The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Words, Sex, and Kindness

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the great lecture Poetry and Words, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. And we publish “Kindness and Sex,” part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism associate Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman presented this month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar. 

There is more interest now than there ever was in the way couples use words—in how men and women communicate with each other, and often don’t communicate so well. Some of the most popular books of recent years have been on that subject. Meanwhile, people still feel that sex is very different from what a sentence is, what a word is, even from what a good conversation is. People still see sex as beyond words—as driving, inarticulate, and magical.

I love Aesthetic Realism for its understanding of both words and sex, and for showing the relation between them. This principle, stated by Eli Siegel, is the basis for understanding how words came to be, how people use them; and also how people are in sex, with all the victory, confusion, anger, and shame attending: “The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151).

Words, Mr. Siegel has shown, are respect for reality. Words exist, grammar exists, because people wanted to like the world: to get its items into their minds, find a structure in it (grammar is a structure). And the trouble people have about communication does not come, as current books indicate, because women and men are different. It comes principally because people don’t like the world. They therefore don’t want to use words to understand a person who represents that world, or to show the depths of themselves to such a person. Contempt, the desire to “be for [one]self by making less of the outside world,” is the chief thing wrong with conversations. And contempt is the thing wrong in sex. Here are questions I am very grateful to ask, and some statements, having in them Aesthetic Realism’s magnificent understanding of both words and sex.

Are You Joined with the World?

1. Anytime you hear a word—read a word—say a word—think a word—are you joined with the world, because an instance of the world is within you? That is, a table is in your mind, within your being, the moment you hear the word table. And is sex like that: should we feel that as we are very close to a particular representative of reality whom we value, reality itself is more of us? The purpose of love and sex, Mr. Siegel has shown, “is to feel closely one with things as a whole” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 171). And I thank him with all my heart.

This great principle of Aesthetic Realism, true about every instance of reality, is true about both words and sex: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The questions I just asked were about the largest opposites in our lives: self and world.

2. Then there are the opposites which we can call symbol and thing symbolized. That is, just as a word stands for the thing it names—does the body of a person stand for the person? And should our closeness to the person’s body represent, therefore, a desire to be fair to that person’s very self, a desire to see the person truly?

3. There are the enormous opposites freedom and accuracy. Are words used well when a person feels through them he can express himself freely, in a way that pleases him—and at the same time he wants to be accurate with them, just to other things and persons? Has massive and everyday evil come because people separate these opposites?: they use words “freely"—to change the facts, to be inaccurate and unjust—in behalf of some purpose or picture that pleases them. And is sex too about freedom and accuracy, release and justice, pleasure and respect? Will we be proud about sex only if our pleasing and being pleased by a person is the same as our respecting that person, our wanting to be just to that person?

4. We are in the midst, always, of surface and depth. Words strike us first as surface: they come to our ears, or we see them on a page. Is it beautiful when a person uses words to show the depths of himself, what he deeply feels? Is it ugly (though so frequent) for a person to use words not to show his feeling but to hide—to put on a verbal display as a means of keeping his inner self unknown? And is sex beautiful if a person uses those things of surface which are body and touch with the hope to show who he really is, to be truly known? Is it ugly (though so frequent) to go after various bodily effects with a person while not wanting that person to know the depths of yourself?

The Moment, and More

5. There are the moment and all time. It is beautiful that a word we may use this minute fits us, this very moment. Yet that word was made, likely, hundreds of years ago, has a long, long history, was used by millions of people we never met. Sex, too, certainly has to do with the moment. It is ever so immediate. Yet we need to feel that a sensual, ecstatic moment will look good to us ten years from now; that it is a means of our whole life’s being stronger; that it is good for other people, including people we have not yet met, because it makes us fairer to them. 

Because of Eli Siegel’s constant courage and honesty, Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy fair to culture at its largest, and human life in all its confusions and hopes.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Words, Honest & Musical

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing the words in a stanza of Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude.” These are the first four lines:

See the wretch, that long has tost

On the thorny bed of pain,

At length repair his vigour lost,

And breathe and walk again.

All these words have got to do with every living person. A person might say, “What have I got to do with the word and? I just use it. I don’t know how it came.” People have said that it comes from the word add—that what you began with was verbs and nouns, and then you had to get more subtle so you got words like prepositions, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions.

We have the word breathe. Why is it that the word is so very big? The word breathe stands for something, and it seems that millions of people for hundreds of years have said, “That word will do. It really covers the subject. What I do with my lungs is covered by this word.” It has a certain sound, and when we think of breathe and compare it to lost, lost seems hurried, with the st, and breathe seems very soft and leisurely. Then, breathe, though different from lost, is also different from vigour. Is it all by chance? Is this all just a collection of sounds? Is this all just pretty? Not at all. Because every one of these sounds has something to do with the fate of people.

After having a quatrain with the first and third lines rhyming, and the second and fourth, Gray changes, and for the rest of the stanza has two couplets, with vale and gale, skies and paradise:

The meanest floweret of the vale, 

The simplest note that swells the gale,

The common sun, the air, the skies, 

To him are opening paradise.

