Nancy Huntting, Aesthetic Realism consultant, writes:
What makes reading a novel valuable? Does a good novel have something we as people want—for our own lives? The answer to these questions, and to one of the most important questions every person has, is in “What Is Meaning—in Art & Our Lives?,” the great new issue of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known.
The commentary by Ellen Reiss begins:
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the lecture It Still Moves; or, The Novel, which Eli Siegel gave in 1951. It is exciting, profound, vivid. It shows what the novel, of any time and place, is. And as it shows that, it is also about the life of every one of us. The lecture is an exemplification of this landmark Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
In the present section, as he looks at the elements of the novel, Mr. Siegel speaks about meaning. That is a word that concerns people’s lives very much, and often very painfully. Millions of people right now have the feeling that large meaning is absent from their lives. They don’t know what meaning is—they may even tell themselves there’s no such thing. But they miss it. They have the What-does-it-all-come-to feeling; the Is-that-all-there-is feeling.
And an agony about love—sometimes a quiet, taken for granted agony—is: “I once felt this person meant so much to me, but now we’ve been together awhile and there’s a flatness, a kind of emptiness, a smallness to it all.” The couple may break up or may stay together for decades, but a certain large meaning seems absent.
The chief reason people read novels, go to museums, attend concerts, see plays is that they are looking for meaning. And for the time, as they’re affected truly by art, meaning is there and they feel it. Yet this meaning doesn’t seem to last: it doesn’t extend, for people, into life itself, and continue. Through study of Aesthetic Realism it can, because we can learn what meaning is, and what we love in art can really be in our lives too.
Meaning in the Novel & Life
So what is that seemingly undefinable yet ached-for thing, meaning? It hasbeen defined, and described, by Eli Siegel, and I am immensely glad to quote him now, from a class of 1965. What he explained then gives even larger importance to his 1951 discussion of meaning in the novel. This 1965 description of meaning is a momentous achievement in the history of philosophy, and it is also urgent and merciful for our lives. I begin with the following sentences:
Meaning is the beautiful relation of something to the world, and the beautiful way in which it contains the world. The artist goes looking for that.
In that definition is the reason a character in a good novel has a meaning that people do not find in the persons they know—even if they like those persons. It also explains why, if we lived next door to Elizabeth Bennet of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or if David Copperfield were a co-worker of ours, or if Raskolnikov were our cousin, we would likely not see the meaning in them that Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoevsky found and showed.
Let’s take Elizabeth Bennet. All through the novel, in thousands of ways, through description, and happenings, and dialogue, Jane Austen has us feel Elizabeth’s relation to the world. She’s related to objects, family, places in England, her friend Charlotte, a vain clergyman, let alone Mr. Darcy….Read more