The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Representation Means

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part four of the historic 1968 lecture We Are Unrepresented, by Eli Siegel. In this section he comments on the “black power” movement which was gaining strength then, and on its importance in showing what representation means.

We also print part of a paper by Steve Weiner from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month. Mr. Weiner is a computer specialist for the New York City Department of Education and a union official; and the title of the seminar was “The Mix-up in Men about Coldness and Warmth.”

That subject is related very much to the subject Mr. Siegel speaks on so deeply, widely, and kindly in the lecture we’re serializing. If there is a coldness in us toward the world—and everyone has some—if we see the world as worthy not of our care but of our contempt, it will affect enormously the way we see representation. In the preface to his Self and World, Mr. Siegel explains:

The large difference between Aesthetic Realism and other ways of seeing an individual is that Aesthetic Realism makes the attitude of an individual to the whole world the most critical thing in his life.

I’ll give two examples of how that is so in a crucial field for representation: elections.

There has been much comment on the phenomenon called “voter apathy.” Often what looks like “voter apathy” is really something else: an undeclared voter strike because voters don’t feel that the candidates truly represent them, and therefore they refuse to cast their ballot. However, there has been in millions of people—and Mr. Siegel speaks about it in the first part of this lecture—a lack of interest in being represented: a readiness to let others worry about the country and the world; a feeling one has one’s own life to worry about and that’s enough.

It has been very easy not to see that one’s own life depends on how the rest of the world fares. And if you don’t like the world, if you see it—with its largeness and manyness and people and happenings and history and ideas—as apart from you and in various ways repugnant, one result can be: you won’t be interested in being represented in it. You’ll feel the world of your interest is a world of your selection: a smaller world consisting of yourself and a few extensions—your job, family, some friends.

There is a large, unarticulated feeling in people, “This world is not good enough for me to be represented in.” It can take the form of not being interested in voting. It can also take the form of voting not too thoughtfully for one major party’s candidate or the other’s, and not asking, “What really represents me? What do I want someone to represent?”

Another result of disliking the world has also been frequent in the history of elections. There has been the feeling, not articulated clearly but existing fiercely nevertheless, “This world is not for me to know and value—it should be mine to manage and use for my aggrandizement.” When you have this feeling, you don’t want other people to be represented. You want the world, or choice segments of it, to be under the control of yourself and those like you, with others not having a say in the matter.

So a seeing of the world not as something one cares for and values but as something one can use for comfort and self-importance, has made for election fraud. It has made for ballot tampering; property qualifications for voting; gerrymandering; “pocket boroughs”; “rotten boroughs”; the intimidating, including through violence, of “undesirable” persons attempting to vote. It has made for the whole hideous array of techniques to ensure that persons not be represented but be kept in their place: beneath oneself.

Meanwhile “ethics,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is a force” in this world. And one of the forms it has taken is that people are demanding more than ever before that they be represented in the choices of their nation.

No one was deeper, steadier, more logical, more passionate than Eli Siegel about the need that all people be represented truly in this world. He speaks about it beautifully in the passage of his lecture printed here. He explains what representation means. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Representation Is for Power

By Eli Siegel

The desire of black people to be represented, to be seen with respect consciously by living reality—that is, other people—has been growing stronger. It is interesting to see that in the last few years the phrase “civil rights” has weakened and the phrase “black power” has become stronger; and people who were afraid of it in the beginning have had to welcome it. A notation to this effect is in the New York Times of yesterday:

Franklin H. Williams, a prominent Negro leader and former United States ambassador to Ghana, says the civil rights movement is dead and black power has taken its place in America....[He] said, “The ten to eleven percent Negro minority is now insisting on real participation in the richness of America, and with it, a measure of self-determination.

These phrases—“participation” and “self-determination—are close to the idea of power and also representation. Black persons felt very good in having Adam Clayton Powell in Congress, and now feel somewhat good, though a little doubtful, having Mr. Brooke of Massachusetts in the Senate. Representation is for the purpose of power, and it means that we want something outside of ourselves to bring out what we hope for in this world. That is the purpose of politics: to have someone else standing for us work for what can be called, in ordinary language, our best interests. But our best interests are the same thing as the utmost that we can be in this world. So black power has to do with representation. And at one time that power had to come through people who weren’t black.

I think it well to read one of the important documents concerned with representation. Here is a person born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1805, a white person, whose interests didn’t go much beyond abolition. He wrote the sonnet “Freedom for the Mind,” yet one can say that William Lloyd Garrison, like John Greenleaf Whittier and some other abolitionists, was limited. But this document remains. And in a time of other people, including in the time of the Black Panthers, it is well to get to the first Black Panther, who was William Lloyd Garrison.

So I read, from Commager’s Documents of American History, the famous statement in the first number of the Liberator. I may mention that the document is reprinted in a book that people should have—it’s a good collection of documents; it doesn’t have everything—Black Protest, edited by Joanne Grant. This is Commager’s note:

About 1828 Garrison met Benjamin Lundy, and the following year joined with him in editing the Genius for Universal Emancipation. Jailed for libel, he was bailed out by the philanthropist Arthur Tappan, and shortly betook himself to Boston where, with Isaac Knapp, he issued the Liberator....He came eventually to be regarded as the leading abolitionist in the country.

