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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1867.—January 29, 2014

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Our Two Desires

Dear Unknown Friends:

The two essays by Eli Siegel published here were likely written in the late 1950s. They have that comprehension of people which is Aesthetic Realism’s alone, and which is based on this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In “Medusa Is a Nice Girl,” Mr. Siegel writes about opposites that confuse everyone: our fierceness and our tenderness. “Is Your Unconscious Your Friend?” is a definitive description of the fundamental situation within us all. The word unconscious is not so frequently used these days. Perhaps that’s because of the rather ridiculous way it was used by Freud: psychiatry’s foolish way of seeing the unconscious has somewhat tarnished the word itself. In this essay Mr. Siegel gives a beautiful and clear definition: our unconscious is “the cause of what we do, which we don’t know.”

A Comparison

An article that appeared last month in the New York Times is a means to compare the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing the self to other ways of seeing. In particular, it can be used to help place the greatness of Aesthetic Realism’s showing that contempt is the ugliest and most hurtful thing in everyone. Eli Siegel defined contempt as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” He is the philosopher who identified contempt as the source of all cruelty—from everyday coldness to racism, economic exploitation, war. In having contempt we think we’re taking care of ourselves, but we’re actually engaged in that which weakens ourselves, our minds, our lives.

Christie Aschwanden’s article “Our Pleasure in Others’ Misfortune” (24 Dec. 13) is a discussion of a book by Richard H. Smith: The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature. The German word Schadenfreude entered the English language some decades ago. It means joy at another’s troubles. And that happens to be a form of contempt. Dr. Smith says this pleasure in seeing someone flop because that way we can feel superior, is a useful thing. Aesthetic Realism says it is completely hurtful and stupid.

Where It Begins

Early in the article, schadenfreude is called a “social emotion.” And here, at the start, is a disagreement with Aesthetic Realism. Enjoying another’s trouble because through it we can pat ourselves on the back, is not essentially a “social” matter: that is, it doesn’t begin with how we see people. It begins with and is always about the way we see the world itself. How that is so is a necessary—and magnificent—study; however, I simply state it here. In his preface to Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes: “To see the world itself as an impossible mess—and this is often not difficult at all—gives a certain triumph to the individual” (p. 11). The triumph of looking down on a person is part of the triumph of looking down on reality.

The Times article says about schadenfreude:

It serves an adaptive function, Dr. Smith argues.... It stems from social comparisons, which allow us to assess our talents.

To say that preening yourself on another’s failure “serves an adaptive function” is just foolish. Another person’s flopping has nothing to do with how good you are. If you know more French than somebody else, that doesn’t change one whit how much or little French you know. People have fooled themselves into thinking they were terrific because someone else was less good at something than they. Far from being a means of “assess[ ing] your talents,” contempt in any form is a tremendous means of fooling yourself about who you really are.

But there’s an even more important reason why contempt does not have you “adapt” well to life. Suppose what you want most is—as Aesthetic Realism shows—not to look down on things and people, but to see value in this world, as much value as possible. Contempt thwarts this purpose, cripples your ability to attain it—because contempt sees finding value in others as an insult to oneself.

Our Big Inner Fight

In another paragraph we’re told: “ ‘The most basic conflict in the human psyche’ [is] the friction between our selfish impulses and self-control.” What a human being’s “most basic conflict” is, matters enormously—and it is not what that statement says it is. “The greatest fight,” Mr. Siegel explains, “ every the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151). Speaking to me about this battle of respect and contempt, Mr. Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism lesson:

There are two mes in everyone. There is one me that is the most beautiful thing in the world. There is one that is the ugliest thing in the world. Every person has that me, and they should hate it more than anything, because it’s theirs.

I love him for his clarity and passion.

We have, then, two huge desires in conflict in us, and the article I’m discussing makes it seem that one of those does not exist: our desire to respect the world outside ourselves as a means of respecting, and truly becoming ourselves. Not only does that desire exist—it is our deepest desire. That is why no one has ever been proud of “schadenfreude.” We can never be proud of gloating because another person was less good than he might have been. We can be honestly pleased and proud if someone evil loses power. But to hope someone is less good than can be, always makes us ashamed—because the deepest thing in us is ethical.

The article gives this instance of schadenfreude’s supposed beneficial effect: when an envied person met misfortune, “his downfall...allowed his enviers to feel better about themselves.” The large thing to see is that we can feel “good” about ourselves in a way that makes us feel very bad about ourselves. That is what contempt always does. We triumph through it—through sneering at things, finding them dull, looking down on what perhaps we once looked up to. But this feeling “good” through contempt is the reason we come to feel anxious, empty, depressed, and why we have “low self-esteem.”

