The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Mind and Sherlock Holmes

Dear Unknown Friends:

We have been serializing Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things, a 1966 lecture in which Eli Siegel discusses psychiatric terms on a list put out by the American Psychiatric Association.

The psychiatry of today consists, to a large degree, of medication. Yet the crucial questions still are: What interferes with mind—what makes it fare ill? Also, what does it mean for mind, including one’s own, to fare well? The failure of psychiatry is owing to its inability to answer these questions. They are answered, with clarity and beauty, in Aesthetic Realism.

For example, Eli Siegel has identified that in the self of everyone which interferes with the well-being of our minds and lives. It’s the desire for contempt: to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And he has shown that contempt is also the source of all cruelty, both in personal life and internationally.

The Chief Factor

The lecture we’re serializing has casualness; it has humor. Yet its basis is his groundbreaking explanation: the chief factor in mental ailment is contempt for the world—a world which it is our deepest desire to be fair to and like. Mr. Siegel looks at those psychiatric terms, with their clinical, portentous atmosphere and, often, their imprecision; and he enables us to see them truly and with ease, to see their relation to the everyday.

He also comments on another huge matter: Aesthetic Realism’s showing that the human self is aesthetic. That is, each of us is composed of reality’s opposites. And how our lives fare depends on how much we can do what art does—make a one of those opposites.

In keeping with that great principle, I’m going to look a little here at something in literature that has been popular for more than a century, as a means of asking: When anything in art continues to please people, is it because it makes a one of opposites—opposites that we are trying to put together and that may fight in us? So let us consider Sherlock Holmes, the world-famous detective created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930).

How Should We See the Known & Unknown?

The first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the novel A Study in Scarlet, appeared in 1887; and interest in them has not waned. They have been made into movies, both for big screen and television, and I’m sure will continue to be. A large reason is: Sherlock Holmes does ever so well with opposites that are central to all detective stories, the known and unknown.

These opposites are central in everyone’s life too, and very, very much can be said of them. There is a huge tendency in people to be afraid of the unknown, to feel that what they don’t see and what hasn’t yet happened will be bad. There’s another huge tendency: to find what’s known and familiar boring and feel that only what one hasn’t yet experienced is interesting. The same person has both ways of seeing, and shuttles between them, and feels bad about either.

But then—there’s Sherlock Holmes. In his adventures there’s suspense, of course—which means there’s the unknown. But he is wonderful for the way he uses the known, what’s right before you—maybe those scratches on the cupboard, or the fact that somebody’s boots are damp, or how a dog is behaving—to understand the unknown, to solve the mystery! As he does, we have immense satisfaction, because we’re seeing opposites we can be so troubled about, the known and unknown, become one—logically, gracefully.

The Most Difficult Opposites

And of course there are good and evil, the most difficult of all opposites. How should we see good and evil in the world? in people we know? in current happenings? in ourselves? The matter has been too much for people. It has disheartened, made for fury and shame. Yet a Sherlock Holmes story satisfies because in it evil is met and defeated clearly (how we want that to happen!), but also because, if it’s a good story, there’s enough nuance to have us feel that those big opposites, good and evil, are not being summed up: their difficulty, their shadows, tremblings, interminglings are honored.

Energy and Languor

One of the interesting things about Sherlock Holmes is that he’s a relation of terrific energy and acuteness, and languor, flaccidity. Take this sentence from “A Scandal in Bohemia,” about Holmes on a client’s first visit to him:

Our visitor glanced with some apparent surprise at the languid, lounging figure of the man who had been no doubt depicted to him as the most incisive reasoner and most energetic agent in Europe.*

No one is more alert, more interested, than Sherlock Holmes. And he’s Sherlock-on-the-spot, ready at any moment to leave his Baker Street residence and go anywhere in England. But he can also just sit torpidly in a chair. And there is this comment, hours after his solving a case:

“It saved me from ennui,” he answered, yawning. “Alas, I already feel it [ennui] closing in upon me!” [P. 40]

These are opposites everybody has, and is mixed up by: we’re lively, swift, keen; and we can also feel inert, dull. A reader can sense that there’s something not wholly right in the way Holmes has these opposites. Yet his imperfection about them has made him more interesting to people—and has made readers, perhaps without their knowing it, see themselves more deeply.

