Jeffrey Carduner, Aesthetic Realism consultant, writes:
Why can we get so excited about a novel—whether it’s a mystery, historical fiction, an adventure story, science fiction, or something else? Does every good novel tell us about the biggest fight in our lives, what we most hope for, and what we have against ourselves? Answers, thrilling and new, are in “Ourselves—& What’s Around Us,” the great current issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known.
The commentary by Ellen Reiss begins:
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the third part in our serialization of the 1951 lecture It Still Moves; or, The Novel, by Eli Siegel. He shows what the novel is, must have—whenever and wherever it is written. He shows what makes a novel beautiful, and why that matters. And as he does, we are seeing some of the meaning and richness—also urgency and cultural might—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.”
In the present section, Mr. Siegel speaks about the elements of character and environment, or place, in the novel, and the relation between them. Certainly, ever so many commentators on the novel have discussed those elements. But he is the critic who saw what no one else did: that character and place in fiction are forms of the biggest opposites in the life of every person: self and world. Both a character in a novel and all of us are meeting the world at every moment. And the world takes the form of other people—but, very much, it takes the form of place: what surrounds us, where we are.
Because of his seeing—so fully and gracefully—that the technical opposites in art are in people too, as Eli Siegel speaks about character and place in a novel, something occurs that does not occur in discussions by other critics: we feel that the subject is also ourselves. We feel that what’s being explained is kind to us; that opposites at war in us can be one—because they are together page after page, with much diversity, in a good novel. All this makes for a warmth and thrill as Eli Siegel discusses environment in the novel. And his beautiful seeing of this subject represents how he was on every subject, including all the arts and sciences.
Now, from Life to Novels
To help place what you’ll soon read about the novel, I’ll quote, from the book Self and World, Eli Siegel writing about the constant situation in everybody’s life. Again: the “duality” he describes can, in a novel, become those literary elements character and environment:
There is a deep and “dialectic” duality facing every human being, which can be put this way: How is he to be entirely himself, and yet be fair to that world which he does not see as himself?…
We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it. We have to be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves. [P. 91]
People have loved reading novels, but haven’t known that they were seeing, chapter after chapter, a self meeting what’s not oneself and having to do something about it. In WHAT one does about the there, in HOW one meets it, are both a) what a particular character in a novel is like; and b) who we are, how our own minds fare. And again: the there may be other people, but it’s also, very much, the environment. Jane Eyre, for example, is trying to answer the question of how to “be entirely [her]self, and yet be fair to that world which [s]he does not see as [her]self.” So is Harry Potter. So is Don Quixote. So is Strether in Henry James’s The Ambassadors.…Read more