The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Grandeur of Knowing—versus Contempt

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we begin a three-part publication of a great lecture by Eli Siegel on a tremendous subject. It is his talk of January 19, 1953, When Does Evil Begin?—the ninth in a series of lectures he gave in relation to Henry James’s novella The Turn of the Screw. From that series arose Mr. Siegel’s 1968 book James and the Children.

The Turn of the Screw has puzzled people very much. What was driving or affecting the two angelic-seeming children, Miles and Flora? Most critics have described them as ever so innocent, and the governess as bad. And for a long time there was the view that the mysterious evil taking place was of a sexual nature. Eli Siegel—in some of the most vivid, logical, subtle, thrilling of all literary criticism—made clear that the governess, who is also the narrator, is good, one of James’s very likable characters; that the story is definitely not about sex; and that Miles and Flora are impelled by that which Aesthetic Realism identifies as the impetus behind all injustice and evil: contempt. Contempt is “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” Reviewing James and the Children in Poetry magazine, Hugh Kenner wrote that it is “a reading so careful...and so candid it reduces most previous discussion to wilful evasiveness.”

Our Central Fight—at Any Age

The hideous Freudian approach to children is, fortunately, not much around anymore: children are no longer presented as having “polymorphous perversity.” Yet children have always confused adults, and been confused by them, because people don’t understand people. And today there is as much mix-up about children as ever. On the one hand, the trend is for children to be presented by the various “professionals” as not having badness or injustice in their own right—that is, any badness doesn’t arise from the child himself or herself. The implication is that if children act badly or are mean, it’s either because they’ve been emotionally abused in some fashion or because there’s something amiss with their DNA. On the other hand, there is now in America an intense concern about overt, widespread bullying, the fact that children can be brutal; many therapists are chary about explaining that through DNA and emotional abuse, but they won’t say plainly that they don’t understand the cause.

To understand any person—from oneself to a US senator to a co-worker to a child of five—we need to study what Aesthetic Realism explains:

The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now.... [It is] the beginning and most important fight in every mind. [TRO 151]

People of any age are not aware of this drama between contempt and respect—whether to look down on, despise, and manipulate people and things, or to want to know, understand, see meaning in the world. But the drama is going on in us all the time, and the choices we make about it are who we are and what kind of ethics we have.

Take, for example, another Henry James child, whom Mr. Siegel spoke about as a prelude to discussing the children in The Turn of the Screw: Maisie in What Maisie Knew. She is surrounded by adults who are selfish and whom she cannot respect. Yet, explained Mr. Siegel, “She doesn’t use it to hope to have contempt for everything.” With rich, new comprehension of that novel, he discussed many passages from What Maisie Knew, and he said about its young protagonist:

She doesn’t fool herself. She is a very knowing child; she is just as keen as Flora and Miles, maybe even a little keener. But she doesn’t [try] to get herself a bad glory, as Miles and Flora do....

In other words, Maisie was a critic, but she didn’t use her spoil her notion of beauty, as the other children did....

Maisie represents art in a child: the desire to know....[She] is not given to the idea of power through aloofness. Miles and Flora, I think, are. Maisie wants to find out things....

The attempt in What Maisie Knew is to show the grandeur, the necessity of knowing....James saw a person who did not want to know as a villain—that’s what it came to....Maisie is the aesthetic ideal, in all her interesting and profound youthfulness. [James and the Children, pp. 5, 6,13,14,15]

The Beautiful Seeing of a Child

Some of the most beautiful writing about children is by Eli Siegel. For now, I quote one couplet from “Twenty-one Distichs about Children.” (The whole poem is in his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems.)

7. Children are not to be summed up.

A child may have a dirty face,

Who yet has thought of space—and space.

Through that couplet, both as statement and as music, we feel that a child, so particular, immediate, also imperfect and perhaps disorderly, has at the same time reality’s boundlessness and grandeur in him or her. That is in keeping with the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

I am a person who saw firsthand Eli Siegel’s magnificent knowledge about and kindness to children. As a little girl I attended with my parents Aesthetic Realism lessons taught by him. I have quoted from them before; but as a prelude to the lecture we’re beginning to serialize, I’ll quote a little from a lesson that took place when I was 6. I said I was angry at my grandmother, who could be very grouchy. And from the notes that my mother, Irene Reiss, took, we see that Mr. Siegel spoke to me about the importance of wanting to know, to understand the feelings of another person. He told me:

The first thing that is necessary to get along with people is to ask what they feel. Do you think people feel bad because they don’t know how the other person feels? Do you think your grandmother feels lonely? Maybe when she is not nice to you, she doesn’t feel so good herself. If she sometimes does the wrong thing, you should ask her if she feels good.

