The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Look Who’s Here!


Dear Unknown Friends:

One of the best things about the present world is that the self is still new; that the self is still unknown. Unless, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, the self is seen as a constant aesthetic proposition or situation, the self will be, essentially, unknown.

If, however, Aesthetic Realism is correct and the self is a constant aesthetic debate, then it is not hard for one to see that the two possibilities of self may both be regarded with contempt by a living person. This means that the self given only to care for itself is seen with contempt by that in a person which wants to be more comprehensive or larger. Also, the self which tries to be or wishes to be larger and more inclusive, is seen with contempt by the self-regarding person, the person who thinks that taking care of just what he is, is work enough for one life.

It follows, dear unknown friends, from what I have said that the possibility of insanity from contempt is double in its action. We can go insane because we think too much of ourselves and also too little. Arrogance can make for insanity; so can guilt. We are all tinged by both insanities: the insanity of self-depreciation and the insanity of excessive self-esteem.

The literature of the world illustrates what I have been saying, again and again. People have always known, in their fashion, that they think too much of themselves and also too little. The discovery, though, however old, has not been used.

1. The First Narcissus

Narcissus has been talked of much by mental practitioners in recent years. Next to the Oedipus Complex, perhaps, Narcissism is the word or phrase most used by zealous psychoanalysts. And the psychoanalysts have something. Yet it must be said again that an inaccurate self, disproportionate in its own behalf in the field of sex, is a self disproportionate in all the fields of life. Sex, O ye Phoenicians, is mighty; but it is not the only thing in a body having blood and thought.

As to Narcissus: there is a classic presentation of him, the self-adoring one, in the Metamorphoses of Ovid, written, it is likely, a short while before Christ appeared on earth. The narrative of Ovid about Narcissus is keen and musical. It has been Englished in verse and prose, and the translations are usually fortunate. I use a verse translation of the central matter in the Ovidian narrative by F.A. Wright, to be found in The Latin Poets, edited by Francis R.B. Godolphin (Modern Library):

How often did he stoop to kiss the pool

That mocked his lips; how often with his arm

Seek in the depths beneath the surface cool

To draw towards his lips the shadowed charm.

He knows not what he sees; but still he burns,

And to the fond illusion still returns.


O foolish boy, why seek to clasp in vain

A fleeting image! Nowhere wilt thou find

Thy heart’s desire; nothing will remain

Shouldst thou endure to leave the pool behind.

’Tis but a shade reflected thou dost see,

And if thou turnest ’twill return with thee.

These stanzas of translator Wright show deeply and well that rather frantic desire we all have to like ourselves by leaving out whatever seems against us. The thing to see about the unwise Narcissus is that he thought he could like himself and himself alone. Therefore, many, many years ago, he disagreed with Aesthetic Realism.

For Aesthetic Realism says that the only way to like ourselves is to like what is not ourselves in an honest fashion; which is the same as the aesthetic fashion. Whenever we like something, the object which is different from us becomes like what we are. This is honest like. Aesthetics, then, is at last substantial sanity.

2. Some Old Lines Looked At

I shall look at each line of the Wright translation of some living words of Ovid. First, I think it is well to give also an 18th-century prose translation of the first stanza which I quoted. I take this prose translation from an edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, London, 1753:

How often did he give vain kisses to the deceitful spring, how often thrust his arms into the waters to catch the neck he saw, nor found what he fancied he embraced.

Both the verse translation of Ovid and the prose translation hint that loving oneself exclusively will not succeed. We cannot love self unless we love what goes with it; and one definition of the world is: all that which goes with self.

In the same way as no one saw himself without using a mirror, which is not oneself—or, as Narcissus did, using a pool which is not oneself—so our means of getting close to ourselves always has in it the use of something else. Even as we talk to ourselves or brood, we use a language talked by others hundreds of years before we were born. Our lives are outside and within. These are two aesthetic opposites, one in a point and one in ourselves.

We look at this line:

How often did he stoop to kiss the pool.

Narcissus might have thought, if he had read the proper works on logic or on the observation of sense-data, that he could not see the image of himself if that image were not in something larger than the image. Both a photograph and a sculpture of a person are in a background, the first on a surface, the second made by space. We always take with us what is not ourselves: even a person in himself has a little outside territory in which to be sadly fixed or sadly roaming.

The second line of the stanza I am looking at is:

That mocked his lips; how often with his arm.

F.A. Wright, in his translation here hints at the fact that something close to us—indeed, we ourselves—can mock us. Occasionally, we want to do something and we can’t. A baseball pitcher can think that his sore arm mocks him. An opera singer can think that her impeded throat mocks her. We can jeer at ourselves, as others can. Why we can jeer at ourselves and how we make bitter fun of ourselves is something still to be known.

The following line is:

Seek in the depths beneath the surface cool.

