The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Care for Self—& an Unlimited World

Dear Unknown Friends:

In TRO 1735 we published the first part of the opening lecture in a series that Eli Siegel gave early in the history of Aesthetic Realism. These 37 lectures took place at New York’s Steinway Hall from August 1946 through April 1947, and unlike his later audio-recorded talks, they have come to us only through notes. Published here is the conclusion to that introductory talk, which began with Mr. Siegel explaining: “Aesthetic Realism says that every person—whether Hedy Lamarr or Harry Truman or a dishwasher or a philosopher—has one problem: the problem of Self and World.”

In the concluding portion, he quotes Freud, who was seen as the Grand Authority on mind, and Karen Horney, who made social factors more important than Freud had. And Mr. Siegel describes briefly and clearly a principal way that Aesthetic Realism’s explanation of self is vastly different from theirs. He is illustrating this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that the self is aesthetic in nature. Each of us is trying to do what art does: put together such opposites as freedom and exactitude, energy and calm, adventure and security, and—most essentially—care for Self and justice to the World not ourselves. We need to make these opposites one, not lop off part of each, or have a compromise between them, or shuttle from one to the other, or find a “golden mean.”

Following Mr. Siegel’s discussion here, is part of a paper from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Expressing Herself & Being Just to Others—Can a Woman Do Both?” It’s by New York City elementary school teacher Barbara McClung. And we see a woman of our time dealing with that question of Self and World: undergoing the distress and everyday ache that people endure because they haven’t understood the question; then studying Aesthetic Realism and being able—grandly—to change.

The rift between our desire to care for ourselves and our desire to be fair to what’s not us is in every aspect of life. The thing making these opposites fight, Aesthetic Realism shows, is something neither Freud nor Horney understood: it is contempt, the feeling well be more by lessening what’s other than us. Contempt is that in each of us which hurts our own mind. And contempt is the source of every human cruelty.

Let’s take something very current. There is the recently revealed Ponzi scheme of Bernard Madoff. As Madoff took billions from people and organizations under the guise of investing their funds, but pocketed the cash instead, it’s clear that he did not see taking care of himself as the same as consideration for other persons. Meanwhile, profit economics itself is based on the same rift, the same contempt, that Madoff exemplified so brazenly. The profit motive is the desire to use other people—workers or buyers—to get as much money for yourself as you can, by paying them wages that are as low as possible, or forcing prices on them that are as high as possible. And Mr. Siegel explained in the 1970s that while economics based on contempt has gone on for thousands of years, we have, in these decades, reached the point at which it no longer works. That, as I've been showing in recent TROs, is why world economics is in shambles.

Contempt in personal life is what makes an individual lonely, nervous, ashamed. And contempt as the basis of economics is what has made our economy hugely ailing. The solution for a person and for our economy is the same: ethics and aesthetics—the seeing that we express ourselves, are gloriously we , through being just to people and things different from us.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Problem of Self & World, part 2

By Eli Siegel

Sigmund Freud, with all his keenness, didn’t care for ethics as such. Nor did he care for philosophy. He felt that aesthetics arose from sex. And most important, he felt that society was against the individual; and apparently he felt it had to be.

Freud, on page 23 of the General Introduction to Psychoanalysis (a book which has not been repudiated), writes as follows:

We believe that civilization has been built up, under the pressure of the struggle for existence, by sacrifices in gratification of the primitive impulses, and that it is to a great extent for ever being re-created, as each individual, successively joining the community, repeats the sacrifice of his instinctive pleasures for the common good.*

The language is quite impressive, but what this says is that society, civilization, other people, don’t want you to be happy: you want to have pleasure but civilization can’t go on if you have pleasure. It follows that you have to be a delinquent or a hypocrite. Strictly speaking, if the individual desires of people can’t go along with the common good, then conflict or “neurosis” just has to be.

Freud didn’t like civilization because he didn’t understand it fully. He doesn’t say that civilization of the past but civilization as such stops people from doing what they want. Aesthetic Realism says that what the individual human wants is not at odds with what humans in community want. If the individual has to be at odds with all individuals—that is, the community—there just isn’t any hope. No “adjustment” could be truly sincere. In the long run, schizophrenia would be logical.

