The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Literature, Children, & Bullying

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 2 of the lecture we are publishing in 3 parts: When Does Evil Begin?, by Eli Siegel. In 1953 he gave a series of talks, landmarks in literary criticism and the understanding of self, talks explaining and placing Henry James’s short novel The Turn of the Screw. One of these is the present lecture, in which he looks at several children of literature and history as a means of showing what impelled Miles and Flora, the child protagonists of that puzzling James novella.

In the series on The Turn of the Screw, he was explaining something humanity needs burningly to know—about good and evil, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice: What is the source of evil, in a child or adult? Where does evil begin?

Speaking to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago, Mr. Siegel said:

There are two mes in everyone. There is one me that is the most beautiful thing in the world. There is one that is the ugliest thing in the world. Every person has that me, and they should hate it more than anything, because it’s theirs.

“The most beautiful thing” is the desire in a person to respect the world, see value in what’s not oneself, know and be richly fair to things, facts, people. “The ugliest thing in the world” is contempt—the going after an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Evil anywhere, Mr. Siegel showed—every injustice, meanness, coldness, brutality, whether in a schoolyard, on the internet, in government, across a dinner table, anywhere—arises from the desire for contempt, present in everyone. I think there is no greater contribution to human well-being than his seeing this and making it clear.

Bullying—the Fundamental Cause

Without Aesthetic Realism, contempt has not been understood—nor has “the most beautiful thing,” like of the world. And therefore contempt has had tremendous power, in the everyday lives of people and also nationally and internationally. Let us take a matter involving children, about which there is much concern now: bullying.

In the present section of the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel speaks about two children in important novels: Master Blifil in Fielding’s Tom Jones and Wackford Squeers Jr. in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. (In the previous section he spoke about another character in that Dickens novel, Ralph Nickleby.) Wackford Junior is, among other things, a bully. And Dickens describes him at once humorously and terrifyingly.

What is the central thing in bullying, the fundamental cause? Representative of current writing on the subject is a Huffington Post article, “What Causes Your Child to Become a Bully?,” by Dr. Gail Gross (10-14-2014). As to the question in her title: she never answers it. She says that “there is no one single profile of a child bully” but that she’ll mention “a few different situations that describe the majority of child bullies.” The first is: “Children model what they see”; that is, if the parents engage in bullying, the children may want to do that too. This is so, and something like it happens with Wackford Squeers Jr. But what caused the parent to be a bully? And what does seeing the bullying appeal to in the child?

Dr. Gross mentions other situations that she feels make for bullying. And they happen to be contradictory. “Sometimes,” she writes, “the child that bullies is the child who feels completely powerless at home.” Then, under the heading “The Entitled Child,” she writes: “I have seen children who are given everything they want...believe they have a right to bully others.”

But is there something central—the underlying, crucial, fundamental cause of bullying—larger than all the situations, though the situations can encourage it?

Always about the World

Every bully dislikes the world. While each instance of bullying of course has to do with the particular person bullied, it’s always about the world itself. A child can feel the world is a mess. And you can use various things to feel this—for example, the fact that your parents confuse you; or the terrible fact that there’s not enough money in the home; or that you’re showered with possessions and praise which you deeply feel you don’t deserve. But the crucial matter, the awful and immensely frequent mistake, is that people use what they have met to feel the world itself is unworthy of them, is something to look down on sneeringly, and manipulate, and punish. The mistake is the using of what one meets to have contempt for the world—rather than seeing reality as something to know, be exact about, value truly.

A bully is a person who wants to show, punishingly, his or her superiority and scorn of the world, and uses a representative of the world to do it. Bullying won’t be understood until it is seen as related to things that can seem so different. For instance, Mr. Siegel speaks here about Master Blifil’s smooth manipulative buttering of people and also Wackford Junior’s vicious bullying; these are forms of the same thing: contempt.

Three things are needed to defeat contempt and its various manifestations, including bullying. 1) It’s necessary to see, really see, what contempt is. 2) It’s necessary to see that we always despise ourselves for our contempt—and this self-despising can take the form of painful agitation, deep unsureness, depression, emptiness, and more. We may bluster, but having contempt makes us dislike ourselves because, as Aesthetic Realism shows, we have an ethical unconscious.

