Aesthetic Realism Consultant, Writer, Poet (1919-1980)
Turning Over a New Leaf; or, What Is Literature? By Sheldon Kranz
Presented October 19, 1974, at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 141 Greene Street, New York City
2. The Ordinary Is Wonderful, Too
Everyone has complained of how things are boring and tedious and how we're stuck in a rut. The fiction of the world, as well as the poetry of every country, says: Look again. The everyday world that you take for granted and are bored with may be more interesting than you know. In fact, I will show it to you in such a way that you will find it hugely enjoyable. I will show you that art can be made out of the ordinary events and people that you despise.
How the everyday is wonderful is described by Eli Siegel in his definition of "Everydayness," from Definitions and Comment, Being a Description of the World. He writes:
Going to a grocery, getting up in the morning. . . seeing that our clothes have buttons--are aspects of everyday feeling; but seen from the viewpoint of existence as a whole, they are strange and wonderful. That people should feel warmly familiar, routinely intimate, unsurprisingly comfortable. . . from the viewpoint of time as a whole. . . existence straight--is a grandly amazing state of affairs.
Novelists have shown that the ordinary life of people is deeper and more exciting than one knew, not by inventing strange and remarkable events, but by showing people simply as they are in their everyday lives.
A novelist who took the prosaic business man in all his dullness and conformity, and made him into literature, was Sinclair Lewis. In 1922, he gave the world George F. Babbitt, and the world loved him. H.G. Wells, after reading Babbitt, wrote enthusiastically to Sinclair Lewis: "Babbitt is one of the greatest novels I have read for a long time. He is what is called a 'creation,' but what we really mean is that he is a completely individualized realization of a hitherto elusive type. He is the common American prosperous business man got. You have got him. He lives and breathes. . . . He moves about. ..."
In other words, Wells is saying Babbitt is alive. Note how the opposites of unique and general have been made one in Wells's sentence: "He is a completely individualized realization of a hitherto elusive type." And because these opposites are artfully blended, Wells says Babbitt lives.
Here is George Babbitt, age 46, a prosperous real-estate man of Zenith, a medium-sized city in the Midwest. The year is 1920. George has just finished shaving:
When he was done, his round face, smooth and streamy and his eyes stinging from soapy water, he reached for a towel. . . . The family towels were wet, wet and clammy and vile, all of them wet, he found as he blindly snatched them. . . . Then George F. Babbitt did a dismaying thing. He wiped his face on the guest towel. . . . It was a pansy embroidered trifle which always hung there to indicate that the Babbitts were in the best Floral Heights society. No one had ever used it. No guest had ever dared to. Guests secretively took a corner of the nearest regular towel.
Then the critical eye of the author becomes sharper. Babbitt's wife comes into the bathroom:
"Oh, Georgie, you didn't go and use the guest towel, did you?" It is not recorded that he was able to answer. For the first time in weeks, he was sufficiently aroused by his wife to look at her.
Reading this in 1922, persons laughed and winced and recognized something of themselves on any morning. Sinclair Lewis was showing that our dull contempt for familiar details was a mistake. The familiar was alive.
And in the midst of presenting a man lost in conformity and cliches, who talks of Pep, and God's country, and fair return on investments, and Americanism, Lewis shows us another George Babbitt:
He beheld, and half admitted that he beheld, his way of life as incredibly mechanical. Mechanical business-a brisk selling of badly built houses. -Mechanical religion.... Mechanical golf and dinner parties and bridge and conversation. And save for Paul Riesling, mechanical friendships.
So George Babbitt is self-critical, and he becomes deeper. We feel wonder and pity for this bustling real-estate man, even as we criticize him. Lewis gives him something which is the last thing we would grant Babbitt if we met him: an inner life.
There are greater novels about everyday people than Babbitt--the novels of Balzac, for example--but Sinclair Lewis does show us what we need to know for our own day-by-day lives: that what is real, no matter how prosaic it may seem, is never dull. To see a thing truly, is to see it with pleasure. And to see a thing truly, is to see it as a oneness of opposites. To see a person as a oneness of surface and depth, humdrum and deep, conventional and unique, as Lewis saw Babbitt, is to give a person life. Babbitt has life and is evidence for Eli Siegel's statement: "In reality opposites are one; art shows this."
3. What About the Strange?
People have complained about things being dull. But a childhood problem I had that extended into my teens and later, was my fear of the unknown and the new. To move to a new neighborhood was agony; to go to camp was a nightmare. Starting a new job would cause my stomach to be in knots. I did not like the world as remote and different.
