The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Snobbishness: What It Is & What’s Against It

Dear Unknown Friends:

Snobbishness and Self-Conflict is a great lecture that Eli Siegel gave in March 1947, at Steinway Hall. We’re proud to publish it here, based on notes taken at the time. Snobbishness is something people resent (“What an awful snob she is!”), yet also envy (“I wish I were in that set”—with the implication “and could look down on everyone the way they do”). Mr. Siegel explains that we’re all more snobbish than we know. He shows the ubiquity of snobbishness. And he has humor about it. But also, not long after the end of World War II, he is showing that snobbishness is related to Nazism: a way of seeing that “nice” people have every day is related to the fascism that enslaved and brutalized so much of Europe.

In this lecture Mr. Siegel calls snobbishness “the elegant phase of contempt.” He is the philosopher who has made clear that contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is that in us which weakens our minds, though we can think we’re smart to have it. Aesthetic Realism explains this tremendous thing: snobbishness and mental depression always go together. A crucial aspect of why is presented in the 1947 talk. I’ll mention some other aspects:

a) Within all snobbishness is the feeling that things and people are not good enough for us. But in having this feeling, we come to have also a deep, miserable sense of emptiness and dullness. The reason is, the one way to feel there are fullness, meaning, non-loneliness in our lives is to feel we’re related to what’s not ourselves. So the more of reality we scornfully reject, the more of a desolating void we feel.

b) Few people would say that a baby, just arrived, came to the world in order to turn up her nose at her fellow humans. No: we were born to see value in things and people. Therefore, in going after contempt for them, we dislike, even loathe, ourselves—because we’re being untrue to the purpose of our lives.

Every snob is depressed. He or she may hide it, cover it over, act chipper, but to be a snob is to feel often miserable, to have stretches of dejection and a pervasive sense of hollowness. It is also true that:

c) In all depression there is a snobbishness. A depressed person is unconsciously determined that the world is not good enough to please him. “Those flowers, which people make such a fuss about—they don’t do a thing for me! Music—big deal; it can’t make me feel better. Books?—hah, they can’t hold my interest. I don’t care about colors (except to dislike them), sounds (except to be bothered by them), people (except to despise them).”

Snobbishness & Economics

What is the relation of our subject to that matter affecting America so much—the economy? We know that there has been economic snobbishness: people with money have looked down on those who don’t have it. Yet there’s a relation that’s even more fundamental: snobbishness is the very basis of profit economics. Something that would be clear to everyone, were it not for snobbishness, is in this sentence by Eli Siegel, from an essay published in the Modern Quarterly in 1923, when he was twenty: “Now if nobody made the land, it is evident, to a really normal human, that everybody living has a right to own it and should own it.” To feel some few people should own much more of the earth’s wealth than others is sheer snobbishness.

To see other human beings in terms of how much labor you can get out of them while paying them as little as possible, how much profit you wring from them, is central to the profit motive. It’s seeing people as existing to aggrandize you; and that is snobbishness. With snobbishness, too, is the terrible fact of poverty. I remember Mr. Siegel saying in the 1970s that contempt is the only reason poverty is permitted to exist: people like feeling others are inferior.

The present tumult about healthcare involves our subject deeply. Various politicians and radio personalities have ferociously appealed to people’s snobbishness, cloaking it as something more noble-looking. In TRO 1754 I said of healthcare reform (and this is not about any particular legislation):
There is a fierce desire to make any attempt at justice to everyone look evil. One won’t come out and say, even to oneself, “I don’t like people being made more equal in terms of healthcare. I have to feel some people are inferior to me. I may have trouble paying for healthcare myself—but others should have more trouble.” Instead, [one says] with pious indignation, “I don’t want a government death panel deciding if grandma should live!!” Contempt often covers itself with a lie like that and disguises itself as moral outrage.

Some particular questions concerning economics and snobbishness are these: Would you, Mr. X, who own an expensive car, like it if everyone had as good a car as you do? Would you, Ms. Y, like it if everyone had as stunningly decorated an apartment as you have? Would you like it if all women walked down the street with elegant handbags? A person should have nice things, lovely things, even dazzling things. But so often a person wants to own something fine not just because it’s good in itself, but because many other people can’t have it—and therefore we show we’re superior.

It’s clear that today profit economics isn’t working so well. Eli Siegel gave the reason in the 1970s. And I have written much on the subject in recent years. For this occasion, we can say that economics based on snobbishness isn’t working well because snobbishness is an untrue basis for an economy as it’s an untrue basis for a life.

