The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Battle of Insistences

Dear Unknown Friends:

We begin to serialize a lecture Eli Siegel gave in 1949: Mind and Insistence. I find it amazing—great. He describes with richness and delicacy the various kinds of insistence everyone has, which are not understood by or even known to us.

There are, Aesthetic Realism explains, two big purposes that insist in every person, and battle with each other. There is the purpose we were born for: to respect the world, see meaning in it. That is at war all the time with another purpose, false but tremendous: to have contempt, to lessen what’s not us as a means of elevating ourselves. This second purpose is the source of every cruelty. Yet the first—to see things and people with vibrant justice—is the larger, deeper insistence. No matter how much we try to submerge it, it’s what our minds are for. Our being untrue to it is the central reason we are ashamed, nervous, have a feeling of emptiness, loneliness, self-dislike.

Going On Now

As we publish this lecture of 65 years ago, I think it right to comment on a huge battle of insistences going on in the world now. The battle is about: On what basis should human beings work, have money, buy and sell? To whom should the world belong?

Beginning in 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that an economy based on the profit motive—on seeing people in terms of how much financial gain one can extract from them—was no longer able to carry on successfully. The profit system would never recover, though it might be made to limp along at the cost of enormous pain to people. Profit economics is a form of contempt. It arises from this assumption, which is also an insistence: certain people should own much more of the world than others, and can use those others to aggrandize themselves.

However, by the 1970s, another insistence had, as Mr. Siegel said, “come to a tangibility.” He called it the force of ethics. And this ethical insistence, working through history, had made it so that by the end of the 20th century private profits were much more difficult to obtain. Ethics as force is by no means some vague or mystical thing. It has many, many aspects, and from one point of view is equivalent to progress as such. A central form it has taken is the coming-to-be of greater technical and productive ability on all the continents, so that now (in Mr. Siegel’s words) “there is more competition with the American product.” One result is, thousands of American businesses have disappeared.

In the last years, I have been describing the following fact: those who insist that the profit way must be the basis of our economy have been trying to do the one thing that can now keep it going. That one thing is: make Americans work for less and less pay, so more and more of the money they earn with their labor can go into the pockets of the owners, who don’t do the work. Only by increasingly impoverishing the American people can the profit system now go on. Of course, to pay people less and less, to impoverish them successfully, one must try to annihilate unions. Unions—which have fought for and won better economic lives for people over the decades, are one of the biggest embodiments of ethics as a force.

What Is This Thing Insisted On?

It is necessary for Americans to ask: what is this thing, the profit system, which there’s so much insistence on saving? An article that appeared in the New York Times last month contains what profit economics fundamentally is. Writing from tobacco country in North Carolina, Steven Greenhouse describes children, aged 13 and under, working 12-hour shifts in the tobacco fields. For protection from nicotine poisoning, they cover their young bodies in black plastic garbage bags, with holes for their arms, but they get sick anyway. The “nicotine-tinged dew,” we’re told, “can cause vomiting, dizziness and irregular heart rates, among other symptoms.” Some of the children are ten years old. Greenhouse writes:

For years, public health experts and federal labor officials have sought to bar teenagers under 16 from the tobacco fields, citing the grueling hours and the harmful exposure to nicotine and other chemicals, but their efforts have been blocked. [9-7-14]

What is the state of mind of a person who has children work in tobacco fields and be subjected, among much else, to poisoning? What is the state of mind of the legislators who “block” efforts to undo this barbarism? Is the way work takes place in the tobacco fields just an abuse of the profit system—or does it stand for what the profit system is?

Through this industry we can see something basic: the profit way is, as such, ill will for people, for those who work and also those who buy. By now, everyone knows that the tobacco industrialists are not a bit interested in the health of people: rather than forgo profits for themselves, they’ve chosen to have millions of human beings contract cancer and die. (It happens that the bringing to light, these last decades, of the perils of tobacco and the lies told by the tobacco producers; the lawsuits against those producers; the laws against tobacco advertisements—all are instances of the force of ethics impeding the procedures of private profit.)

