The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Our Selves—False & True

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of the magnificent lecture by Eli Siegel that we have been serializing: The Self Is, of 1970. He has been giving evidence for what no other philosopher saw: the human self, including your very own, is an aesthetic matter. It is two things, which are opposites demanding to be seen as one: your self is immensely particular, unique, personal; and it is infinitely related—to every person, thing, happening in the world.

To accompany the final section of The Self Is, we print part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll presented at a recent public seminar: “The Mix-up in Women about Managing & Yielding—& the Beautiful Answer.” She speaks about the purpose in people that disrupts—in fact, betrays—the aesthetic structure of our self. That purpose is contempt, which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the biggest danger in everyone, the ugliest, most hurtful thing in us, the source of every injustice. Contempt is the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” It pits the self as just-our-own against our infinite relatedness.

Is the outside world, with all its strangeness, ordinariness, often confusion, something we were born to know and value as a means of becoming ourselves, who we truly are? Or is the world something we should manipulate, defeat, get away from? Truth says, The first! Contempt says, The second! And in having contempt, which we think takes care of us and makes us important, we get farther and farther away from becoming our true self, in all its rich individuality.

Since in this final section Mr. Siegel quotes from a biology text, I’ll comment on a matter of biology that is frighteningly current. It is that terrible effect of the Zika virus: babies born with microcephaly, an abnormally small skull because their brain has not developed properly. According to the Centers for Disease Control website, these children will likely have “intellectual disability (decreased ability to learn and function)” and “problems with movement and balance.” I am writing about this, because in its awful way it shows that the human self is designed biologically to be itself through merging with the world, having reality be in it and of it.

These poor children, because of what has happened to their brain, cannot get the world into them so well. Through no fault of their own, their ability to learn has been limited. And that is because all learning is our going out to the world not ourselves, and welcoming it into us, and having it be ourselves—the world as, for instance, facts, language, quantities, history—and the children’s inadequately formed brain won’t permit them to do this fully.

Then, there are “movement and balance”: these are about our placing ourselves rightly, fittingly, in the world outside us. And the children are unable to have that accurate placement of self and world—all because of the Zika-bearing mosquitoes (which likely didn’t mean to do them harm).

We should see that contempt disables us in a way not just different from microcephaly. Contempt stops us from taking into ourselves the world as it really is, from seeing and feeling its value. And therefore it stops us from growing rightly, from being true to ourselves. Contempt, which we think makes us big, makes us small and stunted.

Eli Siegel was right—grandly right. Every time a child or anyone learns, aesthetics is taking place. And the self triumphs because it is saying, “I am myself, and the whole world too!”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The World in a Self

By Eli Siegel

We can have one instance of our subject from Maxim Gorky, of 1920. It’s about how the world is present in a self. This was published by Alfred A. Knopf in the Borzoi book of that year: The Borzoi 1920: Being a Sort of Record of Five Years’ Publishing. Knopf has this note:

The following reprinted from the Athenaeum (London) of June 11th, 1920, and translated by S. Kotliansky is part of Gorky’s preface to the first catalogue of “World Literature,” the publishing house founded by him under the auspices of the Bolshevik government. It is reprinted here as a plea, as noble as it is typical of Gorky, for good books. A.A.K.

The fact that the self is elsewhere is in a sentence of Gorky, translated by Kotliansky, friend of D.H. Lawrence. Gorky has just said, “Literature is the heart of the world,...with all the dreams and hopes of men.” Then:

This heart throbs violently and eternally with the thirst of self-knowledge, as though in it all those substances and forces of nature that have created the human personality as the highest expression of their complexity and wisdom aspired to clarify the meaning and aim of life.

These “forces” are from the world. They’re from elsewhere.

Another sentence—Gorky is writing about what is in literature:

Man’s longing to find in woman the other half of his soul has burned and burns with an equal flame men of all lands, all times.

Why does the self need another self to complete itself? What does it mean?

