The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Thing in Us We Need Most to Understand

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Poetry and the Unconscious, by Eli Siegel. This vivid, kind 1949 lecture—great in literary criticism—is historic, and also immediate: it’s needed by us now. Here is the third section. And with it is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll, from a public seminar of last month titled “Women—Determined & Doubtful; or, When Is Our Determination Right?”

Discussing poems of James Thomson (1834-82), Mr. Siegel is describing the central matter in the self of everyone—including in our unconscious, or that in us of which we’re unaware. Although Thomson is best known for his powerful writing about the world as darksome, as having much evil, Mr. Siegel points out that he also wrote some of the most cheerful poems ever. And contrary to what various critics have said, Mr. Siegel shows that Thomson didn’t write the happy poems early in life and the darksome later. Rather, he wrote both kinds all along, because he had, intensely, what everyone has—two ways of seeing the world: as an enemy against which he should find solace in himself; and as a friend.

The world, certainly, has both horror and loveliness. Thomson tried to be honest about both, and was so grandly honest in his poetry that his lines are musical. However, he did not know, as others haven’t, what Aesthetic Realism explains: there is a fight in us between contempt for the world and respect for it. That is the biggest matter in everyone’s life, and we need to learn about it so respect can win. In Thomson as artist, respect won. It did not win in his personal life, as it mainly does not for people.

And So—Determination

Thomson was thirsty to know what Carol Driscoll illustrates: our fight between respect and contempt has made for two kinds of determination in us, one beautiful and one ugly.

The most hurtful, ugliest determination in the world is something had by every person. That is: there’s a determination in everyone that what’s “good” means that which pleases me, makes me important, enables me to have my way; and what’s “bad” is anything that interferes with my self-importance and comfort. The forms in which this dogged, determined, utterly fallacious way of seeing occurs are multitudinous. I’ll mention several swiftly.

A child, Jenna, sees as “good” an aunt who brings her costly gifts and tells her how pretty she is. Another aunt, not focused on the little niece but interested in what’s happening in the world and in having hunger end in the nation, is considered by Jenna, rather resentfully, as not so good.

There’s a man, Frank, who thinks a statue, in his city, of a Confederate general is “good,” even “noble.” This statue backs up his feeling of superiority. For him to question it would mean he’d also have to be a critic of himself—he’d have to question how justly or unjustly he sees other human beings.

There is that determined falsification of “good” which has made for massive cruelty, suffering, and inefficiency in world economics. It is: what can enable a few people, including oneself, to have a lot of money, to own most of the world, equals “good”; and if many others suffer from this “good” way of owning, either make their suffering seem unreal or see their condition as somehow deserved—because they’re lazy or because some people have to be poor. Here I note that making one’s own comfort and importance the criterion for “good” is always accompanied by lying, viciously changing the facts.

Our Inescapable Good Determination

There is a beautiful determination, fundamental to the self of everyone. It arises from the purpose of our very lives: to know, be fair to, and like the world. From it come all kindness, true art, authentic science, the desire to learn, every movement in behalf of justice. And so determined is that purpose in us, so insistent, that our being untrue to it is what makes us feel empty and ashamed.

Now, because of Aesthetic Realism, what has been an unseen battle in people can be studied. It is the most pride-giving, happiness-making study in the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

A Poet of Pessimism & Optimism

By Eli Siegel

A person who affected James Thomson was Dante: the thorough description of hell took him. And Thomson was thorough. In “The City of Dreadful Night” we find him saying:

...Eyes of fire

Glared at me throbbing with a starved desire;

The hoarse and heavy and carnivorous breath

Was hot upon me from deep jaws of death;

Sharp claws, swift talons, fleshless fingers cold

Plucked at me from the bushes....

But now, jumping purposely again, I read something that Thomson wrote pretty late. This is from one of his last poems. And it shows that “The City of Dreadful Night” wasn’t written—as persons have said—just because Thomson by that time was disappointed about money and love and had taken drugs. He wrote in two ways both earlier and later, because there was a constant fight in him. This poem, “At Belvoir,” is dated January 1882, the year he died. The last stanza concerns how the unconscious comes into its conscious glory. The unconscious here is called the bud, also a heart that can unseal and a hidden chord. He says the following can be:

The bud full blown at length reveal

Its deepest golden burning;

The heart inspired with love unseal

Its inmost passionate yearning:

The music of the hidden chord

At length find full expression;

The Seraph of the Flaming Sword

Assume divine possession.

