The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Our Selves Are Philosophic

Dear Unknown Friends:

We’re honored to publish here the first half of Aesthetic Realism Doesn’t Mind Being Philosophic, from the lecture series Eli Siegel gave in 1946-7 at Steinway Hall.

I love this talk, with its grace, clarity, and definitive explanation of what the self—so specific to each of us—really is. It’s based on the Aesthetic Realism principle “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” And what Mr. Siegel shows is what people now, six decades later, want achingly to know. The self of everyone—with our hopes, worries, confusions, triumphs, defeats, angers, mistakes—is philosophic, because it’s composed the way reality itself is composed: of opposites. Our self is aesthetic, because our fundamental need is to do what art, every instance of art, does: make opposites one. Mr. Siegel speaks here about how such opposites as the intimate and the wide, sameness and change, body and mind, fact and wonder, are the very substance of ourselves. Our pleasures and our miseries are about them.

As a prelude to this talk, I’ll comment on a particular trouble the self can have. My purpose is to illustrate the fact that the one way we’ll ever really understand ourselves, and therefore be ourselves, see and feel as we hope to, is through the explanation Mr. Siegel is presenting.

Right now, it seems, millions of men and women are undergoing compulsions. The website describes compulsions as “certain behaviors” a person is driven “to repeat...over and over again.” It lists some “common compulsions.” Three of these, which torment people even as they can’t stop engaging in them, are: “cleaning and grooming, such as washing hands, showering or brushing teeth over and over again”; “checking drawers, door locks and appliances to be sure they are shut, locked or turned off”; “counting to a certain number, over and over.”

What Is the Cause?

It can be said that everybody at some time or other has some compulsion in a more or less delicate form. But the full blown thing is going on in many lives, and the psychiatry of now doesn’t understand it any more than did the Freudianism of 1946. What is the cause of a compulsion? The website I’m quoting from surmises: compulsions “may have to do with chemicals in the brain....A person...may not have enough serotonin.” As to treatment: “Several medicines are available.... These drugs can cause side effects.”

Well, do compulsions, and other distresses of mind, come from inadequate serotonin? (And is there a particular serotonin for excess tooth-brushing and another kind for too much counting, or door-closing?) Are the troubling ways of self hereditary, as it’s now fashionable to say? Do they—in keeping with another trend in psychology—arise from evolution, as some kind of effort to perpetuate our DNA? —Or do they, in their strangeness, have a deep logic and come because, as Mr. Siegel explains, the self, “which wants to be completely philosophic, has made an incomplete philosophic choice”?

The most fundamental opposites in everyone—philosophic opposites—are self and world; or our intimate, individual being and our unending relation to everything. And the big damager within everyone, Aesthetic Realism shows, is contempt: the feeling we take care of our unique self by looking down on the outside world. Our contempt makes our self apart from and superior to the world from which we come and to which we’re unlimitedly related. So contempt is “an incomplete philosophic choice.” It’s also ugly, and is the source of all cruelty.

That division between our self and the world different from us is what all compulsions are caused by and are about.

Shakespeare Is Eloquent on the Subject

Let’s take the most famous hand-washing compulsion ever. In act 5 of Macbeth, a servant says of Lady Macbeth: “It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands.” Lady Macbeth has become mad. She accompanies what would now be called her “repeated behavior” with words that are immortal, mighty, musical: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!... What! will these hands ne’er be clean?...Here’s the smell of blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”

Shakespeare makes it pretty clear that the reason Lady Macbeth has this compulsion is, she feels guilty. The cause is not her serotonin level. It’s that she encouraged her husband to be a murderer. The cause is: she used a notion of what would make her eminent to be hugely unjust to the world different from her. The outside world was (for example) Duncan, Banquo, Lady Macduff, who are dead because of her.

While others may not go as far in injustice as Lady Macbeth, they’re driven to repeated symbolic self-cleansing for the same reason: they’ve been unfair in their minds to what’s not themselves, and since they don’t want to be honest about this, the stain of the unfairness won’t go away.

Again: compulsions always have to do with a severing of self and world. They are, as with Lady Macbeth, a way the self objects to itself for being unjust to reality. They can also be a continuation of contempt for the world. For instance, some persons are compelled to wash after having to do with other people, feeling they’ve been contaminated by these outsiders. That feeling and its accompanying symbolic behavior are contempt. Yet the pain of having to keep engaging in the behavior is simultaneously a punishment for the very contempt one is demonstrating.

