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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1846.—April 10, 2013

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Fight of Large & Small

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 6 of The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. This great 1972 lecture is about a central idea of Aesthetic Realism: that the way of seeing which is in all authentic art is the way we need to see in order to have lives, selves, minds we like. “All beauty,”Aesthetic Realism explains,“is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

There are the opposites in the lecture’s title: known and unknown. And Mr. Siegel has been showing that all art arises from a person’s desire to know truly, both what he or she feels and the object being dealt with. In art, this desire to know is so powerful, exact, deep, wide, that the result has too the unknown as beautiful. That is: whether in a good poem, concerto, painting, or dance, there is—along with something ever so immediate—the sense of wonder, of something unbounded, of the world in all its fullness.

A different way of seeing, however, is the source of bad art, and is also the big weakener of every person’s mind. It is contempt, the feeling we do not have to see either ourselves or anything else with exactitude: we are we, and anything we think or feel is good enough—indeed, is correct; and we have the right to see any fact, person, reality itself, in a way that makes us feel comfortable, important, and superior. This way of seeing is the ugliest, cruelest, stupidest thing in the human self, and it is immensely ordinary.

At the present point in the lecture, Mr. Siegel begins to discuss an essay by the critic Paul Elmer More. It is about the poet Milton and his “Lycidas”—a poem that has moved many people but has also annoyed and bored ever so many. As he looks at sentences of More, Mr. Siegel, while being scholarly and literary, is never only that: he is speaking, in a vivid, down-to-earth, sometimes humorous way, about matters that affect every person—from taxi driver to office worker to senator. He comments too on something he spoke on in several other classes: the meaning of a “great book.”

The Fight We All Have

We come, then, to Large and Small in people’s lives. This matter troubles people mightily, whether they know it or not. Men and women everywhere hope, even ache, to have big lives, big feeling; and they are deeply disgusted and ashamed because they don’t have these. One can seem to take for granted, and seem to be satisfied, that one’s life is rather confined. And people can associate the idea of big feeling with some things they’re not proud of—like big angers, and being driven in big ways that don’t look beautiful to them. That is not the bigness I’m speaking of. A baby born into the world right now is born to know and feel this world as richly and fully as possible, to find large meaning in things—in other words, to have large respect for reality. The newborn baby, now moving her arms and legs as her mother holds her, did not come into the world to live narrowly in it and feel tepidly about it. We are all this baby.

There is a song on the subject that became a hit when Peggy Lee performed it in the 1960s, and its popularity has continued these many decades. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Is That All There Is?” consists of a spoken monologue and sung chorus. It’s based on a short story by Thomas Mann, “Disillusionment,” in which a man tells how nothing has been able to make for a feeling of largeness or grandeur in his life—not even love: a tepidity, dullness, emptiness just goes on. The song has affected millions of people so much because it stands for something they feel. The other reason is that the chorus is musically quite good, with its combination of flatness and triumph, grind and yearning. Here are some sentences from the song’s predecessor, the 1896 story by Mann. (I do not know the name of the translator.)

“I have roved the globe over, seen all the best-praised sights, all the works of art upon which have been lavished the most extravagant words. I have stood in front of these and said to myself: ‘...Is that all? Is it no more beautiful than that?’

“...It is life in general, life in its dull, uninteresting, average course which has disappointed me—disappointed, disappointed!...So I dream and wait for death. Ah, how well I know it already, death, that last disappointment! At my last moment I shall be saying to myself: ‘So this is the great experience—well, and what of it? What is it after all?’”

Neither Thomas Mann nor the writers and enjoyers of “Is That All There Is?” have known what Aesthetic Realism explains: while people want to have big feeling, see great meaning in things, they also have a tremendous desire not to. There is a hope in everyone to find reality a disappointment, one continuous dullness, because that way we can feel we are too good for the world—we are a sensitive creature for whom this crude world cannot measure up. That is how contempt works.

There is something in everyone that is in competition with the meaning of what we meet, that feels, “If this is big, I’m not so big. If this stirs me, sweeps me, then it has a hold on me—it’s running me. I should be running it! It’s better to have a small, arranged, limited, tepid life in which I seem to have control, than a big life in which I can’t feel superior to what I meet.”

There are various phony solutions people come to about this fight of large and small. Snobbishness is one. Snobbishness is a way of endowing your life with things you pretend are large, while you maintain your contempt, while you don’t have to respect what’s different from you. It is fake largeness. If you can drop the right names; if you can attend the right events; if you can be at a party with the right people—you can tell yourself you’re in the midst of what’s big. Snobbishness is a replacement for seeing large, true meaning in things. And it’s a replacement that never works. It always makes for emptiness and for (however one may mask it) self-loathing.

