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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1858.—September 25, 2013

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Guilt, Art, & Us

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 3 of the 1963 lecture we are serializing—a lecture historic in the understanding of both art and the bewildering self of everyone. It is Romanticism and Guilt, by Eli Siegel.

He is presenting this big, new idea: every important movement in art has come from various persons’ welcoming a certain feeling of guilt. That guilt—felt keenly by an artist but present, however murkily, in others too—is: “Art so far, mind so far, our minds, have been UNFAIR to many things! We’ve deprived them of their meaning. We have not wanted to see all that may be beautiful, meaningful. There are beauty, form, even nobility, to be found in things and people we’ve passed over, spurned, sneered at. This is terrible!” The artist feels: “I’m ashamed of our injustice—yet as I try to remedy it, I’m proud, expressed, free!” A highpoint in the welcoming of this guilt and changing it to justice, was the romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th century.

While the lecture is great in the history of literary criticism, the comprehension of guilt that is in it is something people need in order to like themselves, be at ease, kind, and truly expressed. Today guilt is often called low self-esteem or anxiety. And a sign of how much it’s with people is the fact that for over a year the New York Times “Opinionator” blog ran an “anxiety series,” posting over 70 essays by persons about their ongoing agitations and self-accusations. The essays are various. Yet in none is there a comprehension of why a person can feel so against herself or himself; be so often excessively worried, even panicky.

The Cause of Guilt

In 1942 Eli Siegel wrote “The World, Guilt and Self-Conflict,” chapter 2 of his Self and World. And there he explained what men and women today are still thirsty to know: we feel guilty because we have been unjust to the world outside ourselves—because we’ve made ourselves apart from it, looked down on it, had contempt for it. Further, this cause and effect—the fact that our contempt for the world has to make us guilty—is a tribute to the ethics of the human self, and its aesthetics. That is, our personal self and the world in its vastness are inseparable. Writes Mr. Siegel:

The greatest biological fact in human history is this: that the whole world went to the making of every individual; in other words, that it was the universe, or existence, or reality, which gave us birth....When we are unfair to the world, it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it. [Pp. 52, 45]

So let us look at three statements from the Times’s “anxiety series.”

On May 7, 2012, Tim Kreider wrote in his essay that often

between 3 and 6 a.m., [I] lie quietly thinking about everything that could go horribly wrong with my life and all the ways in which I am negligent and reprehensible. I have spasms of panic over things I shouldn’t have written, or, worse, things I should have; I regret having spent all the money...; I’m suddenly convulsed with remorse over mean things I did in middle school...; I force myself to choose my least favorite death (drowning).

This writer is being somewhat specific in his self-accusations, and each matter mentioned could be asked about. Meanwhile, we won’t understand guilt until we understand contempt, which Aesthetic Realism identifies as “the greatest danger or temptation of man.” Contempt is “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” The big question, for Mr. Kreider and everyone, is: as we meet things, is our purpose to be just to them—or to use them to make ourselves superior? The latter is the cause of guilt, including guilt in the wee hours of the morning. Was the belittling desire to see the world as material for one’s self-glory behind each of the specific matters with which Kreider torments himself? Does it impel unjust writing and not-writing, carelessness with money, meanness in middle school?

It happens that we can, without knowing it, prefer to torture ourselves with instances rather than abjure the contempt which was behind those instances, because we’d like to hold on to our contempt. So we accuse ourselves, lacerate ourselves, as a means of atoning for contempt while at the same time continuing to have it. We can prefer to beat ourselves rather than be good critics of ourselves. Besides, without Aesthetic Realism, people don’t know how to criticize themselves exactly—because, for one thing, they don’t understand contempt.

We Use Symbols

On June 18, 2012, Thaddeus Rutkowski wrote about anxiety:

When I leave our apartment, I can’t remember if I’ve turned off the toaster oven....I have a picture in my mind of the heating elements glowing red and the food crumbs catching fire inside....The fire inside the appliance could spread to the plasterboard wall. The cardboard layer is flammable; a high temperature will set it off....

The recurrent feeling that one has neglected something and must take care of it has been part of guilt for thousands of years. In Self and World Mr. Siegel explains:

Obsessions are symbolical punishments that we give ourselves because we feel that what the obsessions symbolize has been neglected by us. It is a kind of diseased concentration making up for an evasion or dislike of objects in their inclusiveness. [P. 148]

Mr. Rutkowski, fearfully guilty as to the toaster oven, is, like other people, a bad symbolist. If he were having Aesthetic Realism consultations many questions would be asked, and I think he would see there was a self-critical feeling in him of which he could be proud: a sense that he hadn’t wanted to be exact about the things and people he knew. He’d wanted too much to use them without knowing them, without being fair to them. And he’d inaccurately seized on the toaster oven as both a symbol for this injustice and a punishment for it.

