The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Difference & Sameness: The Human Question

Dear Unknown Friends:

The discussion we begin to serialize in this issue is philosophic. But it’s also about the most immediate matters in people’s lives, the most intimate, the loveliest, the most terrible, the most urgent. Aesthetic Realism makes clear that in order to understand what distresses us and what we hope for, in order for people to stop being cruel, we have to see what aesthetics is: what every instance of beauty contains. “All beauty,” Eli Siegel showed, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

We’re publishing the transcript of a class he taught 53 years ago, on December 4, 1952. It is a discussion of the second definition in his Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World: the definition of aesthetics. In Definitions, and Comment Mr. Siegel has defined 134 terms—including reality, individuality, romance, labor, everydayness, history, number, grammar, emotion—and has commented with logical clarity and richness on each, so that this work does indeed describe what the world itself fundamentally is.¹

We Come to Sameness & Difference

As you will see, central to the definition of aesthetics are the opposites Sameness and Difference. In the discussion, Mr. Siegel speaks of how these opposites are in everyday life, in our feelings, and in art. And I will comment here on one of the ugliest things humanity has had, something which people despair about, and which Aesthetic Realism explains and provides the means of ending. That is: racism, in all its brutality, is a certain dealing with the opposites of sameness and difference—the same opposites that are one in every instance of beauty.

To understand racism, we have to understand how those opposites are with us all the time.

What We Begin With

We are in a relation of sameness and difference with every other person and object in the world. There is a difference we feel constantly, mainly unconsciously: it is that between ourselves and what’s not ourselves.

A baby, right now, is being born into a world other than herself. The arms that will hold her are not her arms. The milk she will drink is not herself . The crib her body will lie in is not her body. The words she’ll hear are not herself; nor is the sky she’ll see, the wood she’ll touch, the pussycat who will come into her room and look at her. All these are the world different from the baby, Corinna.

The biggest matter in Corinna’s life and ours is: Will we see the world different from ourselves as something not just different but like us too? Will we see that it is as real as we are—that we have reality in common? Will we feel that through those different objects and people we can learn about ourselves, and therefore we should value them? —Or will we see the world different from us as composed of things and people we should conquer or get away from; will we see what’s not ourselves as to be looked down on, managed, made to succumb to us; will we see it as something that doesn’t have the same fulness we give ourselves?

That is the principal question in everyone’s life: Should I see the world different from me as like me too? People don’t know they have it, but the way they answer it affects how they are about everything, from love to education.

And they don’t know that the cause of the great trouble they have with sameness and difference is their desire for contempt. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” And in issue 225 of this journal, titled “We Build Up Ourselves,” he writes:

All we need to have the most hurtful contempt is sameness and difference unfortunately placed. We are disposed to think less of others because they are not ourselves; and that’s enough. We are disposed to think more of ourselves because we are ourselves; and that’s enough. And from these two likelihoods of difference and equivalence, the most frightening and painful things can ensue. “You are not me,” the unconscious says, “and so I have the right to think less of you and to place you as I want to."

Two Desires in Corinna

The deepest desire of the little girl Corinna is to feel that the things different from her are of her too. In fact, she’ll become herself through them. The sight of sky will be part of her mind, and she’ll come to recognize it. The words she didn’t create, which people centuries ago made up and used, will become so much herself that she will think with them. And food, so different from her, will become Corinna and enable her to grow.

Meanwhile, there is a something in Corinna which says: the way to be herself is to see herself as completely different from everything else, and if she has to see what’s not her as equally real she’ll no longer be important or safe. This something is in everyone: it’s contempt.

It’s the thing that right now is making a person unable to learn. Aesthetic Realism explains that behind learning difficulties is the unarticulated feeling, “Those letters, those numbers, those facts are part of an unfriendly world from which I have to protect myself. I’m not going to take them into me: they’re not like me and I don’t need them. I’m enough unto myself—I don’t want those foreign things that are so different from me interfering with who I am.”

This way of seeing is also the big source of trouble in love. Love is a field in which sameness and difference show how deeply and dramatically they are one. We want, we long, to feel that someone different from ourselves is close to us, is of our very lives.

