The Thirst for Criticism
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize Poetry and Practicality, a 1948 lecture by Eli Siegel, great in literary criticism and in its comprehension of humanity. And we print part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism associate Sally Ross presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What Stops Men and Women from Having True Love?”
There isn’t an instance of beauty in the world—from the tree I’m now looking at, to Homer’s Iliad—and there isn’t a human life, of the past or today, which is not explained centrally by this Aesthetic Realism principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Poetry and Practicality illustrates that principle. In it, Mr. Siegel opposes the division people make between the “practical” and the “poetic,” between the everyday and the cultural or wonderful. It is a rift that has people find most of life pretty tedious—peppered with moments of loveliness or excitement. Yet those moments can’t have lasting meaning, because they are in a separate reality from the “real” reality of traffic jams, dust under the couch, and ill-natured bosses. This rift—which Aesthetic Realism magnificently shows to be false, unjust to what the world truly is—is related to another split people make, which I am grateful to comment on here.
People make a split as to themselves between the factual and the wonderful: That is, they want to be seen as wonderful, get tremendous approval, even be adored. And they feel that being seen truly, with critical exactitude, will interfere with the glowing sense of themselves they desire. The feeling that the glory of ourselves is opposed to the criticism of ourselves, is as horrible a mistake as any that people make. It is a mistake that psychologists, counselors, and press encourage terrifically; because the trend of our time is to tell people their problem is that they esteem themselves too little and that what they need is to get more praise from themselves and others; they should be made to feel they’re wonderful just as they are.
Aesthetic Realism is the courageous, beautiful friend of everyone in showing that people are thirsty for criticism, and this thirst for criticism is the most beautiful thing in us. We can seem to prefer flattery, of course. But the desire for criticism is as inevitable as the circulation of our blood, because we want to be all we can be.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of our lives, our deepest desire, is to like the world: to be ourselves through being just to the world not ourselves—with its people, facts, objects, books, colors, past. If we’re not just, we criticize ourselves in some way, usually unclearly and painfully: we’re nervous, ill-at-ease, depressed, ill-tempered. All the jollying of us along, the telling of us we’re special, won’t help—because that beautiful demand is in us, sure as the heartbeat, saying, however tumultuously and murkily, “You need to be fairer, Hubert! You’ve made less of other people, other things!”
What Criticism Is
We have to see what criticism is. Criticism is not lashing someone. Criticism, Mr. Siegel explained, is that which “makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling.” I may as well say straight, in case it isn’t clear enough, I hate the fake, non-critical approach foisted on people these years. It is insulting and it is cruel. It makes less of the best thing in a person: our pulsating desire to be just to outside reality, a desire so unbribable that we despise ourselves for being unjust. The just-think-well-of-yourself purveyors have tried to have people drown that in themselves which could really make them proud: their desire for criticism.
And I love Aesthetic Realism for showing the grandeur of every person. I love Aesthetic Realism for enabling people to criticize consciously and clearly, for the first time in human history, what people have unconsciously and tormentedly criticized in themselves: contempt. Mr. Siegel described contempt as the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And he showed contempt is the interference in every aspect of life. Contempt in man and woman is the thing that ruins love; it is the source of learning difficulties and of every cruelty. And until people are able to criticize contempt in themselves, they will be unhappy and they will be mean, and all the flattery and hugs in the world won’t change that.
Though we can lap up flattery, we deeply hate a person who flatters us: we feel he’s trying to fool us, and trying to have us satisfied with being less than we can be. I think Aesthetic Realism is itself the truest praise of every human being: it shows how big we really are—it shows that ethics is the same as our very being, our very flesh; that’s why we can’t like ourselves or be ourselves without honoring ethics. Aesthetic Realism shows that criticism of self is also delight. Criticism, Eli Siegel said, is love. A person who loves us wants to strengthen and have us sure of what is beautiful in us; he also wants to fight that in us which is in our way and makes us dislike ourselves. That is what Eli Siegel did for every person he taught. It is what he did for me, and I am inadequate to express the vastness of my gratitude. He embodied the fact that true criticism is indeed the most thrilling tenderness.
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
In Aesthetic Realism consultations now, people are meeting what human beings thirst for: the aesthetic criticism of self. Mr. Siegel showed that the critical criterion for a person is the same as that for a work of art: the criterion is, how well does he, she, it put reality’s opposites together - freedom and accuracy, strength and delicacy, care for self and justice to what is other than self? The demand within us is that we be aesthetic—like art! This fact can make everyone feel truly glorious. It is a glory a thousand times bigger than the glory of cheap, really humiliating flattery.
Persons of the media and the psychology/psychiatry business have encouraged millions of people to be anti-self-criticism. Yet Aesthetic Realism—powerfully eternal and fresh as the sweet leaves of spring—is here, better known each week, bringing people the beautiful criticism of self they thirst for; bringing them the selves they want to be.