Let us be clear: the profit motive as such, whether your product is tobacco or milk, is always ill will and contempt. By definition that motive is the using of a person—not to know that person, be just to that person—but to aggrandize yourself financially through her or him. There has been, over the years, legislation curbing some of the effects of profit-motivated economics. There have been (thanks mainly to unions) minimum wage laws, regulations in behalf of workplace safety, laws against child labor in most industries. Every such regulation, every law in behalf of workers’ health, safety, and dignity is an instance of ethics as force and has impeded the making of private profit. That’s why there have always been attempts by employers to get around those rules. The laws, rules, curbs did not change the motivation central to the profit system itself.

The Central Matter in History

Eli Siegel disagreed with Marx. The central matter in human history and economics is not, Mr. Siegel said, the “class struggle.” It is the fight between good will and ill will, between ethics and meanness, between respect and contempt—a fight that goes on in every person. And the thing needed to replace the profit system is not what persons associate with Eastern Europe of once. What will replace an unjust economy is an economy based on ethics and aesthetics: an economy based on seeing that the way to be truly selfish, the way to express yourself, be yourself, is to be just to people, things, the world into which we were all born.

So we come to the two insistences in the world today. The reason certain people are ferociously and trickily insisting that the profit way must continue, is the reason mentioned by Mr. Siegel in the lecture we’re serializing: their “vanity is bound up with it.” Then, there is the insistence of history itself, ethics itself, the decency that’s within every person. Of the two insistences—no matter how devious the former is, and how brutal—the latter is stronger. “Ethics is a force,” Mr. Siegel explained, “like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way.”

I love him for showing this—and for explaining, as you’ll see, the insistences in everyone. As he speaks of them, his spoken prose is beautiful: warm, clear, strong, kind.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Mind and Insistence

By Eli Siegel

Last week I talked on Mind and Persistence. Persistence represents a process—you persist in something; you insist on something. When you know that you are asserting yourself in going on with something, and also state why, you are insisting. Insistence is what we all do. The heart can be thought of as persisting; but thought of as affirming its right to persist, it would be insisting. And insistence is necessary.

Like other aspects of mind, it can be good and bad. A person can insist on something because his glory, as he sees it, is concerned. A person, for example, says to someone, “You know, I like that rare dish. I’m going to order it.” He orders some rare dish; it comes to the table; it is awfully unappetizing, but he smacks his lips. He insists on finding it good because his vanity is at stake. It is a pretty dull dish; but because he has said, “This is an important Swedish dish,” he has to like it. This kind of insistence goes on a good deal. We can be enslaved by an unconscious insistence because our vanity is bound up with it. Very early we associate something with It has to be this way.

A habit is a persistence, but the thing that makes for the habit can be seen as insisting. Persistence means (from the Latin) standing through; insistence means standing on. There is something definite, specific, in insistence; something continuous in persistence.

Insistence can be awful, and we need to understand how we can insist on something which, as they say in a certain language, is as necessary as a hole in the head. Then, there is a courageous insistence, which doesn’t happen so often. That would be a good kind.

Take the insistence to be found in an interesting article of a few days ago in the New York Times. The headline is: “Woman, 75, Found Dead”:

Holbrook, L.I. May 4—Mrs. Libby Shapiro, 75 years old, of...Brooklyn, was found dead in the woods today at a point one mile south of the nursing home here, from which she disappeared....Marshall W. Brown, a Suffolk County Coroner, said Mrs. Shapiro died of exhaustion and exposure, apparently incurred when she tried to reach a means of transportation to Brooklyn. She had been in the home about a week, and had expressed a desire to leave.

This is about a combat of insistences. I don’t know all the facts, to be sure. But I know something like this happens often: A woman is a good deal of trouble to her relatives, she’s a good deal of trouble to herself, so the relatives decide to pool their resources and send her to a nursing home. In the nursing home she loses her importance. She is no longer with the people she has known, no longer with the children she has brought up, no longer with grandchildren perhaps. She is aware that she may be a cause of great expense to all her children and in-laws. She doesn’t like it, but she goes. The relatives insist, they persuade, they cajole. They say, “Look how much better you will be taken care of.” She goes. And what is forgot is that no matter how long you live, you insist. You have a certain notion, good or bad, of what is coming to you. And if it’s part of you, you’ll insist on showing it.

So in the same way as a child insists when a child runs away from home, or from some public home, so a woman of 75 can. This woman said, “I insist on being with you.” She didn’t say it that way, but she couldn’t abide it there. I can imagine many of her relatives now repentant, though they didn’t do the worst thing in the world.

