The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Art versus Ill Nature

Dear Unknown Friends:

Eli Siegel wrote the work printed here, “With Acting in Mind,” on January 27, 1961—the same month that he wrote “Remarks on Acting” and “Acting,” published in issues 1585 and 1531 of this journal. The ten points that comprise “With Acting in Mind” are about the very fabric of acting—they’re technical—yet they’re also about the feelings of everyone, actor or not. And the writing’s style is beautiful; it has charm and depth.

The tenth point, titled “The Putting Out of a Cigarette,” is a poem. When Mr. Siegel wrote it, cigarettes were simply part of daily life and therefore, as he says, were much in plays. They were not seen as the hazards to health we now know them to be. In this poem, which I love, we feel at once something ever so immediate, ordinary, specific—a cigarette’s being put out—and that grand width which is the history of drama. We hear the two in the poem’s music.

There Is Ill Nature

Also in this issue of TRO is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Robert Murphy, from a recent public seminar titled “Good Nature & Ill Nature in a Man: What Are They & Which Is Intelligent?” Ill nature does not seem an earthshaking matter, yet it is. It affects people enormously. The grouch, the sulk, disgust, irritability, annoyance abound—in homes, offices, educational institutions, halls of government. And people are disgusted with others’ irritability, are irritated meeting others’ grouchiness. You can’t be disgusted, annoyed, touchy, sulky, grumpy, etc., and at the same time thoughtful about other people. With ill nature goes meanness. With meanness goes cruelty. There is an inextricable relation between everyday ill nature and cruelty.

Most people do feel they’re ill-natured, and they quietly despise themselves for it. They may try to blame others: “If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t get so annoyed!” They may tell themselves, after a few decades of being ill-natured, “I guess this is just how I am; it’s part of my character.” Yet no matter what they tell themselves, people are ashamed of their ill nature. And they don’t know what causes it.

This TRO, then, concerns 1) art, here represented by acting, and 2) ill nature. These come from what Aesthetic Realism shows are the two desires at war in every person: to respect the world, and to have contempt for it. Ill nature, whether in a high school student or a politician, comes from contempt. Art comes from respect. Though there has been a tendency to say artists are more ill-tempered than others, it’s not so. And if an artist is grouchy, the grouchiness comes from a source completely different from the source of his or her art.

An Unseen Hope

Mr. Siegel described contempt in the following landmark Aesthetic Realism principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” The fundamental explanation of ill nature is in that statement. As people wonder why on earth they’re so testy, grumpy, sullen, they don’t see that it’s because they get something out of it. They don’t see they have a hope to feel the outside world is an annoyance; objects and happenings are interferences; people are crude, stupid, and mean—because if reality is not good enough for them, it means they are superior. They’re royalty in an unworthy world.

A wife right now is annoyed with her husband: “See—he did it again! He left his shoes in the middle of the living room! Also, he forgot to put out the garbage!” Accompanying her displeased feeling is the smug sense that she’s better than he is. The fastest way of feeling we’re okay, indeed ever so good, is to be irritated with someone else.

Meanwhile there is art, which may describe ill nature but which never has it. Art arises from the converse of contempt. It comes from the tremendous desire to see value in the world, to show reality as having meaning and form. The art feeling, then, is the contrary of irritable, grouchy feeling. Art is always the truest good nature.

Coleridge Was Interested

A person deeply interested in good and ill nature was Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). In the second chapter of his Biographia Literaria, writing about the “supposed irritability of men of Genius,” Coleridge says that the greatest artists are good-natured. He himself was one of the kindest people in literary—or any—history. And he was troubled that he could have a state of mind not fair to things and persons.

Yet Coleridge didn’t know what contempt is, how it worked in the human self and made for ill feeling and injustice in thousands of forms. Mr. Siegel loved Coleridge, and in Aesthetic Realism he explained what Coleridge wanted so much to know. For example, in the poem “Dejection: An Ode,” Coleridge describes himself as being, for the time, ill-natured—he is left cold by the beauty he sees. He says:

And those thin clouds above, in flakes and bars,

That give away their motion to the stars;

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I see them all so excellently fair,

I see, not feel, how beautiful they are!

