Nancy Huntting, Aesthetic Realism consultant, writes:
“Cleverness, Beauty, & Contempt” has the thrilling knowledge of what cleverness really is. It makes clear the difference between good and bad cleverness—and shows that the subject has a much larger meaning for us than is generally thought. Read this kind, tremendously valuable new issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known.
The commentary by Ellen Reiss begins:
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to serialize Poetry and Cleverness, by Eli Siegel. This 1949 lecture is, as literary criticism, important, big, scholarly, humorous, deep. It is also about everyone’s life; it is needed by, and immensely kind to, every person.
What is cleverness? Why are people so taken by clever things? There is, for instance, the immortal cleverness of Sherlock Holmes as he finds clues in objects others overlooked, and thereby shows, with such grace, who committed that “unsolvable” crime. There is the physical and mental cleverness that thrills people watching acrobatic feats—as they see, perhaps, someone dangle upside down from a trapeze, then shape herself into a soaring bird on it.
In this talk, Mr. Siegel shows that cleverness affects people so much because it stands for something large in themselves and the world. And that Something is described in the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Cleverness of any kind, he explains, even the kind that cannot be called truly beautiful, always joins in some fashion the great opposites of Difficulty and Ease. “Somebody who is clever,” he says, “seems to be doing something that people would think hard, with ease.”
This matters to everyone, because to have a life of only ease is dull, yet difficulties can feel oppressive, even unbearable. What we want, what we unknowingly long for, is to feel that these opposites—difficulty and ease, obstruction and nonchalance—can be one.
Meanwhile: why is some cleverness very good, even beautiful, and other cleverness fundamentally ugly? The distinction between these can be understood—and for the first time—through Aesthetic Realism. “The greatest fight man is concerned with,” wrote Eli Siegel, “is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now” (TRO 151). Cleverness that is good is impelled by a desire to respect the world, by a sense of wonder at things. Bad, cheap, hurtful cleverness is impelled by contempt, a desire to show that oneself is superior to people and things and can twist them to suit one’s wishes….Read more.