Yet there is that in us which doesn’t want to give full reality to something different—doesn’t want to see, in a living, steady way, large value in something that’s not ourselves . So when we are affected by a person, we want to turn him or her into an adjunct of ourselves: we want to own the person, run the person, also feel superior to the person. From this contempt—tampering with the oneness of sameness and difference in love, come so much of the nervousness, suspicion, and resentment in social life and marriage—and the feeling in people as time passes that they’ll never have true love.

Where Prejudice Begins

What has been called race or ethnicity, the way people are visually alike-and-different, in skin tone, features, perhaps texture of hair—all this is part of the great sameness and difference of reality. We won’t be truly civilized and proud and kind on the subject until we see it as that.

The one thing that has made people see race or ethnic difference sleazily, cruelly, is the desire for contempt. Prejudice and racism come from the feeling, “If I can look down on all these people different from me, if I can see them as beneath me, I’m Somebody, because I’m superior.”

But this horrible contempt as to race starts with, and would not exist without, the more encompassing and perhaps less pointed contempt I have been describing: the contempt people want to have for the world itself as different from them.

I am writing this commentary just after the death of Rosa Parks, whose courageous refusal to give up her seat in a Montgomery bus was pivotal in the civil rights movement. So from an article about her in the New York Times (Oct. 25), I quote a description of segregation. It is sickening. But it is all about sameness and difference-sameness and difference in the service of contempt:

On Montgomery buses, the first four rows were reserved for whites. The rear was for blacks....Blacks could sit in the middle rows until those seats were needed by whites. Then the blacks had to move to seats in the rear, stand or, if there was no room, leave the bus....If whites were already sitting in the front, blacks could board to pay the fare but then they had to disembark and re-enter through the rear door.

The ugliness of this is equaled only by its insanity.

To understand racism we need to understand contempt. If you were white, and a black person had to get up to give you a seat; or if you were sitting in the front and you saw one black person after another forced to behave as though he or she wasn’t good enough even to walk past you after paying the fare, you had a terrific victory. The victory was not just over a person or people; it was over reality itself. You were made important—not because of anything you did to deserve it, but because you could see yourself as utterly different from and better than someone else. The victory has been put in these words by Mr. Siegel: “I can endlessly despise, and the more I despise the more, apparently logically, my own ego is glorified.” ²

Racism will end 1) when people understand and are really against contempt; and 2) when they see what is different from them in the world itself as adding to them, completing them, like them. There is nothing, Aesthetic Realism shows, that doesn’t have a structure in common with ourselves. That structure is the oneness of opposites. A leaf is flexible and firm; and how we yearn to be, in the way we meet things, at once flexible and firm! A sunset puts together brilliance and fading; and we want to understand why we can be so lively and also sink. A good jazz piece is free, wild, yet has order too; the way we let go and our orderliness don’t work well together, but we very much hope they will. And a person in Shanghai longs to make sense of how she’s tender and angry—and so do we.

We won’t have the feeling we want about a person, including a person outwardly quite different from us, until we like the sameness and difference of the world itself. Eight years ago I wrote in this journal that what is needed for racism to end

is not the feeling that the difference of another person is somehow tolerable. What is necessary is the seeing and feeling that the relation of sameness and difference between ourselves and that other person is beautiful. People need to feel...that difference of race is like the difference to be found in music: two notes are different, but they are in behalf of the same melody; they complete each other; each needs the other to be expressed richly, to be fully itself.

Aesthetic Realism is the education that makes this possible.

As we begin to serialize his 1952 discussion of aesthetics, I quote a poem Mr. Siegel wrote in 1970. It is about those great opposites of sameness and difference, in a field that has had such pain and can have kindness and beauty:

Only Later; or, The First Line

I heard a Negro child crying

And it sounded so much like a white child

It was only later

I found out what I said

In my first line.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Aesthetics: A Discussion

By Eli Siegel

The definition of aesthetics may seem cold and geometrical if a person just goes at it in the ordinary fashion. That is how I wanted it to be, because I didn’t want to add any superfluity to it; but writing that way is very dangerous. So try, through discussion, to have this definition take on flesh:

Aesthetics is the showing of an object in such a way that the difference and sameness of reality as a whole is seen in that object.

