The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941



Dear Unknown Friends:

It is well at this point to say what the last eighteen numbers of TRO have been about. In this number, I shall try to present a general view of the Aesthetic Realism attitude to contempt as a cause of unfortunate things in man’s life.

The first thing to see is that contempt is ever so general and is ever so particular. We can have contempt for the whole world because, seemingly, it is mismanaged by forces we do not see. And we can have contempt for a chair because there is a sign of a split in the back of it. We can have contempt for something we may wear, because some fatty substance has stained it.

Contempt, then, is as wide as the world; and as inclusive as all the telephone books together in America. The fact that contempt hurts a person is perhaps the most irrefragable evidence for the world’s being something to like. H.L. Mencken, one of the greatest representatives of contempt in the world’s history, hinted long ago in an essay, “The Genealogy of Etiquette,” that the more comprehended the world or reality was, the more it could be liked. The sentence I have in mind, or part of a sentence, contains perhaps the most useful words that Mencken ever wrote, although now they are as submerged, nearly, as the St. Louis Exposition of 1904.

1. H. L. Mencken Said This

The essay which includes the sentence am extolling so much is to be found in Mencken’s First Series of Prejudices, published by A.A. Knopf in 1919. Mencken has been telling us that the psychology of the time has given itself to less valuable purposes than it might. Mencken chides the psychological work of the time in the following words, with those I see as so important italicized:

Nay; we do not bubble with rejoicing when such fruits of psychological deep-down-diving and much-mud-upbringing researches are laid before us, for after all they do not offer us any nourishment, there is nothing in them to engage our teeth, they fail to make life more comprehensible, and hence more bearable.

Mencken, who suffered mentally in his last years because, I believe, he was so much given to the inner exultations of contempt, here says by implication what humanity most wants to know. The greatest desire or hope of man can be put this way: Reality will be more likable, more beautiful, more friendly, the more it is seen exactly; the nearer to completely it is seen. There is nothing man wants more to be certain of. And H.L. Mencken, in 1919, when he was swinging into a tremendous popularity as a satirist and funny writer, answers man’s hope in one-third of a sentence.

And Henry Louis Mencken, the Baltimore jeerer at higher things, is with John Keats in the lines from “Ode on a Grecian Urn” that have been mocked so much because of their outrageously bad logic:

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all

Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Whatever else Keats may be doing in his hopeful effrontery, he is saying that fact and what we are looking for in our lives are not drearily antagonistic. In Keats’s lines is a junction of knowledge and de-sire. In Keats’s lines, as in Mencken’s implication, the war between what we know and what we are looking for ceases gracefully.

And H.L. Mencken—in a transitional sentence—and John Keats are sustained by a famous line of French criticism of the 17th century. The line is by Nicolas Boileau (1636-1711), and is in his Epitre IX. I quote this line and that which follows:

Rien n'est beau que le vrai: le vrai seul est aimable;

II doit régner partout, et même dans la fable.


Nothing is beautiful but the true: the rue alone is lovable;

It should rule everywhere, even in what is invented.

It is quite clear, I think, that a most noted American writer of the 20th century, a renowned English Romantic poet, and an ever so important French critic in 1675, are approaching the same feeling about truth, beauty, and the world.

The more we can see that truth, beauty, and the world, instead of being a quarreling jumble, are deeply synonymous, the less in us is the fearful, ugly, always-ready desire for contempt. It is only when Mencken is comprehended in a phrase of his; when the deep, audacious perception of Keats is given some valuable sense; when the purport of a couplet of Boileau is related to what the world may really be—it is then we are less susceptible to contempt, that constant, permeating damage to any life.

2. Lionel Trilling Is Here

I have called this number of TRO, Recapitulation; and that is because in a more general way, it mentions the Aesthetic Realism conclusions about insanity. I have found it advisable to include a statement of Lionel Trilling in his “Art and Neurosis” (Partisan Review, Winter 1945). As with Mencken, it is necessary to place Professor Trilling’s words, which imply that neurosis is simply an incorrect way of seeing the world.

There are three large ways of seeing the world incorrectly. These three ways have been in history since there was a twilight in Babylon or a noon in Athens. They are Fear, Anger, Contempt. The interrelation of these will be man’s study in coming years.

Now to Lionel Trilling’s sentence:

The early attempts of psychoanalysis to deal with art went on the assumption that, because the artist was neurotic, the content of his work was also neurotic, which is to say that it did not stand in a correct relation to reality.

If this description of neurosis given by Trilling in 1945 had been kept to and known, human life since 1945 would have been more liked. Aesthetic Realism sees the main job of a person as the having of a view of life or of the world something of which one is proud; something which, the more one looks at it, the sounder and more just it seems. We simply have to like our way of seeing reality or we shall not like ourselves. Justification for what I have just said may be found in the words of Mencken, Keats, and Boileau; and now, in the words of Lionel Trilling.

To have a view of the world which has too much fear in it, too much anger in it, too much contempt in it, is to possess what in 1945 was called, more frequently than now, neurosis. And here, in keeping with my title, Recapitulation, I say something about fear and anger as present in the cause of insanity.

