The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Envy & Our Biggest Desire

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are publishing, from notes taken at the time, lectures that Eli Siegel gave early in the history of Aesthetic Realism, at New York’s Steinway Hall. In this issue we print the first half of “Pleasure, Desire, & Frustration,” the talk of August 29, 1946.

In presenting what is true about the human self, it was necessary for Mr. Siegel to show the falsity of the way that was then overwhelmingly prevalent: the Freudian way. Freud is not so current now. But it can be said soberly that the therapists of today don’t understand the self any better than he did. And as Mr. Siegel criticizes the Freudian way, he shows what people today are thirsty to know: what’s true about our own feelings, which confuse us so much.

To place swiftly some of what he is countering, I quote two statements. The first is by Mr. Siegel himself, from “Aesthetic Realism; or, Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?”:

The essential difference between Aesthetic Realism and Freud is that Freud saw nervousness as arising from what, earlier, was incomplete expression in sex, and, later, a damming up or conflict in the libido—a prettier word than sex. Freud would disagree with Aesthetic Realism because he did not see, as many people don’t, that an attitude to the world, to reality,...governs one in one’s everyday life. If you feel that the world is ill-managed, is contemptible, is unkind, you have to show that in how you see Mildred or how you see Morton.

And here is a description of a Freudian staple. In A Primer of Freudian Psychology (1954), Calvin Hall writes: “A frustration is something that stands in the way of the operation of the pleasure principle” (p. 73). Mr. Siegel shows that this idea, which intimidated people, is simply untrue.

I love the logic in his lecture. That logic, with all its intellectual precision, pulsates with everyday life and people’s tumult.

The Understanding of Envy

As a means of relating Aesthetic Realism to how mind is seen by psychologists in 2009, I’m going to comment on an article that appeared in the New York Times on February 17. It’s about a tormenting emotion: envy. The writer, Natalie Angier, begins by saying that envy, unlike other “vices,” is not “tempting,” doesn't feel “good to indulge in”; “instead feels so painful” and “is a vice...nobody craves.” Why then do we feel driven to be envious, to have this pain, for which we also despise ourselves?

From the article's beginning, then, we see an ignorance on the subject of the lecture published here: pleasure. The writer and the psychologists quoted don’t know that while we suffer from envy there's also a terrific unseen pleasure involved in it. This pleasure is the pleasure of contempt.

It’s necessary to ask: does envy arise from a way of seeing the world? Aesthetic Realism explains that the big fight in everyone is about the world itself: will I be important and pleased through respecting reality outside myself, or through having contempt for it? If we feel that the way to be ourselves is to see value in what’s not us, we won’t be envious; we'll be glad, not distressed, if we see good in another person. But if we feel the way to be ourselves is to look down on things and people, be superior to them, beat out what’s not ourselves, then as soon as we can’t feel superior we’ll be resentful—and envious. Envy won’t be understood until the desire for contempt is understood.

Though the article tells us we don't “crave” envy, that is not so. We have a craving to find the world unworthy of us, to see it as mean, as something that rooks us, that gives others what it doesn't give us. This way we can feel that we’re too good for the world—that it’s a cruel mess and we're a sensitive, hurt person. What we’re craving is the miserable pleasure of contempt. And if we see a good in another, rather than respect and learn from him we can prefer to envy him, deeply choose to hope he flops, because contempt says, Good in another person diminishes you!

What Is Inevitable?

The Times article presents envy as inevitable. The concluding sentence is: “If envy is a tax levied by civilization, it is one that everyone must pay.” That (aside from the metaphor) is what people generally feel: that if someone knows more than you in your own field, or has a nicer garment than the one you're wearing, or is more attractive, or gets the praise you wanted, you have to be envious. Yet everyone dislikes himself for this emotion. The article quotes people saying about their envy, “I’m privately ashamed of myself.” That is very important, because if a feeling is inevitable, we shouldn’t be ashamed of having it.

People’s shame about their envy happens to be a beautiful thing and shows that what’s inevitable is the fact that we always dislike ourselves for having contempt. —Because the thing wrong with envy is the contempt in it: the hope that another person be less good than he or she is, be less successful, less happy, so that you can be superior.

The psychologists also do not understand that there’s a difference between malicious envy and something similar but good. In Self and World, Eli Siegel describes this difference:

A “bad” emotion like envy has next to it certain quite praiseworthy states like emulation, ambition, self-criticism. It needs to be seen, then, in any instance of envy what the envy is about, from what it arises....The zeal to attain a good or beauty possessed by another need not be bad in itself. [Pp. 297-8]

The non-comprehension of this difference has the writer cite an experiment with monkeys as instancing envy:

Monkeys were perfectly happy to work for cucumber slices until a person started giving one monkey a preferred treat like grapes. Then the others stopped working for cucumbers.