3) The alternative to contempt is like of the world, respect for it, good will; and to defeat contempt we need to see this alternative as thrilling, powerful, luscious. That means we have to see it (and I’m speaking quite swiftly here) as the same as beauty, in keeping with this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The alternative to contempt can’t be seen (as it usually is) as a “righteous” thing; it has to be seen as having the power of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the ocean, the pleasure of the most delicious pastry and a wonderful dance. Through the study of Aesthetic Realism that is what a person can see!

And I’ll say here, again swiftly: New York City teachers using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method have documented the fact that through this method students not only learn but become kinder—they don’t want to bully. And there are the Aesthetic Realism Foundation’s anti-bullying and anti-racism outreach events at schools and libraries: these are loved by young people—and are grandly, mercifully successful.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Dickens, Fielding, & Children

By Eli Siegel

In Nicholas Nickleby there is also Wackford Squeers Jr. He is the son of the schoolteacher, the strange schoolteacher and very good family man, Mr. Squeers. Wackford likes his father because his father’s business is going to be given to him. And if this doesn’t go on a great deal, I haven’t seen anything: sons look at their fathers, watch all their dealings and say, “I’ll do all the old man does and better”—not to be more merciful but less merciful. In this book there are a few touches about Wackford Squeers Jr. This is one:

At no great distance from these was seated the juvenile son and heir of Mr. Squeers—a striking likeness of his father—kicking, with great vigour, under the hands of Smike, who was fitting upon him a pair of new boots that bore a most suspicious resemblance to those which the least of the little boys had worn on the journey down—as the little boy himself seemed to think, for he was regarding the appropriation with a look of most rueful amazement.

It is well known that little boys exploit other little boys: they’ll force them to do things, they’ll take things from them, and sometimes it becomes a system.

What has happened here is that this teacher, Mr. Squeers, has been importing into his school the children who, for one reason or another, make parents or semi-parents uncomfortable; that is, some of them are illegitimate. They are sent to this school, and it’s a business. Wackford Junior takes part in it with great relish, and so does the mother. It is a wonderful family arrangement—they are all devoted to each other: the sister, Fanny; Wackford Junior; Mrs. Squeers; and Mr. Squeers.

As soon as a little boy comes who has anything Wackford wants, he takes it, like these boots. The little boy gives a look of wonder: “What are you taking these boots for?” But Wackford knows his father will back him up, and so he goes on.

There is a discussion. Mr. Squeers feels he should have an assistant; it would look better. Mrs. Squeers says, what do you need an assistant for that you have to pay, however little it is:

“You can put on the cards and in the advertisements, ‘Education by Mr. Wackford Squeers and able assistants,’ without having any assistants, can’t you?...I’ve no patience with you.”

“Haven’t you!” said Squeers, sternly. “...In this matter of having a teacher, I’ll take my own way, if you please. A slave driver in the West Indies is allowed a man under him to see that his blacks don’t run away, or get up a rebellion; and I’ll have a man under me to do the same with our blacks, till such time as little Wackford is able to take charge of the school.”

“Am I to take care of the school when I grow up a man, father?” said Wackford Junior, suspending, in the excess of his delight, a vicious kick which he was administering to his sister....“Oh, my eye, won’t I give it to the boys!” exclaimed the interesting child, grasping his father’s cane. “Oh, father, won’t I make ’em squeak again!”

It was a proud moment in Mr. Squeers’s life, when he witnessed that burst of enthusiasm in his young child’s mind....He pressed a penny into his hand, and gave vent to his feelings (as did his exemplary wife also) in a shout of approving laughter. The infantine appeal to their common sympathies at once restored cheerfulness to the conversation and harmony to the company.

Young People Can See Differently

The Squeers family is very mean to Smike, a child being used as a servant. Nicholas Nickleby, who has come to be a teacher in this school, objects to the goings-on very much, and when Smike runs away and is caught and beaten, Nicholas won’t stand it and stops Squeers—in fact, uses his strength on him. The whole school is in commotion. Wackford Junior runs to his father’s aid and starts kicking. But:

The boys—with the exception of Master Squeers, who, coming to his father’s assistance, harassed the enemy in the rear—moved not, hand or foot.

So the other boys won’t join Wackford: we have some boys disagreeing with one boy, the boy in control. This is an example of the diversity in children’s minds.

There are some unendurable children in Dickens. There are some who are outwardly criminal, as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist is, and also Charley Bates. They try to make Oliver, who is a good boy, criminal.

These passages from Nicholas Nickleby are an example of what we have in fiction. What is said in them is pretty true, only it is said in outward terms. But people don’t want to see it. Not that they don’t see that boys have been bad—of course they do—but the putting together of what I called the “Old Swimming Hole” aspect of boyhood and the badness, is something people just don’t want to do. They’re afraid to. There are other children, and I hope to be just to them; there are children of all kinds.

