|NUMBER 1872.—April 9, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here are two essays by Eli Siegel, the first written in 1966, the second around 1960. They are at once philosophic and about the individual lives of people, about people’s feelings, vividly, subtly, precisely.
“The Changing Center” was originally published in the journal Definition. For over fifty years, women reading it have felt that something which confused them mightily was comprehended at last.
In the preface to his Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes: “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.” The fact that we have to do, always, with the whole world, is what the two essays, in different ways, are about. The first uses a 17th-century expletive in its title, “Faugh, Reality!”
Through all the centuries and right now people have lived their lives without knowing what is central to themselves: There is, Aesthetic Realism explains, a fight going on in each of us all the time between the desire to like the world, see meaning in it—and the desire to have contempt for reality, get “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” This fight is fierce, and has ever so much nuance. But it is always about the world itself. We were born into the whole world. We were born to become ourselves by being just to what’s not ourselves—as richly and widely as possible. Further, Aesthetic Realism explains, the structure of the world is in us, and in every person and thing we meet: our very self, our individuality, is made up of reality’s opposites—such as freedom and order, power and gentleness, the known and the unknown, difference and sameness.
Not seeing that in everything we do the world as a whole is present and our great need is to be just to it, people make two big mistakes. The first is: we can “like” something not as a means of respecting the reality it represents, but to get away from the world, conquer or sneer at the world. This goes on often as to love. Aesthetic Realism has shown that the pain and anger around love come largely because two people have used each other to look down on the world, and have seen doing so as warmth and romance.
Similarly, a person can use food either to see meaning in the reality from which all food comes—or to feel, “Eating this chocolate I have the sense that I’ve finally gotten away from the lousy world—I’ve wiped it out!” And a person can use love of country either to see more meaning in other countries and people, or to feel, “Through this land I identify with myself, I’m superior to the rest of humanity.”
Then there is the second mistake: Because people don’t like the world, they are driven to find things displeasing and boring. People think they want to care for life, find it other than empty. They don’t see that, because each item or person is an ambassador of a disliked world, one gets a miserable contempt-victory in feeling the thing or person can’t cut the mustard, will never measure up.
Meanwhile, our need to like the world never dies. That is why we can’t be unjust to reality and like ourselves. In making this fact clear and showing its beauty, Aesthetic Realism is humanity’s greatest friend.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
The Changing Center
A Study in the Unseen Drama of Marriage
By Eli Siegel
When we are married and have more occasion to know one another. —The Merry Wives of Windsor
All women, and all persons, want to be approved of. A young woman feels most approved of when a young man is making love to her. The approval her parents may be giving her seems routine and pale compared to that an urgent, complimenting, even a bit rude young man is giving. When we are approved of, we are inclined to think everything is on our side, telling us we belong, we are somebody. The necessity a girl has for approval is so deep that she is likely to think she is a successful seeker of praise even if the facts are not all in. It happens that really and uninterruptedly to think we are approved of is one of the hardest things in the world.
Many young women, though, have thought they were approved of. If they hadn’t thought so, they wouldn’t have married the complimenting, devoted, assiduous young men. It would be about impossible for Mary to marry Laurence unless Mary thought that Laurence of all living beings was the one who praised her most, honored her most, assured her most, justified her most, needed and applauded her most. Somewhere, unspoken in the marriage ceremony is the statement by the man: “And I agree to praise this woman with the fervor to which she has become accustomed, because of my endeavors so far.” This statement is, at least, heard by the woman.
So women marry hoping to be approved of forever. Approval is indispensable nourishment. A self-respecting person must have it. And young women are critical, in a way, even in courtship. They may not be critical of all things; indeed, they aren’t. But one thing they are quite exacting about: the quantity and conspicuousness and unquestionability of the approval given to a girl must be there to suit her. Young men have known this for ages, and for ages have been willing to oblige. Where they haven’t been willing to oblige, love, discomfited, goes elsewhere.
