The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How Can We Be Ourselves?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We’re very proud to publish the first half of Aesthetic Realism Is Nothing Else, of 1947. This is one of the lectures that Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall, early in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism, and what is here is based on notes taken at the time. Through them we see him presenting, with clarity, style, and ease, that which psychiatry lacked then and lacks now: the understanding of what the self is.

And from a public seminar of last month, “Being True to Oneself: What Does It Really Mean?,” we print part of the paper given by Joseph Spetly, who is a data systems manager and Aesthetic Realism associate.

Both aspects of this TRO are about a subject around which there is a great deal of fakery, turmoil, and quiet despair: how can we be ourselves—and what on earth does that mean? People have justified all sorts of cheap remarks and mean actions with “I’m only being myself.” And why have people, after supposedly “being themselves,” come to feel they betrayed themselves?

Fundamental to the meaning of being ourselves is that the good possibilities in us are able to come forth, live, be expressed—not be unborn, wasted, stifled. Over the centuries people have not been able to be themselves because, as Mr. Siegel describes, they haven’t known what their self is. Further, throughout the centuries, there has been something which has stopped people from having who they most deeply are and could be, exist in their lives. That thing is contempt: the feeling one will take care of oneself by making less of what is not oneself.

There are thousands of forms in which contempt has made people unable to be who they truly are. But one of the most encompassing forms, one of the most horrible stiflers of the good in people, has been economics based on the profit motive: on the seeing of one’s fellow humans in terms of how much money one could get from them. In the profit system, a boss tries to pay a worker as little as possible for as much labor as possible, so as to extract the largest possible profit from him or her. This contempt is what has made for child labor and sweatshops (which are not only of the past), for the agonizing worry about money in families across America, for that huge crippler of lives which is poverty.

Told of in the 18th Century

Thomas Gray has stanzas on the subject in his famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” He says, People are buried here who could have seen and expressed themselves in a deep and mighty way, but they were incapable of doing so because they were forced to be poor:

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid

Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;

Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,

Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.


But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page,

Rich with the spoils of time, did ne’er unroll;

Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,

And froze the genial current of the soul.

The poetry is great; what it tells of is terrible—and ongoing. Gray’s lines are explained by this statement in Eli Siegel’s “The Equality of Man” (Modern Quarterly, 1923):

Mind needs nourishment, care and training all by itself....And the fact is plain enough that millions and millions of people...have not got this mind’s nourishment, care and training. Their lives were forced to be led so, to get food enough for their stomachs, was all that they could do.

This Has Happened

When Gray speaks of a “heart once pregnant with celestial fire,” he is saying: a person died who had beautiful feeling in him to which he was never able to give birth. And a person with the ability to lead his country importantly (“Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed”) was forced to spend his years eking out barely enough money to live. Someone who could have come to great poetry or music (“waked to ecstasy the living lyre”) never did. Their abilities were starved in them, because poverty, penury, kept them from the nourishment of knowledge.

To say the “current of [one’s] soul” has been frozen is a way of saying one has been stopped from being oneself. And being used as a mechanism for profit has done that to people year after year.

Meanwhile, another huge stifler of the best in every person is the contempt within the person himself or herself. That is what Joseph Spetly writes of here. We have all kept ourselves from being who we truly are because we’ve welcomed that fake sense of self which contempt provides: “I’m somebody, I’m ME, through looking down on what’s not myself.”

Eli Siegel showed that the profit system has failed in our time and while it may flounder miserably on, it will never recover. This is good news for the true self of everyone—because the only economy that will now work efficiently is one based on ethics, on bringing out the strength in all people.

The other good news—great good news—is that Aesthetic Realism explains what our selves really are, so we can be ourselves at last.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Aesthetic Realism Is Nothing Else

By Eli Siegel

One thing psychiatrists don’t have a sufficient awareness of is the conflict that goes on in a person just because he’s alive—not because he’s sick, but just because he’s alive.

If we look at ourselves we shall see that something like conflict is going on all the time. The fact, for instance, that we have memories and also toes, points to a contrariety in the human self.

A person, by being alive, has a conflict between being an individual and yielding to other people. He has a job—an ordinary job—of maintaining his uniqueness and being just to all that seems to attack it. This is nothing less than an aesthetic job. It’s not a psychiatric job or a morbid job. It’s a job arising from life itself. Aesthetic Realism sees putting together conflicting things as a problem in aesthetic engineering. If one knew what the problem was, the word aesthetics would not seem the strange or delicate word that it can seem.

