The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

How Much Should We Feel?

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is a short section of the great lecture by Eli Siegel we have been serializing: Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things, of April 22, 1966. Mr. Siegel is discussing a list of psychiatric terms and definitions presented by the American Psychiatric Association and published in the Reader’s Digest Almanac for 1966. His comments on each term are purposely brief and informal; there is humor—and there is also what he has described with tremendous fulness and variety elsewhere: his landmark explanation of the central purpose we have and of that in us which interferes. Our largest desire, he showed,

is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.... [And] the desire to have contempt for the outside world and for people and other objects as standing for the outside world, is a continuous, unseen desire making for mental insufficiency. [Self and World, p.1]

Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” People, he showed, go for it casually and furiously as part of everyday life—thereby weakening themselves while thinking they’re taking care of themselves. Contempt is the beginning of every cruelty, and is the chief matter in ailments of mind. 

The Lessening of Feeling

In this TRO too is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism Associate Lynette Abel, from a public seminar of this summer titled “Why Are Women Disappointed—and Do They Ever Want to Be?” And I’m going to comment a little on an aspect of contempt which Mr. Siegel points to in the part of the lecture included here. That is: there is a desire in every person to have less feeling, to be less affected by things, to be unstirred, unmoved. There is also a desire, which stands for life itself, to have the world with its things and happenings and people do something to us, cause emotion, affect us, mean much to us: that is what our minds and senses are for.

Let us take a person who had, in his short life, feeling of the largest, deepest, most beautiful, most accurate kind. This person is the poet John Keats (1795-1821). In a letter of November 22, 1817 to his friend Benjamin Bailey, Keats worries about a non-feelingness in himself, a being unaffected, and he says it can have him think the deep feelings he previously had were fake:

I assure you I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week—and so long this sometimes continues I begin to suspect myself and the genuineness of my feelings at other times—thinking them a few barren Tragedy-tears.

The feelings of Keats were not, of course, “barren Tragedy-tears”—they were immortally authentic. They made for and are in his poems. There is this description, of and embodying great emotion, in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Yet Keats did not understand what in people, in him, made also for non-feelingness, imperviousness, impassivity. He did not see that we can have a triumph in feeling little, and that it is a victory of primal contempt.

Self-Protection & Contempt

People go after lessening feeling for essentially three reasons. The first two are: 1) some feelings are painful; 2) our feelings can confuse us. So there can be a desire to protect ourselves through getting to a tepidity, a numbness. There is contempt in this preference—it’s terrifically inexact and unjust: we’re pained about something, and therefore we say to everything in reality, “You can’t mean much to me—I’m not going to see and feel what you are; I’m making you into a shadow, a squeak, into nothing. I’ve quietly annihilated you, because I’ve made your ability to affect me nil. I spit at your possibility of affecting me!”

People in homes, streets, offices right now are trying to play it safe by feeling little. In the process they make themselves less and less alive, because our aliveness depends on how much and how accurately we can be affected. Besides, this protective measure doesn’t work. Cold people suffer anyway. In fact, they really suffer more than people who have tried less to quash feeling.

There’s Superiority

The third reason—the big reason—people consciously and unconsciously try to feel little, is that whenever something affects us, we cannot be wholly superior to it. If things and persons leave us cold, we have the victory of feeling that the only thing worthy of affecting us is ourselves.

If something moves us—music, a person, a news event, a sentence—we are, in a fashion, taking orders from that thing: it has power over us. We aren’t running it. To be affected is, willy-nilly, to respect the power of the world and of that particular instance of the world. And if the effect is good, we have to be grateful to what caused it! The ego says, “Never.” The ego wants to be superior, and the one way to be wholly superior is to be completely unaffected.

That is why so often people try to lessen their feeling about someone they think they love. Marriages have in them an unseen drama of wanting to care more for one’s spouse yet at the same time flattening his or her meaning, summing the person up. A wife, for instance, can go after the superiority of having tepid feeling about her husband and at the same time be honestly distressed that she doesn’t feel enough.

The word unfeelingness means numbness, and it also means cruelty. Every cruelty, from a nasty remark to murder, needed to have first a person’s being unaffected by the emotions, the life, the reality of the to-be recipient of the unkindness. In proportion as we limit authentic feeling in ourselves, we make ourselves cruel.

