The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Thirst for Criticism

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize Poetry and Practicality, a 1948 lecture by Eli Siegel, great in literary criticism and in its comprehension of humanity. And we print part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism associate Sally Ross presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What Stops Men and Women from Having True Love?”

There isn’t an instance of beauty in the world—from the tree I’m now looking at, to Homer’s Iliad—and there isn’t a human life, of the past or today, which is not explained centrally by this Aesthetic Realism principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Poetry and Practicality illustrates that principle. In it, Mr. Siegel opposes the division people make between the “practical” and the “poetic,” between the everyday and the cultural or wonderful. It is a rift that has people find most of life pretty tedious—peppered with moments of loveliness or excitement. Yet those moments can’t have lasting meaning, because they are in a separate reality from the “real” reality of traffic jams, dust under the couch, and ill-natured bosses. This rift—which Aesthetic Realism magnificently shows to be false, unjust to what the world truly is—is related to another split people make, which I am grateful to comment on here.

People make a split as to themselves between the factual and the wonderful: That is, they want to be seen as wonderful, get tremendous approval, even be adored. And they feel that being seen truly, with critical exactitude, will interfere with the glowing sense of themselves they desire. The feeling that the glory of ourselves is opposed to the criticism of ourselves, is as horrible a mistake as any that people make. It is a mistake that psychologists, counselors, and press encourage terrifically; because the trend of our time is to tell people their problem is that they esteem themselves too little and that what they need is to get more praise from themselves and others; they should be made to feel they’re wonderful just as they are.

Aesthetic Realism is the courageous, beautiful friend of everyone in showing that people are thirsty for criticism, and this thirst for criticism is the most beautiful thing in us. We can seem to prefer flattery, of course. But the desire for criticism is as inevitable as the circulation of our blood, because we want to be all we can be. 

Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of our lives, our deepest desire, is to like the world: to be ourselves through being just to the world not ourselves—with its people, facts, objects, books, colors, past. If we’re not just, we criticize ourselves in some way, usually unclearly and painfully: we’re nervous, ill-at-ease, depressed, ill-tempered. All the jollying of us along, the telling of us we’re special, won’t help—because that beautiful demand is in us, sure as the heartbeat, saying, however tumultuously and murkily, “You need to be fairer, Hubert! You’ve made less of other people, other things!”

What Criticism Is

We have to see what criticism is. Criticism is not lashing someone. Criticism, Mr. Siegel explained, is that which “makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling.” I may as well say straight, in case it isn’t clear enough, I hate the fake, non-critical approach foisted on people these years. It is insulting and it is cruel. It makes less of the best thing in a person: our pulsating desire to be just to outside reality, a desire so unbribable that we despise ourselves for being unjust. The just-think-well-of-yourself purveyors have tried to have people drown that in themselves which could really make them proud: their desire for criticism.

And I love Aesthetic Realism for showing the grandeur of every person. I love Aesthetic Realism for enabling people to criticize consciously and clearly, for the first time in human history, what people have unconsciously and tormentedly criticized in themselves: contempt. Mr. Siegel described contempt as the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And he showed contempt is the interference in every aspect of life. Contempt in man and woman is the thing that ruins love; it is the source of learning difficulties and of every cruelty. And until people are able to criticize contempt in themselves, they will be unhappy and they will be mean, and all the flattery and hugs in the world won’t change that.

Though we can lap up flattery, we deeply hate a person who flatters us: we feel he’s trying to fool us, and trying to have us satisfied with being less than we can be. I think Aesthetic Realism is itself the truest praise of every human being: it shows how big we really are—it shows that ethics is the same as our very being, our very flesh; that’s why we can’t like ourselves or be ourselves without honoring ethics. Aesthetic Realism shows that criticism of self is also delight. Criticism, Eli Siegel said, is love. A person who loves us wants to strengthen and have us sure of what is beautiful in us; he also wants to fight that in us which is in our way and makes us dislike ourselves. That is what Eli Siegel did for every person he taught. It is what he did for me, and I am inadequate to express the vastness of my gratitude. He embodied the fact that true criticism is indeed the most thrilling tenderness.

Aesthetic Realism Consultations

In Aesthetic Realism consultations now, people are meeting what human beings thirst for: the aesthetic criticism of self. Mr. Siegel showed that the critical criterion for a person is the same as that for a work of art: the criterion is, how well does he, she, it put reality’s opposites together - freedom and accuracy, strength and delicacy, care for self and justice to what is other than self? The demand within us is that we be aesthetic—like art! This fact can make everyone feel truly glorious. It is a glory a thousand times bigger than the glory of cheap, really humiliating flattery.

Persons of the media and the psychology/psychiatry business have encouraged millions of people to be anti-self-criticism. Yet Aesthetic Realism—powerfully eternal and fresh as the sweet leaves of spring—is here, better known each week, bringing people the beautiful criticism of self they thirst for; bringing them the selves they want to be.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Poetry of Everyday Things

By Eli Siegel

I come to a man who wrote one of the most noted fantasies, Gulliver’s Travels. There is the poetry of Shelley, Yeats, Swinburne; but there is also the poetry of everyday things. Jonathan Swift is one of the few important men of letters who tried to write poems that were street cries. He calls them Verses Made for Fruit-Women, Etc. They belong to poetry just as definitely as a poem about a cloud lurking remotely with the moon. These were written around 1724. First, “Oysters":

Charming oysters I cry:

My masters, come buy,

So plump and so fresh,

So sweet is their flesh,


Your stomach they settle,

And rouse up your mettle:


And madam your wife

They’ll please to the life;


Eat my oysters, and lie near her,

She’ll be fruitful, never fear her.

