The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Is Meaning—in Art & Our Lives?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the lecture It Still Moves; or, The Novel, which Eli Siegel gave in 1951. It is exciting, profound, vivid. It shows what the novel, of any time and place, is. And as it shows that, it is also about the life of every one of us. The lecture is an exemplification of this landmark Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

In the present section, as he looks at the elements of the novel, Mr. Siegel speaks about meaning. That is a word that concerns people’s lives very much, and often very painfully. Millions of people right now have the feeling that large meaning is absent from their lives. They don’t know what meaning is—they may even tell themselves there’s no such thing. But they miss it. They have the What-does-it-all-come-to feeling; the Is-that-all-there-is feeling.

And an agony about love—sometimes a quiet, taken for granted agony—is: “I once felt this person meant so much to me, but now we’ve been together awhile and there’s a flatness, a kind of emptiness, a smallness to it all.” The couple may break up or may stay together for decades, but a certain large meaning seems absent.

The chief reason people read novels, go to museums, attend concerts, see plays is that they are looking for meaning. And for the time, as they’re affected truly by art, meaning is there and they feel it. Yet this meaning doesn’t seem to last: it doesn’t extend, for people, into life itself, and continue. Through study of Aesthetic Realism it can, because we can learn what meaning is, and what we love in art can really be in our lives too.

Meaning in the Novel & Life

So what is that seemingly undefinable yet ached-for thing, meaning? It has been defined, and described, by Eli Siegel, and I am immensely glad to quote him now, from a class of 1965. What he explained then gives even larger importance to his 1951 discussion of meaning in the novel. This 1965 description of meaning is a momentous achievement in the history of philosophy, and it is also urgent and merciful for our lives. I begin with the following sentences:

Meaning is the beautiful relation of something to the world, and the beautiful way in which it contains the world. The artist goes looking for that.

In that definition is the reason a character in a good novel has a meaning that people do not find in the persons they know—even if they like those persons. It also explains why, if we lived next door to Elizabeth Bennet of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or if David Copperfield were a co-worker of ours, or if Raskolnikov were our cousin, we would likely not see the meaning in them that Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky found and showed.

Let’s take Elizabeth Bennet. All through the novel, in thousands of ways, through description, and happenings, and dialogue, Jane Austen has us feel Elizabeth’s relation to the world. She’s related to objects, family, places in England, her friend Charlotte, a vain clergyman, let alone Mr. Darcy. And all along, and with and through these, Jane Austen has us feel the structure of the world itself in Elizabeth. She is a great character because of how reality’s opposites are in her: Elizabeth is at once lively and serious. She is a drama of strength and weakness. She has, richly, deeply independence and need, also keenness and unseeingness. She is, in a big way, both critical and loving. And at the end she joins, courageously, self-respect and regret.

In ordinary life, a person does not see others as a novelist sees. One sees people mainly in terms of oneself: how they affect me, how nice they are to me. And because one doesn’t think about how a person is related to thousands of things, to everything, how the world’s opposites in him take this particular form which is he, one robs him of the depth, size, meaning, that a good novelist finds and gives.

Meaning in Conversations

The following sentences by Eli Siegel are about every aspect of life and art. But I’ll comment on what they say about dialogue in a good novel versus most conversations in life:

Meaning is the possibility of a thing’s becoming more itself by having relation with other things; and this is the way Aesthetic Realism says people want to become themselves: by having a relation with other things.

In dialogue, the relation is most obviously that of one speaker with the other. And you’ll soon read in the lecture a definition by Eli Siegel that I love: “ the impact of one person on another through words.” This impact which we feel in good dialogue is also a relation to the world itself, because we’re feeling the biggest opposites in reality—Sameness and Difference—meeting, perhaps disagreeing, but being an inextricable one. The oneness of sameness and difference is why there can be a thrill when we read the dialogue, a feeling of rightness yet sizzle, of beauty, meaning.

But in life, our feeling about our conversations does not usually have a sense of the world in it. We may instead be interested in showing we’re superior to the other person; or in getting into a dull team against others with that person; or in having our mind elsewhere as we go through the paces of discussion. And so, accompanying millions of conversations today was a terrific paucity of meaning.