The Compulsion to Count

In chapter 5 of Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes about compulsions to count. He gives the instance of Henry Hillard, who “at one time failed to make the statement that would have helped a friend in an emergency. Had he done so Hillard’s position in life might have become a little less respectable and comfortable.” Shortly after, Hillard finds himself on a corner, “compelled to count cars.” An inexorable need to count cars comes to him again and again.

Mr. Siegel describes richly, logically, the aesthetics of that counting compulsion. It is a self punishing itself for being unjust to the world, even while the self still does not want to be clear about its injustice. Writes Mr. Siegel: Hillard’s “unconscious seized upon the ‘simile’ between clearly presenting details about a happening...and going through the one by one counting of moving cars.” He punished himself by compelling himself to give symbolically an accuracy he had failed to give when it mattered.

Then, there is that third “common compulsion” from “checking drawers, door locks and appliances to be sure they are shut, locked or turned off.” This too arises from the feeling that we’ve been deeply sloppy about what the outside world deserves from us. We have not wanted to give ourselves entirely to what’s not ourselves—to things, people, happenings. We’ve kept something of ourselves apart, aloof, scornfully unhad. But the self’s aesthetics is also its ethics: there is that in us which says, “If you don’t want to look straight at where you’ve skimped at seeing something fully—I’ll make you unable to rest: I’ll make you feel you didn’t do a complete job with that door or that oven. I’ll make you feel you have to give yourself more, go back, look again!”

The history of Aesthetic Realism has shown that ways we have which distress us end at last when we understand their cause. Aesthetic Realism’s explanation of self is not only true but beautiful: who we are is philosophic—has a dignified, wide basis which can make us proud forever.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Aesthetic Realism Doesn't Mind
Being Philosophic

By Eli Siegel

I think that neither sex, nor dreams, nor oneself can be understood without philosophy, in the real meaning of the word. It is a great pity that philosophy has been associated too often with something pretty dull taught in colleges, and a host of fancy words, and also with something so vague and abstract that hard-minded, sensible people won’t have anything to do with it. However, the subject is as immediate as what goes on in every person at any moment, including this moment.

Any person who isn’t philosophic cannot really be pleased with himself, because we can’t approve of ourselves without knowing ourselves. The question is: What does knowing ourselves mean? To know ourselves, we need to ask where we came from and what we have to do with and what it’s all about. To answer those questions is very hard, but if a person isn’t trying to answer them, that person, it can be said, is not at ease, and, in the deepest sense, is not fully human. One thing a human being has to do is ask questions about himself.

What Does the Self Include?

If a person begins looking at himself he will see that, as an individual, he is tremendously strange. The meaning of individuality is wonderful; it can hardly be expressed. The meaning of self is tremendously rippling, tremendously large; strictly speaking, infinite. Every person’s unconscious is philosophic. One big difference between Aesthetic Realism and other ways of approaching the self is that Aesthetic Realism sees the unconscious—sees even the body—as being as philosophic as anything.

A person has a sense of self. That sense of self includes both heaviness in the stomach and a tearful memory of a long time ago. Since a person, Steven Jenkins, can have what the advertisements call a “logy” stomach and also a memory of a long time ago, Steven Jenkins is philosophic: he is both something that he can touch and something that seems indefinably wonderful. If the self is made up of such things as a clogged stomach and a memory, and we really were interested in ourselves, we would want to find out what the relation is between a memory and the fact that our body seems to be heavy; what the relation is between our thumb and our attitude to algebra; between our kneecap and justice; between our attitude to certain notes in music and to thick pastry.

If we don’t ask what the self is about, in its mystery and its obviousness, we can’t know ourselves successfully. And we can’t have ourselves unless we know ourselves. If anybody thinks he is going to know himself without being philosophic, I would say he has as much chance of doing that as getting wet without having something liquid around.

Most persons are afraid of philosophy. And the thing that makes them afraid is conceit: their thought has to work hard, and they don’t get answers quickly enough.

What Philosophy Is

Philosophy can be called the study of things where they begin. If we don’t know where they begin, we can try to get as near as possible to where they begin. If a person doesn’t ask where his self begins, and believes he’ll get the answers to who he is only through statements about blood vessels, metabolism, anatomy, and a few answers through statements about drives, tendencies, etc., I would say he isn’t interested in himself. Few people are really interested in themselves, because they don’t ask the crucial questions.

The real meaning of philosophy is the study of things that all things have in common. That may sound very abstract. But if a person asks himself, does he have anything in common with a bit of leather, an animal, another person, a house, the weather?, he’d say (for instance), “The bit of leather has a cause; the animal has a cause; the person, house, weather, have a cause.” So cause, insofar as it can be seen as having to do with all things, can be said to be philosophic.

