ELI SIEGEL (1902-1978), American poet, literary critic, and educator, was the founder of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism.
He was born on August 16, 1902 in Dvinsk, Latvia. With his parents, Mendel and Sarah (Einhorn) Siegel, he emigrated in 1905 to the United States and grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. In August 2002, on the occasion of his centenary, Baltimore celebrated Eli Siegel Day with proclamations by the mayor and governor, and a memorial to him was erected in its central park: Druid Hill.
Mr. Siegel graduated from Baltimore City College in 1919, where he was a member of the Carrollton-Wight literary society, the oldest speech and debate team in the country. While living in Baltimore, his earliest essays appeared, several of them in the Modern Quarterly, which he co-founded with V.F. Calverton in 1923. Among these are “The Scientific Criticism” (Vol. I, No. 1, March 1923); “The Equality of Man” (Vol. I, No. 3, December 1923); “The Middle Ages, Say” (Vol. I, No. 3, December 1923). The essays are now collected in The “Modern Quarterly” Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism (Definition Press, 1997).
In February 1924, during a visit to New York City, he wrote his renowned poem “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” which a year later won the esteemed Nation Poetry Prize. That same year, 1925, he became a columnist for the Baltimore American.
Implicit in “Hot Afternoons” are the philosophic principles that would, in time, become the basis of Aesthetic Realism. For example, the poem contains these lines—an early expression of a central concept of Aesthetic Realism, that the deepest desire of every person is to like the world through knowing it:
“I say definitely,” Pulitzer prize-winning author William Carlos Williams was later to write, “that that single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world.”
In 1957, it became the title poem in Eli Siegel’s first collection, Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1958. That year Mr. Siegel was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Many other persons notable in the literary world joined Williams in expressing their esteem. Among these was Selden Rodman, who wrote about Mr. Siegel in the Saturday Review, “He comes up with poems like ‘Dear Birds, Tell This to Mothers,’ ‘She’s Crazy and It Means Something’ and ‘The World of the Unwashed Dish’ which say more (and more movingly) about here and now than any contemporary poems I have read.”
In a 1944 article written in honor of the twentieth anniversary of the poem, journalist Donald Kirkley, who knew Mr. Siegel in the 1920s, wrote in the Baltimore Sun:
Baltimore friends close to him at the time [he won the Nation prize] will testify to a certain integrity and steadfastness of purpose which distinguished Mr. Siegel. . . . He refused to exploit a flood of publicity which was enough to float any man to financial comfort. . . . He took a job as a newspaper columnist at a respectable salary, and quit it when he found that he would not be allowed to say what he wanted at all times.
In 1926, Mr. Siegel settled permanently in New York City, and in the decade that followed he was active in various aspects of the artistic and intellectual life of the city. He wrote for the Literary Review of the New York Evening Post and for Scribner’s Magazine. Among the works he reviewed for these journals were The First Wife and Other Stories, by Pearl Buck; The Life of Emerson, by Van Wyck Brooks; and Mark Twain’s America, by Bernard DeVoto. He chaired innovative evenings of poetry and jazz at the Village Vanguard, and conducted poetry readings at several other noted venues, including the Troubadour and the Village Mill. It can be mentioned that Eli Siegel was the first critic to write of jazz not merely as entertainment, but as art with profound philosophic substance.
He also contributed to the 1937 anti-fascist collection And Spain Sings. Among the journals at this time to which Mr. Siegel contributed poetry were The New Republic, Free Verse, Hound & Horn, the Modern Quarterly, Blues, and Poetry Folio.
His chief occupation, however, was a scholarly study of unprecedented depth and width. He was searching, he explained, for a philosophic principle which would serve to unify the arts and the sciences—a principle which would show that the world as fact and the world as value were one world.
As a result of this study, he founded Aesthetic Realism in 1941—calling it at first Aesthetic Analysis. Its central principle is his landmark statement: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The author of this article is among the growing number of scholars who see this idea as vital to 21st century education.
Eli Siegel explained that Aesthetic Realism grew out of poetry, and in terms of its evolution, this clearly is the case. In 1938, he began The Poetry Group, attended by New York City writers and artists—in which he lectured on the meaning and the technique of poetry, including on the fact that the key criterion for true poetry is poetic music. He taught that in the technique of a good poem, the very opposites that fight in a person’s life are made one: such opposites as logic and emotion, freedom and exactitude, intensity and ease.
