The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Is Success—for a Person or a Nation?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize Eli Siegel’s great 1969 lecture Has Poetry Point? And we print part of a paper that actress Carol McCluer presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What’s Real Success, after All?” As she shows, Aesthetic Realism answers that question—a fact of historic importance and also urgency, because the question stands for so much of the pain of people and nations. That is: both a person and a land can attain what they thought was success, yet be flops deeply, intensely, because what they saw as success was not that at all.

What does it mean for America to be a success? This is a pressing question now, as it has been at other times.

 The lecture we are serializing took place in the midst of the Vietnam war. And so I quote a short poem Mr. Siegel wrote during that war. It has very much to do with the fact that there can be displays of might which nevertheless are true failure, make for true failure. This poem of 1966 is “Fare Thee Well.” It is included in Mr. Siegel’s book of poems Hail, American Development:

Oh, mighty America, hast thou come to this?

Has all thy grandeur, all thy hopes, all thy wonder,

Thy Bradford and thy Franklin,

Thy Whitman and thy Boone,

Thy Cooper and thy Norris,

Thy London and thy Debs,

Thy Jane Addams and thy sunrise—

Come to this?

That thou shouldst be looked on with terror

By an unknown child in Asia?—

Fare thee well, O land, fare thee other.

This poem has such musical tenderness and pride at one with such indignation, such a sense of the unbearable, as Eli Siegel writes of what stands for true American success and for something completely, horribly different.

Aesthetic Realism explains that the cause of all the cruelty in history and everyday life is the fact that people associate success with the having of contempt. Contempt is “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And it is, Aesthetic Realism shows, actually the thing that interferes with authentic success, that makes success impossible. Contempt is the human and national failure.

In Has Poetry Point? Mr. Siegel is illustrating this principle, central to Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The opposites he is describing are width and point. And in the present section he speaks about wide emotion become pointed in 1862, in the North, during the Civil War.

An aspect of the Civil War very important to see now is the way the persons of the South tried to make the Southern cause seem noble, gentlemanly, grand, when it was completely vicious and ugly. It was contempt sheer. Mr. Siegel was always ringingly, passionately clear about this fact: what the South went to war for was slavery, the right to own other human beings—that was the one, filthy cause, no matter how gracious the manners of a Confederate colonel or how handsome his gray uniform.

When we, whether we’re an individual or a nation, have a contemptuous purpose, we try to make it look like something much finer. The South presented itself as defending its homeland, defending “freedom” (which was really the freedom to buy, sell, whip, shackle, work to death a slave). There were speeches of profound “patriotic” feeling: there were statements throughout the Southern states showing that the South, its women, its children, were being savagely threatened and that there was nothing to do but to go to war. These statements were published in and encouraged by the Southern press.

How contempt disguises itself as nobility is a crucial study for everyone. How contempt disguised as nobility can justify war, can make for suffering and death, is a crucial study.

The one success for America and for any person is the seeing of the world justly. The world includes people; it includes a trembling child in Baghdad. Eli Siegel had that beautiful, just seeing of the world, and it exists in Aesthetic Realism. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Real Contest

By Eli Siegel

As further illustration of width and point, I read a poem I’ve read before, about the emotion at the beginning of the Civil War, the feeling in the North that something should be. When many people have one emotion and it’s sincere, not conventional or imposed, there is something beautiful.

I cannot say that the stir in the South was as much of the people as it was in the North. For instance, Beauregard felt Mr. Lincoln should not have Fort Sumter, and he should not have Charleston, and the Northern people should not come into Virginia. But you don’t get the feeling that the very beginning of the territory was stirred. It’s true that a person in some Virginia college said, “I won’t finish my studies—I have to meet the threat to our state.” You find that in The Long Roll of Mary Johnston, and in other books. But in the North, at least for a while, there was something else. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “John Brown’s Body” seemed to say something that “Dixie” didn’t say. “Dixie” is more what I would call a landscape poem: “I wish I was in the land of cotton.” But there’s nothing sternly musical about it: it does not have the music of spear as composition.

After the first setbacks, the chief one of which was Bull Run, in the summer of 1861, there were many in the North who felt more than ever that emotion should be wide and come to a point. And there was a new poem, which has many things working as one. The feeling had got into 1862; there were persons by then who were weary, but there were others who felt there was something persisting.

That something persists still, with all the ugliness. It comes down to this: a human being has a right to be seen as he or she is. That was the large issue, despite all kinds of stuff about the “conquered banner” and the “lost cause.” The real contest is always: what is a better way of seeing the world and another person? All other contests are tinny.

“Three Hundred Thousand More,” by James Sloan Gibbons, has that matter of point.* Point is related to speed, and this has speed too. It has point coming from width and manyness:

We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more,

From Mississippi’s winding stream and from New England’s shore;

We leave our ploughs and workshops, our wives and children dear,

With hearts too full for utterance, with but a silent tear;

We dare not look behind us, but steadfastly before:

We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!

If you look across the hill-tops that meet the northern sky,

Long moving lines of rising dust your vision may descry;

And now the wind, an instant, tears the cloudy veil aside,

And floats aloft our spangled flag in glory and in pride,

And bayonets in the sunlight gleam, and bands brave music pour:

We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Six hundred thousand loyal men and true have gone before:

We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!

