The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Everyone’s Question: How Can I Like Myself?

Dear Unknown Friends:

The biggest question people have today is the question men and women had fifty years ago, a hundred, a thousand years ago: How can I like myself—finally like myself?! The therapies that have come and gone, the exhortations to “think positively,” the reassurances from friends, have not enabled people to look good to themselves deeply. Nor have they brought clarity to the accompanying question: Why don’t I like myself?

The answers to those biggest of questions, those questions closest to the life of everyone, are in Aesthetic Realism. And the article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis, printed here, gives them, with illustrations from his own experience. Like the article by Jeffrey Carduner in our last issue, it is from a public seminar that took place at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in November: “What’s the Difference between Wowing People & Liking Oneself?

The Only Way

Aesthetic Realism explains that there is only one way we can like ourselves: by doing all we can to see the world—what’s not ourselves—truly; doing all we can to be just to it; wanting to like it honestly. It is a magnificent fact that nothing else will work. That is the basis on which we inevitably, though most often unconsciously, judge ourselves, and no amount of praise from others or telling ourselves how wonderful we are will change it. “There is such a thing,” Eli Siegel writes, “as the ethical unconscious.” And he explains:

The ethical unconscious cannot be bribed. It does not know half-measures or quarter-measures. It is a neighbor of all that is true, and it must be on good terms with that neighbor. [Self and World, pp. 55, 339]

I think there is no greater praise of the human self, your self, than this fact. You are so ethically constituted that you can’t like yourself unless you like truth, unless you want to be fair to the outside world!

Aesthetic Realism explains too the opponent in every person to being fair to the world. It is contempt: the desire, continuous and huge, “to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.

I am going to use five poems by Eli Siegel to illustrate the answer to that biggest question people have, How can I like myself? It’s an honor to publish them here.

A Quiet Form of Contempt

The first poem, very short, is about a quiet form of contempt:

A Fool, Also

Many a person who plays it cool

Is a fool—

Just like his hot-tempered or more
excitable brother.

Contempt has many modes. But it’s always a fake way of trying to like ourselves, of feeling superior and mighty. And always, because it’s based on looking down on other things, it makes us dislike ourselves.

Contempt is the source, Aesthetic Realism shows, of every meanness, every brutality. For instance, that desire to make ourselves Somebody through lessening what’s different, is the cause of racism. But contempt also is in the everyday coolness told of in the above poem.

Millions of people are going on the presumption that they’ll be pleased with themselves by showing that what they meet is not good enough to stir them much, move them, ruffle them; that there’s nothing they can’t yawn at, be aloof from, dismiss if they wish. They may feel a certain smugness, but their success is also their failure, because in being unaffected, they have made for themselves a painful, ongoing sense of meaninglessness, an aching emptiness. Triumphant aloofness always makes for an inner agitation, and a self-disgust one cannot shake.

What Things Deserve

The next short poem can be seen as a companion to the first:

Deserves Comments

All the things that are

Deserve comments; 

And the best, too.

We were born into the whole world—not just into a particular country or family. We’re related to “all the things that are.” And it’s a principal idea of Aesthetic Realism that every thing in reality—whether a bird, a stone, an atom, an uncle, an event in history, a song, a blade of grass—is just as real as every other thing, and deserves to be seen as deeply and fully as possible. We, of course, are not able to be aware of every item of the world, but we should hope to be as aware as possible. In most lives, there is a miserable complacency: a putting of limits on what to be aware of and how aware to be. This self-satisfied limiting makes a person deeply self-dissatisfied, distasteful to himself. Our like of ourselves is in proportion to how keenly we desire to have the best possible awareness of other things.

About Love

"Tell Me More: A Lyric” is about love. There’s humor in it, because, within a melting melodiousness, the poem’s statements are actually very critical. This critical lyricism is both funny and seriously kind:

Tell Me More: A Lyric

Tell me more,

And tell me more,

Until my heart is satisfied,

My heart, dear,

Not just your own.


What you say

Does something,

Indeed, indeed,

But doesn’t satisfy my heart.

