The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Love—and Strength—Really Are

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to print an introduction that Eli Siegel wrote in 1973 for a public seminar presented by Aesthetic Realism consultants, “Why Does Love Change to Something Else?” Accompanying it is part of a paper by consultant Derek Mali from a seminar of this spring, “What Makes a Man Truly Strong?” And I am tremendously happy, as preliminary, to comment a little on this fact: Aesthetic Realism is that which explains at last, with grandeur and infinite practicality, the bewildering, thrilling, tormenting subject of love.

I begin by quoting William Butler Yeats, musical and pained on the subject Mr. Siegel writes about here. In the last lines of “Adam’s Curse” (1904), Yeats says:

I had a thought for no one’s but your ears:

That you were beautiful, and that I strove

To love you in the old high way of love;

That it had all seemed happy, and yet we'd grown

As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.

Yeats is immortal in world literature, and the woman this is likely about, Maud Gonne, used herself courageously to help Ireland become free. Yet those two notable persons knew no more than a couple right now in Brooklyn why a certain lovely, happy feeling should change to weary-heartedness, irritation, bitterness. They did not know what Aesthetic Realism explains: Love is liking the world itself through a person. “The purpose of love,” Mr. Siegel writes, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 171)

To love a person is to want that person to be in the best possible relation with the whole world—other people, books, ideas, work, his or her past. To love a person is to use knowing him or her to be fairer to every other human being and thing. This purpose of love is the same as what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the purpose of our life and the deepest desire we have: to like the world. Yet our deepest desire has competition from another desire; and that huge competing desire is the thing that interferes with and ruins love. Mr. Siegel has described it this way: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.”

Contempt Interferes

The relation of Yeats and Maud Gonne was intricate, and is part of culture now, because Yeats wrote poems about it. But even though he could write, “And when you sigh from kiss to kiss / I hear white Beauty sighing, too”—and feel that through Maud Gonne the largeness of the world was close to him—other statements of his make it clear he also could want to use a woman for contempt, to put the world scornfully aside. He could want her not to care for the world, but to make much of him. For example, in his Memoirs he writes this about the interest which made her kind and valuable to so many Irish people: “I came to hate her politics, my one visible rival” (Macmillan, 1972, p. 63). And I say swiftly but carefully too: Maud Gonne was not much interested in comprehending how Yeats saw the world—including Ireland and poetry.

Yeats and Gonne made the same mistake as the Brooklyn couple I referred to. Stacey and Jim of Flatbush have seen love as a chance to get away from a world they find messy and displeasing. They have tried to make a separate world with themselves superior to everything. Now they are angry with each other, feel empty and drained, and don't know why. The reason is, while they seemed to be making so much of each other, they were really insulting, betraying, and damaging one another: they were taking each other away from the chief goal of their lives—to like the world.

The Same Trouble in Russia

I go to another 20th-century poet, this time of Russia. Anna Akhmatova wrote about painful love—love that changed to something else—in St. Petersburg, Sevastopol, Kiev. These lines from an untitled poem of 1911 are about her marriage to the writer Gumilev. They describe two people who had thought they loved each other, angry, giving it to each other, including through mean sarcasm:

...“Why are you pale today?”

—Because I’ve made him drunk

On bitter misery.


How can I forget? He went out, reeling,

His mouth twisted in torment.

I ran down, not touching the banister.


Panting, I cried, “It was only in fun,

That’s all! If you leave I’ll die!”

He smiled, quietly and horribly,

And told me, “Don't stand in the wind."

Equivalent, Mr. Siegel explained, to the desire to like the world, is good will—which he described as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” He showed that good will is no soft thing but a fierce necessity. To love a person is to have passionate good will for that person. But if we dislike the world, if we have contempt for it, we will not have good will for a person we are close to. We may “adore” the person, give our body to that person: but we will deeply see that person as someone to manage, use to make ourselves important, and also punish. What is going on in this very good poem is what, in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel once described to me in a beautiful and terrible phrase. He said that I and a man I was close to were going after “a kind of ruthless sculpture” with each other. “When people suffer,” he said, “they don't know how imperial they are.”

A Victory over the World

Anna Akhmatova hoped more than most people to like the world. But she too could see love as a means of getting a victory over the world, making it succumb to her. So “love” in Russia, 1911, as in America now, could be “ruthless sculpture”: a contest for power between two people. “Love” could be the thrill of putting a person in a tumult while looking down on him. And one can have this contemptuous power both in giving someone ecstasy and in making him unsure and miserable.

What Akhmatova says she meant “in fun” was likely some clever, sneering battery of remarks aimed at humiliating her husband. Then she sees how pained he is, and she feels awful. But now, seeing her in a tizzy, he has a victory, and his cool statement at the end is meant to show her how little her turmoil affects him. This kind of contest is going on in homes right now, between people who thought they loved each other. And the reason is, we will want to lessen and humiliate another person if we see the world itself as something to be against. —Meanwhile, Anna Akhmatova has described her own confusion and ill will with such fullness of honesty that authentic poetry has come to be.

