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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1854.—July 31, 2013

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Grand & Needed Study of Our Feelings

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of the great 1964 lecture Aesthetic Realism Looks at Feeling, by Eli Siegel. Central to it is his showing that feeling is always a matter of the fundamental opposites for and against. Our feelings—so personal and so confusing—can be made sense of at last through this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In this final section Mr. Siegel speaks about the fact that throughout history people have questioned their feelings; they’ve objected to some feelings of theirs. At the present time there’s an effort to have people not question their own feelings very much. The directive, implied and sometimes explicit, of psychology today is: whatever you feel is okay, because it’s your feeling. People have always tried to sell themselves that idea, but the salesmanship has never worked. The reason is in the very nature of the human self.

We have, Aesthetic Realism explains, an “ethical unconscious”—and it’s the most beautiful thing in us. It says to us, Whatever you do, whatever you think, whatever you feel, should be fair to two things at once, which are opposites: it should be fair to yourself and to the world that is not yourself. Any feeling we have which is not trying to be fair to the outside world is one that the depths of us dislike and are ashamed of—no matter how much we want to convince ourselves it is just fine.

A Feeling about the Past

Let’s take a very interesting feeling that was the subject of a recent New York Times article: nostalgia. As useful a definition as any is that given by nostalgia is “a bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.” The point of the Times article (July 8) is the following: while nostalgia was once looked on as questionable, it’s really—according to various psychologists—a good thing. People’s nostalgia, we’re told, “helps them feel better.”

I’ll say simply: without Aesthetic Realism, the feeling talked about in this article will not be understood. In fact, Aesthetic Realism—with its exactitude, depth, kindness—is needed to comprehend any feeling, and is the means of our seeing our feelings with authentic, beautiful, critical pride.

Aesthetic Realism shows what nothing else does: that every feeling of ours is an aesthetic matter, and its aesthetics is the same as its ethics. That is, the goodness of any feeling depends on how well it puts together reality’s opposites. The psychologists do not know this, and so they do not understand feelings. Nostalgia is not one of the emotions people worry about most, like anger or love. But it’s a means of seeing the aesthetics of feeling—and also the fact that people hurt themselves by being tricky and political with the opposites.

Nostalgia is always about the tremendous aesthetic opposites of past and present; also past and future; also absence and presence. It is not necessarily bad; but it can be very bad, and most often is bad, because of how a person uses those opposites. The big matter is: Are you using the past to see the present truly, to be fair to it? Further, are you trying to see the past itself accurately? Do you make the past nicer than it was, as a means of disdaining what is happening now? The psychologists in the Times article don’t see that nostalgia can be contempt. And contempt, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the most hurtful thing in the human self.

A large aspect of contempt is the desire to feel that what’s around us is not worthy of us—that we’re too good for it. This desire can take the form of “a bittersweet longing for...the past.” Such nostalgia, however yearning, is ugly, sleazy, mean, and fake. One of the things the person engaging in it does is change the facts. That is: in becoming misty over certain good old days, you’ve usually annulled the fact that you were angry at the people around you then, as you are now; that you were unsure of yourself, bored a great deal, agitated, and worse. A hint of the contempt that can be in nostalgia is in a phrase of the article, though the writer doesn’t see it as contempt: nostalgia, he says, “tend[s] to feature the self as the protagonist.” We’ll either use the past to respect the world in its fullness, or to feel we are the biggest thing in it, with everything else subsidiary to us.

The article notes praisingly:

Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety....Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories....[People’s nostalgia] helps them feel better.  

Those statements should be looked at. And a large part of the looking is to distinguish between an effect which is momentary and the effect that goes beyond the moment. Contempt, in its many forms, is a comfort and pleasure; otherwise people would not go for it. For example, people also “feel better,” have less “loneliness, boredom and anxiety,” when they diminish the world through liquor or drugs, or make themselves superior through uttering some racial slur. These seem to wipe away one’s doubts of oneself and make one feel important and secure—temporarily. Then one pays for one’s contempt by feeling lonelier, more nervous, more self-despising than ever.

As to “couples feel[ing] closer” through “nostalgic memories”—the question still is, Are you using those memories to value truly all the people you know now, all the things you may meet, or to feel that the two of you belong to a superior world? If it’s the latter, it’s like another way couples “feel closer”: through gossiping contemptuously about people. In both instances, the couple will pay for this fake feeling of closeness: they’ll find themselves soon arguing with each other, resenting each other, feeling empty and lonely even as they are together.