Large Feeling & Profit Economics

All through history, one of the chief interferences with feeling the world largely, knowing it widely and authentically, seeing meaning in it, has been profit economics. That is, the world’s wealth has been owned by relatively few people, while others have been used to make profit for them. Millions of people, born to find large meaning in things, have been made unable to: as Mr. Siegel wrote in the Modern Quarterly at age 21, “Their lives were forced to be led so, to get food enough for their stomachs was all that they could do.”

Also, the acquisitive way of mind that profit economics encourages is completely opposed to largeness of feeling and thought. To think about how you can beat out someone, make a lot of money from people’s needs, have a competitor fail, pay a worker as little as possible: this may have cunning with it, shrewdness with it, but it does not have grandeur. The profit system way of seeing, like snobbishness (of which it is a form), has a phony bigness: the bigness of feeling that you, and people you associate with yourself, should own most of the world; that others are inferior, and to be managed.

Paul Elmer More, whose essay Mr. Siegel discusses, had that way of seeing. And no one hated such a view of humanity more than Eli Siegel did. Yet he praises More’s essay on Milton. His doing so is part of his own largeness as critic: Mr. Siegel was always ready to see value, even in people with whom he disagreed—and to be richly fair to it.

“Great Books; and the Kick”

To help place the matter of bigness in literature and life, I’m going to quote from an essay by Eli Siegel. It is playful and beautifully important. Here are the first three sentences, then sentences from the end of his “Great Books; and the Kick”:

Always people have wanted to read great books. Really, people would just as soon read great books as little books, or what is called “ephemeral literature.” The only trouble, and it is a big one, is that they don’t most often enjoy the great books....

We have to feel that the grandeur of the world is intimate for us before the grandeur of a book is properly, pleasingly apprehended. How can we come to Sophocles’ Antigone as to a table of a favorite restaurant, unless we see the meaning of the Antigone as friendly, as a neighbor on the next block, there by our own desire?...

The Great Books won’t be the great books until simple joy, joy that can go along with the joy of well-timed food, accompanies the reading of these books. Such joy, as far as I can see, is not yet forthcoming. The great books will wait. They always have.

Aesthetic Realism enables people to feel and know with the largeness they long for. And Aesthetic Realism itself makes for emotion that is large, proud, logical, continuous, and always fresh. It is my pleasure to say that I know of nothing greater in the world than Eli Siegel’s teaching of Aesthetic Realism, and the way of seeing that was always his.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Largeness in Literature & Life
By Eli Siegel

I’m going to look now at an essay, “How to Read ‘Lycidas,’” by Paul Elmer More. His Shelburne Essays are not read now, but they are the nearest thing to Sainte-Beuve’s Causeries du lundi, and they are important: occasionally More forgets his strictness about how people should be restrained and shows that he has a feeling for literature.

This essay appeared in the American Review, which was seen as an intellectual fascist journal in the 1930s. But there is more than that. Seward Collins, its publisher, was seen as of the right; and New Humanism was seen as of the right too. The two leading Humanists were Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More; then there’s Norman Foerster; and for a while T.S. Eliot was among them. There was a feeling for order. But this essay, which was published in May 1936—the American Review lasted from 1933 to 1937—has some very good writing. Paul Elmer More had just gone through a large illness, and apparently didn’t go through it entirely because he died shortly, in 1937. It begins this way:

After passing, as I might say, through the valley of the shadow of death, after months of physical prostration so abject that reading of any sort was beyond the strength of a depleted brain, the poet to whom I turned instinctively with the first renewal of health was Milton.

That’s a little bit like John Stuart Mill and his reading of Wordsworth. If you’re sick you think, maybe, of reading a book of jokes, or a newspaper, or something with cartoons, or very light stuff, or getting a copy of the journal of your college. That More wanted to read Milton is something.

And so I have been reading Milton again and books about him, with the old zest I had as a boy, and with an added joy of almost tremulous excitement such as a miser might feel at the rediscovery of a treasure of gold stolen from him and long buried out of sight.

The subject of this talk is known and unknown, and if we want to re-read something, it follows that we think we don’t know wholly the writer we’ve already read. If we want to read a poem nine times, it means there’s something unknown about the poem. This is implied by More in relation to Milton, and the essay has some of the most charming things I know.