We Are Low & High

On March 25, 2013, Adane Byron wrote about “my social anxiety disorder.” This is a description of waking up:

The sun shot through the window and attacked my eyes. The laughter of carefree children...made me want to punch myself in the face....One voice in my head said, “Don’t get out of bed, it isn’t worth it.” Another said: “Do you know what’s out there? Everyone is after you....They all want you dead.”

A person can get to the feeling—and millions do—that he or she doesn’t deserve to function in the world. But the reason we get to this sense of unworthiness is our contempt for reality. That is, we loathe ourselves as punishment for feeling we’re too good for the world: it’s ugly and cruel, while we are sensitive and royal. Both feelings are in the description just quoted: there is a despising of the world and a despising of oneself. We may be miserable feeling the world “isn’t worth it” and is “after” us, but with that misery is the victory of contempt.

Guilt, then, can be sloppy, wretchedly inexact. Something in us, our desire to maintain contempt, prefers it that way. However, when we see what Aesthetic Realism shows—that our deepest desire is to like the world—we can have a thrilling time, an expressive time, a proud time seeing why we’ve disapproved of ourselves, how we haven’t met our own hopes. Art, Aesthetic Realism explains, is evidence that demanding justice of ourselves is our real glory, self-importance, and magnificent originality.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

There Are Wordsworth & Coleridge
By Eli Siegel

I now use as text David Macbeth Moir’s Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century, the 3rd edition, of 1856. Wordsworth had died in 1850. This is about the friendship between him and Coleridge during the late 1790s:

Both were philosophers as well as poets...; and, as the first experimental fruits of a new system, which was to renovate and refreshen literature—a system which was to bring back poetry, both subjectively and objectively, to every day life... —the “Lyrical Ballads” made their appearance.

Moir says Coleridge and Wordsworth wanted “to bring back every day life.” Assuming that poetry got away from everyday life—was there something to blame? Why should we let poetry get away from everyday life? Or why should we bring poetry to it? As I said earlier, if what we should do we don’t do, that can make for guilt somewhere.

Coleridge and Wordsworth thought there had been, in the 18th century, some iniquity as to poetry. They went so far as to think that the 18th-century classics were somewhat sinful; that Samuel Johnson was guilty of remissness, if not amissness, about poetry. Moir uses the word renovate. Anything that has to be renovated must have gotten pretty not-fresh. If you let something go and it has to be renovated by another, you should feel guilty. Romanticism, here, is out to lessen guilt. In fact, the purpose of art is to lessen the guilt you never knew you had.

In the history of art, whenever the revolutionaries talk about those in power, the academy, they use two kinds of phraseology: the phraseology of ridicule, and the phraseology about iniquity. These persons, so set in their ideas, so against progress!—there’s a touch of ethics there. We shouldn’t be against progress; and if we’re against progress, even for ourselves, we feel guilty. If we have to have somebody else tell us that there is something for us to see, and we see it but don’t want to do anything about it, or don’t want to see it at all, certainly we can feel self-questioning.

What Sincerity Is

Moir deals with the qualities that Coleridge, in chapter 22 of Biographia Literaria, gives Wordsworth. And, with some things missing and with some slight changes, he is quoting Coleridge. I’ll read those passages relevant to romanticism as ethical, as Coleridge describes the new qualities of Wordsworth:

A...weight and sanity of the thoughts and sentiments, won not from books but from the poet’s own meditations. They are fresh, and have the dew upon them.

Sincerity arises when you want to look both at what you feel yourself and at the object the feelings are about, with the same intensity and the same fullness and the same permanence. A person who doesn’t want to look at the object cannot be sincere. And a person who doesn’t want to see what he or she feels cannot be sincere either. Part of ethics has been, constantly, the seeing of what you feel. A person who holds the notions that are prevalent in his time, without thinking about them, is ridiculous; but he is also not good, not ethical. He has guilt, because our mind was made to be used by us, and if all we do is take to ourselves what is comfortable and reigning, we have not used ourselves in the best way.