To feel little is to be empty, and there is pain in that. But the empty feeling is also a victory to the ego, because we feel filled with only ourselves.

Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose in life is to have the largest and most accurate emotions. Emotions can be sloppy, ugly, mean—in other words, in the service of contempt. There is a lot of such emotion. But emotion that is exact, feeling that arises from and makes for honest thought, is what our world most needs and what every person is thirsty for. The philosophy Eli Siegel founded, taught, and was grandly true to, is the means to that thought and feeling.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

It Is a Continuation

By Eli Siegel

The next term is catalepsy, defined here as:

A condition usually characterized by trance-like states. May occur in organic or psychological disorders or under hypnosis.

Trance-like states are working for something; and if you’re going to get into a trance-like state and not work for yourself, it’s a misuse of a wonderful situation. Trance-like states are in behalf, usually, of the trancee. It’s a state of sheer immunity. It is a horrible thing, but it is the continuation of “I want to have nothing to do with a world like that.”

In the eighteenth century, the situation would be arrived at by drinking six bottles of port. You got into a cataleptic high-class state under the table, but you were usually recovered by your servant Godfrey.

Catalepsy unconsciously is gone after by everyone. We are all raging and want to be more energetic, but also we all would like to be bottled up nicely with a label “No visitors allowed.”

“A condition usually characterized by trance-like states.” Well, in catalepsy, at least you show you’re not interested in anybody. A trance has two qualities: The first is, you get out of commission in order to converse with a god. This is the high-class trance. Then there’s another trance, which is in order to converse with nothing at all. This is low-class. The second class is called shock, or just plain catalepsy. You’re immune from something and the customary stimuli are not very stimulating. That’s the statement of catalepsy: All stimuli failed.

“May occur in organic or psychological disorders....” It means, do nothing at all and feel nothing at all. And it’s described in ordinary language as being “out.” The more physical term is coma

A Hope for Disappointment?

By Lynette Abel

It was around 6 am and I awoke to the sound of a car alarm. “How long is this going to last?” I inwardly grumbled. “Probably a half hour like the last one.” But after about 30 seconds it stopped, much to my surprise. I went to the refrigerator and opened the door. “Mike, didn’t you say you were going to get some milk?” I called out to my husband. “I did,” he replied. I looked again. “Oh, there it is. Sorry.”

That is how I began one day some time ago: just ready for disappointment. There are certainly things that can disappoint us, but Aesthetic Realism explains that there is also a hope in us to be disappointed—so we can feel superior to everything. I’m very grateful that through my Aesthetic Realism education, I could criticize this hope in me, and I felt happier on the spot. I’ve learned that there is a choice we make minute to minute: to look for disappointment in order to have contempt, or to look for meaning in things—which is our deepest desire.

A Battle between Two Hopes

Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, I liked learning about the beginnings of our nation and was excited visiting Mt. Vernon, the home of George Washington, not far from where we lived. I liked growing tomatoes and string beans in our backyard, and felt there was something wonderful and mysterious about these colorful red and green things coming from dark earth.

But unknowingly, I also had a hope to feel that nothing and no one were good enough to suit me. Even though we fought a lot among ourselves, I liked thinking the Abel family was of a higher caliber culturally than our neighbors. The Grainers, I thought, were crude and uneducated; the Turners were strange because they didn’t have children; the Statlers weren’t getting along, etc. And I was a prima donna. Once, when my mother brought home a pair of slacks for me, I sulked because she’d selected something so “uncool.” “The colors are so ugly,” I complained. I’ll never forget her yelling in frustration, “You’re so ungrateful and hard to please!”

Years later in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel asked me: “Do you think there are certain people in Virginia who feel the more they can dislike, the more they are triumphant?” This described me! And the results were miserable.

In high school I saw it as a sign of distinction for myself when I felt disappointed by a teacher, which was often. There was my social studies teacher, Mrs. Thurman, whom I mocked. Once, oblivious to what she was saying, I began drawing on my desk with a pen, and the next thing I knew, she was questioning me critically about what I was doing, and was telling me to clean the writing off my desk. I immediately started to cry (something I did frequently), and said, “That’s it! I’m leaving.” She followed me out of the room and began to apologize. I felt that I was hot stuff and had impressed my classmates. Later, though, I felt terrible and ashamed.

