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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1830.—August 29, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Battle about Knowing Ourselves

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the next installment of the great lecture Philosophy Begins with That, which Eli Siegel gave in 1970. And we print too part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Nancy Huntting presented last month at a public seminar: “Can a Woman Really Know Herself?—& Does She Want To?”

In the lecture, Mr. Siegel shows that philosophy is not remote, but is of us all the time, with everything we do and meet. To illustrate that fact, he uses entries from a journal of the novelist Arnold Bennett. The principal reason philosophy is everyday is: the opposites which make up reality itself are in each person and thing. In the journal passages quoted here, in writing by Bennett that is keen, charming, sometimes poignant, we see the philosophic opposites of absence and presence, sameness and difference.

The subject of Nancy Huntting’s article is one that has so much pain and hope with it. Yet it’s really an aspect of that branch of philosophy called epistemology, the study of knowing, a field in which such philosophers as Plato, Descartes, Hume, Locke, and Kant reasoned logically and ardently. A huge matter in epistemology is, What is knowable? And a matter agonizing people, including those who never heard of epistemology, is: “I don’t understand myself! What makes me do the things I do, feel as I feel?” All people can act like authorities on themselves—then despair that they’ll never understand themselves.

There is no more important philosophic and human achievement than this: Aesthetic Realism really enables a person to understand oneself ever-increasingly, on a basis that is solid, unwaveringly true. Ms. Huntting’s article is a comment on one of the principles indispensable to our knowing ourselves: Eli Siegel’s showing that “The large every the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151).

People thirst to understand themselves—yet also do not want to. Ms. Huntting gives a central reason for the latter. And to that reason I’ll add another, which Mr. Siegel explained to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, and which is in motion terrifically in the lives of people and nations today. He said we’re not interested in knowing ourselves, and are afraid of it, because “we would rather use ourselves than know ourselves.” We go on the idea that “the purpose of ourselves is not to know ourselves [but] to impress and manage other people.”

Knowledge vs. “Our Way”

A person wants to have what he sees as his way. It can be conquering a particular woman. It can be stopping his workers from unionizing so he doesn’t have to pay them more. It can be imbibing considerably at a party. It can be trying to make sure his sister doesn’t marry someone the family dislikes. To know himself, to see what he really feels, what he most deeply hopes for, what he thinks of himself, would cramp his ability to go after “his way.” (That is, unless “his way” is in keeping with justice to everything.) Truly knowing ourselves slows down the engines of an unjust determination; even stops them altogether. Who wants such interferences?! Why interfere with some purpose of ours by trying to see if it stands for the depths of us—if we like ourselves for having it?! No: we want to “use ourselves” to get what we’re after. And oh, how usable we are: we’re a weapon, an instrument; we can charm; we can outsmart.

Yet as Mr. Siegel also explained in the lesson, “We cannot use ourselves rightly unless we know ourselves. It’s like not knowing a car or an elevator: we may do the wrong thing with it. We may jam the elevator or misuse the car.”

It’s true that if we know ourselves we may see things in us we dislike. But it happens that the genuine knowing of ourselves—which Aesthetic Realism makes possible—has us see that there is a largeness, a grandeur, a beauty in us which we had no notion of. The fact is, we judge ourselves on how just we are: we have an ethical unconscious. Not only is our knowing about this indefeasible basis of judging ourselves a matter of knowing strict fact—it is also a means of valuing ourselves. There is a new pride, an authentic self-respect, a feeling of pleased wonder, in seeing that our dislike of ourselves has come because we’ve been unfair to the outside world and because we ourselves are insisting that we be fair and we won’t let ourselves feel good until we are!

Our Self Is Aesthetic

The following Aesthetic Realism principle is an indispensable means of knowing ourselves: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” There is no greater compliment to the self of everyone than that principle. What we are going after is nothing less than to be like art!

Let’s take the prose of Arnold Bennett, which is art. It is a oneness of liveliness and depth. We have these opposites. We may not do the best job with them. We may feel when we’re “lively” we’re superficial, and when we’re “profound” we’re pained. But we can’t help respecting ourselves, we can’t help seeing ourselves as large, when we see that what we want is to make these opposites one, as a good writer of prose does—or a dancer, sculptor, composer of music.