Sincerity is originality in life. To be sincere is to be original: you are saying what you feel, and there is nothing greater that you can do. If you don’t want to do that, the one chance you have of being original, in the ethical sense and in the truest sense, you’re not taking. So it is required of an artist that he show what he is seeing. The seeing can be wild, the seeing can be discordant; but if it is what he is seeing that is what he should show. Coleridge says this is what Wordsworth does. Anytime a movement in art says to people, See what you feel, that movement is ethical and is against guilt. To simply take on the opinions of others is to feel guilty; it is to be crippled in conceited iniquity.

The Two Sincerities

Moir quotes Coleridge about another quality of Wordsworth:

The perfect truth of nature in his images and descriptions, as taken immediately from nature, and proving a long and genial intimacy with the very spirit which gives a physiognomic expression to all the works of nature.

This means that you look at the world too: you see what’s there, and you see what’s here (in your own feeling). If you see what’s there and what’s here and keep on seeing, and if that’s what you’re going to tell of, you’re sincere.

“The perfect truth of nature...” There are two ways of being sincere. One is to see nature as exactly as you can, and art has arisen from that. Whatever else Rembrandt tried to do, he tried to see exactly. The other sincerity is to see what occurs in your mind when you see something. That is the impressionists’ sincerity, the sincerity to be found in Monet and others.

To see delirium as it actually exists in our mind is to be sincere. If what you see is a bunch of green mice hopping over brown sheets of music, that is what you see. If it’s to the tune of “The Marseillaise,” and you hear it, that’s what you heard. You can begin with what you see as had by you, or what is to be seen as had by that. In either instance, you’re going to take a trip. That is, there’s going to be the trip from the object to yourself, or from yourself to the object. If you try to respect whatever is in the thing to be seen, whether it’s chiefly in you or chiefly outside of you, you will be sincere. Sincerity is untrammeled respect for an object and your own feelings at the same time. Romanticism went for that.

When Coleridge speaks about the “physiognomic expression" of "all the works of nature," we have the opposites. The opposites are the universe as present in a specific thing. They are universal, but no specific thing is without them. The opposites can be called the universal physiognomic expression that all specific things have.

“The Human Face Divine”

Then, Coleridge says Wordsworth’s poetry contains

a sympathy with man as man; the sympathy, indeed, of a contemplator from whose view no difference of rank conceals the sameness of the nature; no injuries of wind, or weather, or toil, or even of ignorance, wholly disguise the human face divine.

Wordsworth, here, is like those persons who find something deep in the most disreputable creatures. Wordsworth wanted to see the common reality that is in man. He didn’t go as far as those who later found the spirit of the Lord in a tired pimp. But when others did, it was in keeping with Wordsworth. The universe never leaves anybody, no matter how rascally, cheap, unbearable that person is. The universe, at least with the person’s death, will take over. Everybody gets washed—maybe not revived, but washed. Romanticism is a way of washing a person even while you can’t stand the filth.

So Wordsworth had “a sympathy with man as man.” As soon as man is made less for personal reasons, there’s guilt, and romanticists went against that. —Then:

Last, and pre-eminently, I challenge for this poet the gift of imagination in the highest and strictest sense of the word....In imaginative power he stands nearest of all modern writers to Shakespeare and Milton; and yet in a kind perfectly unborrowed and his own.

To have imagination is to have an individuality so sincere and so daring that through how you see, the thing seen takes on more meaning—takes on a change which is true to it.

If a thing could be seen better by you and you don’t go about seeing it better, would you feel guilty? Romanticism says yes, though it doesn’t use that term. So does Aesthetic Realism. That is what is being said this evening—and whenever an object is seen better, the guilt of man up until that point is made less. Since romanticists saw objects better, romanticism lessened the guilt of man.

With romanticism, then, there was this great renovation. And Moir is not wholly for it. He says Coleridge praises Wordsworth too much:

His peculiar faults...are quite as obvious as his peculiar beauties....Wordsworth is not seldom verbose and exaggerated, to a degree that verges on bombast...; occasionally simple to a silliness....

The faults in a writer have something to do with injustice, and therefore are in the field of guilt too. If a person is “verbose and exaggerated,” it means that his self is working too hard and is interfering with the thing seen by bringing the superfluous to it, and unfelt intensity. This can make for guilt too. Favorite words of romanticists about 18th-century bad poetry were tinsel, tawdry, showy, fustian. These mean that things were not seen: neither was the object dealt with justly, nor did the writer deal justly with what was in his mind.

“Simple to a silliness”: silliness can be defined as simplicity without enough substance. If you’re simple and have something to say—as “Let there be light”—you’re not silly. If you’re simple and all that you do is bleat, then you are silly. But this is Wordsworth as D.M. Moir saw him. black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

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.

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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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