The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

We Have to Learn What Expression Is

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of Eli Siegel’s 1949 lecture Poetry and Space. In the previous section he spoke, greatly and newly, about Walt Whitman—who, he said, “strangely enough, seems most to be the poet of space....He just couldn’t leave the subject alone.” While understanding and describing Whitman’s particular way of seeing the subject, Mr. Siegel is illustrating in this talk the meaning for all people of that tremendous thing, Space. He gives the following informal definition: “Anything seen as permitting motion without any interference at all could be seen as space.”

In the final section, Mr. Siegel comments on one more Whitman poem, and then speaks about something that could seem so very unlike Whitman, and so far away from him: a Japanese work of over a thousand years ago.

Here too is part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism associate Steven Weiner presented at a recent public seminar. The subject was “What’s True Expression—in Life, Love, & Art?”

Expression & America Now

The longing in people to be expressed is as enormous today as it ever was. And the confusion on the subject is also enormous. People can feel painfully locked in themselves, unable to show what is within them. But also, people can seem to “express” themselves and then feel sharply ashamed or gnawingly uneasy about the expression.

That has always been so. Yet I think that today in America there exists a feeling somewhat different from feelings of once: there is a certain unarticulated queasiness, anger, even cynicism, about expression as such. It has come because people are seeing so much ugly, dishonest “expression” day after day. The internet, though very valuable, is just teeming with mean, false, sleazy “self-expression,” in posts, comments, tweets.

Also, one sees and hears from various persons with power a massive putting forth of anything they please, no matter how untrue it may be. Always in history, people have tried to put forth—that is, “express”—whatever they saw as expedient, whether in keeping with the facts or not. In all times there has been “expression” that is cheapness and lies. But today in America people see on the news—via television or internet or print—a monumental amount of such “expression” by prominent persons. Expression that’s cruel and mendacious can seem unremitting, can seem to swagger and flaunt itself.

A result of all this is that the idea of expression itself has lost in people’s minds some of the wonder, the beauty, the grandeur many persons once associated with it.

I know I am writing in a quite general way. But there is such a thing as an atmosphere about various ideas, an atmosphere that tinctures people’s feelings about words, whether they’re conscious of those feelings or not. And that is so of the idea and word expression.

We need, immensely, to see what true expression is! It is as beautiful as ever, as wondrous as ever, as grand as ever. No fakery can ever expunge its beauty—and power.

The Difference

Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that makes clear what true expression is and what false is—so we can love, and have, the former; and efficiently hate and oppose the latter, including in ourselves. I am very glad to quote (as Steven Weiner does) from another 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel, Aesthetic Realism and Expression. The word express, Mr. Siegel says, comes from the Latin for press out, and “true expression is that which shows the whole self taking an outside form.” He explains:

Expression is never expression until it’s...accurate. If you just say anything, and let yourself slide, that is not expression. There is no true expression except that which you are proud of. Throwing a stone at somebody or calling somebody a name which that person doesn’t deserve is not expression....[Doing that,] we are adding one bit more of deleterious matter to ourselves. [TRO 902]

The authenticity of expression depends on how fair we are trying to be to the outside world. And Aesthetic Realism shows that the cause of all false expression—whether in a schoolyard or in Congress or in bad art—is contempt for the world. Contempt is the hurtful thing in the human self: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

We should not be despairing when we see dishonest expression, however abundant, and we should not be jaded. We should use the seeing of it to be against contempt with all of ourselves, and to love expression that is real.

Real expression is in all true art, and can be increasingly in life. It is in Walt Whitman and in the Japanese writer of long ago whom Mr. Siegel speaks about here. Aesthetic Realism not only encourages and makes possible authentic expression—it is itself the result of magnificent expression, that of Eli Siegel. And it is immortal, as all beauty is.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Space, Poetry, & Ourselves

By Eli Siegel

There are many poems of Whitman about his darling, Space. But the last I’ll read for now is called “Night on the Prairies”:

Night on the prairies,

The supper is over, the fire on the ground burns low,

The wearied emigrants sleep, wrapt in their blankets;

I walk by myself—I stand and look at the stars, which I think now I never realized before.

