The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Kindness, Cruelty, & Competition

Dear Unknown Friends:

In the conclusion, printed here, of his 1947 lecture The Necessity of Aesthetics, we see Eli Siegel speaking to an audience at Steinway Hall and illustrating the principle at the basis 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.” He was the philosopher to show that the human self is an aesthetic matter. We are composed of the opposites that are in art, and the one way for us to be happy, mentally thriving, truly ourselves, is to make a one of those opposites—the largest of which are care for Self and justice to the outside World.

We publish here too an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis. It’s from a paper he gave in March at a public seminar titled “Competition in Men: What Makes It Good or Bad?” Mr. DeFilippis shows that hurtful competition—of which there’s an enormous amount—comes from contempt: the feeling we’re more through making what’s not us less. Contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the big weakener of our lives and the cause of every cruelty.

It was 32 years ago this month that Eli Siegel underwent the operation that led to his death. I have written about it every year. That terrible operation, with its devastating aftermath, had centrally to do with competition, and so I’ll comment on competition in relation to it and to Aesthetic Realism itself.

In a Poem & Human Life

In 1731, in important poetic lines, Jonathan Swift wrote jocularly about the competition that is contempt. He speaks about even resenting the goodness of his friend Alexander Pope:

What poet would not grieve to see

His brethren write as well as he?

But rather than they should excel,

He’d wish his rivals all in hell.

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If with such talents Heaven hath blessed ’em,

Have I not reason to detest ’em?

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In Pope I cannot read a line,

But with a sigh I wish it mine:

When he can in one couplet fix

More sense than I can do in six,

It gives me such a jealous fit,

I cry, “Pox take him and his wit!” . . .

Swift is playful and musical—and courageous in looking at what’s really the ugliest state of mind in every person. In fact, we’ll either want to look at it and criticize it in ourselves, or we will treasure and nourish it.

In my many years of studying Aesthetic Realism, I have seen people tremendously angry that Eli Siegel knew more than they did. I never met or heard of a scholar more widely, lovingly, keenly learned. He was interested in every field. And he developed the philosophy that shows the relation among all the items and aspects of reality. His intellect—comprehensive and warm—was apparent to anyone who heard him speak.

Even now, three decades after his death, there are individuals who are foamingly mad that Mr. Siegel was, and Aesthetic Realism is, so intellectually thorough and fine: that is the cause of their anger. Mr. Siegel met such anger throughout his life. In 1951, the poet William Carlos Williams wrote about Mr. Siegel’s being subjected to “the extreme resentment” of persons with “fixed, sclerotic mind[s].” And I have seen in some people a fury that Mr. Siegel was completely honest: they felt his ethics showed them up.

I have seen various individuals enraged because many people respected Eli Siegel so much: they, the angry individuals, felt they should be the focus of people’s admiration. And again and again, I have seen people angry that they needed to learn so much about themselves from Aesthetic Realism. They felt: If I need to learn a lot, it should at least be from something that’s famous and that therefore makes me important!

The most horrible competition is this, which goes on within a person’s mind: “I should be able to look down on anyone and anything I please! If I respect someone, unless I can find some way also to feel superior to that person, I’m furious, and will try to get my revenge!” From this contemptuous competition arise particular forms of competition. One form is the awful competition that is racism: the feeling that one’s own “race” must be treated as superior to another.

Aesthetic Realism, in its principles and all its aspects, represents respect for the world and people. Not only is it that which explains contempt, but it is contempt’s greatest opponent. That has made some individuals exceedingly angry, because they have equated their personalities with their ability to have contempt.

Competition & Surgery

The operation Mr. Siegel underwent in May 1978 was supposed to be “routine” surgery for an enlarged prostate. The doctor who performed it had visited Mr. Siegel a week or so earlier and, in their lengthy discussion, had had something of an Aesthetic Realism lesson: Mr. Siegel had understood and explained large matters in the doctor’s own life. Then, in the operation, the doctor used general anesthesia, unusual for such surgery. Mr. Siegel would later call it “the operation so disastrous to me”—because after it, his life was ruined. “I have lost,” he wrote, “the use of my feet.”

In the summer of 1978, the surgeon, questioned by me and others, admitted that he had been angry at his large respect for Mr. Siegel. Anger at respecting someone has ugly competition in it: one wants to be superior to the person—and one may try to accomplish that with a scalpel in one’s hand.