The Direction Has Changed
A woman, when married, continues to be critical, exacting. Men and women are critical, have to be. To ask what it is we want, is to be critical. We feel bad when we’re critical and what we see, even when it is in ourselves, doesn’t meet some working demand. However, as we go on, though there is criticism, the accent, the direction, the purpose can change. In the marriages of America, as in the marriages of the world, the direction of the woman’s criticism has changed from that of courtship. Such an important change, indeed, takes place, that there comes to be what I have called The Changing Center.
The Changing Center can be described briefly in this manner: Before marriage, the center of a girl’s purpose is to make sure that a man approves of her rapturously enough, devotedly enough, obviously enough. With marriage, the question in her mind is not so much whether she is approved of—that was taken for granted with the marriage ceremony—but why she is approved of: is there a basis outside the young man’s mind?
So there is the question, Can the conspicuous devotion of a husband alone make a woman feel she is approved of, surely and widely enough?
All this can be put in terms of two living people. Mary knew that in 1956 Laurence approved of her. The fact that he called so often showed it. The fact that he was so nice to her mother indicated it. When they were on the sofa, and she saw that he trembled a little—there was evidence of his approval. That he was surly with her brother, two years younger than she, was a sign. His unquestionable annoyance when she did not invite, or diverted, kissing, was a sign. And then, there were the things he said to her. The radiance and soothingness of these statements, and their plenitude, were enough. Culminatingly, he asked her to marry him. Oh, yes, Mary had been a careful judge. All specifications had to be present, properly, before her Yes was to be had.
Yet Mary now feels something is not there, and maybe it should be. She cannot say wholly what it is. But it bothers her anyway. Put one way, it is this: The praise given to her was all right, quite satisfactory; but who was the person praising? Is he representative? Is he good enough?
Mary has changed her center. She knows she has a hold on Laurence, but she is criticizing Laurence as representing reality—not just in his I-love-Mary capacity. There Mary has difficulty. The difficulty is that Mary can no longer find Laurence’s applause so satisfactory while she cannot respect Laurence sufficiently as standing for all truth.
It is true that when, in 1956 or 1957, Laurence ardently sought the favor of Mary, Mary didn’t respect him so much. She felt deep down, “Who am I, to get all this blaze of homage?” But it was convenient and delightful to think that she did. It is not hard to accommodate ourselves to nearly any praise we get. The self is most flexible in its acquisition of plaudits and blandishments.
Mary now is asking, “Why am I getting and have I got all this devotion? Who is giving it to me?” It is true that husbands falter in their devotion, abate the ardor of their amorous offering; but that often is so because a woman, instead of benignly, sweetly, rewardingly taking the offering, seems not so benevolently, satisfactorily affected as once. She has become more critical; she has changed her critical center.
It is true, moreover, that the husband questions. He, too, is a critic, and his critical center can change likewise. But I think that the desire to be adequately critical, authentically critical, is more insistent in a woman. It is her personality which has most the sense of being invaded. She is always ready to think of the outside world—and to some degree the husband is always the outside world—as possibly unjust to her. I could, of course, deal with the husband as having a self too which can feel neglected, wrongly seen, or outraged. The particular purpose of this paper, however, is to show that a woman after marriage changes from the question “Am I liked enough by someone who looks rather good?” to “Why am I liked by this man, and what does he represent?”
There are many women, like Mary, who are pained because they do not see the man who praises them, is devoted to them, as representing truth in general, the judgment of the world. Mary in 1956 and 1957 did not bargain for this. Now she thinks if she lets Laurence have her body, she will have contempt for him. To have contempt for another is not unattractive, but Mary fears her contempt for Laurence. Even as she is disposed to look down on him, she is afraid it may go too far.
Mary wants to be approved of as much as ever. But the person approving of her must not represent only himself, or her. He must represent something much larger. In fact, Mary wants the world to approve of her. She wants to approve of the world through how she sees Laurence. She has always wanted to like the world through her true fondness for a person; and she has always wanted to be liked for a true, complete reason; she has always wanted to feel that the world, as judge, could like her. This desire, once something which could be put aside, is now working within her more energetically—if not clearly enough. She, in the way she criticizes herself and others, has a changing center—as many women have. This center, rightly seen, can make her happy, make her look very good in her honest eyes.
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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