|NUMBER 1842.—February 13, 2013||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great 1972 lecture The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. It is about something which Aesthetic Realism, of all the world’s philosophies, has shown to be a matter of the most vital importance in every person’s life. Along with the fact that one’s own personal happiness and one’s kindness or cruelty depend on this matter, it is central to the conduct of nations, to world economics, to how justly or brutally human beings treat each other. One way of describing it is: How much do we want to know truly what we feel, be critics of our own feelings, see them accurately?
People mainly go by the unstated notion that one’s feelings are one’s own, and therefore one can do with them as one pleases. That includes not looking at them. It includes lying to oneself and others about them. This ordinary way of seeing is the complete contrary to what happens in art—because all art comes from a person’s wanting to see his or her feeling and deal with it accurately, widely, deeply. Sometimes the accuracy is a wild accuracy, has strangeness to it, but it is accuracy nonetheless.
This Aesthetic Realism principle is true about the feelings we have at any time—whether sinking feelings, triumphant feelings, yearning, angry, abashed, confused feelings: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The opposite of feeling is knowing, and any instance of art is a oneness of these. In art an individual deals with his or her emotion so truly that the emotion takes on world meaning—is simultaneously personal and impersonal. That is what happens in a Manet painting; a Mozart concerto; a poem by Herrick. And, this lecture shows, unless that is what we are trying to be, we’ll betray ourselves and hurt others.
The disinclination to be exact about our feelings is part of what Aesthetic Realism identifies as “the greatest danger or temptation of man”: contempt.
In the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel discusses a passage by philosopher R.G. Collingwood (1889- 1943). He does not agree with everything Collingwood says, and the passage has its difficulty. But it is, Mr. Siegel shows, unusual and mightily valuable because it is about the need to see our feelings accurately—and also about the desire not to do so. Collingwood calls the latter “corruption of consciousness.”
For Example, in Love
As a prelude, I’ll give some instances of people’s not wanting to see, but to meddle with, their feelings.
There are many such instances in that tremendous field which is love. A frequent one is something Mr. Siegel describes in “Love and Reality,” chapter 7 of Self and World:
The night that Selma met Ted she was critical of him. She did not like his ways so much, he seemed somewhat awkward,...there was a clumsy eagerness on his part. She wished that his eyes were a little different. But as the days went on and as Ted kept displaying his devotion to her and insisting on her indispensability, the defects noted at the beginning dissolved in a mist of transmutation, forgiveness, praise. For here was a person sent by the world to corroborate Selma’s hopes that all was well with her....Ted came to stand for...a world that recognized the distinction of Selma. [P. 180]
A woman can tell herself she feels a man is just magnificent—if not quite perfect then pretty close—when she deeply does not. The reason she meddles with her feeling is: if someone acts as though we’re superior to everything else, and we want to use his praise “to corroborate [our] hopes that all [is] well with [us],” we can’t do it unless we see the adoration as coming from a fit judge—from someone who himself is rather unquestionable. So we decide we feel he is that.
The same woman, some years later, can meddle with her feelings in another way. Now married to the man and angry, she tells herself she was deceived and hurt by him. That is more self-glorifying than to look at the sense (present in her) that there was something wrong with her purposes as to him; and at the fact that even now she has feelings both for and against him. She’d rather tell herself she’s just against him than try to know who he is and how she herself sees.
Economics, History, & How People See People
All through history people have meddled with their own feelings in relation to matters of economics—which means in relation to how they see and use other people. There has been a horrible decorating of cheap, cruel, and contemptuous feeling to make it seem noble, including to oneself.
Take child labor. As the objections to it increased, many prosperous citizens, persons who attended church on Sundays, put forth arguments as to why employing children in factories and mines was kind. Through work, they said, the little ones learn responsibility; also, the exercise strengthens their young bodies. If you have an ugly purpose, which is always accompanied by ugly feeling, you can’t go on having it unless you lie about it to yourself, let alone to others. So employers and politicians endowed themselves with beneficent emotions in their desire for little children to crawl through small tunnels in coal mines or wear out their young lives laboring in mills. These persons did not describe their real feeling. It was put this way by Scott Nearing in his 1911 book The Solution of the Child Labor Problem: “The manufacturer [feels he] must needs have profits even though he grind up a few children’s futures in the getting of them” (p. 93).
And there is slavery. In the 1850s and ’60s, Southerners, including clergymen, gave arguments in praise of it. And every one of those arguments lied about what the pro-slavery advocates really felt. The advocates did not say: “I, and people like me, are entitled to use living human beings different from us to make ourselves comfortable and wealthy, no matter how much we hurt them.” They didn’t say, “I feel like a big shot if I can think someone is vastly inferior to me, and if I can treat him any way I please—including beating him or selling him.” Instead, from the South came statements about masters’ kindly treatment of “dependents.” There was much expression of the compassionate feeling that black persons could not function decently on their own and, in order to get on in life, needed the housing, food, and structured work which their masters, with such generosity, provided.
The disguising of filthily vicious feeling to make it look noble, even to oneself, goes on today. Take, for instance, a term that sounds so fair: “right-to-work”—as in “Texas is a right-to-work state.” It is a lying phrase, created by persons trying to kill unions, and put forth by those persons to characterize, fakely, laws passed in certain states. What’s been sweetly dubbed “right-to-work” is actually—in the words of union leader Timothy Lynch—“right-to-exploit”: such states disable unions from having the financial means to represent workers effectively, and thus an employer can pay workers as little as he wants and treat them any way he pleases. The use of the phrase is like the presenting of slavery and child labor as considerate. It is the same fakery about feeling, the same cover-up of horrible contempt.
Lying to oneself and others about one’s feeling goes on in people quietly, in a taken-for-granted fashion, every day. Meanwhile, in every person, there is a thirst to know ourselves. With all the talk about self-esteem, we can like ourselves only if we give ourselves the respect of wanting to look at our own feelings exactly.
Aesthetic Realism is the education that enables us to have that beautiful, needed oneness of pride and self-criticism from which all art comes. It enables us to see our feelings as real, as part of the whole world—the world we were born to know.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
How Do We Deal with Our Feelings?
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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