The biggest problem of all people in all ages is to be oneself. Unless psychiatry has an adequate notion of what the self is, psychiatry is unequipped.

The problem confronting everyone is to maintain one’s individuality while liking and being fair to outside things. The schizophrenic mishaps are distortions of the problem one has by being alive. In being hostile to things that something else in him wants to like, the schizophrenic person has a great deal of pain. But any person who says he doesn’t have the problem the schizophrenic has is deceiving himself. For example, the schizophrenic hates the outside world. And we can at times hate the outside world. One can’t understand the abnormal unless one understands the normal.

The Central Matter

What is central to the self is that it’s made up of opposites. For example, the fact that the self is made up of body and mind is a mysterious fact that has been contemplated for a long time. How is it a person who can think of cube roots can weigh many pounds? The problem of body and mind is basic to reality. It’s a question of how two opposites become one. No one can say where body ends and mind begins; they have somehow become at one. These opposites are made one insofar as every person here is alive, because to be alive is to have form and substance. Reality itself is aesthetic. If aesthetics is seen very carefully, we shall think of it as being as staple as oatmeal.

Understanding how opposites become one is essential for understanding mental mishaps. After body and mind, the next pair of opposites is individuality/externality. These opposites, which a schizophrenic can’t put together, are the opposites that tantalize us every moment. If we continue to look at ourselves, every one of us can grow lonely. We seem to be alone with our feelings. The self is a uniqueness impossible to describe, surrounded by things battering at it—things going on in Paraguay; in Ankara, Turkey; mothers-in-law; bus drivers. Most people, as they see their individuality being kicked around by what is not it, make a separate, undercover individuality for themselves. Every one of us is afraid of the outside world—it is just too much. The only way to protect our uniqueness seems to be to declare war on all that surrounds it. This has been done all through history.

But all through history, also, there has been art. And every instance of art says, “That isn’t the way!” Wherever art occurs, that tremendous problem of uniqueness and relation has been solved. Every instance of art has the solution psychiatrists are looking for.

The place where people have been unique and also related is where art has been successful. The biggest matter in art is how to be original and yet fair to what is not oneself; how to be an individual by welcoming what is not your individuality. The artist says, “As I give myself to what is not myself, I become more myself.”

Aesthetics Is Always There

I assume many people in America, including Mr. Truman, feel pretty bad. We can’t enjoy the world unless we see deeply that every time we desire something, we want something not ourselves to become ourselves.

If the problem of every jumpy person is related to the beautiful problem of how a thing can be itself by welcoming what is not itself, there can’t be a morbid, clinical seeing of mental trouble. Further, if this is the problem every person faces—how to be himself and be fair to what’s not himself—then everyone has an aesthetic problem.

In aesthetics there’s a certain relation of the concrete and the abstract. What is a self? It’s not blood cells; it’s not heart, or brain. It’s a oneness that seems to take in, at one time, everything about us. It includes our eyebrows, our family, our feet, our bones, our memories. It’s an instantaneous form taking in every one of them at once. It’s a tremendous thing; it’s like the world as such: a oneness through diversity. Yet most people feel that the self—whatever it is—can only maintain itself by being at war with the outside world.

Being True to Oneself

By Joseph Spetly

Though I didn’t say it in so many words, I had a pretty big sense I wasn’t true to myself. While I got the approval of relatives, teachers, and others, and seemed to have a bright future, inwardly I had the feeling that Ellen Reiss writes of in issue 1772 of TRO: “the nagging, often quiet, sometimes fierce feeling that what I’m doing doesn’t fully represent me and I don’t know what would, but there’s something false and empty in my life.”

In Eli Siegel’s 7-point description “On Being True to Yourself” (TRO 1223), the first point is: “You try to find out what you most want and stick to that.” But for the first 21 years of my life I was more concerned with how I looked to people, often flattering them to get their approval. I also changed my opinions depending on whom I was talking to and was never wholly sure about what I felt myself. I didn’t take a stand either for or against America’s unjust war in Vietnam, because I was afraid that one way or the other I wouldn’t be liked.

