The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Notes on Nervousness

Dear Unknown Friends:

“Who’s Nervous?,” of January 16, 1947, is one of the lectures in a series that Eli Siegel gave early in the history of Aesthetic Realism, at Steinway Hall. We’re honored to present it here, through notes taken at the time by Martha Baird.

Three decades later, in the preface to his Self and World, Mr. Siegel wrote:

Is it true, as Aesthetic Realism said years ago, that man’s deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis? And is it true...that 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?

Yes, it is true. And unless we want to learn about the fight in everyone between those two desires—to respect the world and to have contempt for it—we shall never understand mind, including our own. That goes too for the various psychologists and counselors, who are really as unknowing about the human self in its might and puzzlingness as the Freudians, lobotomy advocates, and electric shock prescribers were before them.

There Are the Senses

To precede Mr. Siegel’s lecture, I’ll comment on a situation of self told about recently in the New York Times. The matter is fairly unusual, but I’m discussing it because often the unusual can stand, in vivid fashion, for the everyday, and that is so here. On August 11, the Times published an article by Jane G. Andrews about her phantosmia, or “illusory sense of smell”: that is, “I smell a smell when no odorant is present.”

Why, without any preliminary physical damage, should a sense go awry?

All the senses are means of joining the two great opposites in our lives, self and world. It’s through the senses that the world, with its sights, sounds, tactile diversity, tastes, fragrances, comes into us, joins with us, can be known by us. “The attitude of an individual to the whole world,” Mr. Siegel writes, “[is] the most critical thing in his life.” The fight in us between respect and contempt for the world itself concerns what we do in our mind about the particular things we see, hear, touch, taste, smell.

Ms. Andrews writes that she continuously smells a bad odor that isn’t actually present. She says, “My phantosmia specializes in the disagreeable. That is typically the case.” Even some smells that are pleasant to others are repulsive to her. She writes that after a trip to Provence, the smell of

southern France’s lavender-infested landscape...trailed me back home. Some might think me lucky—lavender is hugely popular. But I hated this smell that had squirmed its way into my brain.

When (sometimes after months) a foul smell would finally leave her, it would immediately be replaced by another “stench” or “gruesome odor.”

She recounts an explanation she heard from a doctor: that “almost always the patient [with phantosmia] has lost some ability to smell....The brain...overcompensates by offering up odors, usually disagreeable.” But why was there this olfactory loss? And why should “disagreeable” odors be the ones the self “offer[s] up” to itself?

The Presence of Contempt

Contempt—the desire to heighten ourselves through depreciating the world in its difference—has to do with all the senses. Let’s take sight. People have looked (for instance) at garbage in the street or a sink full of dirty dishes and used what they saw to feel disgusted with life—to feel the world itself was disgusting, not good enough for them to be in. And along with making an unpleasant sight equivalent to the whole world, people have also visually altered what was before them: they’ve looked at a room, or a person, and found in the sight a shabbiness, distortion, vulgarity, repulsiveness that weren’t really present.

A popular phrase in America is “That stinks!” Its use, often with a sneer, about so many things and occurrences is a sign that the olfactory can stand for a ubiquitous contempt. Mr. Siegel writes, describing contempt, “To see the world itself as an impossible a certain triumph to the individual.” Bad smells can be used for that triumph.

We can want to solve our mix-up about caring for the world and hating it by getting to an encompassing disgust. And we can use repugnant odors as evidence that disgust for the world is correct. Then, just as we can visually misperceive with contempt impelling us, we can misperceive olfactorily too. It can suit something in us to feel the world around us stinks—figuratively or literally—because this is reason to feel we’re too good for the world, too precious for it, and only in ourselves is there comfort for us.

Meanwhile, we punish ourselves for depreciating the world, because the deepest desire we have is to be fair to it, see meaning in it. And so, in phantosmia, along with the contempt triumph there is also an unarticulated self-criticism. The self tells itself, “You wanted to get importance by finding the world foul. That’s a fake, ugly way to be important. I’ll make you feel how bad that victory is!”

The person through whom my parents learned of Aesthetic Realism quite a few decades ago was a woman who was troubled by, among other things, an olfactory difficulty. She could smell only bad odors. Through her study of Aesthetic Realism, this torment about odor went away: she was able at last to smell good odors. That is because she learned that the way to be an individual was not through lessening and despising the world, but through seeing that it was related to her and explained her.

