends, Edgar Allan Poe illustrates this difficulty as to praise and blame in a manner that has great art with it. So, in discussing the life and attitude of the American writer, I am able to present ethics deeply and also the art of the short story, the music of poetry, the beginning, rippling impetus of prose.

1. A Woman: Abstraction, Person

We all of us represent something abstract. Abraham Lincoln has been seen as representing sad patience. Richard Nixon has been seen as representing political wiliness. Theodore Roosevelt has been seen as representing hearty belligerency. The Duke of Wellington has been seen as representing cold, comprehensive courage.

We are in the midst of the question of the unseen and the touchable. Our feelings are unseen, our fingers can be touched, all in the morning hour between 10 and 11. This has to do with whether a quality can be a person and a person a quality. Does the Statue of Liberty still look like a woman?

All prose—and the short story in particular—is concerned with the specific and touchable, and the general and unseen. “He showed his anger by leaving the room": we still don’t see the anger. We have a notion anger is present, for: “Bulstrode strode out of the room abruptly, saying a word to no one.” Was there something like impatience and anger in Bulstrode as he made his unexpected departure from a group of people to whom he had been talking rather affably a few minutes before?

So, dear unknown friends, this is preliminary to saying definitely that Edgar Allan Poe’s “Ligeia,” story and person, are of unlimited importance to all of us, for they represent the good will we can all suppress. It is right to think of Ligeia as being the possibility in all of us to see people as deeply on our side; to see another person as a continuation in difference of ourselves, not as someone inimical.

Man has distrusted man; but is something else possible? What is man at his beginning, suspicious or friendly? Is reality a hideous opponent of man or a oneness of opposites which, truly seen, is on his side?

The great feminine abstractions in some of the stories of Edgar Allan Poe stand for the deep, everlasting desire in man to see fairly what is different from himself. Poe, therefore, is one of the large ethical writers of this world. Morella, Ulalume, Madeline, Ligeia, and the shadowy Lenore, all represent the deepest hopes of man, which he, under the stress of a weltering, unformed, everyday existence, has insulted. Our hopes are, every day, insulted by us.

2. “Ligeia” Is Looked At

The fact that early in the story, Ligeia does not have a specific existence, what can be called a city-directory existence, is a sign that the girl or lady stands for something more than someone sitting across from you in a bus.

And then, look. This girl with her “placid cast of beauty” has “rare learning.” Where she may have acquired this learning, we are not told. She simply has it. This also points to Ligeia as standing for wisdom and friendliness.

And the way Ligeia affected the writer was by “paces so steadily and stealthily progressive.” We don’t have to have love at first sight; but the way Poe describes the oncoming of love for Ligeia is the way a possible good quality in a man is loved by him. Yes, as the first sentences of Poe’s story are read, the reader can feel a fine mingling of person and ethical good fortune.

And Poe talks of the “majesty” of Ligeia and the “incomprehensible lightness of her footfall.” Here Poe is describing something like reality itself; for reality has the mightiness of the Alps and the lightness of a butterfly’s wing. The rhythm of Poe’s prose sentences is the rhythm of awed revelation, accompanied by an artistic desire to be lightsome. All this is not about a Richmond girl or a London girl or a New York girl. It is about the good nature in us which is also strength, the good nature which Poe, like most of us, tried to destroy.

Poe says of Ligeia: “She came and departed as a shadow.” Is this about a woman who once might have done some shopping? I must say that the Ligeia of Poe is not so much a woman who votes—though in her manyness, she might vote. She is more like the Delia I had in mind in the poem, “So Delia Walks the Air,” in Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. And the subject I am now discussing is not just tremulous, academic. The relation of abstract and tangible, general and particular, is of our very lives.

Ligeia is the ethics of Poe. She is the ethics of every person now in motion in Philadelphia.

3. Allegory, Abstraction, and Poe

Poe had to consider the ethics which in his early life, for self-protective reasons, he tried to abjure or put aside. He was uncomfortable, though great, in his feeling that he had to retrieve the ethics he had banished. There is more than one kind of evidence for what I have just said. One kind of rather comical importance is in some of Poe’s critical whoppers. By a critical whopper, I mean something so excessive, so obviously inaccurate, there is more meaning to it than appears right away.

One of these meaningful critical whoppers is in a review (Broadway Journal, July 12, 1845) of The Coming of the Mammoth, a book of poems by Henry B. Hirst. Poe says:

The “Burial of Eros” is a very effective allegorical poem but all allegories are contemptible.

Never was a critic so fierce in the matter of allegories, although a moment later Poe does give a kind of welcome to The Faerie Queene of Spenser and the Pilgrim’s Progress of Bunyan. Why this critical animosity to allegories? Allegory was something which Greek sculpture found right; allegory is something which Christ uses in his parables; allegory is present in the Marseillaise, a sculpture by François Rude; and in the American painting, The Spirit of ’76. Allegory has been found necessary by man.