The Things That Have to Be Reconciled

Karen Horney is a person who is criticizing Freud. She is perhaps the most popular psychoanalyst in the five boroughs of New York City. I quote from page 276 of her first book, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (NY, 1937):

The neurotic tends to feel a prey to everyone’—s will, but at the same time insists that the world should adapt itself to him. He tends to feel enslaved, but at the same time insists that his power over others should be unquestioned. He wants to be helpless and taken care of, but at the same time insists on being not only entirely self-sufficient but, in effect, omnipotent....There is absolutely no satisfactory solution which could reconcile such extremes, particularly since both strivings are so strong.

Ms. Horney means that a person is trying to be liked by people and at the same time is trying to have power over them. She says these desires can never be reconciled. Then, I ask, why is she in the psychoanalysis business? These are just the things that have to be reconciled.

Aesthetic Realism states that if the unconscious of a person making for his being fair to everything in the world is at one with the unconscious in him making him affirm his individuality each day, each hour, each year, that person will be aesthetic in his behavior. A work of art occurs because while a person—say Michelangelo, or Percy Bysshe Shelley, or Johannes Brahms, or Victor Hugo—is affirming himself, he is also giving great justice to the external universe. When we listen to music we yield, but we also feel how powerful we are because Mozart can affect us so much. In yielding to a good thing, we are ourselves. This is aesthetics. Ms. Horney says if we yield to people we can’t assert ourselves. That is hurtful.

On page 288 we have the same kind of thing. Ms. Horney is saying that you cannot be unselfish and at the same time want to get ahead:

The first contradiction to be mentioned is that between competition and success on the one hand, and brotherly love and humility on the other....For this contradiction there are only two solutions within the normal range: to take one of these strivings seriously and discard the other; or to take both seriously with the result that the individual is seriously inhibited in both directions.

She says you have to be either aggressive or you have to be unselfish, that you cannot assert yourself and be unselfish. Ms. Horney has not seen that the only way a person can feel independent and yielding at once is through aesthetics. She quotes writers and I’m sure she’s interested in the arts, but she does not understand aesthetics well enough to see that it is tough enough and deep enough to make for a reconciliation of the extremes in the conscious and unconscious.

The Importance of Style

Besides, Ms. Horney doesn’t have style. This may surprise you—what has style got to do with it? But style, in dealing with mind, is very important. For example, if you say, as Thomas Paine did, “These are the times that try men’s souls,” you are going to affect people. But if you say, “These are the occasions which tend to draw out every resource of fortitude within the human breast,” you are saying the same thing in a way, but you are not going to affect people; not really.

Ms. Horney’s language is too vague, too inconsistent, too incompletely thought out to affect people fundamentally. Her people seem to be shadows in chromium-plated offices. They don’t seem to be real; they don’t seem to be fully believed. She writes in an elegant sawdust-ish way.

Aesthetic Realism is very much interested in talking about mind in the sharpest, simplest way. The how a thing is said is part of what is said. And in using the term Self and World, we think we have arrived at words that are fundamental. Yes, we could say the Individual and Society, the Personality and its Environment; but we want to get down to the foundation words. A word like go or is is more philosophic, and more exact, than a word like proceed or develop. And the unconscious, as I shall show, is philosophic. It is also terrifyingly simple and bewilderingly opulent at once.

Kierkegaard & Kafka

At the present time, people are trying more and more to find out about themselves in relation to the world, to the universe, even to God. People are trying to do that in a practitioner’s office, in church, and also through various present-day currents of thought. The reason for the popularity of Søren Kierkegaard and Franz Kafka is that these writers deal with the self, in their fashion, in a deeper way than, let us say, Ms. Horney does.

In the writings of the Danish philosopher and the Czechoslovak novelist, one is up against fundamentals in a way that, as yet, the professional person does not deal with. In Kierkegaard and in Kafka I do not think there is a sober, consistent organization of the problem of self; still, one can feel they are in the right territory. I do think that men like Kierkegaard and Kafka have depths to them which Freud and Ms. Horney have not seemed to care about effectively.

There is the Existentialist movement, chiefly in France. It has affected thousands of persons, including many of the left, in France and many in England and America. The general purpose of Existentialism is the affirmation of a particular self in a universe that seems disorderly.

And everywhere, as is shown by the interest in the psychiatric novel and the psychiatric play and cinema, people are wondering about themselves. The Society for Aesthetic Realism, which I represent this evening, thinks that an organized answer can be found in Aesthetic Realism.

