The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

True Excitement vs. Competition

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 2 in our serialization of Eli Siegel’s great 1949 lecture Poetry and Excitement. In this lecture, with such scholarship, vividness, and ease, Mr. Siegel does a tremendous thing: he shows the structure of excitement—that which makes any thing or moment or happening exciting. The basis is this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And as we see that excitement has a structure, a scientific and poetic organization, there are thrill, relief, grandeur—because people have felt excitement and order or dignity were opposites that had to fight; and they have been ashamed and distressed by the disjunction in their lives between an “exciting” time and an accurate or just time.

We also print part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this June. The seminar’s title was “What’s Wrong with Competition; or, Is Anything More Important Than Being Superior?”

The way the two subjects of this TRO—excitement and competition—come together in our lives concerns our very happiness; also our intelligence, and our kindness.  

First of all: that thing which Mr. Siegel showed to be the great weakener of the human mind, contempt, is a competition we make between ourselves and reality. Mr. Siegel described contempt as the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” Contempt is a competition with the world so pervasive in us that we mostly don’t even see it as competition: we simply feel that we can’t be big unless we can see something or someone else as smaller, unless we can look down. But whether this feeling is a quiet assumption or a fierce drive, it is always completely ugly. From it, Aesthetic Realism explains, comes every human cruelty, including racism and war. 

As part of our contempt, we have an actual, intense, albeit mainly unconscious, hope not to be excited by the world. Our contempt is like a businessman under the profit system who most certainly does not want his competitor’s product to seem exciting; he wants what he competes with to be a dull, unattractive flop. To the way of seeing which is contempt, all things not us constitute the wares of our big competitor, Reality; and to be excited by them takes away from our profit, our glory. Mr. Siegel explains in Self and World: "To be bored by the world is wearisome, is a victory for the individual. We are in a fight between being bored and being aroused. Being bored is a victory for ubiquitous contempt” (p. 18).

While contempt is the self competing with the world, contempt also competes with something in the self of everyone. That something is the biggest desire we have, the purpose of our very lives: to like the world, see meaning in it. We were born, Aesthetic Realism shows, not to compete with the world but to see it as a deep and wide and multitudinous partner of ours—in fact, as the other half of ourselves. Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, in beautiful prose, about a baby whom he calls Joe Johnson: 

He has needs. Those needs, if met at all, will be met by an arrangement of the larger world and himself. When Joseph’s needs are met, a feeling, however unexpressed, will occur amounting to: “We make a team.” Joe will want to eat; there is food in the world. Joe will want to see; there are things to be seen, and there is light in the world. Joe will want to crawl, and walk, and run; and there is space in the world to be crawled in, to be walked in, to be run in.... [Pp. 215-16] 

One of the silliest and most awful mistakes concerning competition and excitement is the feeling some people have that the big excitement, the charge, the real exhilaration comes from competition, from demolishing an opponent, leaving somebody in the dust. As Aesthetic Realism sees it, the only kind of competition that is any good is competition which has the world and people look more beautiful. There can be that kind of competition in sports; and Mr. Siegel described it in an article in the Baltimore American, March 29, 1925, when he was 22:  

The reason we are thrilled at hearing of a running record broken, or a broad-jumping one, is because it shows how powerful we also, who are men, can be....[People] want to see man in general made greater and nobler.

Can we hit a ball, or field one, or sing well, or dress well, do anything well, for the purpose of showing how good humanity and reality are—instead of competing for the purpose of showing we’re better than everyone and the world should be at our feet? The answer is yes! That second kind of competition is contempt, and it is the kind that is most frequent. But whatever adrenaline-surging excitement may accompany it, it leaves one feeling empty, dull, nervous, and ashamed.

So there are two kinds of excitement: from contempt, and from respect. Because of Eli Siegel’s magnificent, rich integrity as person and educator, Aesthetic Realism is that in human history which shows with logic and flesh-and-blood convincingness that respect makes for the greatest, fullest excitement we can ever have.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Meaning Comes to a Point

By Eli Siegel

A person who has to think imminently—not just theoretically—of something happening which he has thought about for a long time, is in a state of excitement. This excitement is expressed in the first of two well-known short pieces of Robert Browning: “Meeting at Night.” The second is “Parting at Morning.”

Some of the greatest excitement is when certain people meet each other, particularly after they haven’t met for quite some time. When people have parted, then have a chance to meet again, and there are new and old, and the feeling of this person representing all existence—well, much excitement can be. It is a matter, as excitement in poetry is, of general and particular; of something which is steady and something which is sudden; of that which is unknown yet still seen as known. So in gambling, for example, there is a great deal of excitement about the roll of a wheel—because if the wheel rolls this way you’ve got twelve thousand dollars; if it rolls the other way you are in debt twelve thousand dollars. That little thing meaning all that twelve thousand dollars—that is something. In excitement a lot of meaning comes to a point. It does here, in “Meeting at Night:

The gray sea and the long black land; 

And the yellow half-moon large and low; 

And the startled little waves that leap 

In fiery ringlets from their sleep, 

As I gain the cove with pushing prow,

And quench its speed i' the slushy sand. 


Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach; 

Three fields to cross till a farm appears; 

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch 

And blue spurt of a lighted match, 

And a voice less loud, thro' its joys and fears,

Than the two hearts beating each to each!

