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We Can Feel More Alive at Any Age

By Irene Reiss

[Note: This article first appeared in the Idaho Senior News, accompanied by a biography of Eli Siegel. With pride and gratitude, I reprint these two works now.—Alice Bernstein]

In 1947, when I began my study of Aesthetic Realism, I was so fortunate to learn that the only way we can feel really alive at any age is to do all we can to know and like the world. 

     Aesthetic Realism is the education founded in 1941 by the philosopher and historian Eli Siegel. He explained that the deepest desire of every person is to like the world. And he also explained what interferes—contempt "a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself." 

     I have learned contempt can be ordinary: a woman not listening when her husband speaks, or making fun of how another person dresses; and on a larger scale, Mr. Siegel taught, contempt is the cause of cruelty and war. Aesthetic Realism teaches that loneliness and boredom—the feeling "I've seen it all"—so common among older people and young people, and the false importance from feeling that nothing is worth learning or remembering, are actually contempt. Contempt is the greatest life-sapper, making people of any age feel old and worn out. 

     In his kind essay, "Declaration about Old Age," Eli Siegel writes, "The desire of a person of 80 to like himself and the world is as keen as it was when that person was eight, or 18, or 28."  He continues: 

Reality is always new; and the greatest misfortune of any person, whoever he may be or however old he may be, is not to see reality as tremendously new, subtly surprising, and dazzlingly novel. It is easy to be bored at any age; and being bored is one of the subtler forms of conceit.

Aesthetic Realism teaches, too, that wanting to see beauty in the world, new meaning in a book, a tree, a kitten, a chair, even a person who bumps into us on the street, is necessary if we are to fight our drive for contempt, which often shows itself as weariness, bitterness, and resignation. Learning about this crucial fight between contempt and respect has enabled me at 92 to have a zest for life far more than I had at the age of 32. My late husband, Dan (who passed away last summer at age 95), and I were so fortunate to continue learning in Aesthetic Realism classes and seminars about ourselves, all people, literature, music, economics, current events. 

     As people get older, there are usually concerns about health: eyesight is not as good as once, often we don't hear as well, and people sometimes use their difficulties and worries to go "into themselves" and give up on the world. People need to know that every moment we make a choice, either to know and see meaning in things or to make less of them. I have seen that the difference between these choices is the difference between more life or less life. 

     The reason the world can honestly be liked is that it has an aesthetic structure—the oneness of opposites. Stated Eli Siegel, "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." 

     An older person can be tormented by the opposites of rigidity and flexibility, about rest and motion. Aesthetic Realism so kindly shows we can learn from everything about these opposites in ourselves—for instance, how a tree with its rigid trunk has flexible, leafy branches that yield to the wind. As we get older and can't move as easily or swiftly as we once did, can our thoughts still be in lively motion, wanting to know? Can we see new meaning in things and people that can make us proud? And can we be both assertive and yielding at once, like a tree? Yes! 

     I am so grateful that because of our education, my husband and I were able to   encourage each other to like the way we think and talk about the world, including some of our difficulties. 

     For instance, if stormy weather keeps a person confined at home, when once it did not, instead of feeling as people commonly do that it's all downhill from now on—and contemptuously seeing the world as an enemy, we can spend our time reading and also discussing on the telephone with our friends what is going on in the world, and have conversations which encourage understanding and care for people. 

     Mr. Siegel saw that the biggest interference to liking the world is the desire for contempt: the lessening of something else in order to build ourselves up, which often shows itself in boredom and loneliness. 

     We make a choice every moment between wanting to know and respect people and things, and wanting to have contempt for them—and contempt is, as I've said, the "greatest life-sapper." The one alternative to contempt is honestly wanting to know and like the world. 

     It is a crucial fact that when you know your purpose is to respect and like the world, you go after it, and you are strengthened. 

An Aesthetic Realism Lesson

In 1947, my mother, then in her 70's, had the great good fortune to have an Aesthetic Realism lesson with Eli Siegel—one of thousands he gave to men, women and children, who were seen with dignity and depth in relation to all history, literature, and world culture. Aesthetic Realism consultations given today at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foun-dation and by telephone nationwide and overseas are based on lessons given by Mr. Siegel. 

