Aesthetic Realism and Love
By Eli Siegel
The following introduction to this important lecture is from commentaries by Ellen Reiss in the issues of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known in which it was published.
Introduction by Ellen Reiss
The lecture Aesthetic Realism and Love was given by Eli Siegel in December 1948; and men and women need it mightily now. For Aesthetic Realism explains love—explains love in all its vastness and subtlety. Nothing else does.
In his book Self and World, Eli Siegel writes: “The purpose of love is to feel closely one with things as a whole” (p. 171). He taught that to love a person is to use that person to like the world itself: to be fair to people, books, objects, facts. I am inexpressibly thankful to have learned this and to have learned from Eli Siegel that the interference with love is our desire to have contempt.
Women and men who thought they would love each other forever are suffering now. They are glaring across tables, hurling sarcastic remarks, weeping. They will not learn the reason from therapists or self-help books or talk shows. The reason is in Aesthetic Realism and this great lecture: Two people have used “loving” each other to make less of the outside world. Yet the largest need of each of their lives is to like that very world. And so each feels deeply lessened by the other, and ashamed.
Eli Siegel was the strongest, clearest, most passionate critic of men’s desire to lessen women—to own us and rob us of mind. He was also the person who did women the profound honor of seeing how much we are longing to hear criticism of our own contempt. The current trend to blame all of women’s pain on men is not only inexact and hurtful, but it betrays the best in woman and everyone: our ethical need, organic as our flesh, to see justly persons and a world different from ourselves.
The reason, Aesthetic Realism shows, that women and men dislike themselves is exactly the same: our own injustice, ill will, contempt.
Love Is Good Will
Eli Siegel explained that good will is not the soapy, ineffectual, superficial thing people usually mean by that term. Good will is our largest need, tough, strong, terrifically intelligent, eminently learnable. He defined good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” And he showed that this good will is the only real answer to both the most agonizing international troubles, and troubles between people, in streets, kitchens, bedrooms.
Mr. Siegel showed that good will is always aesthetic: it is described by this 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” (Self and World, p. viii). Good will is the living oneness of criticism and encouragement, logic and feeling, power and grace. And the very heart of good will is something he speaks of in this lecture: the desire to know.
With all the sexual “liberation” of the last decades, people feel as pained about sex as ever—and only Aesthetic Realism explains why. In an Aesthetic Realism class in 1974, Mr. Siegel explained why I was distressed after having been close to a man, Mr. V. He said, so kindly: “When bodies are close and good will is insufficient, there is always a bad result.” And speaking to Mr. V., he continued: “Every person wants to hear, ‘I want to understand you, Ellen Reiss. I’ll never get tired of trying to understand you, and if I lag in any way, I want you to tell me.’ Ms. Reiss feels you have lagged in understanding her. The large question is, What is the relation of loving and understanding?”
I am boundlessly grateful to say: not only does Aesthetic Realism make it possible for what we do with our bodies to look fair and proud to our ethically judging minds—but Mr. Siegel explained humanity’s trouble about sex in some of the most beautiful sentences ever uttered. I quote these, from his “Preface to ‘The Ordinary Doom’”:
The large inward catastrophe of today is: we let ourselves be pleased by and do what we can to please a person we still want to hide from, we still do not fully respect….To know a person is to know the universe become throbbingly specific. It is always the universe on two feet, with two eyes, and an articulate mouth.
When the people of the world study those last two sentences, they will see what truly passionate love is. And further—-racism, war, and other cruelty will end. We need to see that a person, ever so near us, whom we are kissing; or a person looking different from us, whom we see on a subway; or a person in a country far away, has in him the structure of the world itself. He is trying to put together reality’s opposites: power and gentleness, freedom and order, uncertainty and sureness, high and low. When we see it is a representative of the world whom we are kissing, we can be proud of the kiss. And when we see a person as standing for the world itself, we cannot be cruel to him for we respect him.
Body and Meaning
In the final section of Aesthetic Realism and Love, Mr. Siegel speaks about the relation of body and meaning, physical attraction and ethics. Aesthetic Realism brings dignity and magnificent sense to this subject. There has been in our time, as in other times, an awful lot of body-meeting-body; yet people have felt empty and ashamed, because as limbs affected limbs, the persons did not see a meaning that looked beautiful to them.
This principle, stated by Eli Siegel, is the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” The tangible and intangible are opposites; body and mind are; self and world are. Aesthetic Realism explains that everything we do with our bodies says something about how we want to see the world as a whole. We can touch a person for the purpose of having him feel through our touch that the world itself is friendly—for we, whom once he didn’t know, represent the world. This purpose can be passionate, and will make us proud. Or we can touch a person for the purpose of owning him and showing what power we have over him. This is contempt, and it will make us feel ashamed, unlovable, and unsure.
Through the knowledge that is in this lecture, real love can flourish at last.