And that is the point, dear,

With all due politeness.


Politeness can go far in love,

Dear, can go far in love, dear,

And saying what a heart

Is desirous of hearing,

Is true politeness, dear.


Tell me more,

And tell me more,

And if you think you can’t,

Why don’t you reconsider,

And begin all over, dear,

As you should.

What is it that people are really looking for in love? What do they want to hear from each other? People think they want praise—to be made more important than the whole world by somebody. They think this will have them like themselves. The inter-adoration takes place, and then the two people don’t understand why they become so angry with each other and displeased with themselves. They don’t know that the purpose of love is to like the world itself through seeing another person truly.

In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel enabled me and the man I was then close to, to understand the trouble between us. His words to us can be considered also a prose commentary on the poem. He asked Mr. J: “Do you have a full desire to understand Ms. Reiss?” “No,” was the reply. And Mr. Siegel continued, “You say it as if it’s not the large thing it is. Ms. Reiss feels you have lagged in understanding her.” He explained, using my name:

Every person wants to hear: “I want to understand you, Ellen Reiss. I’ll never get tired of trying to understand you, and if I lag in any way, I want you to tell me. And if you can’t tell me on Monday, try again on Tuesday.

To my enormous relief, Mr. Siegel was giving form—beautiful form—to an insistent yet unarticulated feeling in me. It is a feeling now in millions of people; and they, like me, could become clear, proud, much kinder, through studying this explanation.

Opposites in the World

If we were to see the world justly, what would we see? We would see what the following Aesthetic Realism principle describes: “In reality opposites are one; art shows this.” In his article, Ernest DeFilippis speaks about opposites in objects and people: surface and depth, dark and light, known and unknown. The poems of Eli Siegel printed here are all from a notebook he kept in 1961, and in it are two about space. They have to do with the large, bewildering opposites of Something and Nothing. Here is the first:

Now Look at It or Them

The space between the clouds was furious

At being only space;

It wanted to be everything else, clouds included.

When space is furious, it gets what it wants.

Once everything was space.

Now, look at it or them.

Space, or vacancy, is a phase of Nothing. It happens that the fight, the disparity, the shuttle between Something and Nothing torments people: a person goes from thinking things come to nothing, to thinking they mean a great deal to him or her—then back again. We can go from feeling there’s too much we have to deal with to feeling vacant. But if, as this poem says, space can become objects, then Something and Nothing are not just separate in the world. The poem is, of course, playful, yet serious too. Here is another poem on the subject:

Something You Can Like

The space between r and s

As you hear the word tigers,

Is something;

Something you can like.

There is nothing humanity needs more than the knowledge of how we can honestly like ourselves, so we can stop trying to “like” ourselves shabbily, falsely, cruelly. This knowledge is in Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Wowing Others Isn’t Liking Oneself

By Ernest DeFilippis

I was sitting in my rented attic room in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, bored and alone. Two weeks earlier, I had been playing professional baseball in Sarasota, Florida, flying high, wowing them with my hitting. When a fellow outfielder on the Cedar Rapids team broke his finger, I was moved up to replace him.

But now I was struggling at the plate and the fans weren’t impressed. Adding to my woes was the fact that there were no real hot spots where I could wow the girls with my dazzling-Italian-from-Brooklyn personality. The only being that was attentive to me was an annoying little dog. He wouldn’t stop barking unless I petted him—despite the attempts of the owner of the house to rein him in, saying, “Now, leave Wayne alone!” She constantly confused me with the ballplayer who had lived there before me, which did not endear her to me.

My feelings of pleasure just days before—the anticipation of the thrill I’d have running around the ball fields of the Midwest League, my delight at seeing my first real live pig and at seeing men with big hats drive to the ballpark in their red tractors, the feeling of awe as I took in what seemed like an ocean of cornfields—all these were now insignificant. They seemed pale compared to the pleasure I had gotten from wowing people, feeling mighty as others paid homage to me.