Dr. Smith says that schadenfreude is the reason people watch reality television: “We watch for those awkward scenes that make us feel a smidgen better about our own little unfilmed lives.” Of course television has been a means of reveling in contempt. But it happens too that millions of people watching TV programs about dance and singing have been thrilled to see someone do well; have hoped a person dance or sing as well as possible—better than oneself could.

Contempt and Hitler

The Times writer, while praising Smith’s book, expresses this demur: “A chapter on schadenfreude’s role in the Holocaust comes across as an attempt to give the subject unnecessary gravity.” She says that as long as the pleasure at another’s trouble is only in our mind and “remains passive,” doesn’t take an active form, it’s fine, because it “can enhance our self-worth.”

This matter is immensely, and intensely, important. First: it was Eli Siegel who explained, in the present journal nearly four decades ago, that the cause of Nazism was contempt. This feeling that we are big through lessening what’s other than ourselves is, he wrote, “the vile, cruel, unfeeling presence in the nature of man....Hitler is perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history” (TRO 165). As to the passive/ active issue: every cruel act begins as something not active: begins as thought. The ugliness of a thought does not depend on its becoming action: it depends on what that thought goes for—contempt or respect.

There is a famous sentence about that aspect of contempt which some persons are now calling schadenfreude. It’s a charming sentence; in fact, it is poetic. I translate this maxim by the 17th-century French writer La Rochefoucauld: “In the adversity of our dearest friends, we always find something that does not displease us.” La Rochefoucauld is not praising the contempt he tells of: he is describing it, giving it form. And that form has what art always has: the oneness of the world’s opposites. The La Rouchefoucauld sentence is at once lingering and succinct, gentle and severe; it is caress and cut. It was impelled—as all art is—by the contrary of contempt: justice to reality.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Is Your Unconscious Your Friend?
By Eli Siegel

The unconscious of a person has never been wholly a friend, but has always tried to be. The reason for this is that the unconscious is not just one thing, with a purpose that is settled. The Aesthetic Realism way of seeing the unconscious is not the way of Leibnitz, Schopenhauer, Hartmann—and certainly it is not the way of the entertainingly imaginative Dr. Freud, the murkily ontological Dr. Jung, nor is it the way of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, or Merleau-Ponty.

The chief thing in the unconscious as Aesthetic Realism sees it is its going for aesthetics—as something had by one person in a certain hour. The chief thing in the world, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, is its possibility of aesthetics, and its having an aesthetic structure already.

Every person has been worse than he imagined, and every person has been better than he imagined he would be. This shows, if we look at it, that our or your unconscious—that is, the cause of what we do, which we don’t know—is better and worse than it seems to be in customary moments.

Two Things

There are two things in the unconscious: one is the desire to have our way, whatever it may mean or not mean to other things. The other thing is an unwillingness to please ourselves unless we consider and are just to all other things.

In more vernacular terms, there is the Having Our Way Unconscious and the Got To Be Fair Unconscious. What we live with as a cause of ourselves is the relation of these two, which is part of the unconscious likewise.

One cannot describe one’s desire to please oneself as having any observed limit. One cannot describe one’s desire to be fair, decent, or just as having any observed limit. The coordinated tangle of the two is our daily life.

When a person feels like hitting everybody, disregarding everybody, making everything like two cents—one aspect of the unconscious is predominant. When a person feels repentant, wants to help people, is abject, “humble,” and so on—the other part of the unconscious is chief.

Because the unconscious is two things—one, entirely for ourselves; and two, wanting to see other things more and more exactly—there are in the unconscious anger, contempt, fear; and there also are in the unconscious guilt, shame, lack of self-respect, and so on. A person is more arrogant than he knows and more guilty than he knows.

Pride Would Be

The fact that every person, while trying to please himself, also desires to be fair to other things—the fact that this is our unconscious—this fact has the unconscious as our friend. If we could think that we pleased ourselves and also were exact about all else, pride would be ours, luminously, subtly, beautifully.

That in man as such there is some amiable, sensible relation between self-love and love for the world is the best thing about him. But in ordinary life the notion of making care for ourselves and care for other things or knowledge of these one, is not sharply attractive. The unconscious may want to specialize in love for ourselves as contrary to seeing other things truly: this is where the unconscious is not one’s friend. The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to encourage the unconscious as looking for the oneness of Having My Way and Considering Other Things Fairly. When a person is for himself and for the nature of the world, he is honoring aesthetics.

