The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

There Are Truth & America

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are very glad to publish here a short discussion by Eli Siegel on the big subject of lying. It’s part of a lecture he gave in July 1973, and is ever so needed now, at a time when the matter of lying and truth is being talked about and fought about in a way that’s new in our land.

As I comment on the subject, I’m looking at it not in any political way but in terms of ethics, and an intensity about ethics in America. Every day, people of differing political views are accusing others of lying and being accused of lying themselves. One could use all this to feel truth is up for grabs, since anybody can claim to have it and claim an enemy does not. But one would be wrong to use what’s occurring that way.

What is more accurate is: even amid a certain hideous fakery, there is now in America a fury at lying; there is a new sense that truth matters, is important, that the twisting of it should make one indignant and irate. Usually, people talk about truth in an unenthusiastic way, because truth, with its facts, is something people have found it hard to like. After all, the facts so often interfere with one’s ability to have one’s way, to present a picture one sees as advantageous to oneself. The pitting of “my way” against the facts is certainly still in people. However: in these early months of 2017, there is a new non-tepidity about truth—at least some aspects of it. And this non-tepidity, this intensity that truth matters, is a big thing in American history.

The discussion by Mr. Siegel that’s published here occurred at the time the Senate Watergate hearings were going on. And while the Watergate scandal involved politics then, it’s now something persons of all parties speak of as unethical and un-American. Watergate has become a term politicians use when they want to present an opponent as elaborately dishonest: “What he/she did is even worse than Watergate!”

In the 1973 discussion, Mr. Siegel speaks of Watergate differently from any other commentator of then or historian of now. He speaks about it in terms of eternal and immediate ethics. He mentions John Ehrlichman (Nixon advisor, who wound up in jail) and Sam Ervin (who chaired the Senate hearings); but he is looking at the feeling in people about truth and lies—and explains that the summer of 1973 was notable in history because of the clear showing that certain clever lying was indeed lying.

2017 is different from then. But as I said: while there can be much worry in America and much disgust—because the meeting of lie after lie can make for nausea—truth is a Subject in our land. It gets talked about in the media, both the old-fashioned media and social media. It gets talked about in offices, on streets, in living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms. Truth today may even be more a subject of “news” than fashion is, or the doings of celebrities. For truth to be seen as a living matter, for there to be an uproar as to whether and where truth has been insulted, is important in the centuries of America and humanity.

Always: Self & World

The central principle of Aesthetic Realism has to do with the might and beauty of truth and the ugliness of lies: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The biggest opposites in everyone’s life are self and world. We will either feel 1) that the way to be ourselves, take care of ourselves, is to be fair to the world, see it justly; or we will feel 2) that to take care of ourselves we should be able to look down on what’s not ourselves, including the facts—twist them, manhandle them, make them subservient to us. The second is contempt.

And even if a person twists the facts himself, when he sees someone else doing it he’s angry and disgusted, whether he says so or not.

As a preliminary to Eli Siegel’s 1973 discussion, I am going to quote from his great 1964 lecture Instinct Is Concerned with Truth:

Truth is the most avant-garde idea still, and always has to be. Truth can be defined as fairness by an individual to reality, and there is nothing that is more avant-garde than that, nothing more terrifying, and also nothing sweeter....

The instinct to a terrific instinct....The lie that I am talking of is the tendency to carry on a successful war with reality and have something so because it suits the convenience of the individual....As soon as somebody seems to be careless with truth, we may admire his or her finesse, but we do have—and in this instance it is justified—a contempt. This never fails. We don’t have to know what truth is, but we know that someone is careless with it, and it makes for bad air....

At the base of everything that is bad there is this inaccurate love of the lie....The first thing we should do about reality is see it truly. [TRO 613, 615, 616, 617]

In that extemporaneous spoken prose of over half a century ago, Eli Siegel’s passion and logic, ease and conviction are alive. This can be said with great simplicity: he loved truth, loved it always, never wavered in his fidelity to it.

Famous Lines on the Subject

In American literature there is a famous quatrain about truth. It is by William Cullen Bryant, from his 1837 poem “The Battle-field.”