In another issue of TRO, Ellen Reiss writes about how, when we’re untrue to ourselves, the opposites of manyness and oneness are both awry:

A person is disgusted with himself because he feels scattered in an ugly fashion—feels he does not have an integrity of purpose....He has a deep sense that he is tricky and political.... Yet...this same person is also profoundly displeased with himself because he has gone after a bad, narrow sense of unity. [TRO 1344]

I went after this “narrow sense of unity” intensely. A notion I had of being true to myself was being intact. From as early as age four I insisted on wearing my shirts buttoned up all the way, even in sweltering heat. I also came to feel I should hold on to my money with an iron fist.

Ms. Reiss explains that “the criterion for anything... we do” is: “will we try to get to a snug and mighty sense of self through contempt for the world or respect?” I tried to get to that “snug and mighty sense of self” by looking down on other people, feeling superior to them. In an Aesthetic Realism consultation, my consultants once asked me, “Do you think there’s a self in you that says, ‘Don’t get mixed up with anything out there’?” That was practically my motto! But with all my disdain, I was quietly scared. I felt something good in me was getting lost and I didn’t know what to do.

False Intactness Is Countered

As a teenager, when offered the chance to spend a summer in Europe with high school students from across the country, I panicked. To be among strangers in foreign countries was unthinkable! But when I told my parents I didn’t want to go, they said, “Are you out of your mind? Start packing!” They were so right. From the moment I reached the airport I had a great time. I made friends, studied history, and saw some of the great art of the world.

In Europe something big affected me, and for a while I broke out of the intactness that was strangling me. This also happened as I sang in choruses and took part in high school productions of The Pirates of Penzance and Once upon a Mattress. I felt proud and excited trying to be precise about the songs, dance steps, entrances and exits—all the while letting go and joining with my fellow performers to create something exciting. My father recently recalled how happy I was at those times. He said that I walked around beaming and that it was so different from my usual “me, me, me” attitude—my seeing things in terms of what’s-in-it-for me, and sulking. Meanwhile, though I had glimpses of what it was like really to be myself, those feelings never lasted. There was an ongoing debate in me, which Ellen Reiss describes in TRO 1345:

The question...within every person, is: How should I get to that feeling of myself as one, as intact, as pure me—through (a) excluding other things and persons, feeling I’m apart from them (even when I’m in the same room with them); or through (b) feeling the huge outside world is as real as myself, I’m related to all of it, and the more deeply I am affected by the things and persons in it the more my own personality will be whole and thrive?

What I Learned

My personality began to thrive as I learned in Aesthetic Realism consultations that things and other people are as real as I am and deserve something from me: a desire to know and be affected truly by them. I was asked about my mother, whom I thought I knew like a book, “Do you see her, or do you see your version of her?” “Your mother,” my consultants explained, “like a circle, has 360 degrees of relation. You’ve seen about 20 percent.” And that was a generous approximation.

I was given the assignment to write “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Showing Emotion,” and realized how much I had stunted myself in thinking I was too good to let the outside world affect me. I saw, through the structure of opposites we have in common, that things and people were more like me than I’d ever dreamed. I came to care for photography and I fell in love with such novels as David Copperfield, The Portrait of a Lady, and Middlemarch.

In one Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry class, I said I liked this line from Carl Sandburg’s “Limited”: “Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.” Ms. Reiss asked if I thought that the line stood for a change in me: “Are you hurtling across the prairie and not stuck in a room somewhere labeled ‘For Me Only—Do Not Enter’?” She said she thought I was affected by the musical oneness, in the line’s technique, of letting go and grip—which stood for something I wanted: “letting go, giving up oneself seemingly, but also having more of a grip than ever. Do you think you are truly more careful with yourself as you have wanted to care more for things outside yourself? You’re splashing around, and it’s just beginning.”

Part of the deep, wonderful, accurate splashing around is my relation to my wife, Miriam Weiss. When I met her I was affected by her beautiful dark eyes, her delightful and surprising humor, and her excitement about languages, literature, and poetry. I respected the deep way she thought about other people. Miriam has been a critic, with keenness and charm, of my desire to be stuck in myself, and this has made me happy and proud to need her.

In December of 1992, after we’d spent a weekend together, I knew what I most wanted was to spend the rest of my life with her. I couldn’t contain myself and called the next day from a phone booth to tell her how much she meant to me—that I felt closer to the world through her, needed her to be more myself, and didn’t want it to end. That feeling continues to grow!

Ellen Reiss once asked me: “What do you want to have happen to your emotions? Do you want to see the whole panorama that you can feel? What’s going to happen if you do? What will happen is, you will be yourself.” Aesthetic Realism enables a person to be oneself, be true to oneself; and that is the greatest pleasure and success for a life.