The two main forms that insanity has taken were once called melancholia and mania. Melancholy insanity made for a sedate, hidden, large fear. It is also true that a sedate, hidden, large fear made for melancholia. Mania, or the manic form of insanity, had anger in it: the gnashing of teeth, the pounding on walls, the desire to hit somebody, and worse.

The person with the melancholia of fear or the mania of anger, in both instances, looked for contempt as a victory for himself. When this contempt was arrived at, the victory confirmed the in-sanity. Fear and anger go towards contempt; for even a person whose mind is not at its best still wants some repose. Contempt provides some repose from fear and anger.

3. Lionel Trilling Illustrated, 1858

Perhaps Lionel Trilling would not have granted that some sentences from a book printed in Philadelphia in 1858 are a deep illustration of his swift description of neurosis. However, I think the sentences I quote, though most obviously about “psychosis,” illustrate the words of Professor Trilling. Once more I use Bucknill and Tuke’s A Manual of Psychological Medicine (Philadelphia: 1858):

The consolations offered by friends are refused as the storm blackens; or, at least, are disregarded...The will of most is inflexible; nothing can subdue it; neither reasoning, nor the solicitations of the most active tenderness, nor threats. Nothing can triumph over their errors, their alarms, or fears. Nothing can remove their prejudices, their repugnances, or aversions. Nothing can divert them from the engrossing thoughts that occupy their mind and heart, but strong and unexpected shocks, sufficient to attract their attention. [page 154]

The words I have quoted are some evidence for the Aesthetic Realism belief that in all insanity and in what used to be called neurosis, there is a triple jumble or interaction of fear, anger, and contempt. There is also evidence in the quoted words that it is when fear and anger are solaced, are given some repose by contempt, that the greatest mental misfortune takes place. In other words, while contempt is not the only thing operating in the history of neurosis or insanity, without contempt neurosis would not be as successful as it often is, nor would the negative accomplishment or success of insanity take place.

4. Trilling Continued

Psychosis, of course, like neurosis, lacks, in Professor Trilling’s words, “a correct relation to reality.” We have to consider, then, what is a correct relation to reality.

The first question here is whether there can be a correct relation to reality if reality causes in us those three torments of man: fear, anger, contempt. It is clear that in these three, contempt doesn’t look so much like a torment. Still, if Professor Trilling were asked: Do you think that fear, anger, and contempt, all three, represent an incorrect relation to reality, I think Lionel Trilling would have said, Yes.

The incorrect way of seeing reality man has been rather inclined to, consists of incorrectness as to particular situations or facts; or incorrectness of general modes of responding to reality. Fear, anger, contempt can be described as incorrect modes of responding to reality.

It is important that these three modes of responding to reality be seen in the words from Bucknill and Tuke, 19th-century psychiatrists whose once authoritative work I have been using. I make some notations.

1. “The consolations offered by friends are refused as the storm blackens; or, at least, are disregarded.” The person here who disregards the consolations of his friends, who refuses these consolations, is, it is rather clear, angry with the consolations (he refuses them), and contemptuous of these consolations (he disregards them). And it is quite clear that, along with the refusal or disregard of a request of friends, there might be some fear of these friends.

2. Then Bucknill and Tuke tell us that: “The will of most is inflexible.” When a person’s will is inflexible, this person could be contemptuous, in 1910 or 1970. He could be angry also in 1910 or 1970. And then, because there was opposition to him, there could be fear. Still, the person with melancholia, of whom Bucknill and Tuke are writing in 1858, is now endowed with contempt, the decisive cause of insanity.

3. John Charles Bucknill, M.D., and Daniel H. Tuke, M.D., tell us of some persons with melancholia that: “Nothing can triumph over their errors, alarms, or fears.” The words here show a high point in neurosis and also in insanity: a contempt for the opposition to how one sees the world and oneself. This contempt is the main thing, while it is accompanied, as I said, by fear and anger. The contempt can take the form of the Ennui Baudelaire talks of so often and so gravely. The contempt can take the form of sheer, pure indifference, frightening in its individual absoluteness.

4. When Bucknill and Tuke say that: Nothing can divert them...but strong and unexpected shocks,” they evince some hope for the depressed people of now. A depressed person, if he really sees that his depression or melancholia does not represent him, will undergo something of an insurrectionary perceptive shock. Aesthetic Realism is in favor of this great surprise. In the history of Aesthetic Realism, persons have been surprised to feel, rather clearly, that their sadness, their mournfulness, did not truly represent them.

5. There Must Be More Work

The presence of contempt must be ascertained in insanity. This presence must be ascertained wherever man is fond of depression as triumph; of dissatisfaction with the world as his victory; with false criticism of the world as a deep, smug achievement.

I have, then, recapitulated some earlier. statements about contempt as a large cause of sad mental possibility. I have tried to be aware of the principle of multiple causation. In every group of causes, there is one that is most needed, most decisive.

Aesthetic Realism has sought the decisive cause of man’s mental injustice to himself. With scientific method always in mind as a real thing, I have come to see that contempt is the essential, decisive cause of man’s self-arranged mental insufficiency and infelicity. Everyone should see whether this is true.

With love,

Eli Siegel