Thomson is called the poet of pessimism, the courageous poet, the poet who explored the hell within. But he’s also a poet of optimism: that stanza is as optimistic as any.

He wrote such things as this, from “Sunday at Hampstead”:

We can laugh out loud when merry,

We can romp at kiss-in-the-ring,

We can take our beer at a public,

We can loll on the grass and sing.

Where is the man who wandered through nightmare London? —And then, this very sweet thing:

I am sinking, sinking, sinking;

It is hard to sit upright!

Your lap is the softest pillow!

Good night, my Love, good night!

A poem that is in the anthologies—it’s in The Oxford Book of English Verse—puts together the desire for speed and the desire for permanence. Both are unconscious desires present in all poems:

As we rush, as we rush in the Train,

The trees and the houses go wheeling back,

But the starry heavens above the plain

Come flying on our track.

All the beautiful stars of the sky,

The silver doves of the forest of Night,

Over the dull earth swarm and fly,

Companions of our flight.

We will rush ever on without fear;

Let the goal be far, the flight be fleet!

For we carry the Heavens with us, Dear,

While the Earth slips from our feet!

That is a putting together of motion and rest, and of something that is beyond and something that is past. It is a very sensible thing. Seeing this, we see the other Thomson, so much needing to be known.

I’ll read some more from “The City of Dreadful Night.” He knows he has two selves:

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: I was twain,

Two selves distinct that cannot join again.

Then there is this—and the person called “she” represents something that could disturb the unconscious triumph of having two separate selves:

As I came through the desert thus it was,

As I came through the desert: By the sea

She knelt and bent above that senseless me;

Those lamp-drops fell upon my white brow there,

She tried to cleanse them with her tears and hair;

She murmured words of pity, love, and woe,

She heeded not the level rushing flow:

And mad with rage and fear,

I stood stonebound so near.

What she does is an interruption with himself. And, to be sure, he didn’t express his true feelings about women and how they could interrupt something in him. Many men can’t.

Determination: Two Kinds

By Carol Driscoll

Every person needs to know that there are two kinds of determination: one that makes for confidence and pride, and another that makes us doubtful of ourselves and ashamed. In my twenties, in Boston, I saw myself as pretty determined, and some of my determination was good. For instance, I joined the women’s movement because I felt strongly that women weren’t seen fairly. I was interested in unions, and when I learned that telephone workers—primarily black women, poorly paid and badly treated—were picketing the Bell Telephone Company, I felt I had to be on the picket line. And I respected myself.

But I also had a determination that was selfish and mean. I was driven to assert my way and was not above intimidating a person. A representative early instance was my shouting at my younger brother “Shut that damn TV off ”—in such a way that my sister said, “You scared him.” As he gave in I felt two things: victorious and ashamed.

This way of being determined came from the most hurtful thing in every self: contempt, seeing a person as an interference to order around and then dismiss. In an Aesthetic Realism class years later, Mr. Siegel explained: “You see a person as a symbol of the universe that doesn’t obey you in the way you want....Every person can be despotic. We want people to do what we want them to do. The question is, what are the returns?” The returns were not good. I was ill at ease; quick to see a person as against me; defensive and argumentative.

Describing the distinction between two kinds of determination, Mr. Siegel writes:

Our desire to have our way is always accompanied by what the facts are....Reality and the facts may be at one with our desire; or reality and the facts may not be in agreement with our desire. [TRO 148]

What I went by was: I want this; therefore it must be right! “People use will power in a way that hurts them,” Mr. Siegel said to me. “They make up in determination for what they aren’t sure about.”

By my mid-twenties, though I could act sure, I had tormenting self-doubts, which I tried to get rid of. I slept a lot, went on shopping sprees, and tried to soothe myself with alcohol and the attentions of men. But my persistent dislike of myself was more intense with every year.

When we’re unjust, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, we always feel bad, because we’ve betrayed our deepest desire: to know and be fair to what is not ourselves, the world. As I learned to be a critic of my contempt, I was honestly surer and happier. Now when I have misgivings about something I want to do, I talk about it with my friends—including my husband, Harvey Spears, who is a perceptive, kind critic. I count on his asking questions that encourage me to see where I may be determined in a way I don’t like myself for, and to make a choice for which I can like myself. This is one of the many reasons I love him and am so grateful for our marriage.