The reason for Poe’s dislike of allegory is the great need he had for it himself. He could not say that he had tried to destroy ethics in him, or good nature, or good will. He knew that the ethics or good nature or good will opposed by him was still alive. He felt dimly ethics had taken the form of people in his stories and poems: William Wilson, the old man in “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Ligeia, Madeline in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” the lady in “The Oblong Box,” Lenore in “The Raven,” and Ulalume. These are persons Poe had to use to keep ethical aspects or possibilities alive. His discomfort about allegory arose from the disagreement between unconscious purpose and everyday awareness.

The same kind of weird silliness is observable in a review (Broadway Journal, June 21, 1845) of Plato Contra Atheos, or Plato against the Atheists. Plato, in his Symposium and elsewhere, is allegorical; he saw qualities as people. Here is Poe on Plato—and it is a wonder Plato is still around:

No one can doubt the purity and nobility of the Platonian soul, or the ingenuity of the Platonian intellect. But if the question be put to-day, what is the value of the Platonian philosophy, the proper answer is, “exactly nothing at all.” We do not believe that any good purpose is answered by popularizing his dreams; on the contrary we do believe that they have a strong tendency of ill—intellectually of course.

As Gertrude in Hamlet says, Poe doth protest too much.

4. The Main Matter

I need to make it clear that an ethical possibility may be in a person; may be attacked and somewhat destroyed by that person. This is what I mean by the Common Destruction. Again I use Shakespeare.

The most notable telling in English literature of something rather abstract being hurt or killed by a person is in these lines of Macbeth (11.2.35):

Methought I heard a voice cry, “Sleep no more!

Macbeth does murder sleep"—the nnocent sleep,

Sleep that knits up the ravelld sleave of care,

The death of each day’s life.

In these lines, is that great relation of abstract and tangible in poetry—like the relation these have in reality. We find sleep, rather abstract, knitting up a “ravelld sleave,” and this sleeve is certainly a tangible object in its ravelment. It is so the large and abstract and the small and tangible meet in that great field of possibility called poetry. Anyway, is not sleep murdered? Can not a human quality be murdered or destroyed?

Poe’s life tells us that two possibilities of man may be in a deep and intense fight. We all of us can find ambition and love at odds in ourselves. The desire for a date can be hostile, successfully hostile, to a desire to make a lot of money. Our possibilities do clash, as Sophocles knew quite well.

We need to see that that which can best be called love was made secondary in his life by Edgar Allan Poe. This, as I said in recent TROs, is the purport of Poe’s early poem, Tamerlane (1827). The notion that Poe, age seventeen or eighteen, had the question he talks about in “Ulalume” (1847) is still not the accepted notion. So it is well to quote Curtis Hidden Page in his careful edition of Poe’s principal poems in Chief American Poets (1905). Page says:

The subject of the poem, not very clear at first reading, is the evil triumph of ambition over love.

Our ambition, which can be described as our sense of self looking for affirmation, increase, and acknowledgment in the outside world, can successfully oppose our feeling of love. Ambition, too, can destroy our desire to be just. Ambition can destroy our good will. Ambition can be, as the grave-digger in Hamlet might say, “Your constant enemy of sweetness to other mortals.”

I said a while ago that Nazism in 1932—earlier and later—cowed, defeated, the kinder impulses in people. Unfortunately, man can be hardened ever so much. How man can be hardened is—of all places told of in that favorite declamation piece of once, “Spartacus to the Gladiators at Capua,” by Elijah Kellogg (1813-1901). Spartacus addresses Rome:

Ay! thou hast given to that poor, gentle, timid shepherd-lad...muscles of iron and a heart of flint.

Poe tried to be hard. He felt that something like a heart of flint might serve him well. Who might not feel this?

And then, the reason for our wanting to destroy a kind attitude is that it seems we may profit from contempt. I wrote of the profits from contempt in “The Ordinary Doom” in the second number of Definition (1961), later part of The Frances Sanders Lesson (1974). I said then:

There is a kind of triumph or satisfaction in not showing the feelings we may know—in making them our own secret property....Concealment is equated, unknowingly to ourselves, with individuality: the more we conceal the more it seems we are asserting our very personality.

That Edgar Allan Poe, like others, felt it was necessary to destroy a favorable attitude to things other than himself, I believe is true; and can be justified by various kinds of evidence. Poe failed to destroy some belief in the kindness of things. His failure is shown by his stories and poems. Poe’s failure utterly to destroy benevolence, kindness, naiveté, sweetness in himself and elsewhere, is one of the great triumphs of ethics. This triumph of ethics is, also, a high point in literature.

Since, dear unknown friends, what I am saying is not said customarily, it is likely I shall do more to show the good sense in the Aesthetic Realism consideration of Poe’s life and what he wrote.

With Love,

Eli Siegel