When It’s Honest

Nostalgia can be honest, and kind. That will happen only if it is respect—if a person feels, “This meant something big, means something big. I’m trying to see it exactly. And as I miss it, I am using it to love and relish more than ever all that deserves to be relished and loved.” That is aesthetics. It is like what can happen in music. As a symphony proceeds, the composer may have us hear again an earlier melody or a hint of one. Through the bringing back of that sound, there’s a feeling about what was, but also a strengthening of what’s taking place musically now and of what will be heard.

There is powerful art that has something like nostalgia in it. One instance is the last two lines of this stanza from Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”:

And the stately ships go on

To their haven under the hill;

But O for the touch of a vanished hand,

And the sound of a voice that is still!

The grandeur of those lines is that in their music, absence and presence are one; longing is inseparable from glorious immediacy. For instance, the consonants in touch, vanished, hand are so tactual; there is friction in them, there is grip, which has us feel the here, the immediate moment. Yet the line goes wide, goes into space, reaches achingly.

Past and present, absence and presence, are great opposites. They are with us all the time. Art makes them one, uses them to be fair to everything. That is the way we should use them. Aesthetic Realism can teach us how.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

And Always, For & Against
By Eli Siegel

Feelings have dignity and also casualness or slouchiness. Some feelings arise from dignified subjects. It’s very hard to look deep into the sky and giggle. Any person looking deep into the blue sky and giggling, well—something could be very wrong. Also, it is hard to giggle at a flight of very wide steps which also are many. There are various terms that it is hard to giggle at or feel ordinary about. And feelings themselves have in them dignity.

Feelings arise from objects. They can combine in ever so many fashions. And the objects can be in ourselves. That is also true for sensation: we can have a sensation from touching our palm or touching a leaf of a palm tree. The sensation is somewhat similar.

The question of what to do with feelings, and what are the bad ones, is something I’m not talking about now. This talk is descriptive; it is a trying to show the things we have to work with. However, that people have been suspicious about feelings can be seen. The earliest criticism by man of himself is to be found in the questioning of what his feeling is, and how he came to have it. This questioning goes on.

Some Feelings Are Better Than Others

One of the keenest representatives of the Church of England was Thomas Wilson (1663-1755), Bishop of Sodor and Man. He seems to have been the theological writer whose style Matthew Arnold liked as much as any. Arnold, in various places, quotes Wilson, and quotes from the work from which I’m going to read, Sacra Privata: The Private Meditations and Prayers of the Right Rev. T. Wilson, D.D.

Theology is an attempt to have people have the right feelings about the cause of the world. Yet as we look at these feelings we find they concern not just the cause of the world but the things that are in the world. It has been felt there are some feelings it would be good not to honor, not to go by. We find this in the dialogues of Plato, in Buddha, in the Bible, in Zoroastrianism. We find it in all religions: that man can have feelings which he should know are opposed to him and which he, therefore, should oppose.

The sense that in giving way to one feeling, some other feeling is dealt with badly, has been with man from the beginning. He has feelings, lots of them, but he has to choose. And here is the artistic problem of man: he has a superfluity of possibility, and he has to be selective. So we look at Bishop Wilson on “Self- Denial.” He quotes from Ecclesiasticus, one of the apocryphal books: “He that resisteth pleasures crowneth his life.”

The word pleasure is very often used as if it were a bad thing as such, but in all religion, including that of the Old Testament and New Testament, good words are said for pleasure. “My cup runneth over” is certainly a pleasurable feeling. “To lie down in green pastures” isn’t exactly mortifying. So pleasures are looked on approvingly and with suspicion. What differentiates them, and where do we get the feeling that a particular pleasure should be opposed?

Nothing & Something, Less & More

Wilson writes: “Vouchsafe me, gracious God, the graces of mortification and self-denial.”

Whether one has been religious or not, one can see that there has been a pleasure in abstention. Some of Ring Lardner’s characters say with a tremendous feeling of self-satisfaction, I’m off the stuff. I’ve been off it for 18 months—it kind of suits my disposition. And prizefighters, as they keep away from an extra helping, have been known to have the blessedness of the anchorite.

Feelings, like the world itself, go after nothing and something, absence and presence, subtraction and addition. It’s felt that mortification is a religious problem; it’s really a mathematical problem. How can you have subtraction and addition both work for you? We know that the body is to be disciplined and also expressed. Persons in training for a five-mile race know that they have to deny in order to express. Feelings are about this.