Mind and body are opposites that affect each other all the time. If we’re in physical pain, for instance, it’s hard to have a sunny disposition: our body affects our mind. Conversely, when we are mentally stirred, moved through something we read or hear, tears—very physical—may come to our eyes. When we’re ethically embarrassed, blood can come to our face and we blush. How does the fight between respect and contempt affect neurons dealing with smell—and more?

Ms. Andrews has refused to try the “antidepressants, antiseizure medicines or sedatives recommended by one doctor or another” for her situation. She says that their “explanations aren’t entirely satisfying.” She is right.

The Aesthetics of Smell

There is a poem by William Carlos Williams called “Smell!” It is a very good poem; it has music. And it stands for the aesthetic way of seeing self, which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the necessary way. Here is some of it:

Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed

nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?

What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,

always indiscriminate, always unashamed,

and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled

poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth

beneath them. With what deep thirst

we quicken our desires

to that rank odor of a passing springtime!

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  

Must you taste everything? Must you know


Must you have a part in everything?

Williams is saying that as artist he is impelled to find out what the world is, be affected by it in its fullness, join himself with it. He makes the sense of smell stand for this beautiful desire. He indicates that he doesn’t understand the desire; it can surprise him, seem unconventional, seem to run him. But the lines have a musical pride.

In art, a person uses himself to be fair to the world, and uses the world to become more himself. That, Aesthetic Realism shows, is what we want and need to do.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

"Who's Nervous?"

By Eli Siegel

Nervousness is somewhat encyclopedic. There is talk of nervous stomach, nervous twitches and compulsions, and there is the general statement “I feel nervous.” The word is comprehensive and heterogeneous. However, in looking at a word that has so many connotations, it’s useful to see if there’s anything common in all the variations.

One definition of nervousness from the Aesthetic Realism viewpoint is: such a discord of self and world that it shows itself in some undesired and known manifestation. That would include such things as nail biting, tongue rolling, neck twitching, pants scratching. But in the fullest sense, the definition would take in all the forms of nervousness.

I’m not talking about the nervousness that is based on an objective fear. A person can’t help being nervous under a bombing attack. What is important in nervousness is where fear is a cover-up for desire.

For Example, Nail Biting

Quite a few people bite their nails. Ordinarily, if someone were asked whether he gained anything from nail biting, he’d say, “No! It bothers me like anything.” The trauma explanation often given for nail biting would be something like—your uncle got mad at you when you were a child and hit you across the fingers. It would seem, however, since nail biting is so much with children, there aren’t enough traumas to go around. The Aesthetic Realism explanation is that the person is in such a jumble of liking himself, disliking himself, liking the world, and disliking the world, that at times he has to put his fingers in his mouth.

He is saying to the outside world, “Ugh, the idea that I have to do business with you, when I want to have a kingdom in myself!” At the same time, he feels, “Do I deserve to have these people talking to me?” So if a man doesn’t like himself, yet wants to put up a front in the office, he may find himself biting his nails. He’s trying to get to a stability in himself, and he’s also punishing himself for trying to get it by using himself against the world.

In nervousness there are four things concerned: a dislike of ourselves and a like of ourselves, a dislike and a like of what is not ourselves. Of these, there are intricate variations.

Fear and Hope

Nervousness is fear and hope; but the question is, fear and hope about what. About what is and is not the self.

A basic form of nervousness is anxiety. It is always made up of hope and fear. Wherever a person fears accurately, he can’t be said to be anxious. But wherever fear or hope is in some disproportion, we’re getting closer to anxiety. Suppose a person hopes for and fears the same thing?

Anxiety is always based on two hopes and two fears: a fear that we’ll give ourselves too much to the outside world and a hope that we won’t; a fear that we’ll give ourselves too little to the outside world and a hope that we won’t.

I have described a nervous person as one who rings doorbells hoping no one will answer. A person can want something and fear that it will happen—because if he likes things, he’ll have to give more of himself. So too, as he wants to please people, he also hopes he won’t. And therefore he must also feel that he doesn’t deserve to please people.

The hopes and fears of nervousness are always about self and world.