I remember once I read this stanza and got something like tears in my eyes. I felt it was one of the most beautiful things that Gray had written. I still think so. It is told directly. You can tell it in various ways. You can say, “Gee, how wonderful it is for a person who has been sick a long time to get outside and see the flowers again.” He doesn’t say it that way. The way that he says it is beautiful. If we feel that Gray’s words have been put down honestly and at the same time they come to music, and they say something that we want said, we can say that it is beautiful; because music and honesty will make for beauty. Naturalness and richness will make for beauty.

Sex and Kindness

By Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman

I once felt that kindness wasn’t possible in relation to sex, and as I thought about a man I went after something very different. For example, having dressed in a clinging outfit, I remember thinking to myself, “Let’s see if he can resist this!” Like most women, I used my body as a weapon, and was after what I learned from Aesthetic Realism is the very thing that always ruins love—I wanted a person to become weak about me. This purpose is contempt. 

Though I could appear sunny, I worried about the increasingly cold, hard, sarcastic way I was with men. Often I would drink before sex because I thought it would make me feel warmer. By the age of 23, I was so bitter and ashamed that for months at a time I wouldn’t have anything to do with a man. In TRO 1248, Ellen Reiss explains: 

The question about a matter of the great opposites of Self and World: Do we want to use our self, our thought, body, touch, to be fair to the world not ourselves—to respect it, see it more deeply?...Or do we want to...feel that we’re finally running the world...[through a person] who—in a tizzy—will make it seem all reality is meaningless compared to us?

As I learned about this choice, my whole life changed. 

I Learned What Kindness Is

In his lecture Mind and Kindness Mr. Siegel explains: “The only the desire for the other person to be more complete, more organized, stronger, more himself. All other kindness is fake” (TRO 641). And so, in order to be kind we have to want to know who a person deeply is. 

When I was affected by a man, I wanted to engulf and manage him. I would flatter him and give him things, while dismissing his relation to everything not me. For example, there was Tony Davis, who was studying to be a pilot and who had a lot of skill as a carpenter. Soon after meeting him I was invited to his birthday party. I baked Tony a cake, a replica of a 747 jet, complete with stripes and windows; made homemade ice cream; and also gave him a book and his favorite music tape. Tony looked nonplussed and uncomfortable, and I was mortified. I knew I had been excessive, and had a gnawing feeling that I was out for something selfish. 

It never crossed my mind to think, for instance, Why did Tony want to be a pilot? Why did he care for carpentry? Where was he confident, and where did he want to be better? I did not have what was described to me years later in an Aesthetic Realism consultation: “a certain generosity” thinking about how “this person [could] honestly like himself.”

Another time, a man I was seeing at college, Luke Tyler, came to my apartment to study. I strategically draped myself over a chair in a seductive outfit with a book, hoping Luke would stop studying and concentrate on me. Soon I had my victory; there was sex. But afterwards I felt empty and ashamed. Luke was angry and said he was never again going to come over to study—he couldn’t trust me. In TRO 1249, Ellen Reiss explains what I was going after: “In sex, too, people have felt the weakness of another made oneself important. A woman has felt triumphant seeing a man who seemed self-assured now act desperate, tumultuous, really senseless for her.”

This would have been my whole life. But I learned about Aesthetic Realism and began to have consultations! I was asked questions such as: “Did you have respect for a man as you were able to get him into such a tizzy?” ; “Are you very taken by how taken he is by you?” ; “Do you see this man as a means of liking yourself through a shortcut, or do you see him as a means of your honestly liking the world?” I felt as if heavy weights were taken away! 

When I met Bennett Cooperman, I respected him enormously. The more we spoke, the more I felt, “I need this man’s perceptions and his criticism of me”—which he gave often with humor. And as I thought of where Bennett was critical of himself, I began to have a new emotion: a feeling of pride in being able to respect a man and in thinking about what would make him stronger. 

The Impediment to Feeling

Before I began to study Aesthetic Realism, I never had the large feeling I hoped for in sex. I would pretend and later feel like a fraud. Early in my marriage to Bennett, though I had changed a great deal, I felt there was an impediment in me to being more affected by my husband, and I asked about this in an Aesthetic Realism class. 

In the discussion, Ellen Reiss showed that there are two reasons for a woman’s not having a fulness of feeling as she is close to a man. The first is ethical: she is deeply afraid that in sex she will have contempt for the world and a man, and be used for contempt. The second is, she feels something standing for the outside world—a man—has too much meaning. Hearing that second reason, I understood better why sometimes, after having large feeling about my husband, I would suddenly find myself giving him an order, or get very busy cleaning the house. Ellen Reiss asked, “If you are affected fully, will it be too much of a tribute to what isn’t you?” “Yes,” I said. 

I am grateful to feel now as I am close to Bennett that he stands for a world I want increasingly to know and be affected by; and this has made for passionate emotion that takes in both my mind and body. I love Aesthetic Realism for enabling women and men to respect ourselves on this great subject of kindness and sex.