Bryant, who was editor of the New York Evening Post, met many lies in the America of his time. He heard the lie, promoted fiercely, that slavery was a good thing, was a “right” of the Southern states, and that people of the North should not object to it. He opposed that lie. He heard the lie that workers should be seen as acting illegally if they formed a union so as to be treated with less brutality by an employer. He opposed that lie.

The first of these four lines has been much quoted. In the third line, the word Error means reliance on what’s false:

Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again;

Th’ eternal years of God are hers;

But Error, wounded, writhes in pain,

And dies among his worshipers.

These are very fine lines, not only in what they say but in how they say it; they are art. I’ve quoted them because what they’re about is very much of us now: which is stronger, truth or lying? I agree with Bryant; the answer is truth. That has sometimes been hard for people to believe. Meanwhile, again: though the matter of truth versus falsity was in our land in 1837 and earlier and later, today the awareness of it is more, and more intense, than it ever was.

We need to use our anger at lies to love truth more.

People have praised truth but they haven’t felt that truth made them big, glorious, expressed. And so, mostly, they haven’t loved truth. We need to understand truth and lying. We need to see that justice to truth, the facts, reality, makes us more, expresses us, makes us important—because that’s the one way we can love truth. Aesthetic Realism is the means of our seeing this. It has what our turbulent nation is clamoring for.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Permanent & the Current

By Eli Siegel

When one looks at what is going on and, more important, what has been going on, one meets ethics in the form it always has: something that has been from the beginning of the world and something that is working currently. The topic of this discussion can be given as The Permanent and the Current; or, Synonyms. The synonyms have to do with man’s desire to hide, to lie, to conceal, to invent, to be fictitious, to be roundabout, to evade, all of which has been a great thing in the history of man. Herodotus tells of clever folk; there are stories of how people outwitted others. And there are stories, even, of liars who are better at lying than others.

When lying is for the purpose of a world more interesting, it is imagination. When it is for yourself and something narrow, it is simply dullness, misfortune, rubbish, disease.

We find that tendency which every person has, of fashioning in some fake manner the world to his comfort, present in Washington. And many persons had the feeling of disgust that “these bozos, babies, smart numbers, smooth operators in Washington could do just as I could if I had the opportunity and there was any great advantage to it.” They also had the feeling of critical lightness that people who might have been much esteemed by Americans were low characters. A low character is one, essentially, who would rather lie than see. That is the chief thing. Every low character pits his own ego comfort against the nature of reality.

First of All, the Lie

There are words that are synonyms which can be brought together. There is, first of all, the lie. The lie can be outright. A lie depends on its motive. If you say that the Equitable Building is shaking in terror, and your purpose is to add another note to architecture, you’re not lying: you’re being imaginative. If you say also that a black hawk visited a family in the Bronx recently, that’s imagination. It’s the imagination—as was described in a chapter of Self and World, “Imagination, Reality, and Aesthetics”—that Shakespeare has in The Tempest and Coleridge has in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”

From one point of view, some awful whoppers are told in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” But the purpose of Coleridge is not the purpose of Ehrlichman. When Coleridge told stories, it was for the good of the world, and the good of England—also the good of America, because many copies of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are in America and some have been read with great benefit by children.

When you “lie” for the good of the world, you are in the field of imagination, on the side of art. But when you lie for the aggrandizement of yourself and your gang of cronies, you are lying in a cheap manner. And people in America have seen that.

Reality is something that wants to be courted and changed because the possibilities of changing reality are part of reality itself. All imagination is as much part of reality as the Pennsylvania Railroad in its good days. But lying, by its very nature, is cheap. It’s not for the purpose of making the world look better. It’s for the purpose of showing that you can beat it, that you can handle it to suit yourself. The big thing about lying is that it’s cheap. And the lying by the Potomac is no different. The Potomac as a river has had to bear liars near it. So have many telephone booths. There’s been many a telephone booth / That’s been used as a center for untruth. That is a couplet from Samuel Butler, who wrote Hudibras.*


Then there is the word deceive. We know that there’s a satisfaction in deceiving. When we deceive for the purpose of showing the possibilities of the world, we use imagination to present things that haven’t been seen. Everyone knows that this kind of deceiving is beautiful. It’s not smalltime. It’s bigtime. But the deceiving that has been going on began with contempt. Imagination that is with art begins with something else.

