The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Every Child & the World

Dear Unknown Friends:

Just What Happens in Childhood? is a lecture that Eli Siegel gave early in the history of Aesthetic Realism: in January 1947. It is one in his Steinway Hall series of talks, and what we publish here is based on notes taken at the time.

In 1947, and earlier and later, the prevalent way of seeing children was the Freudian way: just about everything a child did—from sucking one’s thumb, to going to the bathroom, to enjoying a fairy tale, to doing a drawing—had some sexual implication. This immensely ugly and ignorant approach to children was thrust on people by the psychiatric establishment, which has never expressed regret for misleading and hurting them with it for decades.

In Just What Happens in Childhood? we see Mr. Siegel, in the very midst of that Freudian era, speaking with courage and clarity. He presents what is true about children. And this knowledge is as thirsted for now as it was 63 years ago. The psychiatric practitioners of now are not Freudians, but they do not understand any more than their predecessors the inner tumult of a little girl in Nashville, the thoughts to himself of a boy in Detroit, the confusion of another girl in Seattle, and why a boy in Boston can be very sweet one moment and start hitting people soon after.

Aesthetic Realism explains that what goes on in those children and all children is a philosophic matter, and an ethical one. It is about How should I see the world—the wide, unlimited, and also immediate world—that is not myself? A child has the same fight a senator has, a teacher has, his or her own parents have. “The large fight,” Eli Siegel writes, “ every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now, the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151). It is that fight which Mr. Siegel speaks about in the lecture we’re publishing.

Aesthetic Realism explains too that the agitations and hopes of a person of any age are about reality’s opposites—opposites that are also in oneself. They’re in a child under 3 feet tall as much as they are in a man over 6’2”. A child, all the time, is trying to make a one of such opposites as rest and motion, freedom and order, affecting and being affected, continuity and change, self and world.
It is my opinion that nothing respects children more than does Aesthetic Realism—which sees a child in this large way, even as she may be whirling on the floor in a tantrum. It shows that a child’s deepest desire is to be fair to the world, to know it, to see and feel it justly—though a child, like an adult, has a terrific tendency to be untrue to that desire and to get importance by having contempt.

As a prelude to Mr. Siegel’s lecture, I’m going to quote him speaking directly to a father and mother about their child. It moves me very much to say that I was that child. My parents, Irene and Daniel Reiss, began their study of Aesthetic Realism when I was a little girl.

Reality’s Opposites in a Child

I am looking at a loose-leaf book with notes, in my mother’s handwriting, of Aesthetic Realism lessons. And I quote, first, Eli Siegel speaking to my father when I was 4. He was showing Dan Reiss something parents haven’t wanted to see: that their children’s questions and confusions are the same as their own. —Mr. Siegel is talking about the tremendous opposites of anger and pleasure, for and against, which were causing turmoil in a little girl in Queens. He told my father:

Ellen is unsure, just as you are. She doesn’t know if it’s good to be nice to other people or just to assert herself. A father owes it to a child to do everything he can to make her less confused about the way she fights with people and the way she is pleased with people. They should be made one. Do you think it can confuse her that at times she likes a child and at other times can want to be mad at that child? If Ellen could get the idea that when she is against somebody it’s for the same reason she is for her, it would be easier for her.

You have to learn what Ellen has to learn, how to put together these opposites—your good nature and your bitterness. I would like you to teach Ellen how she can be angry and pleased for essentially the same reason: that she should feel in being angry she is fair to something and in being pleased she is fair to something; that there should be justice in both instances.

A Child Wants to Do What Art Does

The next sentences are from a lesson some months later. I had just begun kindergarten, which I loved, but I would feel nauseous in the morning before going to school. Mr. Siegel, speaking to my mother, explained the cause and the solution. These had to do with what art is: a making of unity from things that are different:

A child wants to make a transition from one kind of experience to another. Ellen, in going from home to school, doesn’t feel there is enough integration. She is looking for you to integrate her experience. She should use home to like school. Can you ask her, “Do you think that having a good time with me can go along with how you feel at school?”?

He suggested Irene Reiss ask her daughter, “How many things do you do?” And they should mention things Ellen does—with friends, with her mother; eating things; sleeping; visiting; going to the store. Irene can ask, “Do you feel all these things flow together?”