I have written often about my own brutal role in that operation. Mr. Siegel did not want the surgery. He said he would rather die than have it. When his wife, Martha Baird, sought the opinion of some of his students, we all answered rapidly that we thought he should have the procedure. The doctors had been urging it and had said Mr. Siegel would die without it. I was frightened for his life; but, shamefully, I didn’t want to think deeply about the person I respected and loved most in the world. The reason, I now see, is that, like the others, I too was competitive with Mr. Siegel, resented how much I needed to learn from him, and welcomed feeling superior to him. We felt: we know more about what’s good for him than he does! He agreed to the surgery. How hideously and tragically wrong we were.

In the summer, and then the fall, the effects of the operation intensified. Mr. Siegel endured, with agony, his body’s becoming weaker and weaker. By the end of July, he could no longer write with his own hands. He dictated poems, and issues of this journal. Through it all, his kindness, intellect, scope and freshness of vision never abated. He lectured on many writers, including Coleridge, Scott, Vachel Lindsay, Milton—until mid-October, when the state of his body made him unable to do so. He made it clear that he was thinking about how to be in the most dignified, respectful relation to the world he loved—for the relation to it he had then was unendurable. On November 8, he died.

To Love What’s Beautiful

Eli Siegel himself was the least competitive person I ever knew. He was always glad to see and value good wherever it was. His own life, and the philosophy he founded, and the events causing his death have taught me this: There is nothing uglier, and also stupider, than the competition of contempt. And to love what’s beautiful and honest not only is the greatest pleasure, but makes oneself intelligent and strong.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Necessity of Aesthetics, II

By Eli Siegel

The basic conflict in human beings runs this way: The contempt aspect of the self says, “I want to be myself, but whenever I am affected by the outside world, I am less myself.” At the same time, a person, every time he looks at the world, wants to like it. So the conflict comes to be: How can I wholly like something which part of myself feels is against me? This basic conflict has many phases. Take what is called anhedonia, the inability to enjoy things: how can you enjoy things unless you give yourself to the object of your enjoyment?

The only solution to the problem of individuality and what seems to be against individuality is to feel the outside world is also ourselves. This is what the artist does. A painter doesn’t, as painter, feel he’s losing anything in honoring what’s outside of him. He feels through yielding to the outside world he becomes free.

The only solution is aesthetics: this sounds dogmatic; but it is the only way. Many people seeing psychiatrists get the feeling that on the one hand they’re supposed to be assertive, and on the other they’re supposed to be yielding. This seems contradictory, because no way is shown by which one can be assertive and yielding at once. People are in conflict. The way to solve it isn’t to say, “Be this,” “Be that.” The way is to show how the two conflicting things can be made one.

For example, in order to conquer the French language, one must learn it; and in order to learn it, one must yield to it. A sculptor, as he hews and carves, also yields. There is a certain idea of the stone as good, to which he is a slave.

In Reality Itself

A definition of aesthetics is the study of the putting together of the opposites in a specific thing as they are put together in reality. In the universe itself there is a combination of jumble and order, the predictable and the unpredictable, desert and scurrying clouds. Reality itself is aesthetic. The world is something which is bounded and boundless. It has order to it and also disorder. If one wants, one can show that there’s no order whatever, that even the atoms don’t behave. One can also show that even as a leaf falls to the ground there’s order to it. There is the fact that we can’t think of reality as either form or substance—it is always both. But reality isn’t fully aesthetic until it has been completely seen as aesthetic.

Individuality & Relation

We all have a feeling that there’s no one else quite like us. We have a right to feel this. We are tremendously unique. If someone pinches our wrist, it is we who feel it. The job of being unique and welcoming everything that is not oneself at the same time, is the biggest job of every person. Anyone can be an “individual” by wearing an orange coat, purple trousers, a cherry in each ear, and a red strip on each side of his nose. But that is individuality working too hard. Aesthetic Realism says the problem of every person is Self and World, and by world we mean everything that is not the self.

Aesthetics is a challenge, not an evasion. It is not a pillow; it is an accuracy.

Some Examples

We can look, for instance, at the George Washington Bridge. People want to be light and also substantial. That’s the feeling that one gets from the George Washington Bridge. You’re after what it has.

A happy family would be one in which people were close, but saw each other as persons. There would be intimacy and remoteness. It would be the kind of thing one could get from hearing music.

When jazz is very good, we have a combination of elephant and butterfly, and of warmth and fierceness—the tiger having become a kitten. In a spiritual, likewise, we have a feeling of grace and mightiness.

In Mozart we have a feeling that God has become graceful, that religion can be elegant.