 Yet even at the times when I made a big impression, I didn’t think so much of myself. I remember standing in left field after hitting a bases-loaded triple, basking in a moment of glory but also feeling a gnawing emptiness and thinking, “It’s kind of silly chasing a ball around. There’s got to be some bigger meaning in life.” And no matter how much praise I got, the dull loneliness I felt encased in persisted.

I saw people as existing to praise me or as competitors I had to defeat in order to distinguish myself. I felt that the more I could look down on people, or have them adore me, the happier I’d be. But it never worked. Aesthetic Realism taught me—and learning this changed the whole direction of my life—that I was born not to dazzle the world, but to like it: that was the way I would like myself. In his lecture Mind and Importance, Eli Siegel explains:

We have to see that the world which we are is the same as the world which we are not. That is the big discovery to be made....To feel that one likes what is not oneself for a true reason, is the same as liking oneself. [TRO 662]

Can We Be Ourselves?

As a young man, I liked knowing I was able to have an effect on women through my looks. But often as I sat across from a woman I had wowed, I’d find I had nothing to say. To cover up my nervousness, I’d try to “entertain” her, or I’d work hard to ask her questions so as to show how much I was “interested” in her. The gaps in the conversation were sometimes unbearable. Sex was often an attempt to alleviate my discomfort, but it only intensified the separation I felt. I worried whether I’d be able really to care for a woman.

In a class a few years later, as I was beginning my study of Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Siegel explained:

There are ten large reasons a person has pain from himself, all having to do with one thing: we don’t feel the person we show to others is the person we are. Do you feel the person you show is the same person you are?

EDeF. Not all the time.

ES. This inability to be wholly ourselves gives rise to other things. For instance, we feel in not being sincere, we gyp ourselves.

And he asked: “Do you like the person you are as you arrange yourself for someone else?” My answer was no. I didn’t; I felt like a phony.

Then Mr. Siegel asked a question that surprised me very much: “Do you think you love enough things?"

EDeF. No.

ES. Can it make you think you are a failure?

EDeF. Yes.

ES. There’s not anyone who loves things just the way they’d like to. You are not interested enough in things.

If you are not sincere, you have to be lonely. Everyone is angry: “Why can’t I be what I really am in this world?!"

That described what I felt. I had tried to put forth someone I wasn’t, someone I couldn’t believe in. But who I was, I didn’t know. Because I’d been so interested in having people see me as wonderful, I had dulled my ability to see other things as having value and meaning. Said Mr. Siegel, “The most important thing is, what is your greatest purpose in life? It is to see the world in the best way."

I began to look at objects and people differently, freshly. And as I saw how the opposites of the world were in them—for example, how my mother had both surface and depth, how the New York skyline at night was a oneness of dark and light, how it was the relation of known and unknown in baseball which made for that heart-stopping joy—and that all these opposites were in me too, I felt, “Wow!” This is “the big discovery” Mr. Siegel spoke of in Mind and Importance.

Wowing versus Love

The process of seeing and being interested in the world outside of me continues daily with the woman I love, Maureen Butler, who is my wife. In a class, Mr. Siegel said to me:

There are two kinds of love: one, the kind we definitely, deeply work for, to make sure we deserve it; and two, the kind of love about which we think that because we are, we should be loved. According to Aesthetic Realism, the love you don’t work for isn’t worth a damn.

I’ve seen this is true! To deserve a woman’s love, a man needs to have good will, which Mr. Siegel has described as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” (TRO 121). The work that is good will makes us sharper, more energetic, and it enables us to have passionate feeling for a woman which doesn’t fade but grows. That’s what I feel for Maureen.

I love talking to her, learning about her life, and about how she sees what is happening in the world. She encourages me to want to understand what people feel, to see them from the inside, and she has been a good critic of me when I’ve been too quick to think I know what a person feels. Our conversations about a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, a painting of Edvard Munch, about what Americans feel at election time, and how the trees in autumn have such radiance—this looking at reality together is the most romantic thing I know. To deserve her love is a lifetime quest. Anything less would not meet my own hopes, get my own self-respect.

To like ourselves, we need to be fair to the world. This is the grand, exciting study of Aesthetic Realism!