I agree with the opinion of Eli Siegel that Nancy Huntting expresses in her article. No person saw the need to know as more important than he did—to know the world with its things and people, including oneself. That fact is throughout his work. It is in “The Scientific Criticism,” published in the Modern Quarterly in 1923, when he was 20. The following sentences from it, and his fidelity to them, gave rise years later to Aesthetic Realism:

Man should know that there are no limits to his mind....Only a part of him has been used. ...To criticize—to look upon the world and man with all his feelings, as an object. This way we can come to know man—and knowing ourselves—Earth! what great things can we not come to be!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Thought about Self, Things, People
By Eli Siegel

Note. The passages Mr. Siegel quotes are from Arnold Bennett’s Journal 1929.

Reality has a way of being absent and present, here and elsewhere, yes and no. Forgetting has something to do with that. There’s a person on shipboard to whom Bennett has been talking—about what kind of life he has, how many hours he spends working. Bennett says:

At five-thirty the next morning he came all bright into the cabin with my cleaned shoes and some fruit—and apologies for disturbing me! I bade him good-bye on the quay. Probably I shall never see him again. And in less than fifteen hours I have forgotten his features.

The way things become extinguished, abolished, vacant, not there, is something to see.

How We Look to Ourselves

There are two things in man: one, the desire to take care of himself so a certain kind of harm will not occur; and then, his self-esteem. Bennett on shipboard is given a life-belt, and he feels he looks silly in it. So although it could come in, likely, very usefully, he doesn’t want to wear it. No drill with that stuff! He says:

So constituted is the nature of man that I preferred the risk of drowning at sea through ignorance to the constraint of appearing before my fellow-creatures in a cumbersome life-belt.

The study of values always has to consider what one thinks of oneself, which is a constant value.

The Desire to See

People are interested and not interested. I remember an occurrence of many years ago, when I was in an Automat. The way the Automat was arranged made it hard to think that anybody washed the dishes, because everything seemed so, well, all there. But as I was talking to someone, I came to have the sense that two dishwashers were looking at us from within. Something like this happens to Bennett. He’s in a tea shop in London, and he mentions the “dish-washers peeping forth now and then.”

This has to do with the desire to look: how much is there a desire to see? It’s present with other beings too. Occasionally, for example, a parrot seems to be looking. We don’t know what it’s going for. Parrots mostly spend their time taking care of their parrotness. Occasionally they look.

Work Is Sameness & Difference

We have a passage about waistcoats—they do say Bennett was furious in his acquisition of white waistcoats. This is also about bonnets (or hoods) of cars:

The tailor...told me that he employed a man who did nothing year in year out but cut and superintend the making of white waistcoats. Some people might regard this as rather a narrow career for an immortal soul. But it is infinitely more complex, subtle, and broad than the career of a man who sprays paint on to the bonnet of a popular motor-car and is expected to cover, and does cover, three hundred bonnets a day.

This is around the time of Elmer Rice’s The Adding Machine, with the assembly line idea. The interest of Bennett is very taking. You can see the man who wrote The Old Wives’ Tale, a book that still should be known, with all else that should be known.

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Can a Woman Know Herself?
By Nancy Huntting

In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, when I was 27, I told my consultants I felt “stuck.” I worried I would lose the man I told myself I loved and depended upon for my happiness. They asked, “As Mr. Cameron feels you like him very much, does he also feel you don’t really know him?” And they asked whether a man’s feeling this could have him question the woman’s love.

NH. Yes.

Consultants. Do you think you can know Mr. Cameron just by himself? Women make the big mistake of thinking they can know one person out of the universe and not have to know anyone else deeply. Could we know you unless we wanted to know people as such?

I hadn’t imagined that knowing other people had anything to do with knowing Mr. Cameron, much less with knowing myself. I didn’t like most people. However, I also didn’t like myself, and I didn’t know why.

This was about to change. That day I learned the most crucial thing about myself, and I never felt stuck again: it freed me. I learned I had two selves, or aspects of self, opposed to each other: one got pleasure having contempt for things and people; the other, my deepest self, got pleasure through knowing and being fair to the world outside of me. I came to see that our happiness depends on knowing ourselves, our motives in everything we do, well enough to choose what truly represents us.

Is the World a Competitor or Friend?

In his essay “Knowing Oneself” Eli Siegel explains: “Everything in the world can be seen as telling us something about ourselves. Therefore, if we have contempt for anything unjustly, we interfere with a chance of knowing ourselves” (TRO 200).