While literature shows us that the exciting can be found in the everyday, it also shows us that the expected is within the strange and remote. That was one of the essential purposes of Romanticism as stated by Wordsworth in his Preface of 1800 to the Lyrical Ballads, and which he and Coleridge exemplified in their poetry. Wordsworth, in a poem like "The Solitary Reaper," showed that there is wonder in the everyday. Coleridge showed in a poem like "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," that there was order and even everydayness in the wonderful.
Many writers have shown in poetry and prose, that in the strangeness of reality, one could find good sense and the reasonable. Sometimes, the way the familiar meets the strange makes for terror. To have Frankenstein's monster like a real man with human feelings, is much more frightening than if the monster were just some outlandish creature that had no relation to us.
But sometimes, when the strange is shown to be everyday, it is extremely funny. Perhaps the wildest work of fiction because of how it puts together the strange and the everyday, is Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Madness is presented as logical and matter-of-fact. The irrational, the outlandish are dealt with as if they were completely expected, run-of-the-mill reality. The nightmarish is presented as if it were a pastoral, as in the title of Chapter VIII: "A Mad Tea Party."
The opening sentence finds the opposites in a wild dance. The sentence starts off so sedately: "There was a table set out under a tree in the front of the house..." And then two realities, as calmly as you please, are mingled: "... and the March Hare and the Hatter were having tea at it; a Dormouse was sitting between them fast asleep and the other two were using it as a cushion, resting their elbows on it, and talking over its head." So the world of animals, a huge rabbit, and the world of humans, a man who sells hats, are having tea together and chatting cozily: and between them is a sleepy mouse.
Fantastic things are treated as if they were the most reasonable things in the world, as in the following exchange. I did not know when I laughed over this in college what I was laughing at. I had a desire for precision and reasonableness in one part of my life; my gaiety and abandon were in another part. The two were aching miles apart. Here, gaiety and precision as well as the strange and the everyday are the exact same thing. My pain was being explained by Carroll, but nobody then could tell me so.
The Hatter was the first to break the silence. "What day of the month is it?" he said, turning to Alice. He had taken his watch out of his pocket, and was looking at it uneasily, shaking it every now and then, and holding it to his ear.
Alice considered a little, and said, "The fourth."
"Two days wrong," sighed the Hatter. "I told you butter wouldn't suit the works!" he added, looking angrily at the March Hare.
"It was the best butter," the March Hare meekly replied.
"Yes, but some crumbs must have got in as well," the Hatter grumbled; "you shouldn't have put it in with the bread knife."
The March Hare took the watch and looked at it gloomily; then he dipped it in his cup of tea, and looked at it again; but he could think of nothing better to say than his first remark, "It was the best butter, you know."
So we are in a world where butter is put into a watch to oil it. And what is objected to is not that butter is used, but that crumbs got into the butter because a bread knife was used. Watches are dipped into cups of tea, and most casual of all, watches are used to tell the day of the month, not the time of day. Then Time is the subject of a mad discussion, and again two realities join.
Alice sighed wearily. "I think you might do something better with the time," she said "than wasting it in asking riddles that have no answers.
"If you knew Time as well as I do, "said the Hatter, "you wouldn't talk about wasting it. It's him."
"I don't know what you mean," said Alice.
"Of course you don't," the Hatter said tossing his head contemptuously. "I dare say you never even spoke to Time."
"Perhaps not," Alice cautiously replied, "but I know I have to beat time when I learn music."
"Ah, that accounts for it," said the Hatter. "He won't stand beating. Now, if you only kept on good terms with him, he'd do almost anything you liked with the clock. For instance suppose it were 9 o'clock in the morning just time to begin lessons; you'd only have to whisper a hint to Time and round goes the clock in a twinkling.' Half past one, time for dinner!"
("I only wish it was," the March Hare said to himself in a whisper. )
"That would be grand, certainly," said Alice thoughtfully; "but then--I wouldn't be hungry for it, you know."
"Not at first perhaps," said the Hatter, "but you could keep it to half past one as long as you liked."
"Is that the way you manage?" Alice asked.
The Hatter shook his head mournfully. "Not I," he replied. "We quarreled last March--just before he went mad, you know."
And we find ourselves caught up in and believing in this matter of how Time and the Mad Hatter quarrelled, and we have Time, an abstraction, angry with a little man wearing a huge top hat. But, as in dreams, it all is quite reasonable. Maybe reality is more like this than we have seen. Lewis Carroll, a mathematician in mid-19th century England, had within his love of precision, a wildness and abandon. And in Alice and Wonderland he showed it. There, his two selves, orderly and wild, merged sublimely. The nightmare aspect of reality, the way things can change suddenly, can frighten, can loom and shrink--all this Carroll presented, as later the Marx Brothers were to do in their movies, so that we could love reality more in all its strangeness and ordinariness.