The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Keenness We Most Want

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of the magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Keenness, by Eli Siegel. We print too part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss presented this spring at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What’s Real Security, Real Adventure? or, The Danger in Playing It Safe.” And as a preliminary, I comment on a poem by Mr. Siegel that has in it the basis for understanding security and adventure, and for seeing what is the keenness we most want. In its four long free verse lines, “A Lady Sails the Sea” is playful, deep, immensely kind, immensely musical. It was likely written in the late 1920s, and is published in Mr. Siegel’s Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems (Definition Press, 1957): 

Over the sea from England, a ship going, going to Africa, with a timorous lady aboard. 

And the waves came about the ship, and the winds came, and roared and whistled; then it was the lady gave up her novel-reading in affright. 

But the winds roared once only, and the waves were big once only; and the lady finished with some delight Lady Huntley’s Secret, a novel of England. 

And so she left England, and sailed over the sea to Africa, and to Africa came.

The lady in this poem, who is satirized a bit, and tenderly, is all of us. We are all our very particular self in a wide, strange world different from ourselves. And our need, and this lady’s need, is described in the great principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” There is nothing we need more than to see that two huge opposites—caring for our dear self and being just to the outside world—are the same. To see this, is the real keenness. Yet mostly, it is a keenness people do not have. 

The Ship We All Have

The first line of the poem describes something that happened fairly often in the second half of the 19th century: “Over the sea from England, a ship going, going to Africa, with a timorous lady aboard.” British ladies would join their husbands, perhaps, who had business dealings or government work in Africa. But the line also describes the human situation. The ship is making a trip from a cozy, more familiar world, to a world that is different, strange, unknown—and that is a trip we take every day. It is the trip from the self we are within ourselves, to other things, which we meet and think about and have to do with. 

To feel—as people usually do—that the self within us is a different reality from the reality of outside objects and persons, is, Aesthetic Realism explains, the beginning of all mental mishaps. It is the beginning of contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” Mr. Siegel identified contempt as the source of mental difficulty and of every human unkindness. Once we feel that care for ourselves is apart from the meaning other things and people have, apart from what they deserve, we will be cold to those things and people. We will also be “timorous.” And we will look down on them, and feel we have the right to fool, exploit, and hurt them. 

Yet our deepest desire, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to do what sailing the sea in this poem stands for. Our deepest desire is to like the world: to know it; to feel that the world in all its strange, vast difference from us is also like us, and that to go out to it is to come  home. 

Wideness and Coziness, Together

The four long lines of this poem do what we want to do. Each of them is wide, spreading, seems to have ups and downs and tumults in it. Yet each line ends—in both the meaning of its words and its sound—with a feeling of something intimate. These lines have the beautiful keenness which Mr. Siegel showed is in all true art: they see, they show reality’s opposites as one. In these lines we feel at once the vastness of things and one person’s finite, palpitating heart. We feel strangeness and coziness don’t fight: they are together. 

In the second line, reality, in the form of waves and roaring wind, seems to say to this lady: You can’t keep yourself so tidily aloof from me; I, reality, have power! It happens that the self, needing the difference of the world yet also wanting to be contemptuously unhad and unchanged by it, can come to fake arrangements. This lady wants to feel the mystery of things through a novel, yet she is afraid of the mystery of the world itself—she is “timorous.” And today people are partaking of various novels, movies, television shows which provide a kind of excitement but which don’t have the depth to affect one richly, to make one’s inner self leap with respect for the world. They are a means of seeming to have adventure while keeping the depths of oneself aloof, apart, intact. 

Where Cruelty Begins

“A Lady Sails the Sea” is not a sociological poem. But through Aesthetic Realism we can see that that rift between the meaning one gives oneself and the meaning other things have, is what had the British and others feel they could use Africa to enrich themselves. That rift is the cause of imperialism; of making profit from somebody else’s work; of slavery. Mr. Siegel wrote in  James and the Children—with that oneness of powerful logic and passionate justice he always had—“As soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person” (p. 55). 

In the third line of “A Lady Sails the Sea” we find that the world the lady feared was, after all, not so much to be feared—“the winds roared once only.” In the fourth line, the trip which represented the strangeness and roaringness of an unknown outside world, has come to seem neat, tidy, even cozy—through the measured, factual, soothing phraseology of  “And so she left England, and sailed over the sea to Africa, and to Africa came.” That last line is lovely and humorous in the way the wide and the tidy join musically in it. The final phrase ends with the warm, intimate m sound—a sound made as the lips of a person come together enclosingly: “to Africa came.” 

So in order to be truly intelligent, at ease, free, happy—in order not to be fearful, nervous, mean—we need to see that our intimate self and the vast, various, puzzling, different world are vibrantly akin. Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that vital kinship: we are trying to put together the same opposites all reality has. Take our huge, intimate need to feel free, untrammeled, yet also organized. Mr. Siegel writes about how reality has these personal opposites of ours: “Does it not have storms and crystals? Are there not jungles and ordered grass? Isn’t the body of an animal organized and changeable? Isn’t the sky fixed and moody?” (Self and World, p. 110). 