Well, one cannot accept the complete practicality of this, that oysters are a means of fighting barrenness; still, this is a practical poem. Earlier there had been one on apples, one on asparagus, one on onions.

Herrings” begins: “Be not sparing, / Leave off swearing. / Buy my herring....” Jonathan Swift, this eminent man of letters, took the trouble to write such things.

Oranges” begins: “Come buy my fine oranges, sauce for your veal, / And charming, when squeezed in a pot of brown ale.” These are practical poems. They are good. There is a just use of rhythm.

Then, Swift wrote riddles, which are also practical. He wrote a poem—and as far as I know he is the only eminent English man of letters who has written a poem on this subject—On a Corkscrew.” I like it a good deal better than ¾ of the works of Robinson Jeffers put together. It begins:

Though I, alas! A prisoner be,

My trade is prisoners to set free.

No slave his lord’s commands obeys

With such insinuating ways.

My genius piercing, sharp, and bright,

Wherein the men of wit delight.

The clergy keep me for their ease,

And turn and wind me as they please.

A new and wondrous art I show

Of raising spirits from below...

In this poem, the Dean of St. Patrick’s did not think it unbecoming to enter into the soul of a corkscrew and write about the corkscrew in the first person. A corkscrew is a late invention. And some of the earliest poetry in the world, like the poetry of Hesiod, the poetry of Ovid (much, much later than Hesiod), even the poetry of Homer, the poetry of Virgil, is about the use of metal, a very practical thing. And other commodities are to be seen, described in terms of their functions by these poets.

Love: Truth or Flattery

By Sally Ross

The way Aesthetic Realism sees love as education, based on kind, scientific principles, is cause for unending celebration! The purpose of love, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to use another person as a beginning point for liking the world as a whole. Love is inseparable from knowledge, and we cannot love a person unless we want to see what is true—about that person, ourselves, the world. What stops men and women from having real love is the drive to use a person to glorify ourselves and put the rest of the world aside.

In his great 1949 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Love, Eli Siegel explains: “We may say that love is blind; but love comes from seeing, and where a person is afraid of seeing, he’s afraid of loving.... If you’re not interested in truth, you’re not interested in love” (TRO 553). 

I didn’t know that how I saw truth had anything to do with how I saw love. I didn’t know that something I considered necessary—a certain effusive praise—was really an enemy to love. I had the feeling, If I can get this person to like me, all my doubts about myself will disappear! 

At age 14, I saw my boyfriend as more important than my family, friends, what I was learning in school—everything. And I let him know it, including through beseeching looks. Once, to my shock, he turned to me and said, “When you look at me like that, I feel like jumping off the nearest cliff.” My expression had said, “Without you, the world is nothing and I am nothing"—and he couldn’t stand it. 

This approach to love continued with other young men in high school and college, and I expected the same treatment in return. One summer when I was away, Bob Johnson, a painter, wrote me letters, sometimes three in one day, many containing lavish praise. In one he wrote, paraphrasing Hamlet: 

I have no needs, no wants, no desires that don’t center about you. Everything else that’s important to me I could disregard, if only that one condition be granted....Without you, “how stale, flat and unprofitable seem all the ways of the world.” 

While I was elated by these letters, as the weeks went on I felt more and more uneasy. I had a sneaking feeling the person Bob was writing to was not really me. I became colder, more scornful—and also greatly agitated and unsure of myself. These sentences of Mr. Siegel give the reason:

Most people, in being flattered, cheat themselves....Praise without knowledge is an unclean eggshell. It may seem very attractive, but...a woman knows when she is being known or not being known. [TRO 947] 

Years later, as a student of Aesthetic Realism, I wrote about mistakes I had made with Bob. I said I had wanted his “affection without reservation.” And discussing this document in a class Mr. Siegel asked, “Is there such a thing as affection without reservation?” “I don’t know,” I answered. He explained, “You would have to know everything about a person and praise it in advance....People will [say] ‘I love you without reservation!’ But I don’t think there has been any such thing....There is a desire to feel [through a person] every possible problem has been settled now." 

I saw that when a woman goes after being cared for “unconditionally,” her purpose is not to be seen truly or to see a man truly: it is to feel she has pulled a fast one on a man, whom she sees as a fool, and through him to make herself queen of the universe. I know firsthand that this contempt packs a wallop: it not only makes love impossible, but the illegitimate throne inevitably comes toppling down, and you hurt your relation to the whole world.

I am so happy to have seen, through my study of Aesthetic Realism, that to use a man to know and like the world is terrifically romantic and exciting! It makes for pleasure, self-respect, and ever-increasing feeling between two people that nothing else can. 

And I am so grateful to be married to Derek Mali. His good nature and steadiness, his keen mind, his criticism, the way he can make me laugh, including at myself, his great love for Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism, and what he has seen about the deadly effects of snobbishness on a person’s life, have me like the world and feel closer, warmer to all people. Through Aesthetic Realism, men and women can learn at last how to have real love be in our lives!