The Matter of Deserving—& Two Ways

Nervousness has to do with the fact that if you get any good thing, or anything one part of you sees as good, and you don’t feel you deserve it, you’re going to be in trouble. If we could feel with our whole selves that we deserved to be loved, be happy, like ourselves, there wouldn’t be as much nervousness as there is. And there’s a quiet kind of nervousness that exists just as much as the melodramatic kind.

If part of us goes after something, and another part, which we don’t know about, is against it, there’s going to be conflict, distress, maelstrom. Wherever there is nervousness, we’re not working as one person. What part of us cheers about, the other part droops about.

Many persons, married and otherwise, feel they’ve never really been cared for. But if you’re going to be cared for utterly, you have to show yourself utterly. Therefore many people are in a state of unhappiness because they feel no one cares for them, yet they’re afraid someone might.

There are persons who feel that whatever life could mean, they haven’t got it. To a degree, that feeling is authentic. You can’t feel life has come your way unless you’ve gone toward life.

There’s the horrible, quite common feeling of loneliness— that we’re not cared for, that no one thinks we’re important. And somewhere we feel that we’ve asked for it because we’ve gone after being an individual by making ourselves apart. If you’ve asked for individuality as loneliness, you’re going to get it, even though you may not know you’ve asked for it.

Ourselves & Everything

The full problem of nervousness has to do with how we wholly look on ourselves in relation to everything else. And we can’t skimp that job.

People go along on the supposition that if life is nice to them, they’ll be kind enough to like life. That’s a way of bribing existence. We have to feel that, good or bad, life or reality is ourselves, and on no occasion have we a right to declare war on it. If we could say life, as a thing, is ourselves and the knowing of it is good, no matter what—we wouldn’t be living for rewards. We’ll always feel life has passed us by while we have a tendency to pass it by and be vainly selective. We don’t see life as being ice cream and also gutters. We want to say life for us should be only ice cream.

Apathy Is Part of Nervousness

Then, there’s a feeling that we don’t “do things.” People don’t know why they feel lazy. But in order to do things we have to feel doing things is good for our individuality.

So along with neck rolling, tics, and twitches, we should see nervousness as belonging to a sudden apathy, a desire to doze. Where a person can’t see the everyday things of life as exciting, there will be nervousness. What art shows is, where there’s excitement or intensity, it’s not in contrast to what is not intense, but completes it.

Condemning the World & Oneself

In the nervous person, there is a concurrent disposition to condemn the outside world, often in the form of another person, and to condemn oneself. A tremendous complication of breast beating and invective goes on. A nervous person condemns himself when he condemns what isn’t himself.

Nervousness & Love

When a person is not sure of himself, he may look for approval through one other person.

If we can’t relate the symbolic person’s being utterly devoted to us, with a like for the world, we will become possessive. If we’re unsure of ourselves, we can’t be sure of the other person. We will be told we are the most wonderful thing in the world, but we will wonder, “How can I know if he’s telling the truth?”

Every person who lives and doesn’t attain a like of the world is that much a failure. The purpose of life is to like life. We have to fall in love with Mr. and Miss Reality before we can feel anybody really loves us.

In nervousness, the feeling is that what happens to us could never happen to anyone else. Everyone else is in a combination of Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman, having soul kisses all the time, and only we have to sit alone on a chair with a radio that doesn’t work. Granting that other people can be unhappy would take away our distinction.

The Biggest Matter

In answer to the question “Who’s nervous?,” I’d say, from one point of view, everyone is. Not to be in the least nervous would imply a completeness of self that I don’t think has yet existed. That is, no one has taken all the possibilities in himself and made a completely aesthetic one of them. So we should ask of a specific person, is he going after more nervousness or less nervousness? If he’s going after more, I’d say that person is nervous. Therefore a person who is not nervous is one who, though he may glare at times, is not, in the main things, going after separation.

Some of the signs of nervousness are getting sad in a hurry; stuttering; certain aspects of gait; quaint compulsions, trends, habits. But the biggest sign is one’s deep feeling about the question do we see what is not ourselves as friendly or not? If we can’t feel the reality we want to enjoy is really on our side, we can’t go toward it directly but will be in a tangle.

The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to show in a logical way that the unconscious needn’t be afraid. Nervousness has to do with fear. In fighting nervousness we have to feel, consciously and unconsciously, that reality, the great Thingdom, is ourselves.

Reality is the Tremendous with a hope, a smile. You can come to feel this only through knowledge.