Review by Arnold Perey, PhD., Anthropologist
Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism
by Eli Siegel.
427 pp. New York:
A book to understand oneself with—at last.
This is a book, as other reviewers have stated, that is unique and great. The author states on the first page of his Preface:
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.
And to learn how this is true is to understand oneself better—to an exponential degree.
As an anthropologist who has studied many cultures, the explanation given in this book of the many ways an individual can see the world falsely or accurately, egoistically or with respect, illuminates—as no other explanation has done—the inner lives of men and women from southern Africa to the Arctic, from New York City to Beijing, Sydney, Bagdhad.
You see, in Self and World, for example, such sentences as: "The basic conflict in the human mind—present, I believe, in all particular conflicts—is that between a person warmly existing to his fingertips, and that person as related to indefinite outsideness....In every person there is a drive towards the caring for and pleasing of self; in every person there is a drive towards other things, a desire to meet and know these. Often this drive towards self as an exclusive thing collides painfully with the drive to widen the self" (p. 93). Here is the beginning point for the particular conflicts we all have, in every culture. It is the conflict present in the particular conflicts documented by Ruth Benedict in her always-important Patterns of Culture; by David Friend Aberle in his analysis of a Hopi life history (the life of Don Talayesva, titled Sun Chief); by Margaret Mead in her large anthology, Cooperation and Competition; and many more worldwide. Eli Siegel, in Self and World, explains the cause of these conflicts. He gets to a deep and universal, indeed multicultural, explanation.
When he writes, "Look at Jamison. He is shy and he is arrogant; in fact, he is like most people," he is talking about people worldwide. And we don't necessarily know a person's race in Self and World: Is Joe Johnson white, or black, or brown? What color is Jamison? or Robinson? or Stella Winn? The people whose lives are described in Self and World—each in his or her own particular, rich way—are Everyman. They are you and me.
And as we learn that Jamison "looks at himself and finds a person who is timid, wants to evade people..." and who "at other times...is raring to go, feels like an excited regiment, and like a dozen energetic lions" (p. 95), we see not only the duality or polarity that we have ourselves, but soon we will learn the reason why we bound back and forth between inferiority and superiority—and learn the solution in aesthetics. It is aesthetics seen in a way that adds to what was seen by earlier philosphers and critics—adding to Aristotle (in the Poetics) and Plotinus and Saintsbury and Matthew Arnold. For, writes Martha Baird Siegel in her Introductory Note, "He saw beauty in a new way and made it plain, able to be seen by others. He said: 'All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.'"
For a more complete description, see this book.
As a student of Aesthetic Realism who used the understanding of self set forth in Self and World as the basis of my doctoral thesis (Columbia University Department of Anthropology)—the thesis was sponsored by Margaret Mead—and as a person who came to understand myself much more deeply than by any other means, I have no doubt that the explanation of self that is in this book is the most valuable to be found anywhere. I do not say this to annoy anyone who may not be familiar with the full range of explanation that has been given (whether by Freud, Adler, Horney, Geza Roheim, or many others), but to be exact. To a person making a fair comparison, the author of Self and World, Eli Siegel, has understood, explained, elucidated with immense clarity, that unknown terrain which so many have struggled to map without success: the human self. And he has done so in prose that is great literature.