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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1669. — June 28, 2006
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

How Much Can We Know a Person, & Be Known?

Dear Unknown Friends: 

he lecture we have been serializing is important in the fields of philosophy, economics, and literature. But it also has to do with the confusion people feel about each other—for instance, with the fact that right now two persons who saw themselves as close find they resent each other, and don't know why.

     In this 1972 lecture, Good Will Is in Poetry, Eli Siegel speaks about Adam Smith. He looks at two works of Smith that have been seen as very different—The Wealth of Nations of 1776 and The Theory of Moral Sentiments of 1759. And not only does Mr. Siegel show their fundamental likeness of purpose—he shows that the intent of Smith was like that of the poet Shelley! Both Smith and Shelley were writing about that thing which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the great necessity between people, good will.

     Despite the maudlin way the term has been used, real good will is neither soupy nor self-effacing. It's the oneness of criticism and encouragement. It's "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful."

     In the part of the lecture we've reached, Mr. Siegel is quoting Smith about the human longing to have someone else see what we feel. The desire to know, really know, the feeling of another person is central to good will. And Mr. Siegel has said that while Smith may not be the most important writer on ethics, he is the one who has presented aspects of good will with the most variety, the most anecdotes, the most immediate instances, the most down-to-earthness, also the most charm.

"The Ordinary Doom"

hat Smith writes about has to do with something that torments people now. The many books on the difficulty men and women have communicating don't deal with it, yet it is the main difficulty. Mr. Siegel describes it in his essay "The Ordinary Doom." Here are some sentences:

There is a tepidity in the matter of minds knowing minds, people knowing people....People act as if they were interested in knowing others, but the interest could not bear rigid, comprehensive examination.
     And so, there are many mothers lying in their graves, whose feelings were not known by their sons or daughters. Husbands lie in their graves whose feelings were not known by their wives. Wives unknown to husbands also lie at rest all over the world.... 
     Our minds depend for their full existence, on being apprehended by other minds justly, beautifully. If this does not happen, there is misfortune.

     In self-help books and talk shows and magazines, there is much about the need to be "supportive" of another person, to "be there" for someone, and about techniques of phraseology—how to put your complaints in just the right way so as not to antagonize the person you're close to. But there is not an honoring of the tremendous, urgent meaning of the word KNOW. To want to know another person truly is not seen as the 5-alarm matter—also, beautiful matter—it is.

The Courage of Matthew Arnold

et us look at a poem that Eli Siegel spoke of as notable in its telling of the disappointment people feel. The poem is "The Buried Life," by Matthew Arnold. Arnold, though a Victorian, was more courageous in his looking at man and woman—and, really, more primal—than ever so many current discussions bold about sex. As "The Buried Life" begins, a man is speaking to the woman he cares for:

Light flows our war of mocking words, and yet,
Behold, with tears mine eyes are wet!
I feel a nameless sadness o'er me roll.
Yes, yes, we know that we can jest,
We know, we know that we can smile!
But there's a something in this breast,
To which thy light words bring no rest,
And thy gay smiles no anodyne.

     Arnold is describing the fact that a man and woman can banter, be witty with each other, as men and women are doing right now—and yet there is a great lack. The lack, though the people may not speak of it to each other or articulate it to themselves, is this: "You're attentive to me, but are you interested, really interested, in what I feel? Are you interested in having me see what you feel?"

     The "something in [his] breast" not soothed by their talk and proximity is the desire in Arnold to be known as he deeply is and his feeling that this person—though she's ever so close, ever so attractive, ever so much in his life—is not so interested in knowing. Nor does she want to show herself, the self inside, to him.

     We may not actively go after being understood. We may instead go after impressing, being admired, approved of. That is usually the case. Yet even though two people like having a big effect on each other and even though they may be terrifically taken by each other, there can still be the underlying feeling, "This person doesn't want to know me!" That sad, indignant feeling, often not seen, often stifled, is nevertheless there, and insistent in its way: it makes for a suspicion between them. It makes for an emptiness.

     Sex may take place, with all its triumph and pleasure. But the fact that there is such closeness of body and so little desire to see the thoughts, the inner life, of each other, is a painful rift. This rift is the cause of much of the resentment and ill nature that can be present between two people whose bodies have been close.