Even Coleridge, with all his depth and knowledge, didn’t know that there is a hope in people to be unaffected as a means of feeling that the only thing of real value in the world is ourselves. A person who is an artist can unknowingly feel that he has, through his art, given too much meaning to other things and that he can even the score through ill nature or non-feelingness—make himself supreme. Coleridge, I believe, was susceptible to this, but it is part of his grandeur that he very much didn’t want to be.

“The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is a poem mightily about contempt and respect. I quote the following lines, because they stand for that which Mr. Siegel showed to be the deepest desire of a person, the thing in the human self which makes for art, the thing against contempt and ill nature: the desire to like the world. Here the world is represented by water snakes, which the Mariner sees when he is greatly ashamed and angry; through valuing them, he changes:

O happy living things! no tongue

Their beauty might declare:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware.

And there are these famous lines toward the end of the poem:

Farewell, farewell! but this I tell

To thee, thou Wedding-Guest!

He prayeth well, who loveth well

Both man and bird and beast.

Through Aesthetic Realism, we can understand the fight in us between the desire to care for the world and the desire to have contempt. And that means that art and kindness can win in humanity at last.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

With Acting in Mind

By Eli Siegel

1. Looking at the World

The world is the way everybody feels it, not just the way oneself feels it. However, the way one feels can indefinitely include the way anyone else feels. If there were not this inclusiveness, this unfettered comprehensiveness in one’s feeling, it is clear acting would be impossible.

2. Just As in the World

Just as in the world, a person in a play feels good or bad. Neither persons in plays nor persons in the world outside of plays have been able to feel more than good or bad. If one feels neither good nor bad—as people say—what one feels is the jammed collision, the sticky equilibrium, of good and bad. In life one isn’t supposed, most likely, to feel indifferent, so feeling indifferent can be described as a gentle, faint kind of feeling bad.

3. Boredom and Excitement

The most excited person has a possibility of being bored. This should be remembered on the stage. A mingling of languor and intensity is important and fetching.

4. The Orotund and the Squeak

The orotund and the squeak are in constant relation as acting goes on. The profound and large needs the shrill. It may not get it so clearly, but it needs it; and the shrill is in the neighborhood. The cavelike needs the line.

5. Pride and Shame

Plays are lurking places of pride and shame. An actor is a repository of pride and shame, which may be called upon at any moment.

6. Sorrow and Exultation

In an hour, sorrow deeply, exultation exceedingly. This can be in life, but usually slower. An actor must have emotions in order to change them.

7. Agreement and Disagreement

A person changes as he agrees, after he has disagreed. The process by which disagreement becomes agreement can be subtle. This process the actor must honor.

8. Soliloquy

Every speech is, a little, soliloquy too. We listen to ourselves as we talk. Soliloquy is the objectification of one’s state, and every speech is that. And if it be said that soliloquy is for oneself alone, well, every speech to a degree is for oneself alone.

9. Every Word and Emotion

Every word has its emotion. Every word in use by an actor shows emotion, is tinged with emotion, serves emotion, precedes emotion.

10. The Putting Out of a Cigarette

The putting out of a cigarette,

With the presence of the proper ashtray,

Is often a part of a contemporary play.

Having emotion before and emotion after

The calmness of the cigarette’s extinction

Is indicative of what the play’s about.

And so, while in Greece and Elizabethan England,

And in the France of Racine’s writing time,

There was no putting out of cigarettes

To bring a something to the play—

These days there can be. But be sure of this:

The showing of something noncommittal,

Deft, easy, mechanical and muted

Was of the play of other centuries.

And, therefore, the extinction of a cigarette

In nearby ashtray is not entirely new.

Its likeness, in another mode, took place

In plays of English, Spanish, French playwrights

Who needed a calm something in their play

As conflict raged, and emotion, powerful,

Was on the stage, for audience to see.

Is Good Nature Intelligent?

By Robert Murphy

Years ago, it would have been hard to find a person who appeared better-natured than I did. A friend said, “You could hit Murphy over the head with a baseball bat and he’d pat you on the back and ask, ‘How are you?’” That’s how I acted, while inside I felt very different. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that good nature is both tough and intelligent, in keeping with this definition by Eli Siegel: “Intelligence is the ability of a self to become at one with the new” (TRO 310). Good nature is the belief and hope that the world can make sense and be cared for, even in the midst of pain and confusion.

