The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Aesthetics of Restlessness

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to publish the first part of Mind and Restlessness, by Eli Siegel. This lecture, which he gave seventy years ago, explains definitively, kindly, clearly, richly, beautifully, a matter not understood by others attempting to deal with the human self.

We do not have a full transcript of Mind and Restlessness, but I have put together notes taken by two of the students present in that 1948 class: Martha Baird and my mother, Irene Reiss. Though these notes are incomplete, they bring us an authentic picture, not only of the ideas in the lecture, but of Eli Siegel’s depth, ease, great exactitude, humor, scholarship, down-to-earthness, respect for the self of everyone.

People have been tormented by their restlessness. And, as Mr. Siegel shows, along with the kind that is overt, there can be a restlessness that people don’t even know they have, but which makes them feel unsure, unplaced, rather empty.

Restlessness Is about Opposites

At the time of this lecture, the philosophy Aesthetic Realism was in its first decade: Mr. Siegel had begun to teach it seven years earlier. It is the philosophy showing that the human self is an aesthetic situation; that our fundamental need, in every aspect of our lives, is to do what art does: put opposites together. “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel explained in a landmark principle—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” So in this lecture he looks at restlessness as no one else ever did: as a question of aesthetics.

Take a woman who cannot concentrate on something important that she’s reading but must too often get up and look out the window, check her email, look for something on Ebay, wipe a countertop, text a friend, take a selfie with her dog, get something from the refrigerator. In her restlessness, she is dealing painfully, inaccurately, with opposites that are one in every instance of good music, motion and rest. The oneness of these opposites makes for beauty anywhere. For example, there’s the beauty of a tree as it stands with trunk firm and still, while its leaves move rustlingly, in delicate tumult.

And there are the biggest opposites in everyone’s life: self and world. Restlessness, Mr. Siegel shows, always has to do with a false relation of these. In the 1948 lecture he speaks about various forms of restlessness. The particular causes may be somewhat different. But in all, the decisive cause is a person’s unjust seeing of the world: a feeling that one takes care of oneself by looking down on it, getting away from it. That feeling is contempt, which Mr. Siegel showed to be the most hurtful thing in the human self: the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”

In some instances of restlessness, the underlying contempt can seem to have practically been forced on one. Take a child who is very poor, or a child who is surrounded with insincerity: such a child can, wrongly but easily, feel the world itself is a mess, and get a miserable unjust gratification spurning it. Mainly, however, contempt for the world is gone for because it seems to make oneself important, able to sneer in superiority at things and people, kick them around in one’s mind however one pleases. In all restlessness there is the underlying contempt of feeling, Nothing is good enough to hold me; nothing deserves my full attention.

So restlessness can be a form of contempt. Then, it can also be a punishment we give ourselves for contempt. That is: no matter how contempt for the world is come to, we always dislike ourselves for having it. We have an inevitable shame, a self-dissatisfaction, because we were born to be fair to the world different from ourselves; our deepest desire is to know and value it. Our self-dissatisfaction, our displeasure with ourselves for being unjust, shows in various ways, among which is an agitation, continued unease, restlessness.

Restlessness Now

The explanation in Mind and Restlessness is true about life in any year, decade, century. However, I’ll mention aspects of restlessness that are of our particular time.

1) When Eli Siegel gave this talk there was no internet. The internet is wonderful, but, as everyone knows, it can be used in hurtful ways. The internet has been used restlessly, and can lend itself to restlessness and seem to justify it. That is, the internet can seem to justify non-attention, the contempt of dealing with the world by jumping from one thing to another and not thinking much about anything. The valuable technology of our time has unfortunately been used very much in behalf of the feeling, If I can’t “get” this in a couple of seconds it’s not worth my attention—on to something else! The fault is not the internet’s; the fault is contempt.

2) It has been noticed that many Millennials and Gen Z-ers have a tendency to talk fast, very fast. That may simply be part of the evolution of speech, affected by the fact that there is greater speed in the world as such. But it may also be, and I think is, part of a pervasive restlessness. It’s connected with that speedy, dismissive leaping from one thing to another, for which the internet has been misused. It is essentially a restless way of speech. And as you’ll see, Mr. Siegel says that the deep restlessness of not feeling “at home in the world...can take the form of talking fast.” In any instance of rapid speech, the criterion for its goodness or badness, beauty or ugliness, is this: Does your speaking fast arise from the desire to honor the idea you’re expressing, and the words used, and also the persons listening, or is there a sense that those words, ideas, people don’t deserve a certain fullness of attention and justice from you?

