The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Two Pleasures


Dear Unknown Friends:

One thing that is clear in the history of man is that he has had pleasure of two kinds. Man has had pleasure from seeing a sunset; from Handel’s Messiah; from seeing courage in someone; from a great rhythm in words. He has also had pleasure from making everything he can meaningless; from changing architecture into broken eggshells; from making the mighty malodorous; from trivializing. Man, then, praises; he also diminishes. The same lips that can curve and droop into a sneer can be apart in astonishment. Seeing meaning, then, has given pleasure; taking it away has also given pleasure.

Contempt, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, sustains everyone. The pleasure of making less of things is a seeming need. There is a feeling that if we couldn’t make things less, despise them, we should be nobody in a large, intricate, and dark world. Contempt, it seems to us, is the foundation we need for our desire to be somebody; to matter.

What I have just said is relevant to the American writer, Edgar Allan Poe: this, to be sure, is apparent through recent TROs. In this number, I look at the fight between the pleasure from meaning and the pleasure from contempt, in the mind of Poe. And Charles Pierre Baudelaire, of France, is looked at also.

1. There Is Pleasure in Meaning

Perhaps before he was twenty, Poe wrote one of the lyrics of the world, the world has decided never to lose. This lyric has the simple title, “To Helen,” and is a praise of woman and reality. The last stanza of “To Helen” is:

Lo! in yon brilliant window-niche

How statue-like I see thee stand,

The agate lamp within thy hand!

Ah, Psyche, from the regions which

Are Holy Land!

Whenever anybody writes poetic lines which the world, through the years, rightly does not wish to discard, the person who first came to these lines got the pleasure of respect from them. In the same way as Beethoven got pleasure when he came to the beginning of the Eroica Symphony or the Fifth Symphony, so the youthful Poe got pleasure from his lines, so simply shaped, so intricately and honestly musical, so aware of the deepest hopes of individual consciousness.

Beethoven, in the symphonies I have mentioned, made rest and motion one; repose and tumult one. In the stanza from Poe I have quoted, the tumult, mystery, and wideness of the world become light, substance, kindness. Something is told us from holy regions; this something is graceful, clear, kind. Honesty, alight and smiling, has become the most lasting thing anywhere.

Charles Pierre Baudelaire, too, now and then got pleasure from seeing something good as lasting, incorruptible. There is a likeness between Baudelaire’s “Hymne” and Poe’s “To Helen.” These poems are unlimited, even inordinate, in their desire to respect something and to get pleasure from the respect. I quote lines from Baudelaire’s rapt and statuesque praise of woman and reality:

A la très chère, à la très belle,

Qui remplit mon coeur de clarté,

A l'ange, à l'idole immortelle,

Salut en l'immortalité!

.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

Comment, amour incorruptible,

T'exprimer avec vérité?

.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

A la très bonne, à la très belle

Qui fait ma joie et ma santé.

These lines of Baudelaire I have translated in Hail, American Development as:

To the very dear, to the beautiful one

Who fills my heart with clearness,

To the angel, to the immortal idol,

Hail in immortality!

.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

How, love incorruptible,

Tell of you with truth?

.    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

To the very good, to the very beautiful one

Who is my joy and my health.

Both Poe and Baudelaire had pleasure in putting their desire to praise into a poetic form, alive now in the world. To many, their lines may seem ever so sentimental. The American writer and the French writer also had pleasure from contempt. Poe and Baudelaire can be like a drooping, sneering Dick and Harry, like a hidden, lofty Eloise and Harriet.

2. Poe, Contemptuous

The man or youth who got great pleasure from finding lovely, everlasting meaning in “Helen,” also got pleasure from making fun of a writer—excessive fun, inadequate as criticism. We can see the pleasure Poe had in writing the following of William Wilberforce Lord, who wasn’t such a good poet, but was hardly the awful writer of lines that Poe presents him as being. Lord wasn’t a third that bad. He is given a fairly respectful sketch in The Oxford Companion to American Literature (1941). Poe, however, is inconsiderately gleeful writing this (Broadway Journal, May 24, 1845):

The fact is, the only remarkable things about Mr, Lord’s compositions, are their remarkable conceit, ignorance, impudence, platitude, stupidity, and bombast. We do not know, in America, a versifier so utterly wretched and contemptible.

It is said, among the anecdotes of American literature, that William Wilberforce Lord dared to parody Poe’s “Raven.” Whether this is so or not, the critical language of Poe has unmistakably a bad critical pleasure within it; this language tells of poetic failure, personal deficiency. Sadism has come to the halls of Athena and the porticos of the Academy. If sadism is too contemporary a term, let us say that Poe had a pleasure in showing contempt and making a contemporary American writer uncomfortable, perhaps.

