It is well for something to be known.
  The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known
NUMBER 1515. — April 17, 2002
ISSN 0882-3731
The Tremendous Lesson & the Middle East

Dear Unknown Friends:

     The tremendous lesson that arises from the anguish and brutality now going on in the land of Israel/Palestine, is that humanity, all of us, must learn from Aesthetic Realism what contempt is. We must learn how contempt works in our own selves and how to criticize it.

     There is certainly brutality coming from both sides in the conflict. Yet the happenings in that land near the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea should make for these big questions: How could people whose relatives were tormented by the Nazis, were imprisoned in concentration camps, humiliated, worked to death, murdered in gas chambers — how could Jews now destroy the homes of Palestinians, shut off their water supply, kill women and children and keep ambulances from reaching them so that they bleed to death?

     I present these questions as a person who is Jewish, who cares very much for the state of Israel and wants her to flourish — to flourish authentically. Another question, which cries out to be asked by all humanity, is: If Jews, who have been so victimized, so brutalized, can become brutes themselves, who is not capable of large cruelty? Everyone is.

     The source of that cruelty in the human self, the self of each of us, has been explained, for the first time, by Eli Siegel. The following principle describes it: "The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt." The study of that Aesthetic Realism principle is the only thing that will stop — on both sides — the violence in the Middle East. The fact that this study must be if human beings are to be civilized, is the most important upshot of the Israeli-Palestinian agony.

     In issue 165 of this journal, under the title "What Caused the Wars," Mr. Siegel writes, plainly and mightily:

It is necessary to see that while the contempt which is in every one of us may make ordinary life more painful than it should be, this contempt is also the main cause of wars. It was contempt that made for the trenches of France in 1915; it was contempt which made for the labor camps of the Second World War. It was contempt which made for that awful mode of retaliation called Nazism .... Contempt causes terror in the Middle East.
So I say something about that thing which the deaths in Nablus and Haifa, the anguish in Ramallah and Tel Aviv, the Arab and Jewish blood in Jerusalem, are demanding that we study.

The Making Less of a Person

Contempt, ordinary and horrible, has these three basics: 1) You see what’s other than you as less real than yourself: you do not see a person different from you as having the same feelings you have. This fundamental contempt goes on every day as people, anywhere, walk down a street or sit in an office and do not see the persons around them as having emotions, hopes, worries that throb within; do not see them as having feelings that matter vastly, as one’s own feelings do. In one of the most important sentences ever written, Mr. Siegel explains: "As soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person" (James and the Children, p. 55). That is what has happened in the Middle East.

     2) You like feeling that what’s not you is less than you; you want to diminish someone, look down on someone, as a means of feeling you’re more. This goes on as people in one college fraternity make less of those in another. It goes on as a family gloats at dinner about how stupid and crude the neighbors are — and therefore how superior we are. The desire to lessen another as a means of heightening oneself, has become the desire of Jew and Palestinian to humiliate each other and demolish each other. The same contempt had a German, in 1940, like lessening a Jew.

     It is a horrible thing that a Jewish soldier with a weapon in his hand can have a pleasure humiliating a Palestinian like the pleasure an SS officer had humiliating a Jew. Yet the seeing of this fact can be profoundly instructive — because it is a means of seeing how much contempt needs to be understood. One of the biggest tragedies of these decades is that while Jews have been against the Holocaust, they have not been against the emotion which caused the Holocaust: contempt. This is not because they are Jews but because they are human; they are like persons of every religion and land. While people do not see what contempt is, our earth is not safe. That is why the Aesthetic Realism study of contempt is the most necessary thing in this world, even as it is a beautiful study and a magnificently pleasurable one.

Having One’s Way

3) The third aspect of contempt, everyday and terrible, which I mention is the feeling that having one’s own way is more important than truth, than finding out what is so. Most people feel deeply that having their way is more important than anything else, and would like to do away with, wipe out, anything opposing it. A wife, bent on her way in some matter, can ride over her husband’s opinions, make his views on the subject into nothing. How frequent a part of domestic life this is. Yet this same contempt, intensified, has the people governing Israel feel nothing counts but what they want, and feel they can literally make into nothing anyone and anything interfering with their way. So the New York Times reports (April 6):
The International Committee of the Red Cross today branded the Israeli Army’s behavior "totally unacceptable" for attacking its [the Red Cross’s] vehicles and buildings .... Other international organizations and the United Nations [complained] that the Israeli Army was blocking their ability to feed and provide medical care to Palestinian civilians .... Said Pierre Salignon, program director for Médecins sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders[,] "We have had direct attacks [by the Israeli Army] against our ambulances."

The Old Testament Tells of People

Since the land in such distress is the Holy Land, I shall quote some passages from the Bible to comment on contempt. I remember Mr. Siegel saying of a certain misused phrase, that the one true way to see the Jews as "chosen people" is to see them as chosen to represent humanity: that is, Jews, in their feelings, hopes, fears, good, evil, are like all people; and as they are told of in the Bible, they stand for everyone.

     The Lord, in the Old Testament, is for the Jews, but is also terrifically, fiercely critical of them. And the criticisms show that people had contempt on the earth of Israel years ago, and the Lord hated it. For example, there is this in Jeremiah (2:5,7):

Thus saith the Lord, What iniquity have your fathers found in me, that they are gone far from me, and have walked after vanity, and are become vain? ... 

     I brought you into a plentiful country, to eat the fruit thereof and the goodness thereof; but when ye entered, ye defiled my land, and made mine heritage an abomination.