From Gorky to a Biology Text

Then, there’s something that is so different: an article on biology. I’m going to use it to complete this discussion. It’s in a very popularly written book called Adventures with Living Things: A General Biology, by Elsbeth Kroeber and Walter H. Wolff (D.C. Heath and Company, 1938). The tendency of a thing to take in the world, to go for it, is seen as there in an early time, in this book. The following passage shows that the self goes toward other things:

What provision for receiving stimuli is found in the many-celled animals? You learned that in the Protozoa protoplasm is sensitive to such stimuli as light, chemical substances, temperature, and mechanical stimuli. In many parts of the many-celled animal there are single cells or groups of cells containing protoplasm which is unusually irritable or sensitive to one of these stimuli. These cells are the receptors.

There is no irritation without desire or want. Nothing ever gets irritated without a hope being present. The only reason we are irritated in the customary sense of the word is that our hope is not presented to us tidily, or as a hope.

“In Hydra, there are simple receptors....” We consist of all kinds of unknown receptors. So I have this little poem:

What was said to the just neuron

By the world?

“You’re on.”

And the just neuron

Said to the world,

“You’re on.”

That’s the way it is—because a neuron is a mode of response. There is the way of responding, and how to assimilate the response, and how to have the effectors come in. That is, as soon as you have a response you can say, What should we do with it?

In Hydra, there are simple receptors. Around the mouth and on the foot, among the ordinary epithelial cells, are long narrow cells which dwindle down to fine branching threads. Their cytoplasm is more irritable or sensitive than is the cytoplasm of the neighboring cells. They are receptors which at the same time are fitted for transmitting the message to simple muscle cells or, first, to nerve cells which then transmit the impulse still farther.

So you’re affected. And then there is a way of negotiating what has affected you.

The earth worm, a more complex invertebrate, has receptors for light and several other kinds of stimuli. These sense organs are found in large numbers in the outer covering....Fibers run from these sense cells to the chain of ganglia.

Among the higher invertebrates, such as the insects, and particularly among vertebrates, receptors are far more complicated. Furthermore, in all animals which possess a brain, even a simple one, receptors are connected with special neurons in the brain. In these cases receptors become much more than cells for receiving stimuli. They become organs for gathering information, for the brain is able to understand what the receptors pick up. While the eye receives the stimulus of light the brain “sees.” While the ear receives the stimulus of sound the brain “hears.”

It may be said that any stimulus that didn’t come from the world, didn’t take place in the world, is spurious. We don’t believe a stim of it.

The Self Is Here

So this is a study of the secret way environment works with organisms, and how organisms work with environment. And it says something about the self, because the self is here with its neurons and receptors, effectors, transmissions, and, in the instance of man, with more yearnings than the hydra has.

The yearning is a result of all previous stimuli. Which means that if you’re fortunate and get the right stimuli and do the right thing with them, you get to a high class yearning. One of the things that the self does do is yearn. A motto of this evening is: If the self yearns rightly, including your own, see that it gets what it yearns for.

Managing, Yielding, & Mix-Up

By Carol Driscoll

There’s hardly a woman alive who hasn’t been in turmoil about managing and yielding. I certainly was.

I remember years ago, in my job as an office manager in a Boston hospital, being very much affected by the children who came for medical treatment, and often going out of my way to be of use. However, I also remember my indignation with a coworker who questioned the way I tried to manage a vision test. It happened to be her field of expertise, and I was inexperienced. Nevertheless, I insisted she do it my way. In not so many minutes we were shouting at one another. Though I tried to justify myself, I hated the way I blew up in anger, and I didn’t understand what drove me. I later learned the explanation; it’s in what Ellen Reiss describes in this sentence, quoting Eli Siegel:

Contempt has us “want to shape another without full regard for the other,” affect a person without wanting to be affected by who that person truly is. [TRO 1710]

I’ve learned that as a woman asserts herself or yields in any situation, she needs to have as her purpose the desire to see exactly—be just to the facts and to another person or thing. This is the one purpose that puts affecting and being affected, asserting and yielding, together, and enables her to be proud.

The Desire to Know—or to Manage

In TRO 1714 Ellen Reiss writes:

The constant fight in everyone is between seeing the world as something to know, and seeing it as...a place in which to conquer things and persons, manage them, make them subservient to oneself. It’s the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality.

Like every child, I had this fight early. I liked school, and generally got good grades. However, I also used my mother’s emotional distress and my father’s struggle to support five children to feel this was a world I had a right to manage. As a child, I was bossy. And in our home in Massachusetts I tried to cow my younger siblings with temper tantrums, which our pediatrician said I would “outgrow.” But I didn’t.