Difficulty and Ease

Sherlock Holmes is always at ease meeting dangers. He has savoir faire even when he’s worried. This gives us hope—because there’s a miserable feeling in people that the only way to have “ease” about difficulties is to forget them (which of course one can’t do). We long to feel that discomforts, fears, can be met gracefully. In the following dialogue between Holmes and Dr. Watson (the narrator of the stories), we find nonchalance, grace, politeness about danger. Holmes says about a case:

“By the way, doctor, I shall want your cooperation.”

“I shall be delighted.”

“You don’t mind breaking the law?”

“Not in the least.”

“Nor running a chance of arrest?”

“Not in a good cause.”

“Oh, the cause is excellent!”

“Then I am your man.”

“I was sure that I might rely on you.” [Pp. 12-13]

The prose—courteous and snappy, breezy and neat—is very good.

Self and Others

The biggest opposites in our lives are self and world, which, as to people, take the form of ourselves and others. And it’s usually ourselves versus others, because there is a feeling, to a large degree unconscious, that who we are is so different from who other people are, and that if we’re to be ourselves and care for ourselves we shouldn’t be affected by others beyond a certain point. Meanwhile, this feeling makes us ashamed—also cold. The following short passage, about Holmes’s need sometimes to wear disguises, is beautiful; it shows he felt he could be himself by being fair to, indeed becoming, someone different from him:

It was not merely that Holmes changed his costume. His expression, his manner, his very soul seemed to vary with every fresh part that he assumed. The stage lost a fine actor, even as science lost an acute reasoner, when he became a specialist in crime. [P. 14]

What Is an Object? or, Relation

In the preface to his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, Eli Siegel writes:

Poetry, like life, states that the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things.

That sentence is a guide to how we should see objects and people. It also describes the technique of Sherlock Holmes.

The injustice perpetrated by everyone hour after hour is to sum up or gloss over what isn’t ourselves: the objects around us, the people we know and don’t know. We don’t try to see “the very self” of them, their “relations.” We too much deal with what’s outside of us the way Peter Bell in Wordsworth’s poem by that name dealt with a primrose:

A primrose by a river’s brim

A yellow primrose was to him,

And it was nothing more.

This way of seeing, Wordsworth considered practically criminal. Yet it is very ordinary. And it is contrary to the way of art. Art looks at an object, person, happening as a means of seeing What is it? What is its meaning? What does it say about other things? What does it say about everything? That is how Cézanne, for example, looked at an apple. And while most people would see just an apple on a French table, Cézanne saw geometry in that apple; he saw reality’s mystery and forthrightness in it; he saw that apple as saying something about a neighboring bottle, and a tablecloth that was like mountainous earth. These are the opposites of being and relation, of universe and object.

 Like Cézanne, though in a different way, Sherlock Holmes is one of the great honorers of objects. He is always telling Dr. Watson, You saw the same things I did, but you didn’t observe! When Holmes looks at a thing, he wants to see what it means—that is, its “having-to-do-with other things.” Early, for example, in “The Speckled Band,” he surprises a woman who is seeking his services: how, in just minutes, did he know so much about her? It’s through such ordinary objects as a glove, a bit of paper, a sleeve, mud. He says:

“You have come in by train this morning, I see.”

“You know me, then?”

“No, but I observe the second half of a return ticket in the palm of your left glove. You must have started early, and yet you had a good drive in a dogcart, along heavy roads, before you reached the station.”

The lady gave a violent start....

“There is no mystery, my dear madam,” said he, smiling. “The left arm of your jacket is spattered with mud in no less than seven places. The marks are perfectly fresh. There is no vehicle save a dogcart which throws up mud in that way, and then only when you sit on the left-hand side of the driver.” [P. 97]

So We Come to Logic and Emotion

While Arthur Conan Doyle presents Holmes as wanting to be only logical and to abjure emotion, we always feel there is something in him that cares for people, that is warm.

There is nothing we want more in our lives than to have, at once, the fullest logic and the largest, most accurate feeling. Aesthetic Realism, the education Eli Siegel founded, is the means to this. In Mr. Siegel’s own teaching and writing, and in his life, logic and feeling were beautifully one.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Mind Can Have This

By Eli Siegel

In the next term we have a symbol:

Compulsion: An insistent, repetitive, and unwanted urge to perform an act that is contrary to the person’s ordinary conscious wishes or standards.

