The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Science, Art, & Insistence

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the second part of the lecture we are serializing: the great Mind and Insistence, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. With it we publish a poem he wrote nearly three decades later, “Sciences for Me.” The poem and lecture seem very different. Yet they both have to do with the biggest matter in everyone’s life: how we relate two tremendous opposites—our dear, intimate self, and the world in all its width and particularity. “We all of us,” Mr. Siegel writes,

start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it. [Self and World, p. 91]

The ways we insist are forms of our “do[ing] something about it.” Some of our insistences we’re aware of; many, we are not.

In this lecture Mr. Siegel has us feel the multitudinousness of the insistences that go on in people, their nuances, subtleties, diversity. Yet Aesthetic Realism shows that every insistence of ours arises from one of the two central purposes battling in us. These are 1) to have contempt for the world, lessen it as a means of enhancing ourselves, versus 2) to respect the world, the “there [which] is not ourselves,” see it as something we want to know and care for. From the contempt purpose come insistences that damage the person doing the insisting, as well as other people and things. From the purpose to respect the world come insistences that are beautiful, intelligent, kind.

By means of introduction to this second section, I’ll mention several of the ways, mostly ordinary, that people insist.

For Example, These Five

1) Many people, in conversation, feel an insistence within them to show that somehow they’re smarter than the person they’re talking with. Someone gives information: you have to show you know something about the subject that this person doesn’t—and what you know is more important. Occasionally you may even tell yourself, “Don’t do it!”—but you feel driven. This insistence is an aspect of contempt. It comes from the feeling that the world, represented by one’s fellow humans, is not something to know but something to feel superior to; and further, that one’s purpose with people is not to learn from them but to wow them with one’s superiority.

This I-have-to-show-I’m-better-than-others insistence has many modes. There is: I have to decorate my home better than my neighbors do theirs. Also: I have to have my child beat theirs at soccer—and I’ve got a right to feel very bad and even furious if my child’s team doesn’t win. These insistences are present in homes throughout America. And they are always accompanied by a feeling of emptiness and shame.

2) Anger can be an insistence. People have wondered why they feel driven to be angry; they have a notion they’re not wholly accurate, yet they cannot stop. And the various “anger management” courses don’t help much. There can be a true anger, a beautiful and kind anger. But the hurtful anger, the dangerous anger, so much in people’s lives, is an insistence that: I shouldn’t have to think more, learn more—I can sum up a situation in one big rage, turn it into an enemy to defeat. This way I deal in a blaze with a world that has had the nerve to confuse me and make me feel there’s more for me to know!

3) One of the most horrible insistences is something that goes on every day: lying. Behind every lie, whether massive or casual, is the insistence This must be so, and if it’s not, I’ll make it so! Lying is the ugly insistence that one’s own desire is superior to the truth, and that if the facts don’t go along with what one wants, the facts should be annulled.

4) There is the insistence that the world simply isn’t good enough for oneself. This insistence has various modes, and one mode is boredom. It may be hard to see boredom as an insistence, yet it is. It is the saying, Bring on your sunsets, your novels, your history of ideas, your sounds, your animals, your happenings, your ever so many human beings—I won’t be excited by any of it. In a world sizzling with interest, to be uninterested requires a certain determination, though that determination may be unconscious. “Being bored,” Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, “is a victory for ubiquitous contempt.”

5) A person’s insistence that the world is not good enough for her, can take the form, too, of a readiness to be disgusted and feel sad, low, depressed. One can unknowingly insist on feeling bad, because through such a feeling one has a sense of oneself as miserable Royalty in a world composed of messy, mean, inferior things and people. To find things interesting, vividly valuable, for one, would mean to respect them, be grateful for them. The self that wants contempt can’t stand that idea, and insists against such a thing.

All the examples I have just given are instances of contempt. They all make a person ashamed, make one dislike oneself. That is because the greatest insistence within us, equivalent to the insistence of our heartbeat, is: See meaning in this world you were born into and born from—do all you can to be fair to it! Mr. Siegel puts the insistence this way in Self and World: “The unconscious, as judge, has said: ‘Do not separate yourself from reality. If you do, you are not being yourself entirely, and one side of you will punish the other.’”

The Other Insistence

All the good occurrences in human history have come from the insistence I just spoke of: Be fair to what is not you—this is the way you will be truly yourself! There were, for example, the American Abolitionists of the 1830s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s. They insisted it was wrong for some people to own others: they insisted slavery must end! And though they were widely hated because of their insistence, they would not let the matter rest.

