The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

We Are Exclusive


Dear Unknown Friends:

To be an individual is already to exclude a great deal. We are born with what seems to be only ourselves. It seems the whole purpose of education is to add extraneous matter of the world to our sacred selves.

The true purpose, though, of education is simplicity of self through the riches of reality. This is an aesthetic matter; it is the adding of the impersonal to make ourselves more richly personal. The addition to ourselves is the subtraction of narrowness, exclusiveness in ourselves. All education, dear unknown friends, adds and simplifies. And, again, to add and simplify at once is an aesthetic procedure.

The greatest danger of people at any time is, through a wrong sense of self-importance, to exclude what is necessary to oneself. Snobbishness, repression, and starvation are a hurtful trio, having some likeness. Snobbishness is a means of limiting self; repression, as psychologists used to tell us, hinders and pains the self; starvation is a means of diminishing the self. So, a character in an Oscar Wilde play might have said: “Next to the frown of a beautiful woman, starvation seems to lessen my personality most.”

1. Repression, Resumed

No more making up Oscar Wilde characters and giving them lines to suit myself! It is useful, dear unknown friends, to look at a word sadly in nearly every cultured mouth just after the First World War. The word is repression; and I think it well to quote its definition in Taber’s Medical Dictionary:

Refusal to entertain distressing or painful ideas, thus submerging them in the unconscious where they continue to exert their influence upon the individual. Psychoanalysis seeks to discover and to release these repressions.

I have said before that psychoanalysis has hardly discovered what “these repressions” are. That men and women have found it difficult to look at and lucidly express thoughts about sex, is quite evident; and has been evident ever since David, not piously, looked at Bathsheba. But what else can be repressed in a way bad for the individual?

Aesthetic Realism believes that respect for what is outside oneself is the largest thing repressed by a person. We have to look at the words just used—for I am afraid there may be a tendency to give them less meaning than they have.

Again, what is the greatest thing we repress? What is the thing having most value we scorn, have contempt for, and therefore keep under and submerge as well as we can? This TRO tries to answer this question, somewhat.

2. William Blake Is Called On

William Blake, in his poem, “Mad Song,” has these lines:

Like a fiend in a cloud,

With howling woe,

After night I do crowd,

And with night will go;

I turn my back to the east,

From whence comforts have increased;

For light doth seize my brain

With frantic pain.

Were these lines, dear unknown friends, truly seen, it would shake up the entire psychoanalytic domain and also shake up the excluding, complacent tendency of the press. The lines say, principally, we may be against that which does us some good; and also we may be against light. The hostility of the press to Aesthetic Realism may be described as a hostility to what may be of use and to light itself. I wish that these words would be looked into as carefully as possible. Meanwhile, let us look at the lines of Blake, each by itself. The lines are the third stanza of Blake’s “Mad Song.”

Blake is bold in the first line of this stanza. Still, the line, first printed in 1783, can be justified. When the self is exclusive, is by itself, dislikes things, it is like a fiend in a cloud. In more scientific terminology, the self, exclusive of its surroundings near and far, and disposed to hate all that is not secret and internal, is like a force dehumanized, moving about in its own thick envelope of darkness. This is a prose paraphrase of Blake’s line. I have been careful with the paraphrase.

The next line of Blake is: “With howling woe.” We can be silent and still feel that something is howling in us. This is justified and illustrated by the title of a poem by Allen Ginsberg which deeply stirred insufficiently poetic people some years ago. The title of Mr. Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, is perhaps the most poetic line in it. How often have people decorously said, “I feel like howling”? I hope, dear unknown friends, you don’t think I have worked too hard justifying this early line of Blake, “With howling woe.” Are not the opposites valuably joined through the participial adjective howling and the noun woe?

3. Again, the “Mad Song”

Blake says in the third line of his stanza: “After night I do crowd.” This means, for one thing, people want to go into themselves where there is sheltering darkness. Man’s feeling about night is large, persisting, in history and literature. Night has often been preferred by man to day. Light has annoyed men and women in many ways. The self often triumphs in its own manufactured dimness, greyness, blackness. A person can, like Tarquin after Lucrece, like Macbeth obedient to his masterful wife, prefer night.

After the third line, the fourth is hardly surprising: “And with night will go.” This line is an amplification, poetic enough, of the previous line, “After night I do crowd.” The amplification of the line is justified by the deep inclination of people to be protected by and assisted  by the dark. And where in the world is a better provider of dark than night itself? I once said that the job of night is to pro-vide the darkness found necessary by many people, loved by something in ourselves.