Then he explained, “Ellen’s largest problem is to place together one’s experience with what one is in oneself.” And in the next sentences, spoken to my mother, is the central principle he presents in the lecture we’re publishing:

You owe it to Ellen to put together herself and the outside world. And you owe it to her to encourage her to like the world and herself as much as possible. The purpose of parenthood is to have a child like the world.

A Child, a Dance, a Drawing

Aesthetic Realism explains that when a child likes something, it is because a deep hope about herself and the world is being met. And through Aesthetic Realism, children and parents can understand at last what these hopes are. They always involve the opposites. For example, in another lesson, Mr. Siegel spoke about why I liked seeing people dance together. He explained: “In a dance, the two people are together, but they don’t get in each other’s way and they use each other for freedom. They are close and distant. Ellen wants to feel that two people can be close and not in each other’s way.” He said to me, about motions I liked in dancing, “You want to feel that you are the same person bending down and standing up. When you bend down, you often feel you are giving in to something.”

Some time later, in another class, Mr. Siegel commented on a drawing I had done, of a little girl holding and smelling a flower, while other flowers were in a vase. He said:

When a child is working in a lively fashion, certain philosophic matters are being dealt with. This drawing puts together in such a clear way the two kinds of seeing: There is a flower that the girl is smelling, which is immediate for the girl; this has something possessive. But at the same time, she is looking further ahead to flowers that belong to the world, which are on the table. The drawing is saying: “I can be aware of myself and still be aware of something which is outside of myself. I can feel myself and still look very intently on those flowers.”

These are instances of something I consider great, longed-for, and magnificently practical: how Aesthetic Realism sees children. Both for my own life and in behalf of humanity, I thank Mr. Siegel for his understanding of people of any age, and his understanding of reality.

I’ll quote one more sentence from those early lessons, because it represents the beautiful, kind purpose he had with everyone. He told my parents, “I am trying to have Ellen be able to like the world she is in.” And, I say with immense happiness, he succeeded—as Aesthetic Realism can with everyone.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Just What Happens in Childhood?

By Eli Siegel

The big thing that happens in childhood is the decision as to whether you’re going to look on the world as for you or against you, as on your side or not. Insofar as each of us wants to be an individual, we have to make a decision as to whether outside things help our individuality or are against it. And if the feeling is that outside things are against one, it will be taken out on the whole world.

There’s a lot of talk nowadays about seeing children as persons. To do that, you have to know what it is to be a person. And this is a philosophic question. The big thing a child wants is to feel that in his being a person, all other things are a help. If the child sees his parents are not so interested in that and are more interested in getting importance from him, he’ll think his mother and father see him as an incident in their own lives, not as a person in his own right.

The Outside World & Ourselves

I’m going to read tonight from a poem of Walt Whitman, which begins:

There was a child went forth every day,

And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became,

And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day,

Or for many years or stretching cycles of years....

In these lines, the language is pretty simple. But what in the world does it mean to become an object?

When a child is born, he is not aware of objects, or of himself. He doesn’t know who he is. He is a person, but isn’t aware that he is a person. Then he goes toward his mother’s breast. He becomes aware of things seen, tasted, felt, heard. At the age of 18 months, it often happens that a child says “I,” or “me.” It is apparent that the child became aware of its I through other things. That fact represents an Aesthetic Realism principle: through the outside world, we become ourselves.

At 18 months, in becoming aware of himself, the child also becomes aware of what is not himself. When we say “I” we are distinguishing ourselves from everything else. Then, unconsciously, we make up our minds whether what-is-not-I is on our side or not.

The purpose of a parent is to have a child like the world. I’ll give an instance of the trouble that can be about this. There was a young man who had had infantile paralysis in his childhood. His mother had given him great care (as of course she should have), and without knowing it, the son came to feel this had been the time of his life when he was most important. He knew even then that a bigger world was being missed, but still, this was wonderful. When he grew up, there were people who criticized him, who said things like “Get out of the way, please” and “I don’t think you know enough about the subject”—and he used what he had gotten from his mother to feel that the people he met were cruel.

A fight goes on between our world as intimate and the world outside. This child’s parents didn’t relate his intimate family life to the great outside world.

A child will like the caresses of his mother, but what he wants most is for the mother to point to the outside world and say, “You have to be fair to that.” The purpose of love is to like all reality through one specific person. When a mother is more insistent on making the child hers than in having the child at home with all reality, she is hurting the child.