In 1941, at the request of his students—who wanted to study directly how the principles making for the beauty of honest poetry could explain the questions of their own lives—he began to give individual Aesthetic Realism lessons to men, women, and children. Over the course of the next 37 years, he was to give well over 10,000 lessons. It was also in 1941 that Mr. Siegel began to give, in his library at 67 Jane Street, what would be thousands of Aesthetic Realism lectures—not only on world literature and poetry, but also history, economics, and the various arts and sciences.
Crucial to the study of Aesthetic Realism is a new understanding of the relation of art and life. “The resolution of conflict in self,” Eli Siegel taught, “is like the making one of opposites in art.” He also explained, for the first time in philosophic history, the anti-art principle which is the source of all human unkindness: contempt. “The greatest danger for a person,” he wrote, “is to have contempt for the world and what is in it, despite its aesthetic structure.” And he defined contempt as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”
In the Aesthetic Realism lessons which he conducted, there was something new in world culture—related to the ancient Socratic dialogues in their philosophic depth and lively back-and-forth of discussion, yet warmer and more wide-ranging. As Eli Siegel engaged a person in conversation about the questions of his or her life, there was in him a constant presence of unimpeded good will: the desire to have that person be in the best possible relation to all people, and to the world itself. For this purpose, he encouraged his students to see their own lives in relation to matters of culture: to other people in history, to poetry, to scientific principles. And there was often humor of remarkable kindness and dignity.
The subjects of lessons were the subjects of life itself, matters the person having the lesson asked about and wanted to understand: matters concerning, for example, love, friendship, work, family—and more. These were all looked at in terms of ethics. In every person, Eli Siegel explained, there is an ethical unconscious; and it is the most beautiful thing in us. We judge ourselves by how fair we are. Through Aesthetic Realism lessons, as a person studied ethics, looked freshly at his or her own self-criticism, that person’s life changed profoundly and happily for the better. As Mr. Siegel once put it: “Ethics is the art of enjoying justice.”
Marriages became kinder and newly romantic, where disappointment had earlier prevailed. Children who had felt ever so different from their parents—and scornfully so—learned to see their families with a deep respect, as interesting, surprising, useful to them, and part of a large world they wanted to know and like. There was a new ability to show one’s feelings, and be interested in the feelings of others. As a result of lessons, there was a coming together of opposites: a person felt a deeper ease in life, and at the same time a new excitement about knowing people and the world itself.
Eli Siegel was the author of an essay entitled “The Ordinary Doom,” in which he described the feeling had by nearly everyone that others did not know them, and that they themselves did not understand their own lives as they hoped. The study of Aesthetic Realism has lifted that burdensome feeling from the lives of many, many people. The author of this article is grateful to say, he is among them.
In the early 1940s, Eli Siegel wrote the first of his major philosophic works: Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism. Among its chapters is one entitled “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict.” That chapter and another, entitled “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics,” appeared in 1946 as separate publications. Self and World as a whole was published in 1981 by Definition Press, with a Preface entitled “Contempt Causes Insanity,” written in the 1970s.
His other major philosophic texts are Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World, written in 1945, and published in serialized form in the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known in the late 1970s, and The Aesthetic Nature of the World, written in the early 1970s.
In 1944, Mr. Siegel married Martha Baird, a distinguished poet in her own right, and a trail-blazing writer on music—the first critic of the art to study it on the basis of this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Among her publications is the essay “Opposites in Myself,” included in Two Aesthetic Realism Papers (Definition Press, 1971)—an essay which vividly shows the impact of Aesthetic Realism lessons: a self understanding itself on aesthetic terms.
In November 1951, William Carlos Williams wrote to Martha Baird about the importance of Eli Siegel’s poetry in American literature. Some sentences from his letter to her were quoted earlier in this article. In the letter, Williams also describes something which he had witnessed firsthand: the brutal, unjust opposition Mr. Siegel met over the years—an opposition that arose from the very greatness and freshness of his work, which inflamed those who did not want their narrowness questioned and their contempt for the world criticized. Wrote Williams:
…As I read his pieces I am never prepared for what will come next, either the timing or the imagery….This is powerful evidence of a new track….The evidence is technical but it comes out at the non-technical level as either great pleasure to the beholder, a deeper taking of the breath, a feeling of cleanliness, which is the sign of the truly new. The other side of the picture is the extreme resentment that a fixed, sclerotic mind feels confronting this new. It shows itself by the violent opposition Siegel received from the ‘authorities’ whom I shall not dignify by naming.