And there is this, about my mother:

ES. What happens between most mothers and children?

ER. They get into fights.

ES. If your mother does something you don’t like, ask yourself how she felt and why she did it. [You could say to yourself,] “If my mother is unhappy it’s not because she’s against me but because she is a person like everybody else and sometimes she thinks things are not going so well.” You could say, “I want you to use me to understand your problems better.”

Eli Siegel was teaching a little girl, me, about the opponent to contempt: what he called in a passage I quoted earlier “the grandeur, the necessity of knowing.” I saw, as child and adult, that the desire to know and be just was what impelled him all the time. It was magnificent. And it made for Aesthetic Realism, which all adults and children have the right to know.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

When Does Evil Begin?

By Eli Siegel

The question that James’s Turn of the Screw brings up has to do with the nature of people, including children. I am not, as some children know, a person indisposed to praise young people. Hardly. However, as with anything, the tendency to praise is along with the tendency to be critical in the best sense. To be critical, according to Aesthetic Realism, is to show what is good and make it more likable; also to show what is bad and make it less likable. In the long run, the purpose of criticism is to like the good with all your heart, all your bones, all your soul, and also all your lucidity; and to dislike the bad with all your heart, all your bones, all your soul, and to dislike it with lucidity. The lucidity is the part that people find most difficult.

All children tend to explain the children in The Turn of the Screw, even those who seem to be so different. Children are very diverse, but they have been seen as either “naughty” or “brats,” or as very good. We find the same parent who will condemn the child and raise her voice about the child, talking about the innocence of children: “Of course he’s only a child, you know.” This is hurtful.

In order to understand what is evil in people, we have to get a clear notion of the one thing that is evil—the desire for contempt—and then the various branches.

I have said that the children in The Turn of the Screw hide—they are secret, unendurable, smug, rich young people. They hide; they are not like Maisie in James’s What Maisie Knew. And they are not like some other children, whom I have seen, and who are in other books, and who have existed. They have that cameo selfishness. They are not open.

Now lying, which children can do, is next to pretending; pretending is next to hiding. Once we lie, we are trying to take advantage of people. Taking advantage of people has many forms, including the form which has gone on in history of using them for our financial advantage.

I have seen autobiographies of people who have been quite acquisitive. I remember some in a book by B.C. Forbes, Men Who Are Making America. They own a great deal. They own all kinds of clay factories, tin factories in Ohio, asbestos factories in Indiana, roller bearing factories in Illinois—they own, they own, they own. And they all have autobiographies in which they were going back to their childhood and pining for the Old Swimming Hole. Here they were, with stocks, they were directors, and they were ready to put aside their debentures, their stocks, their bonds, their real estate titles—all to go back to the dear Swimming Hole. And I say that the things that made them later own so much in the roller bearing way or in the oilcloth way or in the clay way (one of them seemed to own all of Xenia, Ohio)—that that was beginning at the time of the dear Old Swimming Hole.

Dickens Tells of a Child

Lying, pretending, coldness, hiding are related to the more rapacious and offensive things. Most people specialize in the first kind, that is true; but if you’re very good at the first, you’re good at the second, because evil has its passive side and its more offensive side.

Let us take a person who is dealt with on the very third page of Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. He also could yearn for the Old Swimming Hole. He is Ralph Nickleby, and he is described as a boy. Ralph Nickleby is presented as a villain from the beginning, and he’s not a subtle villain—he’s a villain. He wants to eat up all of London, and if a widow has money he’s after it; if a poor person has money he is after it; if he pays somebody little he wants to pay him less. He’s the real thing, the real Dickens villain. Then, he has a brother who is, well, kind of mawkish: Godfrey Nickleby, who is the father of Nicholas. This is Dickens on the subject:

These two brothers had been brought up together in a school at Exeter; and, being accustomed to go home once a week, had often heard, from their mother’s lips, long accounts of their father’s sufferings in his days of poverty, and of their deceased uncle’s importance in his days of affluence....Ralph, the elder, deduced from the often-repeated tale the two great morals that riches are the only true source of happiness and power, and that it is lawful and just to compass their acquisition by all means short of felony.