Occasionally, because a thing doesn’t interest us, we have a feeling of triumph. The man, for instance, who could pass a bank without thinking how he’d get inside when others weren’t looking—he had a wonderful feeling. Many recommendations have been made as to not doing something. The Ten Commandments, like any code, are a direction for feeling: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” means that the idea of a God not seen should thrill you more, give you a bigger feeling, than having gods the way the Malachites or Moabites or Edomites have them—visible gods.

I once enabled a person to feel better by telling him that in the various law books of the world there are all kinds of bad things which he never, never did. There were hundreds of them. I asked him, did he ever use the mails to defraud?—and he had a wonderful feeling seeing that he didn’t. Did he ever send out a ship purposely weak to collect insurance? No. Did he ever bribe people in order to get their votes? There were many, many things that he didn’t do. He never sold faulty ammunition to a warring power.

Well, what can make us feel good? The things we have done and the things we haven’t done. It’s true that you can’t have a life out of the things you haven’t done, though they do help at times, because we want to accuse ourselves of everything.

There Are Two Feelings

Every time we have a feeling, two things happen: 1) we have a feeling, and 2) we have a feeling about ourselves having the feeling. There was a person who had planned for three years to go to the circus in a really big city; then he went to Chicago and saw the circus and didn’t have such a wonderful time. There were two aspects to his bad feeling: one was his not liking the circus; the other was the way he saw himself, after all these years, in not liking the circus. They can be differentiated. There are two pains one gets in not being thrilled by Schoenberg: one is not being thrilled by Schoenberg; the other is what you think of yourself not being thrilled by Schoenberg. —Wilson says:

All mankind being under sentence of death,...a state of repentance and certainly the most...becoming temper that we can be found in...when we come to die.

Time, including the future, is part of our feelings. We feel something about a cherry; we feel something about the future. A person can use the future in behalf of enjoying the cherry—that is, Not knowing what’s going to happen to us a hundred years from now, let us enjoy the cherry with greater zest than ever before. Or one can say, I don’t know what’s going to happen to me and this cherry seems dull. Both are possible. The future will serve any conspiracy.

Wilson uses the word repentance. Repentance is a feeling. It’s a happy feeling, because you have the power to be against something in a manner that looks good to you. We are still with the beginning opposites in feeling: it is for and against. I have the proper loathing for this now, and therefore I feel wonderful.

The word temper in the Wilson passage is perhaps the nearest we come to the idea of composition. A good temper is one which is not mindless. It can observe things that are reprehensible, but as it observes there is proportion. To have a good temper is to have the feelings that you should have without any sticking out or becoming uncouthly predominant.

Then there is the phrase “when we come to die.” The big things are causes of feeling. Birth, marriage, death are causes of feeling, but they are in a world where every object is a cause of feeling. The bride says, “I guess you think I was thinking of you as we stood there before the minister. I was not. I was thinking of what kind of walnut the furniture of this church is.”

Bishop Wilson writes: “This short and uncertain time allowed us...will determine our condition for eternity.” There is the feeling of all time and the present time. There has been the emphasis on the eternal, and the emphasis on the temporary. And here feeling joins the problem of intelligence. Intelligence has, for us, this question: How can we be just to the present as feeling; how can we be just to the past as living, and the future as possibility?

What Else Has Feeling?

Also in the passage of Bishop Wilson is the big matter of whether God himself has any feeling. On the one hand it seems presumptuous to say that God has feeling about what we do. A tendency in religion has been to have God unaffected by such a thing—to say he is completely within his impersonal self, his absolute self, if self at all, and this business about whether he is worried as to whether we eat another gooseberry or not is insulting. Then there are some persons who feel if they have their shoes shined twice a week instead of once a week, as good deacons should, they are following the ways of vanity and God is against them. Also if they wear a cravat of anything other than brown or black.

However, as part of religion or not, we can’t get away from the idea that along with our having feelings, something else or some things else have feelings about us. We know that people do. And it seems that something else does, though often we find the something else in ourselves.

So a big question about the world is whether the world has feeling, whether it is personal, whether things themselves are like ourselves, whether they are for and against as we are. I come back to this: the world wants us to be, in a certain way, for and against. To know that we already are for and against in hundreds, even thousands, of ways, is a great help in knowing how we should be for and against. 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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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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