There has been a desire to deceive, and one of the most fortunate things in the world is that this desire to deceive was nipped. Everyone now sees Senator Sam Ervin as the Great Nipper. He’s sometimes also called the Constitutional Skipper.


So there is deceive, deception, deceit. Then there is another word which has been associated with ugliness, though it doesn’t have to be, because you can conceal something beautifully. But there is concealment for the purpose of acting as if you were superior to others, and that has gone on a great deal. The concealment that took place is also being looked at—and that fact is beautiful. There was never so much showing of what others wanted not to be shown as in these weeks in Washington.

And again: the person who shows a comfortable, bedizened duchess looking down on people to be a slut and worse—the person who tells the duchesses with their gowns and garbs that what they’re wearing, though called the real article, is shoddy—that great authority on fabrics is also North Carolina’s agent of fate, Sam Ervin.

We have, then, lies, deceit, concealment. A lie is unjust; if a lie were just, it would not be that. The purpose of a lie is to get something that you’re not sure you deserve—because if the purpose is to get something that you deserve, then it gets to be in the field of imagination. The judgment of a lie is its purpose. If someone told a story, told a set of brutes that the person they were looking for was not in this house, that is not a lie—that is compassion. Something like it has been done in all wars. In a book by Everett T. Tomlinson that schoolchildren read years ago, a boy in New Jersey told a regiment of British grenadiers that the man they were looking for was not in that cabin by the Passaic, and in saying this, the boy helped the American Revolution.

A lie is unjust. As soon as it’s just, it is in the field of imagination and belongs to art and not skullduggery. Injustice, then, is inseparable from lying.


Another word, which doesn’t look so terrible, is invention. When people don’t want to see the truth, they are saying their invention is a better thing than truth. That also is a cheap kind of presumption. But it has been going on a great deal. And the greatest defeat of lying that has taken place in American history has been in these last months. When historians praise the meaning of what has occurred, this phrase, “Lying in America was given its most effective blow,” will in some form be used.


Then there is the word fictitious. Fictitious belongs to fiction. Fiction is a part of art, but a person who wants to have his own way can do a job with the fictitious and with the true to suit himself. That has occurred. When you are a smart operator, you can play around with the fictitious, the semi-fictitious, the could-be-true, the seems-to-be-true, and the not-too-clearly-untrue, all for the purpose of showing that you can manage truth to suit yourself.

Some of the best managers of truth have been partisans of Mr. Nixon’s political future. And Mr. Nixon’s political future seems to be in a pretty sad way. No matter what happens, when anybody who is high in politics, high in government, shows himself clearly and unmistakably as a friend of the lie, as Carlyle might say—his political future is not so future, is not so certain.

What will occur to small liars, large liars, semi-liars, and inventors, concealers, deceivers, smart operators, and slickers, we cannot say for sure. The best thing is that who they are and how they operate is somewhat better known. The operation of a lie is as mysterious as anything. But, as is said in the Bible, “Behold, I show you a mystery.” The mystery is a little more familiar.

Ill Will or Good Will

The large thing is that lying is a form of ill will. When lying is attended by good will it’s for the purpose of strengthening, and it should not then be called a lie. It’s the imagination in behalf of eternal truth. It may not be true, seemingly, at the moment, but it is true for all time. It’s a little bit like the phrase that Hamlet uses about forty thousand brothers: “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / Make up my sum.” At one time, the Greta Garbo Social Club recommended it be changed to eighteen thousand brothers. Then some people objected that even so this was a little more than was necessary. But there’s a kind of truth in the statement as Hamlet uses it, to show Laertes that Laertes is not the only person who cares about what occurred to Ophelia.

So we have ill will. Ill will is now less powerful because it has been seen more. From one point of view, it is clearly more powerful: it is running economics. Still, as soon as persons look at ill will and keep on looking, its power changes to something else: its power is given more to the possibilities of good will.

This Can Be

What we can hope for from all the doings of deceit and lying and concealment and fiction and evasion and semi-lying and not remembering, is this: that people say good will should become more real. The best thing is, this is very possible. From all that’s been happening in Washington, good will as a fact of this world may at last be given what it deserves by the people of America and all the people on earth.

* That spontaneous couplet is, of course, by Mr. Siegel himself. It has a likeness in manner to the energetic 4-beat couplets of Butler (1613-1680).