The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Our Self: Known & Unknown

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to publish here, in a condensed form, a vitally important, sheerly logical, beautifully remarkable lecture by Eli Siegel. He gave it on June 24, 1966, as part of a series on mental health. Our concise version of the talk can be titled What Impels Us—& Should We Want to Know It?

This lecture of 1966 was about the human mind of every year, and it was also topical, about events of then. Today it is about our minds—and about some of the largest matters in America right now.

Mr. Siegel speaks about the unconscious: what it truly is. And it is not the thing Freud described—lurking, darksome, shabby, lurid, and rather lewd. For much of the 20th century, Freud’s presentation of the unconscious both impressed people and had them feel that the depths of self were creepy and ignoble. The big thing, though, is that the Freudian “unconscious” was untrue: it did not correspond to what exists.

In his book Self and World, Eli Siegel explains, “The unconscious is, most deeply, what we want which we don’t know we want” (p. 112). He gives two related definitions in the present lecture. And he shows that the unconscious is an aesthetic matter, in keeping with this principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” Our consciousness and unconscious are forms of the known and unknown, clearness and mystery, that are in the world as such.

And Aesthetic Realism describes the central matter in the unconscious: it is “the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151). In the lecture published here, Mr. Siegel is showing how a fundamental form of contempt, so much in the personal lives of people, can also have a national meaning and hurtfulness.

An aspect of contempt, enormous in people, is the unarticulated assumption that we don’t have to be exact about our own feelings, our own responses: we have them, they’re ours, and therefore they’re right and unquestionable. This notion—so incorrect, so horrible, so dangerous—includes the following: if we feel bad, we don’t have to be exact about the cause; we don’t have to criticize ourselves. America is much afflicted by this ugly mistake, this contempt, right now.

Meanwhile, there is the aesthetic relation of the conscious and unconscious, which people really thirst for: the desire to know accurately that in ourselves which we haven’t known or fully understood. It is a subject that is tremendous, that takes in all of art. But there is a sentence by Eli Siegel that I love, which presents that aesthetic relation so quietly, yet with factual grandeur. He wrote it in 1976 under the heading “Sincerity Is Oneself as Real,” and I introduce the lecture with it:

When one sees that it is best to be exact about oneself, for oneself is as real as anything in the world, sincerity is liked and followed.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


What Impels Us—& Should We Want to Know It?

By Eli Siegel

The unconscious is all that is in us causing us to do things, which we do not know. It can be put more simply: All that is in us which matters that we don’t know. The unknown has been snubbed. It has to be, because we are not comfortable with it. It is supposed to be in us, but then the question arises, what is the meaning of in?

As soon as we think about anything, we have that thing in us. For example, at the moment the sky has become dark; a half hour ago it was undergoing something it had undergone for many days, including summer evenings—it was undergoing that change from light to dark which has been much written of, and each time it occurs it can make for a great deal of emotion. Some persons looked at it, and then all that distance with dark came to be in a person.

I’ll read again the definition of mental health given in the Reader’s Digest Almanac for 1966. The unknown is not exceedingly obvious in it, but it’s there:

Mental health: A state of well-being which is relative rather than absolute and present when an individual is acceptable to himself and to his social milieu as reflected in his personal relationships, his satisfaction in living, and his level of achievement.

The first question is: what does all this come from?—what is the cause of it? Also: What is the criterion for “well-being”? What is arranged when an individual is “acceptable to himself”—and, again, on what criterion? Then there is “social milieu”—what’s there?

The unknown is the always invited guest who is not noticed. Wherever there’s anything, there is the unknown. So, since everything that we come to know from the outside isn’t wholly known, if the unconscious is defined as that in us which we don’t know, there’s always a chance for an increment to the unconscious—because even outside things carry their own unknown aspect. For example, the Greeks, the Persians, and for that matter the Hebrews, whenever they dealt with a lamb’s wool, didn’t think they were dealing with atoms. And most Greeks, whenever they wrote about water, didn’t think about hydrogen and oxygen. I have a notion that Homer is non-hydrogen Homer. He thought of the great sea, and he called it “wine dark,” but as to the sea’s being hydrogen and oxygen with a touch of sodium (since it was salt), I’m afraid he wasn’t well posted. Neither, I must say, was Aeschylus.