     When my mother told Mr. Siegel that she was "lived-out" and afraid of sickness, he so kindly said to her: 

When you were born, you were born into everything. When people get along with the world they meet, they are fighting sickness....If there is a good thing in the world and we don't see it as good, we're unfair to it. If there is a bad thing, if we can understand it we can be proud....Every person should be like a flower—going towards the sun. I want you to begin life and not think it's over.

As Mr. Siegel spoke to my mother about her children, ex-husband, and more, she met the understanding every person longs for. I love him for encouraging her to like the way she saw everything. And now this lesson means even more to me because I see the importance for my own life of what he taught her. 

     All people deserve to know what my mother heard. In "Declaration about Old Age," Mr. Siegel writes: 

Aesthetic Realism would like to have every person feel that it was a glorious, splendid obligation to put down as clearly as possible: 'I liked the following today' with description....It will do something against the quite clear and usually victorious terrors of age.

I have seen firsthand that writing a sentence each day about something in the world I liked, with exactitude and joy, makes one feel proud. For instance, one day I wrote, "I liked seeing the Bartlett pears on the fruit stand which are rounded at the bottom, becoming narrower just before being topped off with their pert, perpendicular stems." I recommend that you, dear reader, get a notebook and in it write every day a full sentence about one thing you liked that day. 

     As an Aesthetic Realism consultant I have had the privilege to teach other women what I have been learning, and to see the tremendous good effect of Aesthetic Realism on persons' lives. 

The seminars given by Irene Reiss at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation with the consultants of The Later Surprise, have included discussions of Lillian Wald, Carry Nation, Emma Mashinini, Frances Perkins, Sarah Delano Roosevelt, Imelda Marcos, and Mary Pickford under titles including "Possession vs. Perception in the Family"; "How Can We Look Good in Our Own Eyes?"; "The Fight in Women Between Energy and Weariness"; "Honest Criticism—Are Women Looking for It?" There is more about the life of Irene Reiss in issue 1695 of The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Eli Siegel. Photo credit: Nancy Starrels

ELI SIEGEL (1902-1978), poet, critic, philosopher, educator, grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1925 his "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana " won the esteemed Nation Poetry Prize. "I say definitely," William Carlos Williams was to write of it, "that that single poem, out of a thousand others written in the past quarter century, secures our place in the cultural world." 

Beginning in 1941, the year he founded the philosophy Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Siegel gave thousands of lectures on poetry, history, economics—all the arts and sciences. And he gave thousands of individual lessons to men, women, and children, which taught a new way of seeing the world based on this principle: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites."

These lessons are the basis of Aesthetic Realism consultations now given at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York and by telephone worldwide. There are also public seminars and dramatic presentations, and classes, including a workshop in the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method—the educational method used with historic success for over 30 years in classrooms from elementary school through college. 

Among Mr. Siegel's many published works are Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism; Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, which was nominated for a National Book Award in 1958 (John Henry Faulk, speaking of the poems in this book, said on CBS radio, "Eli Siegel makes a man glad he's alive"); Hail, American Development, containing 178 poems, including 32 trans-lations; James and the Children: A Consideration of Henry James's "Turn of the Screw"; and The Modern Quarterly Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism (1922-1923) , including both "The Equality of Man" and "The Scientific Criticism."

Eli Siegel taught how crucial it is for people, in order to like themselves, to want to know and respect other people and the world. The following passionate, logical, musical lines from "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana " stand for that just way of seeing—which he had all the time: 

The world is waiting to be known; Earth, what it has in it! The past is in it; 
All words, feelings, movements, words, bodies, clothes, girls, trees, stones,
things of beauty, books, desires are in it; and all are to be known;
Afternoons have to do with the whole world; 
And the beauty of mind, feeling knowingly the world!

© 2005-2015 by Alice Bernstein. For permission to reprint please contact me by