I was thinking the day most splendid till I saw what the not-day exhibited,

I was thinking this globe enough till there sprang out so noiseless around me myriads of other globes.

O I see now that life cannot exhibit all to me, as the day cannot,

I see that I am to wait for what will be exhibited by death.

Death has very often been felt as a time when you spread out indefinitely, and also come to a point. Whitman feels, seemingly honestly, that he can get the meaning of so many things through death. He is pretty sincere there. He may be wrong, of course, but he is pretty sincere.

He sees that his self has to tally immeasurably and constantly with any possible expansion, rarefaction, spatiality of existence. And this, we see frequently in his poems.

In Japan Too

There have been dealings with space somewhat akin to Whitman’s all through history. I think it well, since once more Japan is in civilization,* to read a few passages from a little Japanese classic called The Tosa Diary. It was written in the century of Alfred the Great (that is, the tenth century) by Ki no Tsurayuki, who wrote it in perhaps 935 AD. He died in 946.

He was a governor; he was in Tosa; and he is going home to Kyoto by boat. This diary is about the journey. It was 200 miles, not really so big, but it took 55 days. There are many things said in the diary. I’ll read some of the poems included in it, with, perhaps, a touch of the prose. This is one of the poems, part of the entry for March 23. The translation is by William N. Porter:

’Neath the moon of heaven

Flows the River Katsura

Slowly growing old;

In its depths the moon lies low

As it did long, long ago.

The sight of water and space is something that has brought feeling: “’Neath the moon of heaven / Flows the River Katsura.” The moon is round, and the river flows somewhat in a line.

“Slowly growing old”: time is another dimension. Like space, it is one of the permanencies of the world; and then we have all happenings. And we have to relate the happenings to things like space and time. Meanwhile, we have something that is in between time and space: water, because water can be in motion.

Then, there is the way water reflects: “In its depths the moon lies low / As it did long, long ago.” Reflection is next door to light. The relation of light to water is a big thing in painting; it is a big thing in poetry. “In its depths”: depth is an aspect of space. Space has to be other than the line. It must have three dimensions; otherwise it isn’t space. So space implies depth, and in water we can see depth, because water reflects.

This writer sees the moon lying low in the River Katsura just as it did long, long ago. So we have distance, we have depth, and we have time. And when these are felt together wholly, the combination can do all kinds of things to you. People avoid feeling depth and time and distance all at once—too hard to take.

Another little poem:

Once Katsura’s Stream

Seemed to me as far away

As the clouds of heaven;

Now, while crossing, I perceive

It has wet my dipping sleeve.

The desire to take that which is indefinitely remote and make it very close to one is shown here, as it is shown in a good deal of good poetry. The stream that was very far away has now reached his sleeve.

Another poem:

Well I know my heart

And the River Katsura

Never were alike;

Yet in depth my heart would seem

Not unlike the flowing stream.

We feel there is a depth in us. There is a depth underneath depth. We can also see that in a flowing stream. I’ll read now a bit of the prose:

4th March— The wind blew, the waves were rough, and the boat could not start. They were all complaining dreadfully; so the men, to cheer up their hearts, composed a Chinese poem, to the effect that the Capital was further away than the sun itself....

6th March— ...On the boat approaching a delightful spot, he asked what place it was, and was told it was called “Tosa Stopping-Place.” There was a woman on board who...said that in past days she had known a place of that name....To express her regret for it, she composed this verse:


Musing on the name

Of the place where once I lived

For a year or so,—

Billows rolling in from sea

Come to sympathize with me.

That has a relation to Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”

A Question about Space & Us

The question is, What does the furthest thing away from us have to do with us? What does the thing that seems to be least alive, that seems to be nothing, have to do with us? This question, or this surmise, is present in everything that we do, in what we are, and in what is written. It is present in poetry. And poetry likes the subject, because without space there could be no reality, and that would be definitely undesirable.

What’s True Expression?

By Steven Weiner

Had I been asked years ago if I felt I was an expressed person, my answer would have been no. Although I certainly could talk a lot at times, and I gave my opinions very freely, I also knew there was much I didn’t speak about—especially what went on inside of me.