Contempt versus Meaning

Aesthetic Realism not only explains what meaning is—it shows that there is a huge desire in us against meaning. This is the desire for contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” As we try to make ourselves important or comfortable by lessening the value of other people and things, we are annulling their meaning and that of the world itself. We can get a contempt-glory from feeling we’re in a meaningless world—a world so unworthy of us, to which we’re so superior. Yet as a result of this contempt we feel our very selves are bereft of meaning.

The last sentences I’ll quote from the 1965 class are about possessiveness, a form of contempt. They explain a feeling I wrote of earlier: the awful yet ordinary absence of meaning that comes because people equate love with having a person and lessening the rest of the world:

In making a thing just for us, we take away its meaning. And that is the danger of possessiveness: it is the great destroyer of meaning.…A person, to himself, thinks he has gypped himself because he did something to have himself triumph which didn’t have enough meaning: it took things out of relation instead of making the relation larger.…Relation and meaning are quite akin.

Aesthetic Realism is that in human history which enables us to know what meaning is—and to see and feel, steadily, ever-increasingly, vividly, that the world has meaning, that people do, that love does: meaning that never runs out.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Essence of the Novel

By Eli Siegel

Dealing some more with the essence of the novel, again I come to a textbook. I am using textbooks in order to show that what Aesthetic Realism says about the novel will find backing not in any unusual sort of work but in the kind of thing that has been said in educated milieus for years and will be said maybe next week at Duke University. This book is Elementary Guide to Literary Criticism, by F.V.N. Painter, Professor of Modern Languages, Roanoke College. He is writing about fiction:

Component Elements. In every important work of fiction there are six things to be considered, namely, the characters, the incidents, the environment, the plot, the purpose, and the view or philosophy of life.

There Are Characters

The first element Painter mentions is “characters.” Before things can happen to people there must be the people themselves. Things happen within and without. Every novel has people; so far there’s been no novel without people. Maybe there will be one, but then there will be animals or maybe clouds that will be people. If one cloud talks back to another cloud and says, “Don’t you come where I am, or I’ll call the wind”—well, that could make a big novel, but the clouds would be people.

Then Painter says a novel has to have “incidents.” That’s another word for what is in narrative: happenings.*

Next there is “the environment.” Nothing happens without a place to happen. And again: in novels it happens to people, though it can happen to animals or, for that matter, to vases. (It would be difficult to write about the life of a vase; it could be done, but the vase would become a person.) The environment is where it happens.

The fourth element Painter mentions is “plot.” The plot is a getting away from strict narrative, because, as I said earlier, narrative can be this way: “So I went to a store, so I met my friend, so I shook the hand of my friend. So I got a bus, so the bus took me to Topeka Avenue. So I got off, went up the stairs, saw the lady. So she said the man wasn’t home, so I went back to Conway Avenue, went to my room, lay down for a while, went out, went to a movie, got out of the movie, saw somebody I knew, said to him, ‘Are you the person I knew once—is your name James?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘my name is James. Want a drink?’ So I went with him and got a drink.”

That’s narrative. It has no base. It has no background. There is no theme and variations; one thing happens after another. Narrative in the lives of most people is best exemplified by the diary: there isn’t any connection—one thing happens after another and you get it down. Bookkeeping is narrative: you have one amount after another, given out or taken in. But a bookkeeping ledger cannot be called a novel because it does not have the impact, the relation of one happening to another.

The fifth component mentioned by Painter is “purpose.” That means what the writer wanted to do. Purpose has usually been described as: he wants to amuse, or he wants to instruct, or he wants to propagandize. But purpose in this sense really has nothing to do with the goodness of a novel. A person may have a propaganda purpose and write a very good novel, and a person may not have a propaganda purpose and write a very bad one.

Then, the sixth element: “the view or philosophy of life.” How much we know of life has to do with the goodness of our novel. Most novels are not wide or deep enough and are therefore unimportant. But the chief thing is the seeing of characters, happenings, and reality in such a way that there is meaning seen in the three. A novel does give one’s idea of reality as such. Every novel that is good says reality has meaning.

Painter writes: “The excellence of the work, as in architecture, depends both on the character of the materials and on the manner in which they are put together.” Quite so. Cooking also does. A good meal depends on the character of the material gotten and the goodness of the cook. A cook is a technician.