So consciousness increases; but every time consciousness increases, it takes in its little brother or big brother called unconsciousness. Even now, we may look at H2O, but any person who thinks he has grasped the whole meaning of H2O is, well, a fool of the first water.

The unconscious, then, is a staple. It works in us and it is present in what is ordinary. Let us say that people are disposed to do ordinary things—not necessarily strange things like sneaking out at night and cutting down all the flowers in some garden, but doing a frequent thing. Is the unconscious present in everything we do?

There is the autonomic nervous system. It makes for some things that go in the body which we can’t control. To see how subtle those things are: a wink is a reflex or a tropism, and if an object comes toward our eye we have come into the state where we can’t control winking or blinking or going toward closing it. But we can also consciously close our eyes.

There are things going on all the time that we do unconsciously, an example of which is blood circulation. Blood circulation never as such had a conscious master.

A Mingling of the Conscious & Unconscious

Then, a human being can be discontent, and discontent is concerned with the unconscious.

Discontent as most often shown in the world is not something that Jung or Stekel or Freud was interested in. If we take the discontent that is shown in the French Revolution; or in London at the time of the fight between Charles I and Englishmen sometimes called Puritan and sometimes called merchants, sometimes called Cromwellian; the discontent that is shown in every revolution—Freud was not interested in it. And it can be said that he was not interested in discontent as such.

Discontent is such a medley of unconscious and conscious. You know you are discontented, but you’re not sure why. Take the John Birch Society. They are persons who feel they ought to be happier, and who feel the fault could not be their own; it must be some force—labor, or the Reds, or black people. The John Birch Society is discontented and, like most people when they’re unhappy, they don’t want to see what made them so. The idea that it could be themselves is not welcomed. So if you’re suspicious of the right people, you’re just the type they need.

“Angry” and “Tired”

This discontent takes many forms. On the subject of mental health and the unconscious, I’ll read an article which is a medley of that which is praiseworthy and that which is abhorrent. It appeared in Editor and Publisher, the magazine of newspaper people, in the section on the “weeklies”—given mostly to rural papers. The article, “Tired American,” begins:

Hardly a week goes by when one particular editorial doesn’t turn up reprinted in an exchange paper coming in here. The editorial is called “A Tired American Gets Angry” and...was written by Alan C. McIntosh for his Laverne (Minn.) Rock County Star Herald, a...weekly with circulation of 3,700....

Mr. and Mrs. McIntosh and their daughter, Jean Mae, have traveled to all parts of the world and he recalls how he was “getting more irritated by the minute” on his last two trips by the way Americans “were being given the brush-off.”

There is something Americans are aware of: that at this time [during the Vietnam War] they don’t seem to be liked so much. It is very hard to take, because every country has felt it was God’s country, but the people of America seem to have been more convinced; for one thing, America is one of the few countries that people left other countries to get to.

Now, Mr. McIntosh has an unconscious. He speaks of being “given the brush-off,” and the first thing, if we’re given the brush-off, is to feel naturally we couldn’t be given the brush-off because 5½ percent we deserved it. That is impossible!

The terms that are being used in this article are right in the field of mental health: angry and tired. Tired, which is physical, has also come to be almost a critical term, as in I’m tired of those biographies about a certain person. The article continues:

He claims it was gnawing him for a long time before he sat down in May, 1965, and wrote “A Tired American Gets Angry.”

What happened is: he wrote this; it was reprinted and cheered up ever so many people who were discontented the way Mr. McIntosh was. There came to be a great feeling: we’re tired and angry but it’s not our fault in the slightest. That is called mental health by will power. You’re just good because you decide you’re good; you won’t hear any contradiction—you won’t have it.

“It was gnawing him.” Gnawing is in the field of mental health. There are a few terms that are very vivid: I was torn apart; I was gnawed; I was burnt up. The difference between a mouse gnawing and a person being gnawed is: usually if a mouse gnaws it can do a neat job; when people are gnawed they should change it to thought, but they don’t. They are corroded, gnawed, burnt up; and at this time thought is looking for a chance to be employed.

Just about every one of the 28 paragraphs in the editorial started with “I am a Tired American” and gave a reason why. Some of them were: ...Pickets in this country. Beatniks....People on relief....Norman Mailer. Sit-ins....The “No Win policy” in Viet Nam....