Competing Purposes

Arnold writes:

     Turn those limpid eyes on mine,
And let me read there, love! thy inmost soul.
Alas! is even love too weak
To unlock the heart, and let it speak?
Are even lovers powerless to reveal
To one another what indeed they feel?

     Matthew Arnold did not see, as Adam Smith did not, what interfered with a person's ability to know another and to show one's own feeling. The interference is that thing which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the big, continuous danger in self: contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." It's hard to know a person, and people don't know how. But they also have purposes with a person that are at odds with knowing. Take a woman, Kelly, engaged to Tom. She wants to use Tom to make herself important, and though she doesn't say so, her main interest is in how nice he is to her, in having him be the way she wants him. Therefore she doesn't see trying to know him—with all his hopes, experiences, concerns, nuances—as important. And she doesn't try to show him her own "inmost soul"—because to know and be known truly, cramps one's ability to have a certain power over another.

     In an Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago, I spoke about the fact that there was pain between me and a man I'll call Jim. As part of the discussion, Mr. Siegel asked him, "Do you have a full desire to understand Ms. Reiss?" "No," Jim replied. And Mr. Siegel said, "You say it as if it's not the large thing it is." He explained, using my name:

Every person wants to hear: "I want to understand you, Ellen Reiss. I'll never get tired of trying to understand you, and if I lag in any way, I want you to tell me. And if you can't tell me on Monday, try again on Tuesday."

     It moves me to state, simply as fact, that in the lessons he conducted and the classes he taught, as Mr. Siegel spoke to a person, there was always that beautiful, great, uninterfered with desire to know. The emotion Matthew Arnold wanted and Adam Smith wanted, one had in an Aesthetic Realism lesson: This person really knows what I feel. It was not only an emotion: it was an intellectual conclusion, based on what Mr. Siegel said, the content and logic of his questions and statements. This experience was mine for many years. I wish it had been Arnold's and Smith's too.

     Today in Aesthetic Realism consultations, because of the principles Eli Siegel taught, that new thing in civilization continues: the confusing feelings of a person can be seen as objects, and be understood by oneself and others at last.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Adam Smith & Sympathy
By Eli Siegel

n a passage in The Theory of Moral Sentiments Smith writes about tears. This was a time of sensibility, as it was called. That is a phase in the history of English literature—with Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy and A Sentimental Journey. Tears came to be a big thing, and they were very comforting. Smith says that when people are able to tell about a sorrowful thing that happened to them, it's easier for them to cry, but they also feel better:

Their tears accordingly flow faster than before, and they are apt to abandon themselves to all the weakness of sorrow.

That is a fine phrase: "they are apt to abandon themselves to all the weakness of sorrow." He says if you can cry, you feel something almost rivaling the great pleasures of love:

They take pleasure, however, in all this...; because the sweetness of this sympathy more than compensates the bitterness of that sorrow, which...they had thus enlivened and renewed.

That is what Antony goes after in his famous speech in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. He says to the Roman citizens, "O! now you weep." Antony gets encouraged: "Weep you when you but behold / Our Caesar's vesture wounded? Look you here, / Here is himself..." (3.2.197-201). And Rome is changed.

     What Smith describes, "The sweetness of this sympathy more than compensates the bitterness of that sorrow," is what Shelley was looking for and never found. He thought he had found it in Mary Shelley, but as his life went on, he uttered a few misgivings, I'm sorry to say. And the lady he thought understood him, Emilia Viviani, whom he writes of in "Epipsychidion"—no.

Hemingway Too

person who uses the word sympathy, though in a quite different way, is Hemingway, with his taking over of the Spanish term simpático. That is, if you have a big feeling and somebody knows why you have it, well, you can have a drink together—you're simpático. It's equivalent somewhat to the meaning in English, but the Spanish has something else: it doesn't have to be just about sorrow—there's a way of looking at things. In this other field, Arnold Bennett has a passage in which he says that anybody who saw quality in Mark Rutherford, he immediately saw as a friend. There was a bond because Mark Rutherford, or William Hale White, was seen as notable as an author.

To seem not to be affected with the joy of our companions, is but want of politeness...

A good way of doing this, which Mark Twain would use, was: a person would get excited and he'd be saying casually, "Well, do you think the stars will come out?"