The comprehension present in William Carlos Williams’ and Eli Siegel’s knowing each other is an important fact in 20th-century American literary history, and is written about in detail in The Williams-Siegel Documentary (eds. Martha Baird and Ellen Reiss, Definition Press, 1970). This book includes a full transcript of a major lecture, under the title “Williams’ Poetry Talked about by Eli Siegel, and William Carlos Williams Present and Talking.”
In 1955, artists and writers who studied Aesthetic Realism opened the Terrain Gallery, with Dorothy Koppelman as its director—the first art gallery in New York to declare and maintain a clear philosophic basis. This principle is found in its opening announcement: “In reality opposites are one; art shows this.” In that year, the Terrain Gallery published the broadside “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites?,” fifteen questions by Eli Siegel defining beauty in the visual arts—an essay which was reprinted later that year in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and also in The Hibbert Journal of London. In the over 50 years which have followed, the Terrain has regularly been presenting exhibitions and art talks based on this new relation of the world, art, and life.
In 1963, Eli Siegel’s stage masterpiece, Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’: Revisited, was first performed. In thirteen parts, presented in thirteen evenings of theatre, it was a new literary form: an organic oneness of drama and criticism. In this “play about a play,” all of Hamlet is looked at and illumined. The dramatic intent of the world’s greatest playwright is made plain; at the same time, Eli Siegel’s critical commentary is itself stirring, imaginative, poetic.
In recent decades the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company has brought to the stage other works of a similar nature: lectures by Eli Siegel, dramatic in their own right, on the works of Ibsen, Molière, Sheridan, and other great authors for the theatre. This includes other plays of Shakespeare.
Throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Eli Siegel continued to lecture—including on the major philosophers, giving, for example, a full series each to Kant, Hegel, and William James. He discussed, at length, all of the sonnets and most of the plays of Shakespeare; and spoke on current events as they happened—showing how principles of Aesthetic Realism explained them. Transcripts of many of his lectures have been published; many are likewise available online. There is also the historic 1968 documentary People Are Trying to Put Opposites Together by Ken Kimmelman. This is a film of an actual Aesthetic Realism class taught by Eli Siegel on the subject of how people see other people. It was first aired on WNET-TV, New York’s Public Televsion Channel.
Among the various works by Mr. Siegel published in the 1960s was his second volume of poetry, Hail, American Development. “I think it’s about time Eli Siegel was moved up into the ranks of our acknowledged Leading Poets…”, Kenneth Rexroth declared, writing in The New York Times Book Review—and the reviewer praised, in particular, Eli Siegel’s justice as a translator: “His translations of Baudelaire and his commentaries on them rank him with the most understanding of the Baudelaire critics in any language.” The book contains 178 poems, and nearly 40 translations.
Another major publication at this time was his 1968 critical study of Henry James’ great (but hitherto perplexing) novella The Turn of the Screw. Entitled James and the Children, it led the critic Hugh Kenner to write in Poetry magazine: “It is a reading so careful and candid it reduces most previous discussion to willful evasiveness. The oddness of a literary critic constantly asking us to think about real children can suggest how odd is the criticism we’re accustomed to.”
In the 1970s, there were three important developments in Aesthetic Realism. First, beginning on May 22, 1970, Eli Siegel gave a series of landmark lectures on economics, which were remarkable in their knowledge and grasp of world events. At a time when no other historian was saying it, he explained that the world had reached a point at which economics based on ill will would never again function efficiently. A book containing one of these lectures, “What Is Working Now” (June 12, 1970), and reports of eight others, was published that year with the title Goodbye Profit System. In an enlarged form, under the editorship of Ellen Reiss, a second edition, Goodbye Profit System: Update, appeared in 1982. The decades since have borne out the accuracy of Eli Siegel’s understanding that “there will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will, rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.”
A second important development was the founding of the journal The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known in 1973. It has remained in continuous publication, with editorship, after Mr. Siegel’s death in 1978, first by Martha Baird and later by Ellen Reiss. The journal has published, in its over 1700 issues, many essays by Aesthetic Realism consultants and associates as well as a substantial portion of Mr. Siegel’s own lectures and writings. Among its most important issues was #165, of May 26, 1976, entitled “What Caused the Wars”—a trenchant analysis of contempt as the root cause of all wars, past and present.