The only way, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, to have the unconscious steadily if not perfectly one’s friend is to have it the oneness of unbridled ego and care for ego and the desire to see what reality is with all care, precision, and good will.

The Reason

It will be found one of these days, Aesthetic Realism believes, that the reason sex has made for so much torment, confusion, wrath, emptiness, depression, is not sex, but the fact that ill will, or the unconscious as for itself narrowly, has employed sex.

The unconscious as for self without being for the world is contempt, anger, fear. These can use sex, with all its delight, as a means of increasing their power. But something in everyone does not want the power of contempt, anger, fear to increase. We have, then, a terrific tangle, to be seen in nearly every edifice in our land.

More can be said of this, and will be; but in the meantime, the news we have of this is: one, that the unconscious can be your friend; and two, that it most likely is not your friend the way you’d like it to be, at the present moment.

And only by criticism of it can our unconscious be more our friend.

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Medusa Is a Nice Girl
By Eli Siegel

In looking at women or girls—as with men—one can begin in a hardness that has to accompany self-preservation, or the amiability, gentleness, grace that are needed for being liked. It has happened often in the social history of America that a woman who had once seemed softness, benevolent charm, and helpful sweetness, seemed like Medusa. She became representative of rigidity and a statue as forbiddingness. When we are angry, with the desire to maintain ourselves, rigidity is employed. And if a young woman can be angry, and she too can wish to maintain herself against what is inimical, she is that much Medusa. Medusa is within every nice girl, looking for anger as a means of occupying the scene and showing herself.

The important thing is to see Medusa before she is provoked into becoming dominant and taking over the visible. Every girl thinks she is mean and hard. Like a boy, a girl sees herself as not caring enough for other people, as too concentratedly involved in her own feelings and hopes. As soon as one is mean, the principle of Medusa is present. Medusa says: “This much you can have me and no more; there is a terrifying principle in me which can change you into stone.” It is interesting that while Medusa could change people into stone, her locks were snaky and ominously rippling. In Greek mythology there is a great to-do about whether she was first beautiful and then became not prepossessing, or whether she was first unappealing and always wanted to be visually pleasing.

It Frightens

A girl often gets a feeling that is so hard it frightens her, and she can get a look in her face that frightens the one who sees it. The possibility of sweetness and hardness, of appealingness and forbiddingness, is there within her: the two are large forces from the beginning. To see a baby grow rigid with anger is to be a little in the profoundly heterogeneous temple of Medusa. The chubbiness of a baby goes for bone: it could be bone with sweetness, but too much of it is on the side of self-maintenance and the repulsion of other things or people.

The Problem

The problem that a girl or woman has is whether self-maintenance is negation or inclusiveness. Medusa is the likelihood in any woman or girl of her taking self-maintenance to be forbiddingness or the defeat of others. When a young man sees for the first time that a girl he thought cared for him exceedingly can look at him freezingly and almost annihilatingly, he, without planning it, is in Medusa territory. The human being can freeze, petrify, forbid; forbid, petrify, freeze. There is something in everyone making “Don’t come closer” or “Don’t touch me” seem the wisest and most representative thing of that person.

Hardness and softness do become one in art, but they are used against each other in ordinary life. A girl knows she is hard, but she knows also that softness is socially necessary. Some mode of having hardness and softness is acquired for social persistence and advancement. But the two within her do not serve the same purpose. A girl is not hard for the same reason that she is soft. She is soft in order to be liked; she is hard in order to protect herself. In protecting herself, she may use hardness to terrify others and have them keep the proper uncertain distance from her. What with the impact of man and woman, woman and man, this need of ominously flashing the Medusa in her is often felt and implemented. It is hard for a young man to remember how hard and fierce his girlfriend once looked.

Uncertain of the World

Medusa, then, is around, and goes to the cinema, and is present in living rooms, libraries, on terraces, in landscapes, and in staterooms. She is the individual woman in an uncertain world. Since a woman is uncertain of the world, she is that much uncertain of herself. To be uncertain of the world is to be uncertain of people. A girl, then, is uncertain of a man, no matter how close he is. For this reason, Medusa has been helpful hundreds of times by showing she is the girl. 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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First Thursday of each month, 6:30 PM: Seminars with speakers from Aesthetic Realism faculty

Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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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
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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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

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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