And Baudelaire got pleasure from writing lines like these in “Une Charogne,” or “A Carcass”:

Les jambes en l’air, comme une femme lubrique,

Brûlante et suant les poisons.

A translation:

Legs in air, like a lustful woman,

Burning and sweating poisons.

These lines of Baudelaire are not so good; and I don’t think he got much poetic pleasure from writing them. But there was some satisfaction in making repulsive, women who had disturbed Baudelaire’s artistic equanimity.

3. Contempt May Be Good

Whenever contempt is given form, contempt is something honoring the world, friendly to existence. Emily Dickinson shows her contempt for a possibility of the world in these lines:

The sky is low, the clouds are mean,

A travelling flake of snow

Across a barn or through a rut

Debates if it will go.

This cold sluggishness of reality is not reality at its best. Sometimes weather is reality in bad clothes. But Miss Dickinson, through the music to be found accompanying even the words “mean” and “rut,” gives the stopped, New England scene shapely meaning. Poetry, like art itself, finds form in the most personally unacceptable things. Furthermore, Emily Dickinson tells us that contempt, through poetry, can change into respect:

This was a Poet—it is that

Distills amazing sense

From ordinary meanings.

Had Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Pierre Baudelaire been able, in their Richmond and Paris lives, to give full meaning to these somewhat awkward lines of Dickinson, their lives would have pleased them more.

Neither Poe nor Baudelaire, as I see it, saw enough of a relation between the ugly and the comely, between the unbearable and the interesting. The largest use of poetry and art is that it makes the pleasure of contempt and the pleasure of respect one. When Shakespeare, in his Love’s Labours Lost, says in a song:

While greasy Joan doth keel the pot —

we get a pleasure from the musical and visual and tactual structure of the line, even as we are not entranced by grease and the keeling or cooling of a pot. The purpose of art is to make ugliness and beauty, as honestly as possible, both add to or assert the meaning of the world. And here, the pleasure of contempt and the pleasure of respect merge.

4. The Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint

Aesthetic Realism says that one thing in common among all things is: all things can be seen in a way that deserves respect. We can despise ourselves for the way we see a flower and respect ourselves for the way we see a bruise. Painting says—as in Hieronymus Bosch or James Ensor or Francis Bacon—that the unsightly, even so, has form in it and can be seen in a valuable manner. Poetry goes along with painting here, and says that fine lines can be written of a disease, while inferior lines can be written of a smiling, comely duchess.

I believe the pleasure—or at least release—of contempt and the pleasure of meaning or respect can be felt in the following lines about cancer:

Early June Is Saddening

Metastasis goes on in dark and flesh;

And death from cancer saddens early June.

And there are these two lines:


Eczema, Described

Take eczema: its red, its scales, its crust;

There’s curve at one with itch in afternoons.

Two things in these couplets are made one through iambic form. The sloppy, reckless killing change of body in metastasis, and the blotchy, hard-soft, annoying development of eczema are given a kind of endurable neatness through the procedure of the unaccented and accented syllables. The iambic here acts like a benign white coat of fate.

Baudelaire had contempt for the Philistine in France; Poe had contempt for the acquisitive, portly person in America. Poe had contempt for the shiftless verse of many American writers; Baudelaire had contempt for the skimming or rigid verses put forth by French writers. The contempt for stupidity to be found in France, or the contempt for slowness of mind to be found in America, made for an inaccurate pleasure in Baudelaire and Poe. Bad verses also encouraged contemptuous pleasure in Baudelaire and Poe.

Art and poetry, however, teach that even our contempt should be in behalf of meaning in the world, not in behalf of elevation of ourselves or secret, sizable superiority in ourselves. Our superiority should always include something good in reality.

Poe could have found strength for himself in these last lines from Wordsworth’s “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality”:

To me the meanest flower that blows can give

Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

There was a superciliousness in Poe and, I believe, now and then in the harried Baudelaire. The import of the quoted Wordsworth lines might have assisted both. There is hardly anything that poetry, accurately understood, cannot make a little more sensible, somewhat more bearable.

Poe himself unites the pleasure of contempt and the pleasure of adoration in his story, “Ligeia.” Poe says this of Ligeia’s “expression”:

And thus how frequently, in my intense scrutiny of Ligeia’s eyes, have I felt approaching the full knowledge of their expression—felt it approaching—yet not be mine—and so at length entirely depart! And (strange, oh strangest mystery of all!) I found, in the commonest objects of the universe, a circle of analogies to that expression.

One of the useful definitions of poetry is this: Poetry is the musical making of that which is common uncommon, and that which is uncommon common. In this definition, with all that it doesn’t have, is the means of making man’s two pleasures a one in physiological integrity: the pleasure of contempt or superiority and the pleasure of respect or meaning.

The relation of these pleasures tells of the life to be of man.

With love,

Eli Siegel