Well, this is not the emotion that the rest of the article is about. There is no indication of ill will, that the striking monkeys hoped the favored one would no longer get his grapes. There is no indication that they wanted something they didn’t earn. They saw that their work was worth more than they were getting, that there were good things they deserved as much as another did, and they had a right to them.

Similarly, on a much higher level: two hundred years ago a girl could be aware that her brother was sent to school, was learning things—and she could feel, “Why can’t I learn too?!” This “envy” doesn't have ill will for the brother. It doesn’t have a desire to look down. It does not make for shame. It comes, not from contempt, but from respect for the world. That is the crucial distinction among human emotions. It’s a distinction that psychiatry does not understand and that's completely absent from the article.

The miserable message that envy is inevitable—that we’re stuck with sleazy, mean emotion—is, I’m grateful to say, untrue. The history of Aesthetic Realism makes that clear. When we learn about contempt, and see there's something we want more than to feel superior—see that we're increasingly ourselves the more meaning we see in the world—envy can lessen, and leave.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Pleasure, Desire, & Frustration

By Eli Siegel

Pleasure is something that everybody at every moment is looking for. However, it is one of the misunderstood words of the language. A person may say, “I take great pleasure introducing Mr. Burtis J. Townsend, vice president of the Rotary Club of Omaha.” He also uses the word pleasure about orange juice, and about carnality. Then he might say, “I have a great deal of pleasure in doing kind things for children,” or “I get pleasure from books by Zane Grey.” Any definition of pleasure would have to take in orange juice, Babylonian carnality, the pleasure of introducing a member of a lodge, and more. If it does not, then it isn't about the word pleasure.

The common misunderstanding of pleasure is that it is something which has a melodramatic appearance and should be associated with whispers and tigers. That mistake has been fostered by persons writing on the unconscious, and by a good many people who think pleasure is not respectable or that it isn’t an orderly thing. Well, it is. And it can be associated with the humdrum, the indefinite, the ordinary.

Two Pleasures

There are two kinds of pleasure. If a man could go out with 19 women, eat 14 barbecues, have a most luscious time, and really like himself for doing it, that pleasure would be good. Any pleasure, no matter how carnal or sensual, is a good pleasure if you can like yourself for having it. Any pleasure that you don’t like yourself for having makes for frustration, because the biggest desire of every person is to like himself. The greatest frustration in the world is the frustration that would come from a sense of a person’s not being what he wants to be and not acting as he wants to act. Many people have that frustration.

A good deal of the current psychological doctrine is that most of the nervousness people have comes from the frustration which is of sexual desires. But if through sex a person in some way injures the deeper desire, to like himself, then sex itself is a means of frustration. If sex were not a means of frustration, there would not be so much irritation in the bedchambers of America.

Sex should be a way of liking oneself. If it is not a way of liking oneself, there is a pain which is had that is deeper than the pleasure one thinks one has had. This makes for frustration.

As I go on, I shall try to show that real pleasure is the same as knowledge, and also as ethics. The definition of pleasure Aesthetic Realism gives is the feeling that one is at one, or in accord, with something which is not oneself. That is the same as knowledge: when we know something, there is something outside of us which is at one with ourselves; that is, we have a thing as it is in our mind. As to ethics: when we do right to something or to a person, we are also at one with the thing or person. So a very important purpose of all people should be truly to see that (from an ethical viewpoint) doing good is the same as having a good time (from a pleasure-pain viewpoint), and also as doing a good job with thought. As soon as the idea of having a good time is made antagonistic to the idea of doing a good deed, frustration and nervousness are being invited. A good deal of that is being done.

Every person likes to think he is not a heel, that he is fair to the next person. He also wants to have a good time. Further, he wants to know things. If these desires are against each other, it would make the world a great frustration center; it would make frustration inevitable. And if frustration is inevitable, the person frustrated is the person adjusted, because we might as well be adjusted to the inevitable. But that those desires are against each other isn't so.

The Basis of All Pleasure

The important thing is to find out the pleasure which is the basis of all pleasure. It is the feeling that oneself is at one with all that which is not oneself. This comes to the following: if you unconsciously don’t like reality you can’t be a happy person—not in the true sense, because the very basis of all desire, which is reality, is not liked by you. If, in having many particular desires, you don’t like the basis of all desires, which is things or reality, then your pleasures are really deeply precarious. That is so with ever so many people.