This is the classical expression of excitement in classical English verse. Two people walking towards each other, then the feeling that at a certain moment they are going to see each other and hold each other—quelle agitation! quelle turbulence! It’s here, and it’s done very well.

“Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach: this is the preliminary, the lengthiness. “A tap at the pane: this is the buildup. Excitement in this poem has taken the form of there being a drum at the base of a pyramid, beating, beating, beating, and then the point of the pyramid comes and the meaning of the world is seen.

The other excitement, in “Parting at Morning,” is much more decorous and contemplative: 

Round the cape of a sudden came the sea,

And the sun look'd over the mountain’s rim:

And straight was a path of gold for him,

And the need of a world of men for me.

Here is the excitement of saying that some decision has to be made—of finding, in turn, something large in relation to that point. Because a good deal of social life consists of an area becoming a point, then the point becoming an area again. We have the area becoming a point in the first poem in this duet, “Meeting at Night.” Now the point seems to spread out again. The excitement here is over a larger surface. It is present, but it does not have that insistent quality of excitement which is in the first poem.

The Trouble with Competition

By Miriam Weiss

At age 17, just beginning college, and finding myself unable to sleep and very nervous, I tried to get consolation from the fact that other people were not doing well. I wrote in my journal: “They don’t seem much more connected than I.” But I felt something was terribly wrong with this way of thinking well of myself; I wrote further: “As long as people are not more connected than I, I’m happy—now isn’t that sick?!” It means my life to me that nine months later I was to meet Aesthetic Realism.

In Self and World Eli Siegel explains: “The most dangerous and ugly thing about competition as we have it today is that it works to nourish and maintain the neurological belief that unhappiness in someone else is happiness for us.” This belief is contempt. And I came to see that my contempt, my desire to be impressive by looking down on things, was the reason I had been so nervous and fearful.

Yes, there is something more important than being superior. Aesthetic Realism shows it is the ability to see meaning in reality and be fair to it. The central thing wrong with competition, I learned, is that we pit ourselves against what we were born to like: we make the world an enemy we have to get the better of.

A Battle with the World

Growing up, I had pleasure seeing value in things through reading books, and in attending talks for young people on archeology. But, while I envied other children, I also took for granted I was of superior stock.

In one of my first Aesthetic Realism consultations I was asked, “Is there a big competition between Miriam to herself and reality?” I was in a drawn battle with the world, trying to prove it couldn’t affect me much. But my very self was a casualty. I spoke barely above a whisper, and most everything I said was accompanied with a shrug.

In one consultation I was asked, “How many things affect you?” “I guess all the things I notice,” I answered. And my consultants said, “Not just that. Why do you think Tennyson has Ulysses say in the poem, ‘I am a part of all that I have met’? Do you think you’re affected by a meal you ate in 1963? Right now, do you think you’re affected by this table? Is it having a good effect on you—the fact that it’s strong and gentle?” “Yes,” I answered. They asked, “Would you be stupid or smart to be grateful to the table?” “Smart!” I said.  

I was beginning to reconsider what made me smart—and things looked friendlier to me. I found myself having large new feelings about people, books, everyday objects. And I was reconsidering how I had used something I had devoted a lot of energy to: the Japanese language. I felt authentic beauty in the sounds and grammar of Japanese, but I also used it to glorify myself. 

In one consultation, as I told how I had just lost “the job of my dreams"—that of shrimp peeler and dishwasher in a Japanese restaurant—my consultants saw the humor in the situation, and asked, “Do you think in that job you tried to put together superiority and inferiority? Do you have a sense of inferiority as to things Japanese? Have you chosen one field in which to be humble, and in being humble in regard to it, you give yourself the right to be superior to everything else?”

This was true. I had seen everything and everyone not Japanese as second-class. This included, I regret so much, my father, Conrad Weiss. As part of the US Army, he had been stationed in Japan after the war, and was the person who introduced me to the culture when I was a little girl. When I came to study the language, instead of being grateful to him, I coldly corrected his pronunciation, was embarrassed and impatient with what I saw as his rudimentary knowledge. Thank heavens my unbearable presumed superiority was criticized.

For example, in a class taught by Mr. Siegel that I had the honor to attend, I told him I felt guilty about my parents. And he asked, “Why don’t you say you hope to think more of your parents? What’s the impediment?” He explained, “You feel that if you care more for your father and mother, the self you built up you’ll care for less. Would you say that, in education, one reason for a child’s not being interested in a subject is that he thinks it takes away from his interest in himself?...There are only two things that arise from [our] attitude to people: [we] either feel guilty or proud. There’s no in-between.”

The Answer

Studying Aesthetic Realism, I began really to respect my parents, to see them as interesting. I did assignments, such as writing a character sketch of Conrad Weiss at age 18, and writing on repose and energy in Sarah Weiss and a Japanese woodblock print. I thank Mr. Siegel with all my heart: because of what Aesthetic Realism has taught me, I have a tremendously happy life, which includes my marriage to Joseph Spetly. Once, my desire to be superior made love impossible.

Mr. Siegel exemplified the answer to the question of our seminar: Is there anything more important than being superior? He wanted to learn from every person. His pleasure at good wherever he saw it—in people, poetry, existence itself—was the most beautiful thing I ever saw.