The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Two Desires

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we conclude our serialization of the lecture Everyday Life and Aesthetics Look at Psychiatric Terms, which Eli Siegel gave in 1966. It is one of several lectures based on Mr. Siegel's looking at an American Psychiatric Association glossary. The lectures are wide-ranging, informal, critical, sometimes humorous, and in them is the great Aesthetic Realism understanding of the human self.

We print too part of a paper by New York City high school teacher Leila Rosen, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What's Real Intelligence about the World and Ourselves?”

The Organic, and More

The last term Mr. Siegel looks at in this lecture is epilepsy, that ailment from which Dostoevsky suffered, and, it seems, Julius Caesar. Mr. Siegel comments very swiftly—as he says, he has spoken more lengthily on the matter elsewhere. While acknowledging the possible organic “disposition” behind epilepsy, he describes the way of seeing which can have the organic proclivity take the form, at a certain time, of that terrifying thing, a seizure.

I hesitated to include this short discussion of epilepsy, because Mr. Siegel is speaking informally and also briefly on the subject, and does not present here the full logic and evidence at the basis of his tremendously important explanation. Yet just because the explanation he gives in outline is so important, my decision was to include it—with much gratitude and admiration and in the context I've now provided.

In the history of Aesthetic Realism there have been persons who, because of their study of this philosophy, no longer had epileptic seizures. Aesthetic Realism is certainly not medical, and these persons were studying it not in order to have an ailment end, but in order to see the world and themselves more truly. Meanwhile, among other greatly good effects on their lives, there was this one.

James Stephens Illustrates Contempt

To comment on the desire which Mr. Siegel identified as the weakener of mind, the interference-from-within of everyone's life, the beginning of every cruelty, I'm going to quote a poem by the Irish writer James Stephens (1882-1950). Our most dangerous desire, Mr. Siegel wrote, “is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self; which lessening is Contempt.” Stephens' humorous poem “The Fur Coat” illustrates an aspect of contempt. (The word Pride in the first line does not mean honest self-respect but conceit.)

I walked out in my Coat of Pride;

I looked about on every side;

And said the mountains should not be

Just where they were, and that the sea

Was out of place, and that the beech

Should be an oak! And then, from each,

I turned in dignity, as if

They were not there! I sniffed a sniff;

And climbed upon my sunny shelf;

And sneezed a while; and scratched myself.

Stephens is satirizing contempt. Yet before Aesthetic Realism it was not known how subtle and large contempt is. And Stephens did not know that there is a fight in everyone all the time between contempt and the desire to respect the world, see meaning in what's not ourselves.

“I looked about on every side; / And said the mountains should not be / Just where they were”: yes, there is something in us that is hoping, looking, to find things unsatisfactory. The reason is: through looking down on things we can feel we're Somebody, we're superior. The victory of self-love through contempt for outside things is in the comically repulsive description at the end of the poem: “I sniffed a sniff; / And climbed upon my sunny shelf; / And sneezed a while; and scratched myself.”

This poem presents contempt as making for private smugness; but the same contempt has other effects too. For example, if we see people and things as unworthy of us, we also feel we have the right to exploit them, manipulate them, be cruel to them.

Further: people can think they're trying to find life interesting—but they don't see how much they're hoping to find things dull. After all, if things seem dull we can feel superior to them, while if something interests us we have to respect it, even need it. So people unwittingly arrange to feel bored and empty.

Further again: men and women feel they're looking for love, but they don't see how much they're also hoping to look down on a person, be dissatisfied with him or her. If we love truly, we can't feel superior. If we're disappointed with a person, we can. So an unseen fight between love and superiority goes on minute by minute within people, amid embraces and conversations, in the kitchens and streets and bedrooms of the world. And often persons unknowingly choose superiority, and then feel, “Why can't I ever find love?”

James Stephens has a poem called “Shame”; yet he didn't see, as others haven't, that the desire to have contempt is the thing that makes a person ashamed.

Our Best and Largest Purpose

Meanwhile, there is the desire to respect the world. This, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the largest desire in us, however much we betray it. To value the world honestly is the very purpose of our lives. That is why having contempt inevitably weakens us and makes us dislike ourselves.