This rural editor is acting very much the way people do. Someone objects to us: You know, when you were talking to me I felt bad all the time I heard you. And we feel, How could I cause that—I’m so nice. This business of one’s being nice is part of what is employed in mental ill health. Like the Southern lady: she just sees to it that the black people don’t get hurt—by having them stay in their little cabins across the river. She sees that as being nice. They’re angry at this arrangement?—she can’t understand it. We don’t see ourselves as pain-giving.

One of the many things Mr. McIntosh doesn’t like is “Pickets in this country.” However, it happens that recently there are also pickets from the right. Picketing has gone on for more causes than were ever thought, but pickets in this country are still usually in the left. Today there was picketing against poverty. The person who objects, and may picket, has been in America for a long time.

He is angry at “People on relief”—on welfare. This is a big issue. Meanwhile, nearly every industry has been on relief. Railroads have been some of the worst welfare cases. Other industries have been.

“Norman Mailer.” This is not a talk on Norman Mailer, but if I had to choose between him and Jefferson Davis, I’d choose Norman Mailer.

“Sit-ins.” The United Auto Workers came to be through sit-ins, in the 1930s.

And we have “General De Gaulle,” “Lenny Bruce,” “The ‘No Win policy’ in Viet Nam.” All of these are causes of discontent for Mr. McIntosh. There’s a kind of potshot or scattershot blaming.

The first thing in mental health is to feel that your discontent can be thought about and organized. But a person is usually bothered as by mosquitoes coming from all directions, and doesn’t see misery as having the form that other realities can have. Misery can have form.

“The ‘No Win policy’ in Viet Nam.” That bears a lot of discussion. One of these days the Vietnam business will be related to mental ill health.

Mr. McIntosh ended with “I am a ‘tired American’ who thanks a merciful Lord that he was so lucky to be born an American citizen....”

That could be right. But when nationalism is bad, is when it’s a form of ego: you praise yourself because you are an Albanian or a Tuscarora Indian or you were born in this part of Mississippi rather than another, and one way or another way you show that you were wonderful even before you did anything. This has been around a great deal. It’s ostentation, a saying the world went out of its way to be good to you before you knew anything about it.

So Mr. McIntosh put down his discontents, printed what he wrote in his own paper, and then it began to be reprinted. I’m presenting it as a study in the history of America but also as a very interesting, in fact coruscating, study in mental ill health. Because the first form of mental ill health is to think that your discontent is not a fact and if you are discontented it comes because you are surrounded by people worse than you. A mother was once talking to a daughter. The daughter said, “I feel bad.” “Daughter, blame somebody, quick!”

Letters, telephone calls, telegrams, requests for reprinting, etc., started pouring in....

The reason is: somebody wrote something; and through it people who, being discontent, might otherwise be encouraged to see why, had that job taken away from them and could say, Look at all these things done by other people!

Mental ill health is very attractive, because there’s a terrific desire to blame something which isn’t yourself for the state of distress in which you are. Sometimes, to be sure, the cause is not yourself. But if you don’t want to include yourself, there is something wrong.

A Criterion for Mental Health

Parts of the editorial itself are given here. There’s this:

I am a tired American—weary of being lectured by General De Gaulle (who never won a battle) who poses as a second Jehovah in righteousness and wisdom.

The big thing about De Gaulle is: he seemed to say there was something like France in tough years.

I am a tired American—choked up to here on this business of trying to intimidate our government by placard, picket line and sit-ins by the hordes of dirty unwashed who rush to man the barricades against the forces of law, order, and decency.

This shows that carelessness, because it happens that some of the picketers or demonstrators lately have been some of the most well-groomed people in America. Some of the draft card burners have been Apollo Belvederes with a dislike for what goes on in Washington.

I am a tired American—nauseated by the lazy-do-nothings who wouldn’t take a job if you drove them to and from work in a Rolls Royce.

If you want to be popular, get a person’s worry and blame something besides himself or herself. You’ll get to be elected president if you don’t falter.

I am a tired American—who has lost all patience with that civil rights group which is showing propaganda movies on college campuses.

This does make a person feel good, because it shows we were right all the time. One tremendous criterion for mental health is, on what terms do you assume that you are right?

A False Equivalence

All of the editorial can’t be read now. But in it, ego in distress, ego in a state of mental ill health, and the American cause are equated, made akin. There is a joining of things in a way that is not correct, doesn’t have enough knowledge. It is a document that will not add to the mental health of the land.

But the unconscious is there, the causes in one that one doesn’t know.