A self seems to change. Everything is capable of change. Change is common to all things. Therefore change is philosophic.

Everything seems to have a whole and parts. Wholeness-and-partness is part of philosophy.

It can be shown that everything has something belonging to it, and everything belongs to something else. We have things belonging to us; we also belong to things (like family, an organization). The problem of our belonging to others and things belonging to us is substance and form—which are philosophic.

Then, everything can be known or not known. One can see a person as being known, leather as being known, a house as being known. To know or not know belongs to philosophy.

We Are a Oneness of Opposites

Aesthetic Realism says that the question of why a self feels bad cannot be answered unless the question of what a self is as such is answered. In lessons, I have asked people to think of their third toe, or the thickest part of their thighs, and see that at the same moment they can think about Australian music, or poetry in Iceland, or justice in Brazil. So, one can think of one’s thigh and also of a far-off thing like justice in Brazil. That is what the self does. Certainly, the Steven Jenkins who thinks about his thigh or worries about the state of his tongue is not just like the Steven Jenkins who worries about something happening in Brazil. But it is the same self, and if he doesn’t see that the self is an aesthetic oneness of something unutterably definite and intimate and something unutterably far away, he won’t know himself. What seems to be more intimate and snug than a self? Yet the self can think about the planet Jupiter, about prehistoric man, about mountains in Norway.

A self is surrounded by things which are not it. We eat a Florida grapefruit, or a veal cutlet, or cake. Perhaps before eating this food we felt weary; we didn’t want to read or talk. We eat and it seems we are more interested in reading, and our memory seems to be better. The grapefruit, or veal cutlet, or cake becomes part of ourselves.

Then, what is the relation between this food and our hopes for the future? How our food becomes ourselves is one phase of the immemorial body-mind problem. It can take the form of our having food and thinking that this food has become, in a strange way, part of our past.

The self seems to be something which just is, because we have to think we are the same person we were 30 years ago. Yet there are so many aspects to us that we can’t get through counting them. A self that knows what cold weather is, what algebra is, and hundreds of thousands of other things, is certainly various. If a self is simultaneously one and many, unutterably snug and unutterably tremendous, aesthetics is there.

As I said, those things that can be seen as belonging to all things are the subject of philosophy. Those things, seen wholly, are opposites as one, and they are in the self. We are sameness and change. We can now see ourselves as changing; we are changing every second. We can also see ourselves as just what we are. And when we see something as the same and changing, remaining and moving, at the same time, it is aesthetics.

The self is a great wonder and a great fact at once. If it is something that has to do with the beginning of time and is as intimate as soup, if it is present in one’s fingernail and also in one’s great-great-great-grandmother, it would seem to be a wonderful thing. It is.

We Are Always Self & World

I say philosophy is inescapable. And deeply, aesthetics and philosophy are synonymous. The only way of knowing ourselves is to know what we are not. Every time we touch something and meet something, we are finding out something about ourselves. If we hear any sound, if we read any words, we have learned something about ourselves. What happens when we have a conversation with a person whom we shall call Alfred Howell? We meet him for only six minutes, but Alfred Howell has now become plus ourselves. Even if we forget Alfred Howell, he is plus ourselves. What is more, when we meet Alfred Howell we find out that our selves can be plus Alfred Howell. Every experience means we are plus that experience.

In order to save ourselves from that, we make a part of ourselves that doesn’t undergo any experience whatsoever: it is somebody else shaking a person’s hand, being affected by some woman tremendously—and underneath, there is a self that is entirely apart. The reason this occurs is that there isn’t a oneness, in how we see, of having and not having the self.

If we knew what our selves were, we would see that we are a relation, and a process. It would be just as silly to divide the self as a thing which is and a thing which moves, as to divide a river into a thing which is and which flows. A self does so, however; and out of that, trouble comes. If we could feel that our self as flowing and our self as remaining were the same, we would answer, for ourselves, the philosophic question How is it that the world seems to move and remain at the same time? The seasons change, there are storms, but the earth keeps on being anyway.

Persons come to a bad compromise. We make one part of ourselves that is in motion, and another part that is snug and out of it all. We do this unconsciously. In the decision of the unconscious about how to meet the philosophic problem of how a self can be snug and still be in relation with everything, the unconscious which interferes with the deepest unconscious says, “The best thing to do is to have two selves: one for company and the other for myself.” From that comes misery. Anytime a person feels bad from a source in himself, not from such things as lack of food or too much cold, it can be said that the unconscious, which wants to be completely philosophic, has made an incomplete philosophic choice.