A person along in years can insist. A woman of 92 can say, “I want my great-grandchildren to respect me! I insist on my respect.” This insistence on respect takes up a good deal of family life. I’d say it makes up 32% of family quarrels, in one way or another.

So you insist. In the meantime, without knowing it, you insist on not giving respect to the other person. People insist on not giving respect and at the same time insist on getting it. All these insistences make up the insistence of evil, and there’s trouble. Here it took the form of tragedy.

Maybe Mrs. Shapiro saw herself going through Friday night, unaccustomed to anything else than what she had seen on Friday nights. She had had a certain life. The relatives didn’t know how she felt about that. The nursing home seemed more therapeutic: she’d have the best of care; she wouldn’t have to work. Maybe she insisted at home on doing the household duties and the daughter said, “What are you worrying so much for, Mommy?” So they sent her to a nursing home. Maybe she was sick. It doesn’t matter whether the details that I’m presenting were those in this particular instance or not. I can assure you, it’s happened again and again: a person goes to a nursing home, and doesn’t like it; and also may try to get revenge on the people who have forced her to go.

Libby Shapiro had a certain kind of life, and here in the place on Long Island, near Holbrook, she has another kind of life. Something in her says, “My relatives won’t take me out of here. I’ll have to get out myself.” And just as a child would run away, or even a cat or a dog, so she did. On a Saturday morning, she started out.

She was so insistent, she seems to have gone into comparatively wild places: she was in the woods. But what could she do? Her dignity had been hurt.

The Constant Insistence

There is a kind of insisting that every person is doing all the time. This insistence, whether it’s put into words or not, is: I insist on being known as I am; I insist that you be interested in me; I insist that I be seen as having a self, having dignity; I insist that I be seen as a person. Everybody does that. It’s not usually put into words. But this woman was insisting on that. She couldn’t insist very clearly. She went to a place where she didn’t want to go; she knew, however, she didn’t like it. So she escaped, this woman of 75. In escaping, she died.

This is what insistence can do. And therefore it is very important to see what something in us is always wanting to affirm.

What are the things we have a right to insist on? What are the things that if we don’t insist on we’re selling out ourselves? These are questions of essential importance.

As we insist on something, there is something in us that says, “Why should you insist on that—do you want to get into trouble?” Something, while we insist, says, “It isn’t so smart to insist. Conceal it. Hide it. That’s better.” We should be aware of the things we must insist on, and we should also be aware of the false counselors within us who can make such a smoke about us, such a fog, that we can’t see straight.

The things we truly want are things we insist on, whether we know it or not, all our lives. No person ever gave up a true desire. A desire can be given up by being muffled, having blankets put around it, but it is never really given up.

Poor lady! There was insistence by the relatives; they thought they were taking care of her. I’m sure they also thought they were getting rid of her. And so we have a premature family tragedy.

This happening represents, therefore, insistence in the murk, insistence being combated by others’ insistence.

In Literature

There is the kind of insistence that has become part of American literature and is in a poem by Longfellow. The poem says, in its fancy fashion: To be alive you must insist on being wholly alive. You cannot settle with yourself. If you’re going to be “comfortable” with 60% of yourself, rather than go on with more of yourself, something in you won’t like it and will tell you, with all kinds of manifestations, You sold out for comfort! “Excelsior” was written by Longfellow in 1841:

The shades of night were falling fast,

As through an Alpine village passed

A youth, who bore, ’mid snow and ice,

A banner with the strange device,



In happy homes he saw the light

Of household fires gleam warm and bright;

Above the spectral glaciers shone,

And from his lips escaped a groan,



“Try not the Pass!” the old man said;

“Dark lowers the tempest overhead.”


“Oh stay,” the maiden said, “and rest

Thy weary head upon this breast!”

A tear stood in his bright blue eye,

But still he answered, with a sigh,



At break of day, as heavenward

The pious monks of Saint Bernard

Uttered the oft-repeated prayer,

A voice cried through the startled air,



There in the twilight cold and gray,

Lifeless, but beautiful, he lay,

And from the sky, serene and far,

A voice fell, like a falling star,


This represents the insistence on doing what the deepest thing in you wants. It doesn’t end well, but it is a poem about courage. This kind of insistence is in everyone. We can conceal it, but somewhere it is there.