I remember feeling driven to tear leaves from bushes that grew along the way to school, and crush them in my hands. This made me ashamed, but I didn’t know why. Now I believe these vibrant green leaves were a symbol of a world I wanted to punish, make subservient and under my control. Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel asked me about a way of seeing people that had me intensely dislike myself, “Do you like to have a person under your thumb?” I answered, “Yes,” and he explained: “All right, but having a person under your thumb hurts the thumb.”

Growing up, I thought it was insulting to have to learn from other people, and I preferred to make up a fantasy world where I managed everything. But I felt empty, terrifically lonely, and more and more angry.

This state of mind wouldn’t have changed in a thousand years were it not for what I learned from Aesthetic Realism. For one class I wrote to Mr. Siegel about a woman I worked for in New York, an ophthalmologist. I was battling with her in my mind, and resented following instructions. Mr. Siegel asked: “She has a skill you don’t. Do you honor that?”

CD . No, I don’t think I do.

ES. You feel another woman shouldn’t know things you don’t know. But in accepting another person’s skill, you can be more the person you want to be. Suppose she were Mme. Curie? Try to make up a sort of biography of her life—why she wanted to be an ophthalmologist. She’s also had her difficulties.

You should be able to face this affirmatively. Do you want to be a larger person?

“Yes!” I said. And because of what Aesthetic Realism taught me, I definitely am.

A Woman Today Learns This

In her first Aesthetic Realism consultation, a young woman I’ll call Lisa DiCarlo told us she was interested in social justice. She said that growing up, she wanted to change the plight of itinerant farm workers she saw suffering near her hometown in upstate New York. She also hoped to care for a man, and had little difficulty in getting a man’s interest. But, we learned, her relationships always ended painfully and she didn’t understand why.

As a young girl she had mediated her parents’ arguments and was looked up to by her younger siblings. She said: “I’m the one everyone turns to when there’s a problem.” She had a picture of herself as the one sensible person in a tough world, where she would make her way by trying to manage it. We asked: “What do you think you’ve gone after in your relations with men—wanting to lead them on ‘the right path,’ or being deeply affected by them?” “The first,” she told us.

We’ve learned that when a woman prefers to manage a man, she won’t want to see who he really is. A woman, we said, wants to be able to look at herself and feel, I did all I could to have a good effect on this man’s life. And for that, she needs to have the whole of a person in mind, want to know what Eli Siegel describes in his poem “Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later”: “What was he to himself?”

I’m very grateful that because of what my husband, Harvey Spears, and I have been learning from Aesthetic Realism, we have a thriving marriage where every day is a chance to ask freshly, “Who is this person I’m married to?—how does he see the world and people?”

Lisa DiCarlo had written to her consultants in the hope to understand her relation to a man, Brad Levine, who had recently been in the midst of a painful divorce.

Consultants. When a person’s marriage fails, he can be tremendously unsure of himself. Do you think Brad Levine is critical of things in himself?

LDiC. Yes, I think he feels he’s selfish. And I’ve felt I could change him. He told me I had affected his life profoundly and that I listened to him better than anyone he had known.

Consultants. As you and he talk, what stays in your mind: the things he says about how he sees the world and other people, or the things he says about you? Most women are interested in a man’s interest in them.

LDiC. I think it’s more about me.

Consultants. What will have you look good to yourself, being preoccupied with how a man sees you, or seeing him as worthy of your deep thought—like your thought about the Bach violin sonata you told us you care for?

We spoke about the fact that music itself puts together managing and yielding. To play an instrument well, a person has to yield to the notes so that they’re played correctly, and the management of those notes arises from that person’s being deeply affected.

LDiC. I never thought about this before!

Consultants. Do you want to use knowing a man to add to your care for the world, or see him as separate from other things and make him wonderful because he acts as if he needs you?

LDiC. I’m so glad we’re talking about this. I want to use him to care more for things.

I’ll conclude with sentences Lisa DiCarlo wrote to us. They represent the hope of women and men everywhere: “I feel in a way I never have that the world is friendly, and my purpose is to have a good effect on people. I can’t express enough how proud this makes me feel, and how grateful I am to Aesthetic Realism!”