The Human Drama
Dear Unknown Friends:
Eli Siegel wrote The Opposites Theory in the late 1950s. And in the 9th chapter, published here, he describes Aesthetic Realism’s new, great understanding of how the human self is related to reality as a whole and to every aspect of it. That means: what you have to do with every person, fact, object; with history; with what you’ll meet tomorrow. The relation is in this principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
Every one of us, in all our rich individuality, came from the world, and the makeup of the world is in us. That makeup is the opposites. “The structure of what thing,” Mr. Siegel asks, “cannot illuminate our own structure? Does not a sheet of paper in its wideness and narrowness bring some essential likeness to us, to ourselves?”
The Biggest Ethical Matter
In The Opposites Theory, chapter 9, he speaks of what our likeness to outside reality has to do with art—with why people create art and are affected by art. But the ineradicable, grand continuity of every person with the world we’re in, is also the biggest ethical matter in our lives. What we do about it is equivalent to how kind or cruel we are, and determines how much we’ll like or dislike ourselves.
The fact that we’re related to everything, the fact that (as Mr. Siegel writes) we have “reality in common with all things”—this is the reason why our desire to have contempt for things and people cripples our lives. Mr. Siegel showed that contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is the source of every injustice. It’s also the mental weakener—because in scorning what’s outside of us, we’re scorning too the very makeup of ourselves.
The Art Principle & Our Lives
To show something of how the great aesthetic principle Mr. Siegel discusses in chapter 9 is also the means through which a person can be proud and fully herself, I’m going to quote from the first Aesthetic Realism lesson of my mother, Irene Reiss. It took place 60 years ago this summer, on August 29, 1947. Irene Reiss was 32 years old, married, and in distress. She was afraid to ride the subway, afraid to leave her home unaccompanied. There was what has been called agoraphobia, and anxiety. The practitioners of today are like those of 1947. They do not know that trouble of mind, both everyday and steeper, exists because a person has gone against the basis of art, which is also our own inner imperative: The world is the other half of ourselves, and to be ourselves we have to want to know and welcome it!
The only record of this lesson is notes taken by a friend of my mother’s. They include questions and statements of Mr. Siegel, though not Mrs. Reiss’s responses. Early, the notes have Mr. Siegel saying this:
Everything that isn’t Irene is the world. Do you believe you are for that or against that?...No person can really be happy unless she sees what isn’t herself as on her side. There is a tendency to say that everything which isn’t ourselves exists to make us less, and we are in a battle with these things.
He explained that we punish ourselves for being unjustly against the world and people. One punishment is, we become afraid:
Suppose something in you which you don’t know about says, Other people exist in competition with me and the only time I feel important is when I can forget that they exist. Then when you go into the subway you feel, There are the people I was trying to forget about when I went to bed last night!
Mr. Siegel described to Irene Reiss how contempt works: “[It] says, ‘the more I can despise and be against, the more important I am.'” He gave this ordinary example: “When we listen to people, if we can not listen, we feel we can have ourselves to ourselves.” With logic and beautiful sweetness, he explained why, along with being fearful outside her house, Irene Reiss could be so angry at home:
Do you think you have made your home an isolated castle?...The reason you get displeased in your house is that you feel you are using your home against the rest of the world. The best thing is to see your home as in a flowing relation with the rest of the world—to like both, and be a good citizen and not play off one against the other.
He described the art principle in Irene Reiss and us: we are, at once, just ourselves and related to everything:
Aesthetic Realism says that that which is done by people who want to get falsely independent and protective is against themselves, because every person is two persons in a sense—personal and impersonal. The two aspects can go together the way the bass and treble of a piano go together. You should say, “I am now with a thousand people and the self which was alone in bed is also present.”
Everything that we look at should be seen wholly. If you would like to be seen wholly, don’t you think other people would like to be seen wholly and not as shadows?
The notes conclude with Mr. Siegel giving Irene Reiss an Aesthetic Realism assignment, to write three sentences each day about an object:
Write about something each day. See that the things you write about differ from you, but will tell you something about yourself....I am trying to renew your love for things that are not yourself. The more you will like the world, the more you will like yourself. Don’t miss a day in writing about something which is not yourself—street, sky, shoe, Queen Victoria.
Through this lesson, and those that followed, what had troubled Irene Reiss did so no longer. She wrote recently: “In 1947, as Mr. Siegel spoke to me about my relation to the world, I felt that my deepest fears and hopes were being understood for the first time. What I learned from him, then and later, made for an educated life, one of dignity and pride. My gratitude is boundless.”
Yes, the self of everyone is an aesthetic matter—and humanity urgently needs to know this.