At the end of the 1947 lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about the real opponent to snobbishness. It’s a beautiful fact that this opponent is not some dull, dutiful self-effacement. The opponent is the most truly thrilling, glamorous thing in the world: it is to be like art, in keeping with this principle—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Snobbishness and Self-Conflict

By Eli Siegel

Snobbishness is an excluding or including of persons and things for purposes of one’s own importance. Everyone is snobbish to some extent. We know of girls who form a gang, calling themselves The Big Five, and immediately begin excluding all other girls.

We can feel important because of what we are, or because of what other people are not. If we decide we’re important because of what other people are not, we’re welcoming snobbishness—and trouble. A woman can be snobbish because she’s a woman, or because she’s different from other women. A man can be snobbish because he’s a man, or because he’s different from other men. Young people can be snobbish just because they’re young. I’ve talked to children who think all adults are unseeing fuddy-duddies.

Snobbishness can be joined with a terrific humility. Several years ago I talked to a Yugoslav refugee who felt Americans were superficial, Americans had no culture, Americans didn’t know anything. Yet at the same time he wanted terribly to belong to America. This person was a snob because he was learned and because with all his learning he didn’t do too well financially. He had a dream pretty often of going to a restaurant and feeling that he wasn’t wearing the right kind of clothes. The snobbishness he had is a very serious kind. It comes from the fact that because we’re not sure of ourselves we feel we have to belittle other things.

We may think of snobbishness as having to do with the more elegant forms of intellectuality. But if we look closely, we see that fascism is the morals of snobbishness, and snobbishness is the manners of fascism. There’s a certain kind of hating, self-glorifying aloofness present in both.

Snobbishness is the unwillingness to see things as they are, because if they’re seen as they are, a hidden notion of oneself will be interfered with. Snobbishness arises out of vanity.

We have to be important. We have to be important, as I said, either through what we are or through what others are not. Some of the forms the second takes are fearful. We can see it in mothers who don’t want their children to marry into certain families. Mrs. Berkowitz says, “Why should my daughter marry a Tannenbaum? What has a Berkowitz to do with a Tannenbaum?” Yet this, in principle, is the same as asking, “What has an Aryan to do with a Latin?”

What We Like or Dislike

Snobbishness has ever so many other forms. Some people won’t read books that many other people are reading. For example, persons who were enthusiastic about Of Human Bondage in 1919 wouldn’t think of reading it later when many people were talking of it and it had been in the movies twice. Then there are persons who won’t read a book until it is talked of everywhere. Snobbishness can, on the one hand, want to be in the swim, and on the other hand, want to be exclusive.

Suppose we look at French poetry. Victor Hugo wasn’t esteemed, at the beginning, by the French Academicians. Then in the 1840s he became popular, and those persons who in the 1830s would have esteemed him for saying “Down with the Academicians” are now associating Hugo with the Academy, and saying he is the poet of the bourgeoisie and Baudelaire is the real thing. Hugo, all in all, is a greater poet than Baudelaire (who is definitely very good).

Take Frank Sinatra: he has style and showmanship and some depth. But there are people who can’t see him as good because he is so popular. Also, there were people who, when he was less popular for a time, found they liked him more.

The desire to take part in things and at the same time be aloof, is tremendous. Snobbishness is a way of being cockeyed. It comes from being afraid to see an object as it is. People can look at a poem in manuscript and not see anything in it, but if the poem is published in the right place and praised by the right critics, it is found tremendously exciting. In all instances of snobbishness, the ego, not ready to see a thing as it is, chooses to be comforted, hate, or be contemptuous.

Snobbishness & Depression

Snobbishness is something that should be aligned with the graver manifestations of mental disturbance. A poem that expresses this is Robert Clairmont’s “Great King Gus”:

Great King Gus

Didn’t give a hang for masses;

Great King Gus

Drank from diamond drinking glasses:

Great King Gus

Was unhappy, sad and lonely,

For he was the one and only

Great King Gus.

The tendency of snobbishness is to be more and more exclusive: first, to have a “set”; then a ring within the set; then a faction in the ring; a nucleus in the faction—getting, if possible, to a circle which is you. Snobbishness is based on the idea that the self is better than the whole world.

The basic unconscious fight in everyone is the fight between the desire to see things as they are and the desire to lessen things as a means of making oneself important. Snobbishness, coming from the second, is limiting, and so it makes for depression. Clairmont shows this in the poem. Snobbishness finds, through being falsely exclusive, the world duller and duller. Finally we find we’ve rejected the world as a source of enjoyment. And when we’ve done that, we feel we no longer have a right to be pleased by the world.