Determination & the Desire to Know

In a recent Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss spoke about a matter central to our subject. “How much and how sincerely a person wants to know,” she explained, “is the chief thing in a person’s life.” And she said the big question for everyone is: “Do I desire to know, or do I care for something else more?”

Growing up, I had a desire to know, as every child does. I loved geography, for example. But my desire to know had limitations. If something seemed too difficult—like learning to play the piano—my response usually was, “Who needs this?”

By age 8 I heard, in our home, many arguments about money. My mother had frequent steep depressions, and would lock her bedroom door, refusing to talk to anyone. I felt my home life was painfully chaotic, and thought that since my parents couldn’t manage their own lives they had no right to tell me what to do. I was so defiant and determined to have my way that my mother, in frustration, would regularly threaten to send me to the House of the Good Shepherd, a girls’ reform school. I saw her as “ruining my life,” but when she died, before I began studying Aesthetic Realism, I couldn’t talk about her without breaking down in tears.

In a class Mr. Siegel enabled me to begin to understand why I felt so bad about Ann Driscoll. He asked, “Do you feel you could have said more to your mother?” The answer was yes. And he asked, “Did you evade thinking about her questions?”—that is, about what she felt to herself. With relief, I said, “Yes.” And he continued, “Can you think of reality or God as having made hardness and softness, and then think of them in relation to your mother?”

I had seen her only in relation to myself, and as against me as she went from rigid silence to being tearfully inconsolable. Now, because of Mr. Siegel’s question about hardness and softness, I thought about the rock garden she loved, with its delicate pansies and soft green moss growing between the rocks. And I began to see that it put together the very opposites she was so much hoping to make sense of in herself. I never saw my mother, including her pain, in the same way again, and my gratitude for this fact is everlasting.

How Should We See Other People?

A frequent subject in the Aesthetic Realism consultations of a woman I’ll call Nina Vargas was her seeing herself as separate from people, including those in the graphics design firm where she worked. “I’m easily hurt,” she said self-critically. She went back and forth between wanting to care for people and seeing them as shunning her. In an early consultation Ms. Vargas told us her father was cold to her and didn’t want her around him. Without defending him, we asked: “Do you think your desire to know is big enough? Did you grant your father the same depth of feeling you give yourself?”

Nina Vargas. No, I don’t think I did.

Consultants. And have you extended that way of seeing to other people? Most people see things mainly from their point of view—how they think people treat them.

Then we asked, “Do you think you could prefer a picture of a person as mean to you?” With a look of amazement, Ms. Vargas said, “I think I do! Why would I do that?”

We explained: “Every person wants to like the world, but there’s also something in us determined to see the world as against us, and we can even arrange it that way.” We mentioned, as an example, something she had said about a coworker:

Consultants. You told us that Michelle “snubbed you” at work. Were you interested enough in what was going on in her mind, or did you just focus on how you thought you were seen?

NV. How I was seen.

Consultants. Aesthetic Realism shows one can have a contemptuous victory in finding the world unacceptable, in seeing someone as against us. We use that to justify our feeling superior and separate from people.

NV (smiling in recognition). I’m identifying!

Consultants. Suppose Michelle was inconsiderate—do you want to use her to be hurt or to see? Can we use another’s possible injustice to us to be more against injustice in ourselves?

“I’m beginning to see this is a real possibility,” she said with new hopefulness.

As a means of her seeing more widely the persons she knew, we gave Ms. Vargas an assignment to write sentences about ways various people are related to the world. She wrote, for instance, “A paleontologist studying fossils he finds in Nebraska has thought of his own family that morning, memories of grandparents, and what he can deduce from a family of horses from thousands of years ago.”

As her consultations continued, Nina Vargas came to have big feeling about the economic justice people deserve and don’t get in our profit economy. And she is an active opponent of racism, who speaks with sincerity and depth about what she has learned. She has said that Aesthetic Realism explains the cause of racism: the desire in humanity to have contempt; and that for racism to finally end, “we all have to study contempt in ourselves.” The woman who was once determined to see other human beings as against her has a new, proud purpose: she has taken a stand on behalf of justice to the world and people.