All art arises from insistence. Let’s take Vermeer, looking, around 1657, at a young woman asleep at a table. We can be sure he felt, This woman, her head resting on her hand, the other hand resting gently on the table, insists on something from me—insists on being seen a certain way; there is a justice that the folded cloth on the table, with its rich pattern, is demanding—and the fruit and jug on the table, and the half-opened door. Every artist feels an insistence from his subject, which is met by an insistence from himself: I must be fair to this, and I must find what that being fair is!

Then there is science. Science can seem so methodical and careful, it may be difficult to see it as an insistence, but it is. Eli Siegel described science as “the known desire to know.” Every true scientist is insisting, I must see what this is, know it. Galileo insisted on seeing truly the relation of earth and sun. Jonas Salk insisted on finding how to prevent that terrible ailment polio. In the best scientists, there is the largest insistence on knowing.

All the sciences Mr. Siegel speaks about in the poem “Sciences for Me” arose from an insistence on knowing the world in various of its forms—not on conquering it, sneering at it. The poem is charming; it has humor. And it does what its author always did: it makes education ever so close to one’s very self. In the course of this poem, Mr. Siegel speaks about 17 sciences. He describes clearly what many of them are—in a way anyone can understand.

Both the poem and the lecture are instances of the most beautiful insistence I know: Eli Siegel’s insistence that he find out what the world, in its fullness, is, and be fair to it. He was true to this insistence always. From it came the grandeur of knowledge and kindness which is Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Two Kinds of Insistence

By Eli Siegel

We have a possibility of insistence on having our way, as we understand it, and to hell with everything else. We have also the insistence which is a good thing: on liking ourselves and seeing things as a means of understanding what’s real in general. We cannot evade this insistence. Then there is a third insistence: that we be mild with both; not be too bad and not be too good, but jump around as the occasion suits. This insistence makes for all kinds of mild miseries. It stops a person from being wholly alive. This kind of insistence, which is the neutrality of timidity, is also bad.

We can have a kind of insistence which, without our knowing it, can make our life go entirely wrong. There is a novel current at the moment called The Husband, by Natalie Anderson Scott. I am not now discussing the novel as such; I’m commenting on some of the things that a reviewer in the New York Times, Orville Prescott, brings out in his review of a few days ago. The woman who is the main character unconsciously cultivated an insistence many people cultivate. It is so charming, so attractive, seemingly so necessary, and so common that it is hard to see that it is a false insistence. This insistence can be discerned in the following two paragraphs of the review:

Cassie...let sexual passion for her husband blind her completely. She never did learn what kind of a man he was....She waited upon him with sickening obsequiousness; she wore herself out in work and worry...and delighted in her own slavery, never realizing what was happening to her, the nice, eager, trusting girl who changed so much....

How Cassie changed, how she became an irritable shrew, mean, deceitful and finally insane, is Mrs. Scott’s story....Every change, every increasingly evil action, had its source in Cassie’s abject passion. When she was harsh and cruel to her children it was so that Mr. Rawson should not be disturbed. When she abused the servant girl it was from jealousy.... Even when she...betrayed a friend for money it was to please Mr. Rawson. The money would be so helpful to him in his business.

Well, this woman is insisting on something: she is insisting on an attitude she has to her husband and on an attitude her husband should have to her. She has not seen that this insistence is not representative of her, that it is an awfully stupid insistence, and that if it doesn’t stop, her life will go into horrible alleys.

As far as I can see, this insistence is not described accurately by the novelist. She doesn’t see that Cassie is saying, “I insist on conquering the world in this manner; I insist on being dependent on my husband, because in being dependent on something I’ve already captured I’m dependent on myself.” She does not see, as far as I can gather, the insistence on using this man as a symbol for her own ego-conquering. It was false conquering. It is the kind of thing that people can insist on. Women can say, “If I can have my man wonderful and devoted to me, I am on top of the world.” Then they get into trouble. In this novel, the insistence leads to insanity. It can.

But it is a kind of insistence that seems so logical, so inevitable, and also is fostered by Reader’s Digest articles, and by psychoanalysts. And when it is attacked it is not attacked clearly, because the advantage of it, the logic of it, is not seen. Others may not have it as terrifyingly as this Cassie Rawson did; but the meddling with it, the trying to get a husband on whom you’re dependent and who is dependent on you, and with whom you can spit at the world because you have all you want through him—that kind of insistence is so common and makes for so much trouble.