A good deal of bad literature and aesthetic criticism have come from snobbishness. That was so in the early reaction to Coleridge and Wordsworth. Snobbishness is the thing that makes people blind—makes them not see in Beethoven’s lifetime what we see in Beethoven now. To be a critic means to see a thing as it is. That is hard to do. But we often have a motive in not seeing things as they are. Snobbishness is the elegant phase of contempt. It’s an ugly thing.

A Statement of Thackeray

The problem of snobbishness affected very much the mind of an important English writer, Thackeray. He himself has been accused of snobbishness, and I think the accusation is somewhat correct. In 1846 he wrote a series of articles for Punch, called, when they were published as a book, The Book of Snobs. This is from Thackeray’s preface:

First, the World was made: then, as a matter of course, Snobs; they existed for years and years, and were no more known than America. But presently...the people became darkly aware that there was such a race. Not above five-and-twenty years since, a name, an expressive monosyllable, arose to designate that race. That name has spread over England like railroads subsequently....Snobbishness is like Death in a quotation from Horace, which I hope you never have heard, “beating with equal foot at poor men’s doors, and kicking at the gates of Emperors.”

What Thackeray is getting at is that in the past, with classes being carefully distinguished, there was not as much awareness of snobbishness as when people and money and family became more fluid. As they did, the sense of snobbishness came to a height, because it was being questioned.

The problem of snobbishness has to do with finding a rhythm between being proud and being humble. Thackeray was worried about this. He wanted to feel that writers with mind were more important than the Duke of Umberland, but also, he wanted to be invited to the Duke of Umberland’s.
The last sentence in the quotation is the most important. When you see little boys on Allen Street form a club to which they won’t let other boys belong, it’s plain that snobbishness can’t be associated just with rich people or elegant people. A false way of getting importance is gone after by everyone.

For example, a person told me that every time he was at a party and touched something other people had touched before him, he surreptitiously had to wash his hands. To me, that’s more snobbish than anything in Proust. He had to rid himself of the infection of existence, really. This person had other traits: he couldn’t bear to agree with anyone or to believe in anything. It’s not that such people are against beliefs that don’t have validity—they’re against belief as such: it would mean being invaded, taken over, infected by reality.

Snobbishness Is Specialization

We can become too specialized about our interests through snobbishness. There’s a snobbishness toward the new, and toward the old. In all snobbishness, the thing that is made less is seen as an interference with the ego; the thing that is chosen is seen as a soother of the ego.

If snobbishness means going after intense effects, not taking cheap things, selecting accurately—why, wonderful. But if snobbishness is a lessening of externalities for the false exaltation of self, it is related to the woman in an asylum who goes into a sack and growls whenever anyone comes near.

Provincialism and specialization are two things that represent the idea of insanity. Insanity is specialization: it’s choosing certain things associated with the importance of oneself and rejecting everything else. Insanity used to be called monomania. We see it in the man who wanted only to grow tulips and wouldn’t talk about anything but tulips. The same thing is present in a mother who wants to talk only about her children. That isn’t geographical provincialism, but it is provincialism, spiritually speaking. The woman who says “My world is my children” thinks she’s being noble, but it’s deeply the same approach that made people talk of “Aryans.”

There have been snobs as to Aesthetic Realism. Aesthetic Realism doesn’t come from the American Medical Association or any other association, and snobbish people won’t see anything until it’s been labeled suitably. They can’t see, even, that they can’t see.

Art: The Opponent of Snobbishness

Aesthetic Realism is against snobbishness because it’s against insanity, the ugly, the separating. It is based on the idea that the only way to like oneself is to know the outside world as it is. It says that the one way to be proud is to yield to exactness. So any person interested in Aesthetic Realism truly will be that much fighting the snobbishness in himself.

The purpose of everybody is to solve an aesthetic proposition which is really himself: to give everything that is coming to himself by giving all that is coming to what isn’t himself.

All art is a triumphant submission to what’s real. All knowledge is a submission; it is a conquering and a submission. Life is a submission to the things that are in life. Eating is a submission to food. What we have to see is that submission can be proud. That is aesthetics. A writer, in yielding to his material, conquers it. In art, yielding and conquering become one.

We don’t know it, but when we’re disturbed, depressed, we’re in a fight between a desire proudly to see the world as something that can affect us, and a desire to say to things not ourselves, “Begone!”

To give oneself accurately to the world is the only kind of mastery there is. To feel individuality is bigger the more it is affected is the way against snobbishness, against aloofness, against insanity. And that way is aesthetic.