Poetry Has What Love Needs

There is nothing I am more grateful for than this tremendous fact, which Eli Siegel was the critic to see and teach: all poetry has what love needs. The reason is in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” All good poetry arises from a person’s using a particular instance of reality the way we should use a man or woman we love: to see truly the world itself. The structure of the world, the oneness of opposites, is what we feel and hear in every good poem.

Take the last line of Yeats I quoted: “As weary-hearted as that hollow moon.” There is a rich, delicate, graceful curve in the sound of “As weary-hearted”—along with burden and misery. There is rotundity, a feeling of full circle, in the sound of “hollow moon”—along with vacuity. The line is beautiful because it is a oneness of the fullness and emptiness, weight and lightness, anguish and grace of the world.

Aesthetic Realism makes true love possible, and is the knowledge humanity most needs.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Why Does Love Change?

By Eli Siegel

The historical statement about love changing into something else is that it wasn’t love in the first place. This is what Shakespeare says in the famous sonnet 116: “Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds.”

There has been a feeling that if love is true in the first place, it is not mutable. It follows, then, that if love seems to have changed, or doesn’t believe in itself anymore, some lack must have been in it from the beginning. This is quite true; for love of someone rests on the possibility of that someone to bring composition or oneness to the care for oneself and the care for what is other than self, and also bring that orchestrated oneness which deeply is the same as integrity amidst the diversity of the world. If someone is a means, then, of the continuing organization of oneself, a means of getting to that integrity amidst the confusion of existence—since this other person is the same as the living, forming principle for oneself, the love, by its very nature, is living and continuing.

Were we to hope for some organization of ourselves through another person and not just for the chance to manage someone, there wouldn’t be such tormenting turnover in the field of love. But we have two desires: one is to be grateful more and more to a person for the organizing meaning that person has; and the other is to have some person to whom we can be superior and whom we can occasionally subtly worry and even terrify.

Love, then, not having all the entirety that it needs to have, can seem unstable. Sometimes the instability takes the form of a painful, shrieking rift. Sometimes it takes the form of hidden resignation.

Love is the seeing of the world at its best and most useful in another person; and if that is truly seen, it will go on. If one doesnt give up the hope that another person can complete oneself, love can go on; but it is easy to give up that hope, and love then changes into a disguised life. It often becomes that.

The reason, then, that love changes into something else is that it wasnt always what it should have been at the beginning.

What Makes a Man Strong?

By Derek Mali

There is a false concept of strength most people have: the feeling that one is strong because others are weak. Aesthetic Realism can give men the clarity about strength we long for, because it shows that what makes a man truly strong—with a strength he can count on all his life—is the desire to be fair to the world.

Growing up, I felt my mother was the strong person in the family. She seemed to possess the “confidence” that comes when you have a certain background, money, and status. She cultivated a reserved manner and an authoritative tone; but I also felt from her a coldness towards her children and my father. I used what I saw, not to be deep about what went on inside her, but to feel that any display of affection or emotion was weak.

I desperately needed to learn what Aesthetic Realism explains: that the more feeling—accurate feeling—we have, the stronger we are.

By the age of 34, I had built such a barrier between myself and the outside world that I was like a person chiseled out of stone—of course, I thought it was a very superior stone, something like polished marble. This was sheer contempt, and it was why I felt pained, cynical, lonely, and very separate from people. I would have continued half-alive if I had not had the enormous good fortune to meet Aesthetic Realism and to learn what makes a person truly strong. In his beautiful lecture Poetry and Strength, Mr. Siegel explains:

If a person went through many things and weren’t affected—as, let us say, with someone in an institution; an airplane could let a bomb fall an acre away but the man in the institution wouldn't notice it—that is not strength: that is just apathy. But where a person can feel things and at the same time retain the core that is himself, his foundation—that is strength. [TRO 1020]

The times I felt most alive were when I was acting on stage. I particularly liked portraying characters with qualities very different from my customary reticence—such as the. drunken choir director in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. I liked acting because it was the one time I was able to show much emotion—the feelings of the character I was playing. I wasn't able to do this in my life.

Then, in Aesthetic Realism classes I was understood by Eli Siegel and heard tremendously kind criticism from him, and the wall I had erected between myself and the outside world came down. The pain and loneliness of separation from people left—never to return again! In one class, Mr. Siegel said to me: “If your purpose is to have the world have more meaning, that is against contempt....The purpose o art is to say that reality and matter have more meaning than have been seen so far....So we either lessen the world, or we want to give meaning and make it greater.”

My gratitude is everlasting to Mr. Siegel, and to Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss for her kind, deep, beautiful continuation of Mr. Siegel’s work. Today I am a man who does see more and more meaning in the world, in people. I’ve become passionately against the horrible injustice so many people in America have to endure because of our cruel, failed economy. I am proud to feel strong loving a woman—being a happy husband to the wife I cherish, Sally Ross.

Eli Siegel’s kind, powerful, careful opposition to contempt, and his limitless kindness, made him the strongest man of the twentieth century.