I don’t think the matter is described accurately in this review; it is described as “sexual passion,” “abject passion.” That’s hooey. Cassie wants power, and if she can get it by being abject, she’ll do it.

The complexity of the insistence, from what I gather, is not presented in the novel; but there is enough to frighten usefully. We should see that if there is anything working in us unconsciously, while we don’t know about it there is a likelihood of its insisting and making us do things we really don’t want to do—though at the time we do them they’ll seem to be the only things we can do. We can insist on being slaves. That is quite terrible, but it is common.

Sciences for Me

By Eli Siegel

There was once a person, Ivor Epworth, who took a look at the social sciences.

The first science he looked at was Economics. “Oh, that’s simple,” he said; “that’s about me making money and buying things.”

Then he took a look at the science called Psychology. “I don’t see why that should be a social science,” he said, “it sounds so private; but I guess if people who know call it a social science, I’d better go along.”

Then Ivor looked at Sociology. “That looks like the real thing; it’s got the word ‘social’ in it, not like that bleak, individual thing called psychology.”

And Ivor felt good because he had given the old one-two to one of the sciences, and was ready to give the old one-two to some more of the sciences.

And then he looked at Politics. “It seems pretty clear that politics has got to do with the three sciences I’ve been looking at earlier: Economics, Psychology, Sociology. So I’ll think about this later. Anyway, it’s good to think of Politics as a social science, not just something you scheme in.”

A minute or two later, somebody came along and told Ivor, for whatever reason, that History was a social science too. Everybody has a past; in fact, everything has a past. A chair has a past, and chairs do generally. The family has a past. The United States has a past. And Ivor thought, “I have a past too, and so I belong to a social science called History.” He felt rather good about this.

And Ivor Epworth next came to the thought that if there are the social sciences, there must be the unsocial sciences. And thinking about it, he saw that the unsocial sciences are not called that, but rather physical sciences. This is because no human is present in these physical sciences, as human.

For instance, there is Physiology, which seems to be about a human being, but is rather about an arrangement of bones, tissues, veins, arteries, organs, all with a specific, complete human being left out. Physiology is the study of a human being with no place to go dear to him.

There is Biology, which, though it approaches the social sciences, is seen as a physical science. That is about life in any form life may take. “I remember,” said Ivor to himself, “biology was called ‘bio,’ and that is a Greek word meaning life: just that.” And Ivor felt friendly to the Greek language.

“Chemistry, that is a physical science for sure. It says everything is made up of things within it, with all of these things within related to each other. I have a notion,” said Ivor, “this is all on my side.

“And there is Physics, which is about how things move and what they do when they meet each other. Chemistry is about the things that are within things, while physics is about things as a whole. A broom, while it’s sweeping, is physics; but what’s in the straw and the wood of the broom, that’s chemistry.

“Astronomy is physics gone mighty. Instead of dealing with what happens when a ball meets another ball, or a ball meets a wall, or a bone meets a drum, it’s about how big things called planets move around or are still; how meteors and comets are little features; and even so, how the planets affect each other. All the planets, like people who know each other at a party, affect each other.

“Geology is about how the earth of a particular planet remains as it is and also changes. The earth or matter that is the Grand Canyon changed a great deal, but remained as it was too. So did the field that your uncle owned in Vermont.

“Geography is how the ground and water of earth took particular forms, sometimes called nations, cities, states. That is political geography. But the earth as rivers, mountains, valleys, plains, given particular names, is geography too; and without names, is Geology.

“Meteorology is what happens in space that affects people who are trying to be comfortable on earth.

“There is a delightful subsidiary physical science called Crystallography, which tells how matter can take on specific shapes with volume and clearness.

“Mineralogy is that aspect of physics which deals with matter more together than matter is in, say, wood.

“And after mentioning wood, it is right to go to Botany, which is about things in the ground and getting life from the ground, assisted by water and air.

“Botany belongs to Biology, as does the next science, Zoology. Zoology is about things that can live even though they are not at rest on the ground as, say, a rosebush must be; and the things in zoology have feelings.

“At this time,” Ivor Epworth said, “I am so close to myself, I’d better stop.”