A compulsion is a symbol. A person may have a compulsion to buy a lot of postage stamps, make sure they stick to a surface, and then put the stamps that are now on the paper (not necessarily an envelope) in a safe. This shows he has perseverance; he also knows how to stick to something. A compulsion is very often something that stands for what you want to do very much and haven’t gotten around to doing.

Compulsion & Phobia; or, For & Against

If you have a compulsion, you likewise have a phobia. A compulsion could take the form of running up a flight of stairs or stone steps very fast, standing proudly on the landing, and then running down again. In this way you beat the world. That’s the compulsion. The phobia could take the form of not being able to walk down a pair of stairs, one step after the other, slowly. Every phobia has its compulsion to make up for it.

“Failure to perform the compulsive act results in overt anxiety.” A person has a compulsion to take an egg from the refrigerator and throw it in the adjoining yard. In this way he shows his attitude to the world, which here is typified as an egg that has been in the refrigerator too long. He throws it in the adjoining yard and there’s a release—and if he can’t do it he has “overt anxiety.” However this may be—does the compulsion, as one hears about it, have something to do with liking the world? That’s the main question.

Part & Whole

Then we have a very lovely thing:

Conditioned reflex: A reflex developed by repetitive experience in association with another stimulus.

The way it would work is: let’s assume that, in the old days in Vienna, every time the candles were lit you would be offered wine that was so good you’d smack your lips. You go to America, candles are lit, and you find yourself smacking your lips.

Example: a dog is repeatedly offered food while a bell is rung. After a period, the ringing of the bell alone will bring on salivation.

Occasionally it’s in novels: You have an awful quarrel with a girl in Iowa in about 1910. It’s midsummer and you’re looking at a branch in water. Then you’re no longer in Iowa—you’re in the Ural Mountains in Russia. But every time you see a branch in midsummer wandering in the water, you get a feeling that destiny is working with you and you get that Iowa situation. This has been used by novelists a great deal: that is, a part of a situation can bring up the whole situation.

Conscience Is Desire & Warning

The next term is “conscience.” Well, it’s sure interesting to see it here—an old friend:

Conscience: The morally self-critical part of oneself wherein have developed and reside standards of behavior, performance, and value judgments.

Conscience can have much more said of it. Conscience can be described as desire being ominous, desire being warning. All conscience is a desire, because every time conscience bothers you it means something in you feels that what you are doing doesn’t represent wholly what you want to do.

A Person & the World

Criminally insane: A legal term for patients who have been committed to a mental hospital by the courts after being found not guilty of crime “by reason of insanity.”

A person is criminally insane when he kills somebody or attacks somebody and his purpose is not so much against that person, but against the world itself.

Attacking & Being Nice

Defense mechanism: A specific process, operating unconsciously, that is employed to seek relief from emotional conflict and freedom from anxiety.

“Defense mechanism” can be described as that which you do when thinking is unattractive. The best kind of defense mechanism is: attack the person you have to defend yourself from; just find all kinds of awful things about that person. Another defense mechanism is: if you don’t like somebody, offer him grapes and a free trip to some vacation place; go out of your way to show how nice you are. There are other kinds.

Any mechanism that defends you as a good person and isn’t wholly accurate is a defense mechanism. A defense mechanism that is a successful mechanism is: be good. That, of course, is unpopular. Maybe it wouldn’t be a mechanism.

Unity & Manyness

Delirium: A mental state characterized by disorientation and confusion. Anxiety, fear, illusions, or hallucinations may also be present.

It would be well to say what kind of words these are. It is obvious that a term looked at earlier, catalepsy, has unity to it. You’re just lying prone. All you are is floor-prone or bed-prone—while delirium has in it the multiple, the multitudinous even, swift change, the kaleidoscopic. The kaleidoscope come from ourselves is delirium. It goes from one thing to another, and it changes as colored glass does under lights. There’s a shifting of one thing into another, but the shifting also is a censoring. One thing says, “I’ll get the spotlight now. This is my time for the spotlight. You had it. My time!” Delirium goes on this way.

You go from one thought to another. And you make up a world that isn’t exactly like the one outside of you: that’s in “illusions” and “hallucinations.”

*Arthur Conan Doyle, The Best of Sherlock Holmes (Hertfordshire, 2003), p. 6.