In his lecture Aesthetic Realism and Expression, Eli Siegel explains, “In order to understand the problem of expression, we have to see what we want in the deepest sense” (TRO 905). What every person most desires, I learned, is to find large meaning in the world, to like the world honestly, and be just to it. That’s what our thought must go for if we are to be truly expressed. And the great hindrance to our having such thought is our desire for contempt, our drive to make less of everything.

Some Early Mistakes

In the lecture on expression, Mr. Siegel continues:

Expression begins with our thoughts to ourselves. That is where we decide on who we are....If we say pooh, we are expressing ourselves to ourselves even if nobody hears us. [TRO 905, 901]

At a young age, I was already building up a personality for myself based on finding flaws in others. There was my father. Although he was tender at times, he often was ill-natured and, as I saw it, quick to order me around. My mother made much of me—saying, for instance, that for such a young child I had a keen understanding of people. I wanted to believe her praise, but I knew it wasn’t true. In the meantime, my parents didn’t hide their dislike of each other. By my teens, I thought I was so much smarter than both these responsible, hard-working adults. I was in the midst of making a huge mistake that hurt my life deeply: using my supposed superiority to say “pooh” (and worse) to my parents, the rest of humanity, and reality itself.

Mr. Siegel has described a fight that goes on in everyone and centrally affects our expression. It is between two aspects of self:

One self wishes to be other, to be related; and one wishes to be a snug, perfect point, capable of dismissing anything and everything....Whenever the self is going forward and at the same time wants to remain where it is, since words are staple, constant manifestations of the self, they...will be affected. [Self and World, pp. 331, 325]

My “going forward” was present in my care for reading and for learning many subjects in school. At the same time, I had a smug sense of my perfection, priding myself on all the things I thought I didn’t need. This deep battle between welcoming the world and wanting to get rid of it showed in my speech. Of course, I had to use words—but I wanted to discard them quickly. So I’d talk very rapidly, and my diction was so careless that it was difficult for people to understand me.

When, in an Aesthetic Realism class, I asked about what interfered with my having distinct speech, Ellen Reiss asked whether I felt “I’m me and that’s good enough. I don’t have to try to be exact.” “I think I do feel that,” I said. And she asked, “Do you think words are the world in you?” She explained that I didn’t create the words I use—they came to be over many years, through many people I never met—and yet “there is nothing more personal, more a means of expressing what you feel.”

Ms. Reiss suggested that I choose a word I use every day and study it and its history, which I did. I learned, for instance, that the word have is as old as any in English. It has various significations or shades of meaning as it’s used in different contexts, but it always is about the relation of self and world: possession (I have a bike); partaking (She always has lunch at noon); necessity (He has to go); even giving birth (Did they have twins?); and more.

I began to see that words deserve my respect, and that in sloppily not giving it I was hurting my own expression. My speech has improved, and I’m ambitious to do better. I’m increasingly proud of how I express myself, as I talk with friends and family, as I stand up for justice as a labor activist, and as I take part in seminars like this one and tell of my grand Aesthetic Realism education.

Commanding versus Expression

A very frequent form of false expression, in our own minds and sometimes outwardly, is to give orders to other people. I used to have a running, often sarcastic commentary about the myriad faults of others, faults that could be so easily remedied if the people simply followed my instructions. But they hardly ever did. During a discussion in an Aesthetic Realism class, I spoke in a complaining way about how a woman I knew spent money, and Ms. Reiss asked me:

ER. Would you like to command Ms. G?

SW. Yes.

ER. If you want to shape her up in some fashion, will you have a hard time wanting to know her—know how she sees, including money?

And Ms. Reiss showed how I could have an entirely different way of mind. She asked whether it was possible that “being deeply considerate of another person is the same as your self-expression.” The answer is a happiness-giving Yes, and I’m glad to be in the process of seeing this in my relation to the woman I care for very much, Frances Finch.

As I want increasingly to understand Frances—understand, for instance, what she’s hoping for and how she’s trying to make sense of her past—I’m becoming a kinder, deeper man. And I thank her for encouraging greater thoughtfulness in me.

Because of Aesthetic Realism, humanity can now learn what our true expression is, and how to have it.

*This lecture was given four years after World War II.