Aesthetic Realism is here forever, because it is true about an infinite world and your own so personal self. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Keenness Divides and Joins

By Eli Siegel

A keen person will cut through seeming unimportance and falsity, to the truth—just as he would cut through seeming truth to find the falsity. A keen person will find distinction—that is one of the things that keenness does—but he will also find a similarity where none seems to be; he will find a means of junction. 

The universe can be seen as consisting of one mighty indivisible aggregate—and then, you can pick out things. And the way you can divide things is wonderful. You can take a nose and a pony and a flower and make a combination. You can do as art does more and more: take things from various objects, and then rearrange them, not as they are in the specific object, but as they would be, taken away from the object, in relation to something in another object. This is a kind of analysis and synthesis that puts the world into new combinations. And it is very important for our full apprehension of what the world can be. 

Another poem of Emily Dickinson that I’ll read has sharpness and then blur: 

If I shouldn’t be alive 

When the robins come, 

Give the one in red cravat 

A memorial crumb. 


If I couldn’t thank you,

Being just asleep, 

You will know I’m trying

With my granite lip!

—which makes her like the bird, because she says she couldn’t thank a person, and the bird also couldn’t thank one for the crumb. She had a problem of what to be thankful for and what to reject, and she was keen about it. Keenness, of course, at its best, is also that which has scope. 

I close this talk with a successful imagist poem: the “Oread” of H.D. This is a way of making something very sharp. It represents the trend to make the soft and the hard one; to make surface and depth one. And that is a deep kind of keenness: 

Whirl up, sea— 

Whirl your pointed pines, 

Splash your great pines 

On our rocks, 

Hurl your green over us, 

Cover us with your pools of fir.

This is a study in sharpness and wideness. The sea, which most often is seen as surface, is given sharpness—“pointed pines.” The sea is both wide and sharp. “Splash your great pines / On our rocks”: the splash seems to come from the depth. “Cover us with your pools of ”: there is the feeling that even the rocks and the oread—a nymph of a mountain—can be covered firand still have a glorious sense of surface. 

To have keenness, in the long run, is to take the superficial, gay effects of the world and honestly find in them profundity, and to take profundity and find in it the gaiety of the butterfly and the gaiety of the tropical insect and just plain gaiety anywhere. 

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The Danger in Playing It Safe

By Miriam Weiss

I am unendingly grateful to Aesthetic Realism for explaining what makes for real security and real adventure. It is the purpose we were born for: to like the world. And Aesthetic Realism explains that an aspect of contempt is the feeling we will “play it safe” by being scornfully aloof. But, as I have seen in my own life, we despise ourselves for this, and feel anything but secure. 

The fight between feeling that to know things was an adventure, and wanting to lessen things, was in me as a child. At camp, I loved sleeping under a sky full of stars and learning to recognize constellations. But for the most part, I used what I saw as secure—my family—against venturing out. I remember bouts of homesickness at camp: the pathetic picture of myself stranded among strangers, hundreds of miles from our comfortable Manhattan apartment. 

Yet I spent a good deal of time in that apartment daydreaming about being away from what I saw as humdrum confinement. I looked forward to bedtime when I would go over adventures I had made up: involving an unlimited supply of candy in a compartment in the wall, and later, boys who unfailingly told me how wonderful I was. I felt, why should I knock myself out over boys like other girls, when it was so much easier to have a boyfriend in my mind? 

I thought I was pretty smart having an inner world where I managed everything, but I began to have fears—for example, of being stuck in the elevator, and of dying at the age of 21. On several occasions—in a movie theatre, in a restaurant, and after two weeks of being away at college—I panicked and ran back to my parents. I felt like a failure. 

Then, at 18, my whole life changed when I began to study Aesthetic Realism. In my first consultation, as I spoke in a voice barely audible, shrugging my shoulders with nearly everything I said, my consultants asked, “Do you think if you show anything has meaning for you, you will be a nothing?” And they said, “You think the less you like the world, the more you take care of yourself. Aesthetic Realism disagrees: it says the more you like the world, the more you will like yourself.” I began to learn that the reason I was so fearful—and it is a beautiful fact—was that I was making less of the world, having contempt for it. 

Studying Aesthetic Realism, I felt I was opening my eyes on a new world as I learned I was related, through the opposites, to everything: a tree on 53rd Street; Dickens’s character Uriah Heep, who clutches himself greasily as he plots against people; a girl in Shanghai. I was having large feelings about the bustling world I was glad to be part of! My consultants asked, “Do you think you are living with more of yourself than once? Are you nose to nose with reality?” Yes! 

In a discussion about love, Mr. Siegel explained: “If we have an unconscious limitation on how much we want to love the world, we are unable to love a person. If we hate New York, we’re not going to love 14th Street. Love is the unlimited possibility of becoming wholly oneself through what is not oneself." 

This is what happened to me as I came to know, fell in love with, and, four years ago, married Joseph Spetly. I was once a woman who ignorantly felt she was both too good for and not fit for any man. Now, what happiness it is to feel that essential for my very life are Joe’s thoughtfulness and strength, humor and criticism, depth and liveliness, imagination and logic. I am so grateful Joe and I, and also my mother, Sarah Weiss, are colleagues studying together in Aesthetic Realism classes taught by Ellen Reiss. These classes embody the feeling of adventure and security all people want, as we see the principles of Aesthetic Realism explain any occurrence in the world and the depths of people’s feelings!