It would seem logical that if you like something you should like that from which it came. Insofar as orange juice, a woman, a sunset, a book, and the warm handshake of a friend all come from reality, it would seem if we like those things we should make up our minds as to that from which they all came. But we don’t do that.

The word desire, also, has been related to something tigerish, melodramatic, of the depth of the night, of Hollywood, etc. Desire, however, is feeling seen as a cause. Every feeling that we have has a certain direction; it is going for something, whether we know it or not. Every feeling is a cause of something. Our feeling that we don’t want to get away from a chair is a desire. Desire is something that goes on every moment. If we wave our finger, it means we have a desire to wave our finger. If we look at a certain magazine, we have a desire to look at it. Desire is not a five-alarm word. There is nothing melodramatic about it. It is as common an idea as the idea of potatoes.

Our biggest desire is to live in such a way as to like ourselves for living and to like that by which we live. The big desire can be subdivided indefinitely.

There are also two kinds of desire. One kind makes for pleasure that we like ourselves for having. But there is another kind of desire that we don’t like ourselves for having. If we are sensible, we shall go towards the first kind and away from the second as much as possible.

What Guilt Is

Whenever we have pleasure that we don’t like ourselves for having, we can’t get away with it. At that time our selves are disorderly, are not doing what they want to do, and we have guilt. Guilt is only a sense of a person's not doing what he really wants to do because he has chosen what he doesn't want to do. It is very important to look at ourselves and see whether we are having pleasure in a way that makes us feel guilty. If there is a means of judgment in ourselves, that means of judgment ought to be brought out into the daylight.

At any one moment, the two kinds of pleasure are working, sometimes in combination. But just as there may be sand, water, and meat in soup, so in a particular action the various kinds of pleasure can be distinguished. If a man, for example, rescues a child from drowning, he can have a pleasure because he has done a good deed. But if he thinks the reason he went in the water was that there were lots of people around, he won’t like himself for that. These things can be distinguished.

It can be said definitely that every pleasure we have, we either like or don’t like ourselves for having. That means it is possible to please ourselves and displease ourselves at the same time. A person can be smoking his 86th cigarette and may like it. Then he says, “That I have to get to the 86th cigarette is pretty bad.” A man can look at a woman passing by, have a good time in terms of glamorous biology, and then say, “Why can’t I keep my mind on my work?” It is necessary that all of our pleasure have no backfiring of an unconscious kind. Where there is backfiring, we are getting ourselves into trouble, for as soon as we're pleased by something and also displeased by it, and don’t try to put these together, we are welcoming two tracks in our mind, or mental disturbance.

Even if we have seven orgasms, but don’t like ourselves because of the way we got them, we are welcoming not a unity of life but a very awkward, painful duality of life.

What Is It That Does the Frustrating?

If, anytime, we have pleasure we can't approve of, that much we are frustrated. Frustration is only the inability, from a source in ourselves, to do what we want. The frustration that comes from an outside source is not the frustration I’m discussing right now.

Wherever we have a desire to do something and that desire is frustrated from a means in ourselves, then the cause of frustration is another desire. For example, a person wants to go to the movies, but also wants to stay home near a blazing fire. He stays by the fire and feels uncomfortable thinking he'll miss the last showing of Gary Cooper in a fine psychological movie, but he still stays by the fire. He is frustrated, then, in not seeing Gary Cooper, but he is not frustrated in the matter of staying by the fire.

Let’s take a woman who desires affection from a man she has to do with. At the same time, she feels in giving affection she is losing something like her personality. She doesn't know that every time she says no to this man she is saying yes to something in herself. She thinks that she lacks courage, that she had puritanical parents, but she doesn't see that she has a desire toward keeping up a picture of herself.

The only thing in ourselves that can frustrate a desire is another desire.

Frustration is usually thought about in relation to sex. The pleasure of sex is so glamorous, tremendous, mysterious, seemingly omnipotent, continental, that its conspicuousness has made us forget that other things less conspicuous are just as much desired. A person looking at champagne may think she likes it so much she can forget water. But in everybody the desire for water is more fundamental than the desire for champagne. If anybody were told he could have champagne and no water or water and no champagne, he would take water.

The conspicuousness of a desire is not an indication of its importance. The greatest desire happens to be at times the most inconspicuous. But even though it is inconspicuous, it is that which is decisive in the unconscious.