Now, I see this as about people, not just Jews. But anyone who wants to see the Bible as guaranteeing Jews a certain land, and wants to make much of that idea, ought to be making much also of the Bible’s criticisms of the Jews, ought to take those criticisms seriously. Here the Lord is saying, through Jeremiah, that the people of Israel could be "vain" — prefer a narrow notion of themselves to God, to truth. They could misuse in an exceedingly ugly way the fact that they had this land. All the things included in "defil[ing]" and "ma[king] mine heritage an abomination" would be forms of contempt: ways of heightening and aggrandizing oneself by lessening what God is and made. And among the things God made are other humans different from oneself. I remember, at an earlier time of trouble in Israel, Mr. Siegel’s asking about how Israelis should see a protesting Arab woman: Did she, he asked, come from the hand of God too?

     In the Bible, a large criticism the Lord gives the people of Israel, and he gives it often, is that they are worshiping false gods. Whenever anyone worships a god of one’s own choosing, one is having contempt for the God who made the world in all its largeness; one is choosing something narrower, lesser, something one can manage in some way, something that does not command so much respect. The false god people worship (and we all do in some fashion) is always our own ego, our own contempt.

     But the question is, are the criticisms to be found in Jeremiah, and Isaiah, and elsewhere in the Old Testament valid in any way now — of people, including people in power in Israel?

      Later in Jeremiah (7:5-7), the Lord says:

     If ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; ... 
     If ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, 
and shed not innocent blood in this place, ... 
     Then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land 
that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.
     Here, as elsewhere in the Bible, the Lord tells the children of Israel to be just to the stranger, not to oppress him. How tearfully and fiercely relevant that is now. In the last of these verses the Lord says, with deep music: if they stop being cruel and are fair to people, the children of Israel will have a true ability to dwell in the land. (It is to be noted, by the way, that the Lord doesn’t say only Jews will dwell there.)

The Victory of Respect

In TRO 165, Mr. Siegel writes these sentences:
The next war has to be against ugliness in self. And the greatest ugliness in self is the seeing of contempt as personal achievement. Contempt must be had for contempt before squabbles grow less, terror diminishes. Respect for what is real must be seen as the great success of man.
Aesthetic Realism is the education in how to respect what is real — and to see that this respect is one’s biggest victory. Aesthetic Realism shows that respect for what is real is what takes place in art. For instance, the alternative to the contempt now making for slaughter, is in lines of Walt Whitman. He was neither Jew nor Muslim, but saw himself as representing all people. And in section 33 of "Song of Myself," Whitman says he wants to see other people so fully that he becomes them:
The mother of old, condemn’d for a witch, burnt 
     with dry wood, her children gazing on,
The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by 
     the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat, 
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, 
     the murderous buckshot and the bullets, 
All these I feel or am.
I am the hounded slave, I wince at the bite of the dogs.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself 
     become the wounded person.
     Yes, it is possible for Israelis and Palestinians to see each other as Whitman tries to see. Because of Eli Siegel’s courage and knowledge, Aesthetic Realism makes that seeing possible, real. And when humanity is engaged in this education, there will be what Mr. Siegel points to in a couplet he wrote in 1978:
     At This Time

No one can tell 
The good that may yet arise from Israel.

     We continue here our serializing of his great 1970 lecture Selves Are in Economics. He illustrates, with both charm and depth, the fact — shown by him — that the self is the main thing in economics; and that only an economy based on justice to all people, not on acquisition and exploitation, can now succeed. 

Possession, Considered 
By Eli Siegel 

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing statements in The International Thesaurus of Quotations, comp. R.T. Tripp (1970).

There are some jocose remarks in this book. One can imagine the Brothers Goncourt about 1866 thinking of various learned people at the Sorbonne, and saying, "Well, archeology was invented so that M. Tremlin could make a living and teach it"; or, "The Latin meters were invented so that M. Levonne could try to explain them to his students and in this way make a living and please his wife."

Antiquity was perhaps created to provide professors with their bread and butter. [Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Journal, Jan. 6, 1866]
That’s a famous thing in French literature. Antiquity has been a means of making a living. If you teach the classics you can sometimes make as much money as a person selling typewriters. 

     The next statement related to self and economics is this, from Brooks Atkinson:

Nobody is fully alive who cannot apply to art as much discrimination and appreciation as he applies to the work by which he earns his living. [Brooks Atkinson, March 12, Once around the Sun (1951)]
If Atkinson hadn’t put it that way — made for a stacking up of one against the other, or what is called a verbal confrontation — I wouldn’t have read this. The statement is a way of saying that art is serious. It is still not seen as serious, as engineering is. It is; aesthetics is as serious as industry. One of these days it will be seen that way.

     The next quotation is by someone current. I call it "Possession Seen As a Substitute":

The possession of a book becomes a substitute for reading it. [Anthony Burgess, "The Book Is Not for Reading," New York Times Book Review, Dec. 4, 1966]
Many persons feel that. They feel they have the book and it’s safe where they live; the idea of reading it is a little superfluous. After all, don’t they have it? This brings up the place of possession in the world, and that is our subject, or a phase of it.

     Whom should we meet next, but Euripides. I never liked Richmond Lattimore as translator better than in the short pieces included here. He has quite a few of them. This is from Euripides’ Helen. The date is given as 412 BC.

There is the sky, which is all men’s together, there / is the world to live in, fill with houses of our own / nor hold another’s, nor tear it from his hands by force.
     Well, the idea of man having a right to something is to be felt. And the sky is one of these things; air is another; land also, I believe. We do find in ancient history the invasions of towns, the collection of tribute, and also the making of slaves very often of the people who were captured. This would be acquisition, and Euripides objects to it. What else could he do, being Euripides?
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