Well, the persistence of something that may be right is here. And it happens that when people think of not having one American soldier in Vietnam, it’s thrilling. It’s like the best housecleaning job that ever was: the idea that there shouldn’t be one American military person—the only persons there are persons studying the language. It would be beautiful, because absence and presence can both make for beauty. Silence can be thrilling and tumult can be thrilling.

What’s Real Success?

By Carol McCluer

As women are doing right now, I went after what I thought I wanted with avidity. As a child, I loved reading and studied the piano and ballet. But I felt that the suburban California community we lived in was beneath me and that all my troubles would be over if only I were out of the suburbs and famous. By my late teens, I was pursuing a career as an actress and singer, and after moving to Los Angeles, got a job in a disco group that was well known in South America. When we toured there, I had the experience I thought I’d been yearning for.

But much to my surprise, I still didn’t feel successful. I thought it must be because I didn’t have the right relationship with a man, so I went after finding him. By my mid-twenties, drugs had become very attractive; and I was worried about the direction my life was going in.

Then, a fellow performer I had worked with at Disneyland told me about Aesthetic Realism and said he knew this was the knowledge I was looking for. He was Bennett Cooperman, now an Aesthetic Realism consultant, to whom I’m enormously grateful.

In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, when I was asked, “What do you have most against yourself?” I said I thought I must be afraid of success, because I got close to it but couldn’t go the whole distance. And I said I had an easy time with people, but was tired and empty. My consultants asked me, “Do you find you can charm people easily?”

CMcC. Oh, definitely, definitely.

Consultants. Do you feel you’ve fooled people?

CMcC. Yes.

Consultants. What do you think of yourself for that?

CMcC. I don’t like it.

Consultants. Do you think you’ve had contempt, both for other people and yourself?

CMcC. Yes, I have.

Consultants. Do you think that’s enough to make a person feel quite bad?

CMcC. Yes.

In his Definitions, and Comment, Eli Siegel defines success as “the coming to be of one’s purpose.” And my consultants were showing me that we can succeed at various things yet still feel troubled, because we haven’t liked the world—which is our biggest, deepest purpose. I felt so much of the pain of my life was being explained!

To Know or Get Praise?

The exciting study I embarked on that day was the conscious asking: Is my deepest desire to know and like the world, or is it for the world to praise me while I remain cool and hidden and look down on people and things? The second, I learned, is contempt, and it’s what had made me feel like a failure even as I had so many outward trappings of success.

In Mr. Siegel’s comment to his definition there are these beautiful sentences:

The first purpose of a self should be to have a purpose adequate to it. If a person doesn’t have this, he from the start is that much welcoming what isn’t success. He can be said to have reached China in a blaze of glory, when he intended to get to Australia; he can be said to have shot a bird, when his purpose was to hear a bird sing.

I had wanted constant, lavish praise from men, like the kind I’d gotten from my teachers and parents, particularly my father. I had not wanted to know who he or anyone was deeply. My purpose was to shine, to be the best at everything in a way that was hard and competitive. In my first year of college, I wrote in a psychology class journal:

Yes, I’m highly motivated—have been ever since I was little....I love to win and when I don’t it makes me want to even more.

I didn’t see any connection between the way I boasted about how I could beat out other people and my frequent feelings of despair and emptiness. Though I didn’t like myself, I felt I could arrange myself to impress people, especially men. And when I got a man to be all stirred up about me, I enjoyed being icily, scornfully superior. When the psychology professor wrote in the margin of my journal, “Excellent insight!” and “You are a special miraculous unrepeatable joy to behold,” I felt terrifically triumphant and that he was a fool. I don’t remember anything else from that course; and unfortunately, that’s how I operated in life generally: the times when I was being praised were what stood out for me. This hurt my mind very much.

Once, at a time when I wasn’t seeing a man and said in a consultation that I “missed sex a lot,” my consultants asked, to my surprise, “Would you like a man really to know you?” The answer was no. And they explained that if you don’t want to be known,

even if you “have” a person, you can’t be affected by him. He becomes an extension of yourself. There’s something a woman misses a lot more than sex: it’s the ability to have respect. Do you think you were really close to the men you were with?

No, I hadn’t been. But today I am married to a man I love and truly respect. Kevin Fennell’s love for music and singing, his desire to have a good, strengthening effect on me and our daughter, Sara, his hearty humor, and his passion to have Aesthetic Realism known so that justice can come to all people, make me love him more every year.

Like of the World or Contempt?

Women urgently need to ask: is the specific thing I’m after on behalf of liking the world, seeing more meaning in it, having larger, warmer emotions; or is it on behalf of contempt, feeling superior, important at the expense of being fair to anyone or anything else? As my study of Aesthetic Realism continued, I seriously reconsidered what purpose represented me.

I did the Aesthetic Realism assignment to write a sentence every day about something in the world I liked that day. Once so melancholy and wrapped up in myself, I was now writing: “I liked the corner of 86th and Columbus, with people walking, buses, cars, wind blowing, neon signs, brown buildings, black pavement, familiar sights.” And I began consciously going after knowing people. One day I wrote: “I liked talking with a man in an elevator who told me he’d been selling cars and riding in the elevator of that building for 33 years.” My desire to know the world and people blossomed. And I never had that empty feeling again.

Aesthetic Realism beautifully criticized the contempt that had made me feel hollow and cold, and enabled me to have a life filled with rich meaning, large respect, real success.