...but not to wear a serious countenance when they tell us their afflictions, is real and gross inhumanity.

     The question of how to behave when somebody is in a state of emotion greater than yours is still a problem.

    Smith gets quite subtle. He's subtle, but he's clear:

We are even put out of humour if our companion laughs louder or longer at a joke than we think it deserves.

I've known a friendship to break up because somebody laughed at something at the cinema after his friend had stopped laughing. Smith couldn't tell about these happenings at the cinema, but he does pretty well.

Looking for Sympathy

We have this:

The man who resents the injuries that have been done to me, and observes that I resent them precisely as he does, necessarily approves of my resentment.

We are all looking for sympathy. So the phrase has arisen, and can be said in various ways, "Oh, he's looking for sympathy." It's very often true.

If my animosity goes beyond what the indignation of my friend can correspond to;...if my admiration is either too high or too low to tally with his own;...according as there is more or less disproportion between his sentiments and mine, I must incur a greater or less degree of his disapprobation.

That's why many people are told, "Keep your shirt on. What are you getting so hot under the collar for? Take it easy—it'll all be the same in 2046." Also, a person could say: We quarreled because I cared for Titian more than he could follow me about, and my viewpoint towards El Greco had a dimension different from his. Tales are told in which an uncle changed his will in behalf of a person who was able to laugh at a story at just the right time. Meanwhile, Aristotle has nothing like this in his Ethics.

If you have either no fellow-feeling for the misfortunes I have met with, or none that bears any proportion to the grief which distracts me...we become intolerable to one another.

Very often a friendship changes because one wasn't backed up as one hoped one would be.

How Fully Sympathetic Can We Be?

mith can describe very benevolent feeling, just and kind; and then he says, I'd better catch up—they'll say I don't know the villainy and the nastiness of the world. There is the following:

Mankind, though naturally sympathetic, never conceive, for what has befallen another, that degree of passion which naturally animates the person principally concerned. The thought...that they themselves are not really the sufferers, continually intrudes itself upon them.

That is why a person says, "Nobody will know the feeling I have." Many people feel that. There's a story—perhaps I made it up: Somebody is seeing Hamlet for the first time, and he gets a little tired of all the troubles Hamlet has. He says, "I think I'd better leave him. He can solve his own troubles." Such a reaction has been: you get tired of Hamlet's having so many difficulties.

The person principally concerned is sensible of this, and at the same time passionately desires a more complete sympathy.

     We are in the midst of literature. A person who writes in any way, in fact any artist, is concerned with the emotions that other things can have, other people can have, the emotions that another thing can cause. You are interested in the thoughts of a pipe after it has been used three times and put in the cellar. And you have a sympathy: Dear pipe, you shouldn't have been discarded so soon!

     How much can we sympathize with another? How much can we have the feeling of another? This is still a beginning art question.

The Usefulness of a Friend

lso in this work is the following sentence: "How are the unfortunate relieved when they have found out a person to whom they can communicate the cause of their sorrow!" Shelley writes a good deal about this.

     Then, about the possible usefulness of a friend:

The mind, therefore, is rarely so disturbed but that the company of a friend will restore it to some degree of tranquility and sedateness. The breast is, in some measure, calmed and composed the moment we come into his presence. We are immediately put in mind of the light in which he will view our situation, and we begin to view it ourselves in the same light.

     In Aesthetic Realism lessons I have been of use to many people for a similar reason. Something has occurred to a person and everything is lurid and end-of-the-worldish. It seems impossible—you can't do anything about it—and, in a sincere way, I just see it as a fact belonging to other facts. Immediately a person feels better.

We expect less sympathy from a common acquaintance than from a friend....We expect still less sympathy from an assembly of strangers.

Not everything is covered here, because the desire to be really understood can be fulfilled anywhere. Still, it is important to see that how another person sees our questions affects us.

     The subtlety of the work is instanced by this passage:

Upon coming into the world, we soon find that wisdom and virtues are by no means the sole objects of respect; nor vice and folly, of contempt. We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than toward the wise and the virtuous.

The passages in this book that are interesting and valuable are so many.   

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1.  The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

2.  The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.

3.  All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
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Lord Byron | Harry Potter  |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns  |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method

Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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