P.E. More Quotes Tennyson

Again, as many times before, on laying down one of the poems the familiar words of Tennyson would come unbidden to my mind:

O mighty-mouth’d inventor of harmonies,

O skill’d to sing of Time or Eternity,

God-gifted organ-voice of England,

Milton, a name to resound for ages.

In those lines of Tennyson about Milton, we have something that can be present in a great book—for example, Homer’s Iliad. Milton is a “mighty-mouth’d inventor of harmonies,” and there’s a feeling that Homer, also, is harmonious—though he’s rapid. One of the first things said about Homer is, he’s rapid. His hexameter seems to be a series of accurate races.

What does it mean to invent harmonies, and why do you invent harmonies? Is that part of exactitude? There is a feeling that where there’s harmony among Homer’s Greek vowels and consonants, it goes with that exactitude which comes from the desire to see what one feels. That has been given to Milton too. Milton is more adept than Homer, but there’s the feeling that he wanted to see what he had seen.

“O skill’d to sing of Time or Eternity.” We have the known and unknown here. A poem is about the moment and eternity, and eternity is more unknown than time.

“God-gifted organ-voice of England.” In music there are some sounds that are more unknown than others. The reason “Chopsticks” is so delightful to beginning students of music is, you feel that the chopsticks simply say what they know and that’s all there is. A cello, however, begins murmuring in a way that can puzzle. And an organ does too.

“Milton, a name to resound for ages.” Resonance and suggestion are akin, and have the unknown. The object says, “What you don’t know about me is delightful” when things are resonant.

Then, after quoting Tennyson, More continues: “If anyone in English[,] Milton had the divine craft of words, the mastery of sonorous speech.” When we have a phrase like “divine craft of words,” there are known and unknown. When Homer was saluted as divine, it meant that he was nearer to the unknown than others. The greatest tribute to the unknown as a factor in life is the word charm—because as soon as a charm is known, something else is interfering with charm.

Impetuosity & Reflection

His [Milton’s] is not Shakespeare’s incalculable gift; it lacks the element of magic that captures us in Shakespeare; it art that came by reflection.

Incalculable and magic bring the unknown to us. Then, reflection. The beauty of “Lycidas”—which More says is perhaps the best single poem in English—is that it’s such a mingling of reflection and something else. You cannot think that Milton wasn’t looking at his feelings. Yet even as he’s conscious, the unknown drives him, as the bottom of the sea affects the topmast of the ship.

There was reflection in Homer too. There are over 15,000 lines in the Iliad, and it’s hard to think of anybody writing, or even saying, one hexameter after another without doing a little reflecting. We can’t have Homer just looking up and muttering hexameters. Every now and then Homer would ask, “What am I saying here?”—whoever it was, the Homeric force. Homer H. Force: that’s what we’ll call it.

More says, about reading Milton: “As we read him we imagine that we might by equal deliberation attain the same perfection—only we never do attain it.”

We have the oneness of these two things: unconsciousness and consciousness, deliberation and impetuosity. It happens that persons decide to write poetry and what occurs is not so good: they’re not impelled; they’re decisive. It’s not vision—it’s decision.

And something of this distinction Milton himself seems to have felt when he wrote of Shakespeare: “For whil’st to th’ shame of slow-endeavouring Art / Thy easie numbers flow.”

Shakespeare is seen as belonging to the unconscious predominance, although in the sonnets we feel there’s a lot of consciousness. In the lyrics he has what Ben Jonson called “his native wood-notes wild.” I once said of Marianne Moore: she has her native wood-notes wild that should have stayed in the woods. Well, Milton and Jonson were akin in thinking Shakespeare was somebody impelled.

Force & Charm, Known & Unknown

Then More writes about something said by Irving Babbitt:

It was Babbitt’s custom in the first draught of his essays to cite from memory, and then, before printing, to verify the quotation....He would find occasionally that...he had substituted a word of his own for the poet’s. And sometimes, he would say, he could not see that the substitution was inferior...—except in the case of Shakespeare. He never made a change in Shakespeare’s language but some force or charm was lost.

Two things in poetry are mentioned here: force, something that gets to you; and charm, something that puzzles you—which is another way of saying the known and unknown. If a thing gets to you, it must reach you somewhere. But the word gets is used sometimes to mean puzzle: It gets me.

He never made a change in Shakespeare’s language but some force or charm was lost. That was not so even with Milton. —Such a difference exists between the seemingly careless spontaneity and the elaborated art of our two supreme masters of poetical diction; and he would be a rash judge who should say that the advantage was all on one side or the other.

Which means that both are needed: elaborate art and careless spontaneity, a careless thrush that conducts an orchestra. black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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