4. A Psychological Boon?

The fifth line of the stanza I am looking at forthrightly exalts contempt. Contempt turns its back; exclusion tells something to leave. It is clear that in the line, “I turn my back to the east,” excluding is done and contempt is in motion. Why does one exclude the east? “The east,” a Zoroastrian might say, “is where the sun rises; where dawn and light in a large manner are accustomed to begin. Consequently,” this learned Zoroastrian might say, “if we do not wish to respect the seeming source of ourselves, why, then, we might want to exclude the entire east. This is a little difficult, but  what cannot the self attempt?” Now that I have quoted my Zoroastrian, it may be said that many persons in institutions do not like the sunlight. Many persons are zealous pullers down of blinds. Light sustains life; but it may annoy. Light and dark are friendly; but we can provoke them into war.

In the next line: “From whence comforts have increased,” there is the antagonism to gratitude to which man is often given. “My comforts have increased, but I dislike something anyway”: ingratitude and contempt tend to become equivalent. They both depreciate reality.

The seventh line is: “For light doth seize my brain.” Why, in the name of the world and whatever caused it, should light seize one’s brain? Practitioners, journalists, give a little time to this matter presented by William Blake. Is it possible that knowledge discomfort one? The psychoanalysts answered Yes to this long ago; but they did not make clear when knowledge might seem undesirable. Aesthetic Realism tries to make this clear.

The last line of Blake’s poem is “With frantic pain.” A large pain in us may seem quiet. This line goes along with the earlier line, “With howling woe.” There is something in us which keenly objects to our complacency and what it may exclude. There is something in us which intensely is pained by what we choose to leave out or lessen in this world. The pain is so constant, so pervasive, we do not see it as frantic pain. William Blake is deeply accurate.

5. I Go to George Jean Nathan

There are hardly two writers, who have used English, more different than William Blake (1757-1827) and George Jean Nathan (1882-1958). Blake, like humanity in general, could be sadly exclusive. The early English romantic poet carried on a campaign against Joshua Reynolds which is not that of a large mind. Here is a sentence of Blake about Reynolds, with a tendency to limit the full meaning of Michelangelo and Rubens. I quote from the Keynes edition of Blake’s poetry and prose, page 977:

If Reynolds had Really admired Mich. Angelo, he never would have follow’ Rubens.

We can gather from this that Blake had some difficulty about color—at least, color as used by Rubens. Blake earlier had said of Reynolds: “This Man was Hired to Depress Art.” However, Blake had a large way of seeing man’s life in this world, not had by the American dramatic critic, George Jean Nathan.

Here is Nathan, sadly pleased with himself, in his noted essay, “The Code of a Critic”:

It is true that enthusiasm does not figure in my effort. I am, constitutionally, given to enthusiasm about nothing.

However, Nathan became so successfully enthusiastic about the plays of Eugene O’Neill that America was inclined to see O’Neill as its leading playwright. And Nathan was also here and there enthusiastic about Rostand’s The Last Night of Don Juan.

The main thing, though, is not whether we should be enthusiastic about a playwright but whether we can honestly be enthusiastic about the possibilities of reality and its conscious representative, man or woman.

This is what Nathan says on a mighty excluding occasion:

I do not care a tinker’s dam whether Germany invades Belgium or Belgium Germany.

And the suave, excluding Nathan elsewhere says in his 1923 essay:

What I mean to say, in plain English, is that if it rested with me to decide upon the fate of the West Virginia coal miners or to hear Fritz Kreisler play the fiddle, the West Virginia coal miners would have to wait until the next day.

Nathan is pleasing in his smooth forthrightness. Persons would rather have a hundred thousand people die in a plague than have their little finger disablingly damaged. Yet it should be seen whether this immediate inclination or preference is sensible. How should we see other life than our own? The fact that man has not been sufficiently interested in this question has been a cause of his own sorrow, even as he protected himself.

How we exclude the meaning of others, how we exclude reality, will be looked at in coming TROs. Man, protecting himself, nevertheless accumulates information and grief. He excludes without looking sufficiently at what he excludes.

Years ago, John Keats, in his The Fall of Hyperion, a Dream (1819), refuted with fine poetic music, cogent style, the exclusiveness of George Jean Nathan. “A veiled shadow” is talked to; and it is this shadow which answers:

“High Prophetess,” said I, “purge off,

Benign, if so it please thee, my mind’s film."—

"None can usurp this height,” return’d that shade,

"But those to whom the miseries of the world

Are misery, and will not let them rest.

All else who find a haven in the world,

Where they may thoughtless sleep away their days,

If by a chance into this fane they come,

Rot on the pavement where thou rottedst half."

Keats, after some years, was in these lines deeply critical of himself. The matter that interested John Keats in 1819 is that on which individual lives depend and the lives of present nationalities.

What should interest man? How should this interest be had? What is wise exclusion? What is unwise exclusion? What of the unconscious as a welcoming of things and of the unconscious as fearful and disbarring and discarding? All this has to do with contempt and its effects.

With love,

Eli Siegel