In Tom Jones

Let us take Henry Fielding. His Tom Jones is one of the best-known novels in the world, definitely one of the best-known in English. He has a character who is a young person smug, cold, looking out for himself. You can be cold in various ways. Master Blifil—he’s never called by a first name; he’s always called Master Blifil—is the kind of person that Fielding didn’t like, the kind of person who is too close-mouthed and cold. You can see that Fielding doesn’t like him. Blifil is the rival of Tom Jones. Tom Jones is represented as impulsive, careless, out for pleasure, but he’s good.

The two boys, Tom and Master Blifil, are growing up together, both living with Mr. Allworthy. Blifil is the son of Mr. Allworthy’s sister Bridget, who married a Captain Blifil, who died early. This is Fielding:

A difference arising at play between the two lads, Master Blifil called Tom a beggarly bastard. Upon which the latter, who was somewhat passionate in his disposition, immediately caused that phenomenon in the face of the former, which we have above remembered [a bloody nose].

Master Blifil now, with his blood running from his nose, and the tears galloping after from his eyes, appeared before his uncle and the tremendous Thwackum [a parson and tutor]; in which court an indictment of assault, battery, and wounding, was instantly preferred against Tom; who, in his excuse, only pleaded the provocation, which was indeed all the matter that Master Blifil had omitted.

In other words, Master Blifil is hiding: he doesn’t say that he had called Tom a beggarly bastard. This is the kind of hiding I don’t like anywhere. Tell the whole story—don’t just tell it to suit yourself. But children learn very early how to tell the story to suit themselves.

It is indeed possible that this circumstance might have escaped his memory; for, in his reply, he positively insisted, that he had made use of no such appellation; adding, “Heaven forbid such naughty words should ever come out of his mouth.”

Tom, though,...rejoined in the affirmance of the words. Upon which Master Blifil said, “It is no wonder. Those who will tell one fib, will hardly stick at another. If I had told my master such a wicked fib as you have done, I should be ashamed to show my face.”

The previous fib Blifil refers to has to do with this: Tom and the gamekeeper, Black George, went after a partridge, and Tom is caught. He is asked if anyone else was with him and he doesn’t want to tell on Black George, not even to Mr. Allworthy, because he feels it is not for him to tell about another. Master Blifil knows about it and has kept silent but now he is going to show that Tom Jones told a lie because he didn’t say that Black George was with him.

“What fib, child?” cried Thwackum pretty eagerly.

“Why, he told you that nobody was with him a-shooting when he killed the partridge; but he knows” (here he burst into a flood of tears), “yes, he knows for he confessed it to me, that Black George the gamekeeper was there. Nay, he said—yes, you did—deny it if you can, that you would not have confessed the truth, though master had cut you to pieces.”

The clergyman, Thwackum, and Square, a philosopher, are the boys’ tutors. They are comic characters; they make up for an absence of ethics with a great talking of ethics.

As both these learned men concurred in censuring Jones, so were they no less unanimous in applauding Master Blifil. To bring truth to light was by the parson asserted to be the duty of every religious man; and by the philosopher this was declared to be highly conformable with the rule of right and the eternal and unalterable fitness of things.

Then there is a further description of Blifil’s way. He knows how to get people to do things for him:

To say the truth, Blifil had greatly gained his master’s [Thwackum’s] affections; partly by the profound respect he always showed his person, but much more by the decent reverence with which he received his doctrine; for he...frequently repeated his phrases, and maintained all his master’s religious principles with a zeal which was surprising in one so young.

I think very many children at the age of three get to this big notion: if you want to get what you want from somebody, butter him. This is found out very early.

Tom Jones, on the other hand, was not only deficient in outward tokens of respect, often forgetting to pull off his hat, or to bow at his master’s approach; but was altogether as unmindful both of his master’s precepts and example....

Mr. Square had the same reason for his preference of the former lad [Blifil]; for Tom Jones showed no more regard to the learned discourses which this gentleman would sometimes throw away upon him, than to those of Thwackum....Master Blifil, on the contrary, had address enough at sixteen to recommend himself at one and the same time to both....With one he was all religion, with the other he was all virtue. And, when both were present, he was profoundly silent, which both interpreted in his favour and in their own.

That is Fielding, somewhat, on the subject of children.