Then there is the matter of how a person listens to another’s rapid discourse. Is there the taken-for-granted feeling, I don’t need to hear every word—I can just grab what I think the idea is and move on? There is such a thing as restless listening—taking in a bit here and a bit there and not being affected with all of oneself—and too rapid speech seems to justify and demand that. (Meanwhile, speaking very slowly can be contempt too—can be a way of taking the life out of things.) We need to like ourselves for how we speak. We will when we feel we’re using words to be fair to the world. People of every generation are thirsty to know this.

I hope to say more in a coming issue about the restlessness in America today, and how our failed and unjust for-profit economy is part of its cause.

3) Over the last decades, the word hyperactive has been much used to characterize many, many children. The pharmaceutical companies have reeled in huge profits because mental practitioners, not understanding these children, have therefore condemned them to be drugged, often for decades. The “hyperactivity” of a child is a form of restlessness: it is an intense restlessness. It needs to be related to the restlessness Eli Siegel is speaking about, and understanding, in this lecture. And when what he explains about restlessness is studied, “hyperactivity” and much more will at last be understood—to the great happiness of young people and humanity.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Mind and Restlessness

By Eli Siegel

Everyone has gone through something like restlessness. The pain that comes from restlessness doesn’t come because you’re moving; when you’re restless you have to move, and, at the same time, you’re against moving.

Restlessness can be defined as motion with againstness. And there is something compulsory about the motion. If you have to be on the move, and have to think about many changes and go through many operations, yet cannot feel that you like it, there is restlessness. There is the quality of a feverish baby, tossing and lying still. It’s motion without symmetry, motion that is undesired.

Any person who is not at peace with himself or herself will have to be restless. A mother has said to a child, “Seymour, sit still!”—he’s playing with his toes, pulling at his ears, and he twists and writhes. One aspect of nervousness is that a person can’t sit still. There is the restlessness that takes place when a person is guilty; he may move and look about in his chair.

The deepest kind of restlessness is the kind we don’t know about; it goes on without event manifestation. Then, something like an eye tic or a motion of nose and lips is the result of a deep restlessness, and the person may not be aware of showing it. These things are unconscious in their cause.

The restlessness that is the deepest is the feeling of not being at home in the world you have been born into. Nearly everybody has that. It’s a restlessness that can make one be afraid without knowing clearly one is afraid. It can take the form of talking fast and doing something fast; not being able to read a book or listen steadily; not wanting to go to sleep; not being able to sleep when you want to. In fact, not being at home in the world is one of the larger definitions of restlessness.

An Important Legend

An opera about restlessness is Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman. The motion of restlessness as concerned with guilt is present in the story. The legend of the Flying Dutchman, which the opera is based on, is one of the high points in descriptions of restlessness. If one does something which is against oneself, one will be restless.

William A. Wheeler, in Dictionary of the Noted Names of Fiction, describes three versions of the Flying Dutchman legend, and in all three someone is supposed to have done something bad. The first version I think is best; here is how Wheeler writes about it:

Flying Dutchman. The name given by sailors to a spectral ship, which is supposed to cruise in storms off the Cape of Good Hope....According to one account, a Dutch captain, bound home from the Indies, met with long-continued head-winds and heavy weather off the Cape of Good Hope, and refused to put back as he was advised to do, swearing a very profane oath that he would beat round the Cape, if he had to beat there until the Day of Judgment. He was taken at his word, and doomed to beat against head-winds all his days. His sails are believed to have become thin and sere, his ship’s sides white with age, and himself and crew reduced almost to shadows.

If a person decides he’s going to buck outside forces even though he knows it’s not right to, how can he ever be at home? Once we decide to fight the world, how can we ever be really at ease? If, therefore, a person doesn’t sufficiently care for things, the person is that much restless. The restlessness would be a deep showing of self-dissatisfaction, or guilt.

So in the Flying Dutchman story, a man, because he wanted to have his way going around the Cape, has to be in motion all the time. The legend represents that guilt and unrest of a person bent on having his way and not feeling he deserves it. —Once a child is given his way and feels he doesn’t deserve it, he can be sent gyrating through life.

What the Process of Being Alive Is For

If we asked ourselves when we were ever deeply at ease, most people could not say when, because they have always seemed never really placed. The first thing, therefore, to say to a newborn child would be, “Please make yourself at home.” The process of being alive is to make yourself at home in life. It’s a hard job. And insofar as we don’t fulfill the job, our lives are restless.