Growing up in a small village called Glendale, 14 miles north of the Ohio River, I felt I knew myself simply because I was myself: that is, highly intelligent, pretty, of the distinguished Connecticut Hunttings. But—“ay, there’s the rub”—despite my parents’ acting as if I were near perfect, and the high marks I got in school, why was I so socially uncomfortable, so unsure of myself, that I wanted to disappear?

I was, I told myself, shy and sensitive. Strangers might hurt me with a look, a sneer, or by knowing things I didn’t. You don’t reveal yourself to them. Friends were persons who had already shown they approved of me. Wasn’t I one of the best persons in this world filled with all sorts of unsavory humanity? Mr. Siegel explains:

There is a fear of knowing oneself that is present in nearly every person....The interference with knowing oneself is the desire a person has to praise oneself or think well of oneself....There is the feeling in people that if they know themselves, they’ll come upon certain matters which will not delight them.

I had this fear; I doubted I was as wonderful as I tried to convince myself I was. I was 13 when my best friend, Marcy Cochran, moved away, and I remember writing a letter to her that was an outpouring of the feeling I was a failure. Why did I do that? Marcy had beautiful natural blond hair, did arguably better in school than I did, and now had achieved something I hadn’t, something we’d dreamed of together: she’d gotten a horse! I was crushed by her accomplishments and good fortune. I later learned she was accepted at the Sorbonne, another blow.

I was competitive. Mr. Siegel was to ask me: “Have you wanted to be superior to every woman you’ve met?” Yes, I had. And though my ego was shocked at the question, I’m tremendously grateful he asked it. It had me know myself better. I was able to see the ugliness, harm, and folly of being that way, and the beauty and wisdom of another way, and to be much happier than I ever could have been.

As I studied Aesthetic Realism, I began to respect other people as representatives of the world who had interesting questions like my own. It was then that my fear began to change; I felt a new relation to others and was no longer lonely. I had a new freedom in my own skin! “When people know themselves,” Mr. Siegel wrote in Self and World, “they truly can approve of themselves....No self can truly know itself and be ashamed.

How Can You Know When You’re in Love?

Freddy Barton and I went steady on and off from 9th until 12th grade, which, along with its terrific moments, was anguish. I got his school ring, wrapped it with fluffy black angora yarn to make it fit, and a few months later he wanted it back. I cried as though it were the end of the world each time we broke up. All I thought about was being with him: everything else in the world seemed dull.

Another fact about myself I needed to know, and would learn about through knowing people as such, was that I was possessive. I equated love with having a person: I didn’t think I had to understand him. I thought love was someone appreciating me. While a man will cooperate up to a point, no one really likes being a possession: we want our best possibilities encouraged. Freddy felt trapped—as other men I was “devoted to” would feel.

Some years later, so that I could understand my motives with Mr. Cameron, whom I was then troubled about, in an Aesthetic Realism class Eli Siegel asked these crucial questions:

ES. Have you admitted to yourself clearly that you do want to own him? You should admit it casually. Like other women, you’re a charming holding company. Is there any greater comfort than owning a person whom you desire?

NH. Yes.

ES. Do you really think so? Do you believe you conquer the world by having Mr. Cameron need you? That feeling is in Manon Lescaut, and in the Letters of a Portuguese Nun, also Phaedra.

Mr. Siegel enabled people to have a good time knowing themselves. What an understatement—he showed it’s the greatest good time! He showed that everything is a means of your understanding humanity and reality and therefore yourself: from a sink stopper, which he wrote a poem about, to Shakespeare’s Hamlet; from your mother to a poem about a rose by the French poet Pierre de Ronsard. Learning that my personal torment was akin to what other women have gone through, and that it had been given form in literature, which I could study, was a tremendous thrill.

I began to see the significance to me of getting a man to act as if I were everything to him. We can’t own someone; they will object, and we object, because we’re after something larger. “Is there any greater comfort?” Yes, I came to see! It is having a purpose with people—including a man—which you really like yourself for having, and which they can really like you for. That purpose is good will, and it begins with the desire to know.

Eli Siegel’s good will was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever met: he wanted to understand people, see what interfered with a person’s best possibilities, and he encouraged those with magnificent honesty, kindness, and style.

Aesthetic Realism showed me that the world was, in fact, “the other half of myself.” Love is defined by Aesthetic Realism as “proud need.” We are proud when our need of someone is because through that person we honestly like the whole world more. black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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First Thursday of each month, 6:30 PM: Seminars with speakers from Aesthetic Realism faculty

Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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