Ill nature in us says, “Peel off the veneer of social graces and you’ll find only selfishness, ugliness, cheapness.” Ill nature comes, not from seeing the way the world is made, but from our hope to find it bad and contemptible. It’s a form of ill will. And while we may think we’re sharp as a whip, this attitude is unintelligent and hurts us.

The Fight in Every Person

As a child, I didn’t like the ill nature I saw in my father, and I made up my mind early that I’d be different. He was an ambitious businessman, devoted to making money and taking care of the family. He wasn’t explosively angry, but he had a general disgust with what he saw as the stupidity of people, and he had a pretty constant grouch. If something wasn’t his way, it was wrong—and he showed it.

I wasn’t interested in the cause of my father’s ill nature, the difficulties of his turbulent up-bringing, and I didn’t see that he suffered from how he treated people. Only after my beginning to study Aesthetic Realism and our becoming closer as a result, did he tell me that he felt all his success in business “came to nothing,” and that he’d felt nervous every day of his life.

But as a boy, I was determined that, unlike him, I was going to be considerate and not say mean things. I was going to act as though I was everybody’s best friend, no matter what irritations I felt inside. I didn’t see that I essentially agreed with my father—because I too thought this world was a meaningless mess and people were stupid. I smiled, but I was “mad at the world.”

These sentences from Mr. Siegel’s lecture Aesthetic Realism and People describe what went on in me:

There is that in us which wants to like nothing but ourselves, and any time we consent to like something else we think we are giving up some of the love pie, the approval pie....Those persons who are backslappers and who go around saying cheery things about people don’t necessarily like them. It isn’t that easy. [TRO 607]

I took my ill nature out on unsuspecting people, by pouring sand into gas tanks, breaking street lamps, overturning lawn furniture and bird baths, setting people’s doormats on fire and then ringing the bell and laughing at their fright.

Meanwhile, my seeming good nature made me very popular. Years later, Mr. Siegel said in a class, “It’s hard to feel that Robert Murphy dislikes one, because he gives the appearance of friend of the whole human race.” And he asked me whether I was really “dismissing the whole human race quietly.” That is exactly what I’d done. Once a teacher said to me, “I hope my children are half as good as you are.” I was embarrassed, but thought, “People are so stupid. If he only knew!”

I didn’t care about other people or see meaning in them. Sometimes in newspapers there are stories about a very popular, “good-natured” high school student who ends his life, to the surprise and horror of all. It could have been me. My underlying contempt made me loathe myself, and also do dangerous things, like driving cars at over 100 miles an hour. This, of course, was not intelligent—even I knew that. But I didn’t know what was impelling me, or how to change.

I Began to Understand

In my first Aesthetic Realism lesson, I began to understand the fight in me between wanting to be good-natured and wanting “to like nothing but [myself].” The relief I felt was enormous as Mr. Siegel described, with a depth of comprehension I’d never experienced before, why I felt insincere and despised myself. He said:

The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to encourage one to like oneself on a valid basis. When you say “I” to yourself, does the “I” look good?

RM.  No, it doesn’t.

ES.  Everyone is given to meaning-destruction, because the more meaning we give to others, the less we feel we have ourselves.

He asked what I thought about my purposes with people, and I answered that my purpose had mostly been to be charming and get them to like me, while not being too interested in them. He explained: “In order to see a person in a way you really like, there has to be the utmost desire for knowledge and the utmost desire for good will.”

Mr. Siegel was teaching me how to be honestly good-natured. He was meeting a hope I’d had for as long as I could remember. Now I was learning what the real thing was, and how to have it. I was beginning to learn how to be both kind and strong, and to feel that good nature was not a weak sham, but smart and tough.

Today I no longer wake up in the morning thinking, “I can’t wait until tonight when I can go back to bed.” I arise now looking at my wife, Margot Carpenter, whom I love so much. It’s a happy privilege to know her, learn from her, and encourage her. And I’m glad to be alive!

     I saw in Eli Siegel himself the utmost in good nature. His desire to know and his good will were untiring. He was the most intelligent and good-natured person in history .