Surface & Depth; or, Meanings Underneath

Then, there is another thing about the novel. As characters show themselves, as things happen, there are meanings underneath, which we see. A person is shown by what he says, what he does. That is present as also, in a large novel, there is a feeling we get about the meaning of the world itself. The using of surface things to show deeper things is in all art. It is in painting, in music, in the dance, in the film. The thing that we see must be a means of seeing something that we don’t see, in all great art. This writer says:

In all profounder work, as in George Eliot, there will be an unveiling of the hidden springs of motive and disposition. The great potentialities of human nature both for good and evil will be brought to light, and thus the mimic world of the novelist will reflect the life of the great real world in its more tragic aspects.

—Or, for that matter, its more comic aspects. So a thing that is seen deeply will show something about the world, and also, if it is a novel, show something about the person concerned. There is an unveiling.

In Pulp Fiction Too

The idea of a novel as narrative, characters, and so on, can be seen in ever so many ways. I could use some very sophisticated examples, but I choose now to use examples from a person who wrote fiction for money and seems to have been one of the writers who kept up such magazines of once as Adventure Magazine, People’s Magazine, The Argosy, magazines with stories for persons who were tired of making money and wanted to get away to the adventurous world. (Adventure Magazine was also used by people trying to get away from their wives.)

I’m reading from a book called This Fiction Business, by H. Bedford-Jones. It’s meant for persons who want to write fiction and get into the pulps at least. This is not a profound work. I try to be fair to it, and I have to look sometimes and ask, Is this useful? But some things go along with Painter and some of the very deepest writing on fiction. Bedford-Jones doesn’t like the professorial attitude to fiction; he refers interestingly to what has been said by the professors:

The little gods of Plot and Character and Dialogue and so forth are all nicely modeled and set up on the shelf before our eyes.

Well, plot and character have to be even in stories of adventure. In a story called, say, “The Bad Man of Gila River,” the bad man has a character and the sheriff has a character. Even children go for character: Hopalong Cassidy is a character. Television must go for character. And there must be plot.

Then there is dialogue. Dialogue has been around for a long time. Dialogue, as in drama, is the impact of one person on another through words. We can show impact in various ways, but dialogue is a very good way.

The Known & Unknown

In fiction there is the relation of what we know and what we don’t know. People want to read, also write, about the person next door, what they know best. People will go to a newspaper to read stories about what they have gone through. When anybody has been to a banquet, he looks for a notice of the banquet, even though he knows more than the reporter does. The attitude to what we know and what we don’t know is very important in fiction. Sometimes persons can write best about what they don’t know from actual observation at all. Bedford-Jones says: “Go to live in China for a while, and you’ll find it hard to write stories about China.” But: “You may be able to write...better about them if you’ve never been to China.”

The relation of the known to the unknown is all through fiction.

The Planned & the Natural

Then Bedford-Jones says what has been said in more academic ways, said in more subtle ways: that the character must show himself through what he says or does. You can’t just say he is a good man, he is a subtle man, he is a brave man, he is a hesitating man, even. You’ve got to show that he is all these things through what he says or does. The character must grow like a flower, and the novelist must be the soil from which the flower comes. Bedford-Jones says:

It is much better workmanship, when possible, to leave the characters of your actors to be expressed through the story in acts or words, while briefly describing their personalities.

What this comes to is that a novel, like all art, must be planned and natural at once. It must be an artificial flower and a natural flower at the same time. It must seem to grow and yet there must be, if one looks for it, a sign of its being planned, of its representing purpose.

Something that Bedford-Jones goes for as a writer of adventure stories is, he doesn’t want novels to be, as he calls it, too “realistic.” The novel, he thinks, is supposed to be a means of a person’s liking life, and therefore “drab realism” shouldn’t be around. You don’t want to have nineteen paragraphs on dishes three days in the kitchen sink, and the effects thereof. You don’t want to have a description in 180 words of the repulsiveness of grease. He writes:

The magazine story entertains. It does not attempt realism. It is not concerned with the shoddy, drab realism of painting people as they are.

There’s the feeling that when you are trying to make money you see people as they are, but when you read you want to see them as they are not.

When the Japanese were assimilating western civilization, they made the same discovery that the Athenians made—that true facts are ugly, that art consists in idealization. Thus with our magazine fiction. It does not represent real people; it idealizes people, as all popular fiction does.

Well, that is a viewpoint. It has to do with narrative, because a novel narrative that is good is both better and worse than people; it’s wonderful and also more ordinary than things are. That is when the novel is at its very best, and how that happens is something that could cause some beautiful explanation. We should go after that explanation, but that is not for now.

*Mr. Siegel spoke about narrative in the previous section of this talk.