Ethics, Beauty, & Feeling Bad
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are publishing, from notes taken at the time, some of the earliest Aesthetic Realism lectures. These are the 1946 and ’47 talks that Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall. And we print here the first half of the October 10, 1946 lecture: Ethics Isn’t Soft, for Guilt Exists. In it Mr. Siegel explains what the psychologists today still don’t understand: why people feel pervasively low, depressed, anxious, empty.
This Is New
From the talk’s opening sentence we meet the newness—new in the history of thought, new today—of Aesthetic Realism. Two fields usually seen as very much apart and even as conflicting, are, Mr. Siegel shows, deeply the same: ethics and aesthetics. And both are central to our own intimate choices, confusions, despair, and hope. Aesthetic Realism explains that what makes a work of art beautiful is justice in the fullest and truest sense. And that is so even if the art work is ever so wild.
What makes ethics and aesthetics, justice and beauty, inseparable is described in 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.” Our particular, treasured self and the outside world are the biggest opposites for each of us. And Aesthetic Realism shows that the fundamental purpose of our life is to do what the artist does: make these opposites one, take care of ourselves through seeing value in and being just to what’s not us—the world.
I think the Aesthetic Realism understanding of mind is not only true but thrilling. It gives the human self dignity in showing that the deepest drive in each of us is nothing less than ethics and aesthetics—and that we feel bad because we are untrue to our largest purpose.
The mental practitioners of 2009 won’t do what the Freudians did: tell a person that her nervousness or feeling of lowness comes from sexual repression. Yet the psychiatric approach today is really just as ignorant and insulting. Today’s approach is to say depression and other mishaps of mind are caused by one’s biochemistry, and to deal with these by drugging the person.
While feeling bad can become steep and get into the clinical field, it’s also, of course, dismally commonplace. In relation to miserable feeling, whether severe or everyday—the word in the lecture’s title, guilt, is not used so much now. The contemporary term is often low self-esteem. Yet Aesthetic Realism these many years has explained what causes both the more ordinary self-dislike, emptiness, agitation of people and the more virulent distress. That cause is contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” “I mean forthrightly to show,” wrote Mr. Siegel in his preface to Self and World, “that contempt causes insanity and...interferes with mind in a less disastrous way. Contempt is the great failure of man” (p. 15).
My Mother, Irene Reiss
It was less than a year after the lecture we're publishing that my parents, Irene and Daniel Reiss, began to study Aesthetic Realism. My mother had her first lesson with Mr. Siegel on August 29, 1947, and I’ll quote from it now, because in it we see what Mr. Siegel explains in his lecture meeting the life of a particular person.
I know the lesson only from three typed pages of notes taken at the time by a friend of my mother. I’ve quoted from them before, because that lesson is a classic: it describes humanity, even as it is so specific—so much about a unique individual, Irene Reiss, that she felt her personal confusions were at last comprehended.
My mother had been feeling exceedingly bad. She was afraid to ride the subway—the people there frightened her—and to leave her home unaccompanied. She was fearful of crowds, of being among many people she didn’t know. Mr. Siegel began to teach her that which changed her life magnificently: he explained that she had to do with the whole world, and her feeling bad came because she was unjust to it in her mind. At first, she told me recently, she didn’t understand what he meant by “the world”—she didn’t see that as connected with her life at all.
“Everything,” Mr. Siegel said, “that isn’t Irene is the world. Do you believe you are for that or against that?” The notes don’t include my mother’s answers, but we see Mr. Siegel explaining further: “There is a tendency to say that everything which isn’t ourselves exists to make us less.” That’s because something in us, contempt, “says, ‘The more I can despise and be against, the more important I am.’”
With logic and immense kindness, Mr. Siegel made clear to Irene Reiss the cause of something that torments men and women—something the psychologists are far away from understanding. He showed her that her excessive fear of people was a punishment she gave herself for being unfair to them:
Suppose something in you which you don’t know about says, Other people exist in competition with me and the only time I feel important is when I can forget that they exist. Then when you go into the subway you feel, There are the people I was trying to forget about when I went to bed last night!
People are part of the world that’s not us; they represent it. And Mr. Siegel asked, “If you felt that the outside world existed not to lessen you but to make you more, do you think you would be afraid of them in the subway?”
The Two Aspects of Ourselves
In August 1947, Mr. Siegel taught a woman from Bayside, Queens, that there are two aspects of her—and everyone’s—self. There’s the self that’s concentrated, just-me, unique, under its own skin, and the self that is related to everything. Whenever I read the two sentences I’m about to quote, I’m moved tremendously—by what they explain so simply, by their style, by their might and tenderness:
Aesthetic Realism says the two aspects can go together the way the bass and treble of a piano go together. You should say, “I am now with a thousand people and the self which was alone in bed is also present.”
I quote now the final statements in the notes. We see Mr. Siegel speaking to Irene Reiss about an Aesthetic Realism assignment: to write three sentences about an object every day. And while it’s clear that much of what he said is omitted, we see his width and beautiful kindness:
Write about something each day. See that the things you write about differ from you, but will tell you something about yourself. I am trying to renew your love for things that are not yourself. The more you will like the world, the more you will like yourself. Don’t miss a day in writing about something which is not yourself—street, sky, shoe, Queen Victoria.
I’ll conclude by quoting something that Irene Reiss wrote this month, at age 94, about that first lesson. Not only does it introduce the lecture you're about to read, but it stands for what people everywhere want to feel. She wrote:
As Mr. Siegel spoke to me about “the world,” I began to see that it wasn’t the world that was the cause of my pain: it was the way I saw it. I had hope; I could change! And I did, through my study of Aesthetic Realism—for which I am eternally grateful.