Difference and sameness is a very ordinary phrase; but as Aesthetic Realism sees it, it runs through the world, and the world begins with it.

This can be seen in stories. Did you ever read a story where the person who seems to be the villain is really a good person, or the other way around? That happens very frequently. In films, often the person who seems to be so very unimportant is really very important: the third butler is the person who did it all. Also, somebody who seems to be awful is changed into someone good, or somebody good is changed into somebody awful. That is the way it happens in the cinema and stories—but what does difference and sameness have to do with you?

Mrs. Wright, have you felt at one time that a person was very good and at another time that the person was very bad?


Anita Wright. Yes.

ES. Has that made you a little less confident in yourself?

AW. It has.

ES. It does everyone, because the way we swing in our attitudes toward people is demoralizing. We do go from low to high and high to low. That a human being can change very much, both in herself and in the way she sees people, is quite apparent.

The fact that a person changes should be welcomed and known, and so should the fact that a person persists. Have you always been different and the same at once?

AW. I think so.

ES. Do you know how? Let’s assume that Letty was married in 1938. In 1944 she has an operation. She is very up when she is married and very down when she has an operation. Is she still Letty?

AW. Yes, she certainly is.

ES. But there would be a tendency in her to think she wasn’t because the high-to-low is so terrible. Still, she would be the same person. But how she would is one of the mysteries. No one has fully explained it. We know we go through different things and yet we are the same person. But what makes for the continuity of personality is something which hasn’t yet been made clear.

The human being is constantly meeting things. Even if you were lying in bed, you would change from one thing to another. Again, how that goes on while the human being is still the same person—whether you are in a forest or a bathtub—is one of the mysteries. But I am trying to show that a human being is a study in sameness and difference.

Aesthetics, Mothers, Marriage

A mother has the problem of difference and sameness . The child is so much the same as herself, particularly at birth; and then, so different. This goes on all through life. The question is a very human question. In marriage, it happens to be the chief question: how, on the one hand, there is so much likeness between you and your husband or wife—you are married, you may have had a child by that person—and yet you are different. There is the matter of how you are different from persons you know, and yet you can see that you are the same.

The first thing that should be asked of people is that they have adequate respect for this question, because the whole problem of a person is to realize and accept the idea that he is different from all other things and also the same: that is, he is related.

Suppose you saw a child dressed like a naval officer or like Napoleon: there is a problem of difference and sameness. And a result is, “How cute!”

There are two things that people are always asking about and telling you. I remember a person anticipating, and saying, “Yes, it’s hot enough for me. And I feel pretty good.” People do talk about how they feel, and also about the weather. And both imply change. Weather is one of the obvious ways that the world changes and still remains the same.

One of the first things a child feels is that the persons around him have various moods. And he does discover that the people around him are different from him and yet close to him.

The Novel

Miss Steele, can you think of a work of art where difference and sameness strikes you?

Nadine Steele. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. The book seems to be very much a study in the way the father and his sons are alike and yet different.

ES. Then there is the way the book is written. In this definition it is said very boldly that the essence of aesthetics is to show in an object the fact of sameness and difference as we have it in reality. That seems a very abstract thing. But in talking about a novel’s technique, we can say safely that there should be a relation between the first and the last chapters—and this is related to what a person wants himself.

Would you want to be what you were some years ago?

NS. I would.

ES. And would you want to be different?

NS. Yes.

ES. But you want to be yourself. That is dealt with in the very technique of the novel. For instance, the father in The Brothers Karamazov can act very kind, but then he is also brutal and wants to have his own way. Do you get the feeling that through the chapters of the novel, things have happened to him which show more of what he was in the first place?

NS. Oh, yes.

ES. That has to do with sameness and difference. If a writer presents through the chapters of a novel things happening to a person which show more of what he was, difference and sameness is involved.

¹ Definitions, and Comment is serialized in issues 289-330 of this journal.
² Self and World (NY: Definition Press, 1981), p. 357.