The third development was the expansion of the teaching of Aesthetic Realism through the establishment, in 1973, of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, a not-for-profit educational foundation, whose purpose is to teach the principles of the philosophy he developed. The foundation offers courses in poetry and other arts, education, anthropology, and more; public seminars; theatrical events by the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company, and Terrain Gallery exhibitions.
A central part of the work of the foundation are Aesthetic Realism consultations. Building on the lessons given by Eli Siegel, the foundation’s faculty teach men, women, and children how to see the world and their own lives on an aesthetic basis—including learning how to see the debate within every person about contempt and respect. Consultations, like the lessons which preceded them, mark a new point in the knowledge of self.
In 1977, Eli Siegel was compelled to suspend his teaching of Aesthetic Realism due to a serious medical problem concerning his feet. He named Ellen Reiss the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism, and in his absence—and after his death the next year—she continued his work, and does so now, both in teaching the professional classes given to the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and in her course “The Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry.”
Seeing the great physical pain he was enduring, Mr. Siegel was encouraged by those closest to him to seek a remedy by means of surgery. A doctor at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York, Joseph De Filippi, told him that the cause of his pain was a benign prostate condition, and that surgery to relieve it would be both simple and safe.
Mr. Siegel reluctantly agreed, but the May 1978 surgery proved devastating to him. “I have lost the use of my feet,” he wrote. There was an ever-increasing weakness, and soon he was unable to use his hands to write. He endured all this for nearly a half year, dictating poems and essays, even resuming his teaching. Those who were present in those months remember keenly the depth, kindness, and freshness of his words, about literature, about world events, and about the lives of his students. That summer the surgeon admitted he had been angry at his own large respect for Mr. Siegel; his anger, it seems clear, led to the disastrous results of the operation. With the weeks, Mr. Siegel’s suffering intensified. It was unbearable to him that he would be in the world without the ability to meet it as he felt it deserved. And so in November 1978 Eli Siegel chose to die with dignity.
On the occasion of the celebration of his centennial, in 2002, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, then Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said this in his congressional tribute to Mr. Siegel:
Eli Siegel died in 1978, but his poetry and the education of Aesthetic Realism will be studied in every English, literature, and art classroom across the nation for years to come.
One sign of the accuracy of Representative Cumming’s prediction is the growing number of scholarly presentations by teachers who use the Aesthetic Realism method, at educational conferences in America and abroad. Another sign of the increasing impact of Aesthetic Realism on the world is the great success of three films, based on Mr. Siegel’s writings, by filmmaker Ken Kimmelman. The first is The Heart Knows Better, an anti-racism film for which Mr. Kimmelman won an Emmy award. The second—What Does a Person Deserve?—is a film dealing with hunger and homelessness; its title arises from this question, which Eli Siegel said is the most important for the world today: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” The third is Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana—a visual setting of the Nation prize-winning poem, with Mr. Siegel himself reading it. About this film, the noted American historian Howard Zinn wrote: “Ken Kimmelman’s reproduction, on film, of Eli Siegel’s magisterial poem, is an extraordinary achievement. It matches, in its visual beauty, the elegance of Siegel’s words, and adds the dimension of stunning imagery to an already profound work of art.”
In 1984, the Eli Siegel Collection, a research library at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, was established. It is comprised of over 25,000 of his books, on all the arts and sciences. Many books contain his annotations, lecture notes, manuscripts of poems, and other writings. If something existed, Eli Siegel wanted to know and be fair to it, and his library illustrates that fact.
A true picture of Eli Siegel’s life and work
Reading this article, which accurately describes the depth and breadth of Eli Siegel’s life and work—both literary and philosophic—I have even greater respect for him than I already had. I studied in classes with Mr. Siegel, and I wholeheartedly concur with what Dr. Green describes about his integrity, tremendous kindness, and love of knowledge. I was particularly glad to see here the history of how Eli Siegel’s seeing of the oneness of opposites in poetry led to his students’ asking him to speak to them about their own lives on the same aesthetic basis. What dignity this approach to self—seeing human questions as like those of poetry and all art—gives to people! As an educator using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method in my high school English classes, I say without question that this central principle Mr. Siegel stated—”The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites”—is immensely valuable in the study of every aspect of the curriculum, and has classrooms come alive with excitement and real learning!