I have seen that contempt has a big kickback. Increasingly, I was unsure of myself, uncomfortable around people, and anxious.

Disappointment in Love

As a teenager, I thought my greatest pleasure would come from the admiration and love of a man. Then all my disappointments and self-doubt would disappear!

At 19 I met Mark, who told me he had been admiring me for weeks. We began to date, and soon he said I meant more to him than any other woman he’d known. I remember feeling a rush of power when he worriedly asked me, after I’d taken the bus home, if I’d looked out the window at any other man. Why, I wondered, did I feel at one moment on top of the world, and at the next empty as hell? All this praise, I felt dimly, was not really about me, and I secretly thought Mark was foolish and easily deceived. But instead of trying to be honest about my feelings, I acted pleased and kidded him along.

In his lecture Mind and Disappointment, Mr. Siegel explains that we will feel a true, inevitable disappointment if we have a bad purpose:

We cannot play politics with our desires. On the one hand, we want people to like us, and on the other hand we are not after the true cause of their liking us: we really are asking for disappointment; we really never feel we deserve to be liked. [TRO 786]

That was so of me. After two and a half years, I ended my relationship with Mark. I felt very mean, and for years I worried that I didn’t have the ability to really love anyone.

Then, by the greatest good fortune, I learned about Aesthetic Realism. In a class I attended early in my study, Mr. Siegel asked me questions that opened my eyes and enabled my disappointment to become useful education.

“Do you think,” he asked, “your chief hurt in life is because you have two motives: justice and glorification?” “Yes,” I answered. “Justice,” he explained, “should always win over glorification....To have the purpose of being interested in someone to glorify oneself is hideous. Should one see a person to glorify oneself, or to see the whole world better?” In another class he asked, “Do you know how great the instinct to be just is in you?” I answered vaguely, “It’s larger than I know.” “You make it boring,” he said. “Is this true or not: your greatest desire is to be just to something outside yourself? As soon as you know a person, you should have a tremendous desire to be just to that person!”

This was new to me, and I felt enormously relieved and hopeful. The motive I’d had with men looked so small, and I saw there was something far more glorious that I wanted, which Mr. Siegel had articulated: to “have a tremendous desire to be just to [a] person.” That desire is good will.

Mr. Siegel once said, “To love anything or anybody, you have to see this as a beginning of love for all things.” Today I love and respect a man, my husband, Michael Palmer, and I’m happy to say I do “see this as a beginning of love for all things.”

Good Will Never Disappoints

As Michael and I talked over dinner on our first date, he asked me questions about my life, about books I cared for, about what I hoped to write, and I was affected by his thoughtfulness and liveliness. I was taken too by his keen interest in many things, including world events, baseball, popular music. As our care for each other grew, we wanted to live together, and spoke about getting married. I was very happy. But several months later, disappointment was growing between us. Michael felt I was too quiet and self-contained; I felt he was too impatient, didn’t have just the right manner with me, and gave up too soon in trying to understand.

In Mind and Disappointment, Mr. Siegel explains:

I have seen people complain about their not being understood by others. I’ve asked, “What have you done to be understood? Have you really tried to show yourself as you are?” “No, I don’t think so.” “So, what are you complaining about?” People conceal themselves, and then complain that they are not understood. [TRO 786]

That explains what I was doing!

I am one of the most fortunate of women, because I am learning what it means to have good will for a man. In an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me whether I “could have more respect for the possibilities of men.” And while I had complained, she questioned how much I wanted to be known by Michael: “Do you want him really to browse around the inner Abel library?”

In another class she asked, “Do you think if you’re being embraced by Michael Palmer, it is a thrilling chance to know the world and a person and yourself—or a chance to get the sweeping honor you have been deprived of? What do you want more: for Michael Palmer to respect himself or for him to show how wonderful you are?”

I love and thank her for these questions. I saw that there was an adoration from Michael I was angling for, which I couldn’t respect myself for getting, and also that I didn’t want to appreciate the real approval I was getting from his desire to know me deeply.

I began to take good will seriously. And I’m grateful to feel that knowing my husband—the many ways he’s affected by the world, and how such opposites as logic and feeling, sweetness and strength, fact and imagination, humor and seriousness are in him—adds so much to me.

Aesthetic Realism is the education that can teach men, women, and nations what we urgently need to know: the only purpose of ours which will never make us disappointed in ourselves is good will.