A Parent Can Be Confusing

A child can feel, “My mother needs me terribly; but on the other hand, she sometimes doesn’t seem to care for me at all. I am so important to this big person; and yet she can seem so far away.” As he sees the mother two ways, the world doesn’t seem to make sense.

Not long ago a child told me that when he went to bed he put on “another skin.” He felt his mother caressed too much and also was irritated too much. It just didn’t make sense for the child, and so at night he made a separate world for himself.

Children have gotten importance through being able to hide from their mothers and fathers and have a secret life apart. Then they have a dilemma. If they allow themselves to be fully affected by the world which doesn’t make sense, they feel they’ll lose their individuality. Also, if they’re going to learn, they have to learn from the world, which they aren’t sure is friendly.

I’ve mentioned before a particular child who wouldn’t talk. The first time she spoke, she was nearly three years old. She had been drinking ink, and her mother struck her. The child said, “Mommy, me?,” but didn’t speak again for a year. Now she is very much behind in her studies. (However, I’m told that if she’s paid a dollar, she can be very intelligent.) Children can, because their mother and father don’t make sense, take it out on their studies—because by then they’ve come to have their importance through not being affected.

A child can be led, because the world about him doesn’t make sense, to dismiss it. The two large places for doing this are in bed and in the bathroom. One person told me that when in the bathroom, he thought of the fixtures, towels, and so on, as his servants. One was a general whom he ordered around; another was a lieutenant. (We can see that the “anal eroticism” idea isn’t nearly sufficient to explain this.)

There is a hope in every person that the world doesn’t make sense, because that way we become exalted.

A Child Is Philosophic

Something that is necessary in dealing adequately with children, and that is currently lacking, is to see what goes on in the mind of a child as philosophic—as it is described in the Whitman poem. I’d recommend that every child guidance worker study and work to understand this poem.

The early lilacs became part of this child,

And grass and white and red morning-glories, and white and red clover, and the song of the phoebe-bird....

Whitman is saying that in the same way that what we eat becomes part of us, what we feel becomes part of us. The child, first of all, wants to feel objects are on his side. He doesn’t want a parent to imply, “You don’t need the outside world; you’re nice only when you’re on my lap.”

We were all born out of the world—not just out of our mothers and grandmothers, but the whole world. Motherhood is a great word, but humanity is greater. Whenever a mother wants a child to love her at the price of not loving other people, she is false to the idea of motherhood. An essential criterion of possessiveness is: whether in trying to make a person happy, you resent another who can make that person happy.

Freedom & Order

There’s a great deal of confusion on the subject of discipline for the child and the child’s freedom. In the 1920s came a great wave of emancipation for the child. He was to express himself; he was not to be inhibited at any cost. If the child drew on the walls with a pencil, or put oatmeal in the encyclopedia, or pulled another child’s long blond curls, he was still not to be inhibited. But if the child who had her hair pulled slapped the child who pulled it (and after all, she has to express herself too), the mother of the hair-pulling child wouldn’t like it at all. So the doctrine of complete non-restriction for the child made for difficulties.

Now discipline is very much the thing. On the one hand, the child is to be a person; on the other hand, he is to be disciplined. The chief point Aesthetic Realism has to make about the matter is that the only way you can have freedom and discipline working together is by a process akin to art. Art has always made for a oneness of freedom and restraint, or order, or discipline.

What a Child Really Wants

In psychoanalysis, we have one presentation of the child as a little sexual encyclopedia. We also have the child simply feeling he’s not wanted. And the two points of view are not unified. There is an awful jumble.

What a child really wants from a parent is: Show me how I can satisfy a desire I have to like what is not myself. As children are growing up, they are making the decision as to whether they are going to go towards their greatest desire, to like the world, or evade and curtail it. A child wants from a parent a feeling that the world, when it’s painful and when it’s pleasant, is still the same world. To show a child how to like the world, the parents themselves must like the world.

The purpose of a parent is to fight, in a child, the contempt which can be in everyone. But contempt is encouraged if the mother and father are interested in the child only as an adjunct of themselves. The child, without being clear about it, thinks, “If they don’t see me as an individual, I’ll have my individuality apart from them.”

There is a job everyone has of combining the deepest part of the self and the whole world, a job which is grand and simple but also deep. Through it, happiness will come, and will be sensible.