In summation, the meaning of Self and World is this: A disturbed person feels if he joins the outside world to his individual self he is going to destroy that self, not complete it. If, however, he can see himself as a combination of Self and World at the same time—at 3 am, and when he gets up, and when he goes to bed—he will feel then that he is himself and also in relation. He will feel he is like the earth, which, while it is going around itself, also goes around the sun: both at the same time.

A person dancing may still feel he is in repose. If a person writes a book, he is writing about people and yet is expressing himself. That is aesthetics. The reason we call the self aesthetic is that it wants to be a particular thing and yet have all the diversity possible. As soon as we limit our experiences we are limiting ourselves.

We want to have unity and diversity, slowness and speed, strangeness and ordinariness, Self and World. When we do a good job with these, we are aesthetic. Whether we do a good job or not, we will always want to do a good job.

Self-Expression & Justice

By Barbara McClung

At the age of 22 I felt at last I didn’t have to do what other people wanted me to—I could call the shots, be my own woman. I had just graduated from college and was living in Santa Fe, working as a banquet manager at a large hotel and riding my motorcycle across the New Mexico desert. Still, I felt something was missing and didn’t know what. I wrote to my father: “Sometimes I feel mindless, going through the motions.”

Two Kinds of Expression

That feeling of going through the motions had been with me for years. As a child and later, I was seen as “the quiet one,” and the mix-up in my family between affection and anger made me think it was wise to express as little of what I felt as possible. As I got older I cultivated a reserved, cool manner.

In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, as I spoke in a soft voice and subdued manner, my consultants asked, “Do you use your quietness for other people and the world, or against them? Within the quietness, is there a desire to feel more, or do you use the quietness to have contempt?”

It was the second. And I began to see I had used my manner of expression to show I was better than other people, who I thought talked just to hear themselves and be the center of attention. In the meantime, I secretly yearned to have what seemed to me the ease of expression I observed in the same people I scorned. My consultants asked if I had wanted to see people and things as wholly real—and “when we take the dimension away from things, do we make an emptiness in ourselves?”

I began to understand why I felt lonely and terrifically unexpressed. It was not because I was superior in sensitivity, but because I was unjust in my thoughts about people, seeing them as crass and inimical.

Meanwhile, there was another, truer kind of expression I went for. At night in our living room, I loved to sing and dance along with Broadway musical recordings, and songs by Al Jolson and Harry Belafonte. And at a football or basketball game, I would shout and cheer until I became hoarse.

Some of the expression I was proudest of was playing the clarinet in the high school band and pit orchestra. “We have to be impressed”—affected—“before we can express ourselves,” Eli Siegel explains (TRO 903). The clarinet impressed me very much. This instrument made of wood and metal creates tones both high and low, mellow and sharp, soothing and piercing, which I felt represented me. As I played it, I would carefully listen to see how the instruments blended, and how rhythms could be counter and join. Trying to be just to the notes, tempo, conductor, actors, and other musicians, I felt happy and free.

But the desire to keep to myself was very strong. Though in college I worked as a resident assistant in the dormitory, where I organized floor parties and talked with the girls, I treasured the evenings when I could close the door, darken the room, light a candle, and be alone. I wrote in my journal: “I wonder if my face betrays me, and shows the distance I feel.”

I also wrote that I felt awful. And the reason was what Ellen Reiss explains in TRO 902: the “ability to do anything we want with the world in our mind, to be unfair within ourselves to anything—people somewhere take to be the height of expression.” That is what I was doing as I hid triumphantly; it’s why I felt bad.

Expression & Love

I told myself I was looking for love, but I also felt, “Show yourself to a man and youll get hurt.” My consultants once asked me, “Do you think that warmth is sloppy and inexact and is what ‘emotional’ people do?” “Yes!” was my reply. How surprised I was when they also asked, “Do you think warmth is ever the accurate thing?” And they gave this example:

Suppose someone had a chance to meet Beethoven. Do you think the accurate response would be to say, “Well, Beethoven, you did some good work, and I hope you can do more when you have a chance”—which is rather cool? Or do you think it would be more exact, more scientific, more logical to say, “You have made the whole world look more beautiful to me, Ludwig van Beethoven, and I love you for it!”?

My notion of expression began to change through this consultation.

An important result is my marriage to Dan McClung, whom I love very much. Instead of feeling that holding on to myself is the most cherished thing, I feel that in knowing and being close to him, and trying to be fair to him, I’m more expressed—and more myself.   

*Trans. Joan Rivière (NY, 1943)