Now Garrison, from the Liberator, January 1, 1831:

...Assenting to the “self evident truth” maintained in the American Declaration of Independence, “that all men are created equal...,” I shall strenuously contend for the immediate enfranchisement of our slave population. In Park-Street Church, on the Fourth of July, 1829, in an address on slavery, I unreflectingly assented to the popular but pernicious doctrine of gradual abolition. I seize this opportunity to make a full and unequivocal recantation, and thus publicly to ask pardon of my God, of my country, and of my brethren the poor slaves, for having uttered a sentiment so full of timidity, injustice, and absurdity....

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—AND I WILL BE HEARD.

I was glad to see Garrison reprinted in a work of this year, Black Protest, because there can be a tendency to think that all white folk are either insincere or useless or vacuous, and to have this document of 1831 along with Martin Luther King, and Stokely Carmichael, and others, is something to see.

The document concerns the fact that while persons want to be represented, they are not too interested in the representation of others. And representation here means to have the power that is in things and people bring out, with respect, what is in a person or persons.


Coldness & Warmth: The Mix-Up

By Steve Weiner

When I had my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, I began to understand one of the most important things I needed to know: where a painful coldness I'd felt most of my life began. “Do you think you’ve made a considerable practice of not having too much feeling about anybody or anything?” my consultants asked me. My answer was a bitter “Yes.”

That consultation was the beginning of a huge and beautiful change in my life. Aesthetic Realism taught me a way of seeing the world and people that has enabled me to have deep, true emotion and a kinder, warmer heart.

Cold & Warm in a Brooklyn Family

Among my warmest early memories are those of reading about children who lived in other times—such as Johnny Tremain, a boy who grew up during the Revolutionary War—and playing with an erector set with my twin brother, Paul. But the atmosphere in our home could not be described as warm. Individually, my father and mother could show us affection, but it seemed as soon as they were in the same room, the feeling in the air changed to a tense chill, punctuated by heated arguments. I was aware too that even as I got a lot of approval, especially from my mother, I didn’t think anyone wanted to know what I felt.

My consultants asked: “Do you think you felt hurt by people quite early?” “Yes,” I answered. And they asked: “Could that have something to do with deciding not to get too close to them?” I began to learn that I had turned disappointment into something unjust, and detrimental to my life. “In this world,” Eli Siegel writes,

men and women often find refuge in coldness. Coldness, quite clearly, is allied to contempt; and contempt has been seen often as a protector of the distressed or uncertain self. [TRO 51]

By the time I was in school, I had decided the world was unfriendly and cruel. Often when other children went to the playground in the afternoon, I would go home, change into pajamas, go under the covers, and get away from everyone. It never occurred to me that other people could feel wounded by me because I wasn’t interested in them.

There were times I had genuine feeling. I remember news reports of Southern police turning fire hoses and vicious dogs on people, including women and children, who were courageously fighting for civil rights. And I remember the fury that swept over me at this barbaric injustice.

But mostly, I cultivated being cold and disdainful. I scornfully told myself that other people got too emotional, let things get to them. But even as I thought I was so smart and superior, I had the tormenting feeling there was something big missing in my life. I cursed myself, asking, “Why are you such a goddamned cold fish?” Often I had a fear I would die young from a heart attack because my heart was so cold.

In issue 899 of The Right Of, Ellen Reiss explains the dilemma I was in:

We feel we have ourselves in a kingly or queenly fashion if nothing can move us: we are above the turmoil; we are unbothered; we are too good to be tossed about by the crude world. Coldness, Aesthetic Realism shows, is a triumph. But with that triumph is a sinking, a fearfulness, a shame.

Aesthetic Realism enabled me to see that to be accurately warm to the world and people is equivalent to liking oneself. I’m thankful every day of my happy life that I now have deep feeling about friends, members of my family, literature and art. As a union shop steward and executive board member of my local, it matters very much to me that economic and social justice come to the workers I represent and the people of America. I’m glad to give now two examples of my continuing education about the opposites of coldness and warmth.

These Opposites Affect Love

In an Aesthetic Realism class, at a time when I was seeing a woman, I asked about the way I could go from warm affection to aloof coolness, which pained both of us very much. Ms. Reiss asked: “What would it mean for there to be a oneness of coldness and warmth in you, or any person?” “I’m not sure,” I answered. And as the discussion continued, I began to learn what an aesthetic relation of coldness and warmth means.

I began to see Id been very warm to something ugly in myself—my ego, my false sense of superiority; in fact, I had been a “hotbed of self-love.” As she explained this, Ellen Reiss was describing a big mistake people make: we caress the very thing in ourselves, our contempt, which makes us cold and has us dislike ourselves. And she described what I needed to have: “the beautiful coldness that is exactitude in knowing yourself.

The Seeing of People

The second instance took place as I was becoming more active in the labor movement and felt agitated in a way I didn’t understand. Ms. Reiss said: “I think as you have this new interest, you want to be warmer to people, and you’re also afraid of it.” And she described a rift that so often people who work for the well-being of others unknowingly have: “People have worked to have others get justice, but haven’t wanted to see how another person sees himself. There is such a thing as the depths of people, and they matter.”

It is more necessary than ever that people understand coldness and warmth in themselves, for the sake of their own lives and the future of our world. Aesthetic Realism makes this beautifully possible.