Now, is this description so? I have seen persons court their teachers in the same way that people thirty years later or twenty years later can go after sealing up a town for themselves. It is the same acquisition. I have seen sneakiness in a smooth young face. I remember it pretty well, because I was aware of those things fairly early. Someone could act in such a way that the teacher could feel, “Ah, someone cares for me a good deal.” I could see persons answering questions in the way the teacher expects you to answer them, somewhat akin to the way, later, people conform in order to own more and more. —Dickens says of Ralph Nickleby:

Not confining himself to theory, or permitting his faculties to rust, even at that early age, in mere abstract speculations, this promising lad commenced usurer on a limited scale at school; putting out at good interest a small capital of slate-pencil and marbles, and gradually extending his operations until they aspired to the copper coinage of this realm, in which he speculated to considerable advantage. Nor did he trouble his borrowers with abstract calculations of figures...; his simple rule of interest being all comprised in the one golden sentence “two-pence for every half-penny,” which greatly simplified the accounts, and which, as a familiar precept,...cannot be too strongly recommended to the notice of capitalists, both large and small, and more especially of money-brokers....Indeed, to do these gentlemen justice, many of them are to this day in the frequent habit of adopting it, with eminent success.

Dickens knew. He knew that later a person would use in a bigger field what a child of a certain kind could see fairly early.

In like manner did young Ralph Nickleby avoid all those minute and intricate calculations of odd establishing the one general rule that all sums of principal and interest should be paid on pocket-money day, that is to say, on Saturday: and that whether a loan were contracted on the Monday or on the Friday, the amount of interest should be in both cases, the same.

When Did It Begin?

There are money-lenders now, all over the country, and I suppose at times they are useful. But where did they get their outlook? When did it begin? Certainly you can’t be a money-lender unless there is money, and unless money draws interest, and that of course has to do with environment. Still, you need both: you need a disposition plus the opportunity.

None of us minds getting interest; hardly anybody. Some people will go at interest as their main occupation. The idea of someone getting so much money from you—he gets ninety, and you get back a hundred and thirty-five: wonderful! Gee whiz, life is wonderful! All right. I think any person would like to get a hundred and thirty-five after giving out ninety, but some persons wouldn’t see that as the main occupation of their lives. Certain persons, it seems, do. They smack their lips at interest in a way that can be heard for a long distance.

This desire to collect interest in a certain way is a phase of evil. In fact, it is one of the phases of evil that the church was most against. The question is, when does it begin? Ralph Nickleby, it seems, got to it at a very young age. Little Ralphie got to it quite early.

Indeed, he argued, and with great show of reason, that it [the interest] ought to be rather more for one day than for five, inasmuch as the borrower might in the former case be very fairly presumed to be in great extremity, otherwise he would not borrow at all with such odds against him. This fact is interesting, as illustrating the secret connexion and sympathy which always exists between great minds. Though Master Ralph Nickleby was not at that time aware of it, the class of gentlemen before alluded to, proceed on just the same principle in all their transactions.

You can find out pretty early that if somebody needs something you’ve got, and needs it badly, you can think of what you can get for it. Then you play with it. Say a mother needs a big kiss from you, and you’ve got the kiss to give, and you know the mother needs reassurance, and if she gets the big kiss she feels she’s a good mother, while if you sulk and don’t give her the big kiss she thinks she’s a bad mother. You know somebody wants something and you’ve got it to give. This is done between men and women. The more you are aware of the other person’s needs, the more you think you have an advantage over them, and the more you can use contempt.

This knowledge can begin very early, and it is used without people’s knowing it: “That guy wants something I’ve got. He’s in trouble. Now let’s see, how can I use the situation?” People plan to have situations occur like that.

Well, Ralph Nickleby knew that people could want money badly. That is one of the things wanted very often. So he felt there was something in it for him. —Then Dickens says:

On the death of his father, Ralph Nickleby, who had been some time before placed in a mercantile house in London, applied himself passionately to his old pursuit of money-getting, in which he speedily became so buried and absorbed, that he quite forgot his brother for many years; and if, at times, a recollection of his old playfellow broke upon him through the haze in which he lived—for gold conjures up a mist about a man, more destructive of all his old senses and lulling to his feelings than the fumes of charcoal—it brought along with it a companion thought that if they were intimate he would want to borrow money of him. So, Mr. Ralph Nickleby shrugged his shoulders, and said things were better as they were.

What does this come from?