There is one thing in common between a self and existence. We can go deeply and deeply into what existence is, and we can go deeply and deeply into what we are; and think in both instances we can go more deeply still. There is no such thing as a superficial self; there is only the superficial use of self. A self is real; and reality is never only superficial. This is why thinking about oneself as an object may result in feeling that one is on a mountain ever, ever so high; and simultaneously that one is in a depth within and within.

The fourth line of the stanza is:

To draw towards his lips the shadowed charm.

How much we should really like to approve of ourselves! How much we should like honestly to kiss our left hand in homage to ourselves! We are charming to ourselves, with, as the present line implies, a shadow. This means that we can never be wholly ourselves unless we make some oneness of criticism and praise; of questioning and eulogy. We can like ourselves only as we like a valley, a mingling of high and low; or as we like a mountain at the foot of which we are, a mingling of low and high.

What one can find in the lines of Ovid as translated by F.A. Wright is to be found in a mighty passage from Hegel’s “The Contrite Consciousness.”

3. From Ovid and Wright to G.W.F. Hegel

In Hegel’s “The Contrite Consciousness,” as translated by Josiah Royce (to be found in the Scribner’s Hegel: Selections, page 79) is a telling of the two ways of seeing in man; a telling deeply akin to what Ovid narrates in his Latin tale of Narcissus. Hegel is writing of the self, which he needlessly describes as “the new Type of Consciousness”:

It regards itself on the one hand as the Deliverer, changeless and self-possessed; on the other hand it regards itself as the absolutely confounded and contrary; and it is the awareness of this, its own contradiction (italics mine—E.S.).

Does this not have something to do with the uncertainty of Narcissus? What can a mythological being or a non-mythological being do if he wants to love himself rapturously, and yet be interested in whatever the world may have? Either way—that Hegel illustrates Ovid or that Ovid illustrates Hegel—is true.

And it needs to be said that Aesthetic Realism differs from Hegel substantially; for Aesthetic Realism says plainly that the relation between the self-loving self and the world-loving self is an aesthetic relation. This relation is like the one between color and outline, surface and depth, stillness and motion, abstract and specific. The self is perhaps the greatest aesthetic job the First Cause or God or Evolution or Being ever accomplished.

4. Lines Again

The first line of the second stanza I am quoting is:

O foolish boy, why seek to clasp in vain.

This line intimates that the way people want to care for themselves or like themselves, must, by their not being aware of the full material to be used, end in unsatisfying failure. The question that Aesthetic Realism puts forward is this: Can we really care for ourselves unless we care in some honest way for what is real? The only way, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, to approve of oneself is consciously to like the way one sees things in the world and the world itself.

The next line is:

A fleeting image! Nowhere wilt thou find.

How substantial is the self? Is it permanent or fleeting? Aesthetic Realism sees the self as more permanent than rocks, more permanent than metal; but only if the self is seen as relation between what it is and what all else is. Relation, as algebra tells us a little, is as permanent as anything. An equation has a way of remaining. So has a dissimilarity. And the self is equation and dissimilarity.

The following line is:

Thy heart’s desire; nothing will remain.

The self’s desire or the heart’s desire is to see the self or what one is in its fulness and diversity. Once we protectively narrow ourselves to a caressed thing possessed, we are depriving ourselves of the likelihood of getting our heart’s desire. This desire is, liking the meaning of what we are.

Line four of the stanza is:

Shouldst thou endure to leave the pool behind.

One of the most engaging or beautiful instances of aesthetic oneness in a person is the epistemological fact that the existence of the outside world depends, for us, on our perception of the outside world; and at the same moment, our own existence depends on the outside world. For it is through the outside world we have come to the perception which can make less of the outside world. So, the self attracting Narcissus, depends for its existence on his being near a pool and looking into it.

The fifth line of the stanza is about how a self is a constant interchange of substance and surface: of solidity and shadow. Perhaps it is premature to say this now, but depression and insanity are both a clutter of the self as solidity and shadow. The self can have contempt for both solidity and shadow.

The last line of the stanza is about how reality depends for its existence in our lives on our true love for it; and this love is the oneness of the utmost desire for exact knowledge and the utmost honest hope to like reality as much as can be.

5. Say Hello to Narcissus

We are, dear unknown friends, Narcissus and Perception. Perception is a term for the possibility of seeing anything, including ourselves: of seeing the world and a hurt fingertip. We can have contempt for our relation with everything, or we can have self-contempt because it is only oneself in a crowded room that has a certain discomfort in one’s throat. We have contempt for ourselves as concentrated, under our eyelids, or ourselves as wandering about the Rocky Mountains in the year 1000: at both times, we are unjust to what we are.

Every possibility of ourselves should be respected. What these possibilities are cannot be seen unless we respect reality in all its changes, all its embodiments.

It is a lovely job to respect reality. It is worth it. Narcissus, now, may agree.

With love,

Eli Siegel