People can be feverish and go from one project to another, one man or woman to another. Or a person can be inwardly so restless that he doesn’t want to give it any outward form and so seems not to want to change at all. But sometimes restlessness takes a very outward form. Some people get enthusiasms and then give them up. They go like a sad butterfly from one thing to another. Conversation can be like that. Some people are interested in “everything” and therefore not interested at all.

A Dickens Character

It is well known that Charles Dickens used his own mother in presenting that satire on mothers, Mrs. Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby. One of the things Dickens had against his mother was that he was sent to work as a boy pasting labels on bottles.* He knew even at age twelve that learning was a very big thing, but his mother didn’t take him seriously. She didn’t seem interested in what he felt at all—only in having more income in the family and a little peace. And she would flit from one thing to another. People flit in order to get to quietness, and that’s what Dickens’ mother did. She is satirized because she is light-minded. Nicholas Nickleby’s mother, who is based on her, is a selfish butterfly. She acts as if she were very considerate, but she really wants only consolation from her children. In the novel it is very comic; most people don’t see how bitter the writing is.

[In chapter 27, Mrs. Nickleby is asked if she caught a cold the night before. She answers no; but—]

“I had a cold once,” said Mrs. Nickleby, “I think it was in the year eighteen hundred and seventeen; let me see, four and five are nine, and—yes, eighteen hundred and seventeen, that I thought I never should get rid of....I was only cured at last by a remedy that I don’t know whether you ever happened to hear of, Mr. Pluck. You have a gallon of water as hot as you can possibly bear it, with a pound of salt and sixpen’orth of the finest bran, and sit with your head in it for twenty minutes every night just before going to bed; at least, I don’t mean your head—your feet. It’s a most extraordinary cure....I used it for the first time, I recollect, the day after Christmas Day, and by the middle of April following the cold was gone. It seems quite a miracle when you come to think of it.”

Then, a longer sample of the restless selfish person. [In chapter 35, Nicholas Nickleby introduces his mother to the poor, mistreated boy Smike, hoping she will want “to help.”]

“I am sure, my dear Nicholas,” replied Mrs. Nickleby, looking very hard at her new friend, and bending to him with something more of majesty than the occasion seemed to require,—“I am sure any friend of yours has, as indeed he naturally ought to have, and must have, of course, you know—a great claim upon me, and of course, it is a very great pleasure to me to be introduced to anybody you take an interest in....At the same time I must say, Nicholas, my dear, as I used to say to your poor dear papa, when he would bring gentlemen home to dinner,...that if he had come the day before yesterday—no, I don’t mean the day before yesterday now; I should have said, perhaps, the year before last—we should have been better able to entertain him....You didn’t tell me, Nicholas, my dear,” added Mrs. Nickleby,... “what your friend’s name is.”

“His name, mother,” replied Nicholas, “is Smike.”

...The name was no sooner pronounced, than Mrs. Nickleby dropped upon a chair, and burst into a fit of crying.

“What is the matter?” exclaimed Nicholas, running to support her.

“It’s so like Pyke,” cried Mrs. Nickleby; “so exactly like Pyke, that’s all. Oh! don’t speak to me—I shall be better presently.”

In this satire there is a presentation of restlessness, and the feeling that whatever one hears, one must change it into one’s own personal retrospections. In the novel, whenever somebody says something to Mrs. Nickleby, she plays around with what is said, and she has to tell everything that happened to her. She is restlessly selfish. There is no interest in another person; she skates over the personality of the other person. She shows a sort of light-mindedness that comes as a surface indication of a concern with herself in a narrow fashion, a lack of consideration and interest in other things. If one is not interested in things deeply, one has to flutter.

It is also true that when we’re not interested in ourselves deeply, we can’t be deeply interested in other things, and we won’t have the ease of profundity. Any person who can’t go deep into himself sunnily will go deep into himself murkily and morbidly. If we cannot look at ourselves as deeply as we can see, we shall always be in a state of agitated motion.

So Mrs. Nickleby, representing Dickens’ mother, is a person who is changing the specific and going off to everywhere her mind can lead her, and who can’t discuss anything thoroughly. She’ll convert everything to her own interest in a bad sense. She is restless in speech, and fluttery.

Many persons have tried to annul dissatisfaction with themselves by being lethargic and sinking into themselves. The other way is by being always on the move, going many places, and going through contemporary history as if it were nothing but feverish gossip. The desire to gossip is a sign of restlessness. The desire to be interested in nothing but the moment is a sign of restlessness.

*At age 12, Dickens was taken out of school to work 10 hours a day, 6 days a week, at a boot-blacking (shoe polish) factory.