In a trade union, diversities, without being lessened, come to be organized. Organization is composition.

In Keats we have the relation of word as logic and word as aroma. In both “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “La Belle Dame sans Merci” we have a oneness of the orderly and the flexible, earthiness and remoteness. And in his lines we have the oneness of motion and rest—the seagull circling and sculpture. That feeling of freedom and accuracy is what the sincere mental practitioner wants a person to get to.

Renoir can put together sometimes the feeling of a mother and the feeling of Venus—the unexpectedness of the world and that which we are familiar with. And there’s a boldness of color, with the familiarity of what is given color.

All these things, if one really wants to see, are in oneself. There’s remoteness in us, and still an intimacy with our next door neighbor in our minds. If we are really to know ourselves, we won’t do it without aesthetics. And we can’t have ourselves unless we know ourselves.

What Makes Competition Good or Bad?

By Ernest DeFilippis

Millions of men throughout the world feel that the way to be strong is to beat out other people.

For instance: as I rounded first base after hitting a grand slam home run off Joe Parker in my first season playing professional baseball, I remember pumping my fist and thinking, “That’ll show him!” I exulted as he looked dejected. I was getting my revenge for his having struck me out a few months earlier. But moments later, as I sat in the dugout and looked at Joe, I felt uncomfortable.

While I prided myself on my “competitive spirit,” which I saw as the life force, I was ashamed of how mean it made me. But how could I not compete? I had to if I was to be Somebody!

In Self and World Eli Siegel writes:

The most dangerous and ugly thing about competition as we have it today is that it works to nourish and maintain the neurological belief that unhappiness in someone else is happiness for us. [P. 298]

And in a 1975 lecture he differentiated that competition from another kind:

If persons are trying to play the piano in the best way, to do justice to Chopin, to show how well Chopin can be played, that is different. The competition here is useful, encouraging. It doesn’t have in it ill will for another. It has the desire to take a beautiful thing and deal with it most beautifully. Then it is as pure as the driven snow.

When I heard that, I was amazed.

I’ve learned that to be just to a thing is to have good will, which Aesthetic Realism describes as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” When we have good will we see the abilities and goodness of another as adding to us, needed by us to be all we can be. In ill will, another’s strength is seen as lessening us, and we feel to take care of ourselves we have to be victorious over that person. How we see the world—as a needed friend or an enemy to be defeated—is crucial to whether our competition is good or bad.

How a Little Boy Gets to Feel Like a Big Shot

When Mrs. Califano said in frustration to her son Vinny, “Why can’t you be like Ernie?!” I swelled with pride. Though I was aware she wouldn’t have said it if she knew how I yelled at my mother—that didn’t matter. I liked the feeling of importance I got as I looked down on Vinny. I even felt sorry for him that his mother seemed to like me more than him.

Very early, I came to feel that being superior was going to make me happy—and also that anyone I had to look up to, I needed to diminish in some way: I was more handsome, or I was Italian, or I got better marks.

In Sports: The Two Kinds of Competition

On the baseball diamond there was this simple equation: if the pitcher strikes me out, he’s better; if I get a hit, I’m better. But I learned from Aesthetic Realism that along with being a battleground for superiority, there was another force working on the ball field, which was completely different: a good competition. I learned I had a hope I didn’t even know existed: that the pitcher be as good as he could be, give me his best shot so I could meet it beautifully.

Beauty, Aesthetic Realism explains, is a making one of opposites. When hitting, the object is not to swing wildly to “kill” the ball, nor is it to hit it tepidly. We have to meet it squarely, and how successfully we do that depends on how well we put together such opposites as mind and body, power and grace, abandon and accuracy. And the more difficult the pitch, the more the opposites have to be one.

I believe the exhilaration arising from hitting that ball solidly is an organic feeling of gratitude. And that gratitude takes in the pitcher, symbolic of the world insisting on my doing what I most wanted—to put opposites together. He stands for the world as a friendly combatant.

I began to study Aesthetic Realism some years after I’d stopped playing baseball, and in a class Mr. Siegel explained the mistake I’d made about it: “You concentrated on baseball to the exclusion of other things. Baseball for you was your one means of justifying existence.” Instead of using baseball to see more meaning in the whole world, to be fairer to people, I used it for self-glory and didn’t think I had to be just to anything.

Aesthetic Realism is great in showing that the good competition in sports at their best is a guide to how we can respect ourselves. We need to have good will: “the desire to deal with” the outside world “most beautifully.”