The Stephens poem I quoted depicts contempt; but with its oneness of energy and structure, of melody and toughness, the poem itself is not contempt. Like all true art, it comes from and embodies a large respect for reality.

For now, to stand for the grandeur of respect, I quote some lines from one of Stephens' greatest poems. In “Deirdre” he uses that woman of Celtic mythology to stand for the world seen as beautiful. Our deepest desire, to like the world, resonates in these simple lines.

...Once she did tread the earth: men took her hand;

They looked into her eyes and said their say,

And she replied to them.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A thousand years! The grass is still the same,

The clouds as lovely as they were that time

When Deirdre was alive....

Aesthetic Realism explains what is best in every person, honors it, and enables it to prevail.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Some Ways of Seeing

By Eli Siegel

Then there is the term empathy:

An objective awareness of the feelings, emotions, and behavior of another person. To be distinguished from sympathy, which is usually nonobjective and noncritical.

Sympathy can be accurate or inaccurate. And sympathy has to be differentiated from approval. Let's say a person runs across the street. It's been snowing, it's icy, and there—he falls. You can give him a lot of sympathy, but you can't give him very much approval. It was icy and he shouldn't have run so fast.

Well, the definition I just read is useless. Empathy, in English, came to be an art term. If you were painting a mountain, you were supposed to be a little like the mountain. If you were painting a heron, or even a Herod, you were supposed to be like the bird in a November morning, or the king of Judea.

The ability to take on what another thing is, is in man. You describe very cold snow flurrying on the peak of a mountain in Alaska, and the mountain in the dark with all that flurrying snow, and whether you intend to or not, you'll take over some of the quality of the mountain.

We can identify ourselves with anything. It is one of the reasons we dream as we do. But the being able to put oneself in an object so as to deal with it artistically is part of the artistic situation. The other aspect is to find the universe there. When you are stirred by something, you find yourself there, and the universe—and it may be said, other things too. But these two are important.

There Are Awareness and Motive

“An objective awareness of the feelings, emotions, and behavior of another person.” Strictly speaking, we cannot be aware of the feelings, emotions, and behavior of a person without being objective. The awareness is objective, but then there is the motive we may have.

Let's say a person is feeling miserable and somebody says, “This is a wonderful day! My ticket came in on the horse race in Ireland!” The first person is aware of the feelings of the second: somebody is feeling fine and I'm feeling miserable. The point is, though, that he could use the glad and triumphant mood of the horse race winner to cheer himself up, but what he does is say, more than before, he's unlucky and other people are lucky. This means that the awareness could have been changed into something useful, but instead he uses it to be more unlucky, more isolated, in misery.

To be aware, as such, is to be objective. The question is what you do with the awareness. A girl says to her brother, “But Vincent, aren't you aware that I am going to be married tomorrow?” and Vincent says, “Look, Sis, I feel like hell and you have the nerve to be getting married!” He could have said, “Oh, that's right. I'd better snap out of it.” He has his choice, but the Vincent I'm talking of said the first thing: “Here am I feeling terrible, and this is the day before the day you choose to be married!”

“...To be distinguished from sympathy.” These words are still not wholly presented. Empathy is sympathy with the feeling of being within. You not only see, you're not only a bystander, you are an inward participant, which can be very good. But all empathy includes sympathy.

The Fight, Dramatically

The next is the ailment or disease epilepsy:

A disorder characterized by periodic seizures, and sometimes accompanied by a loss of consciousness. May be caused by organic or emotional disturbances. 

I have said a great deal about this at one time or another, and it may be the most dramatic form of the fight in a person between contempt and respect. The inability to decide between them is what makes for the epilepsy. The relation of the organic to it has to be thought about, but the thing that is present crucially is that with a certain organic disposition there's a situation of contempt and a situation of respect that are both around each other's neck. Other things in mind have this fight too. There is a relation between epilepsy and any fit whatsoever, any fit of crying, any stamping of one's foot, any throwing of a precious heirloom out of a non-precious window. There are times when a person just gets tired of not being able to decide.

I have, then, read some of the terms from the American Psychiatric Association list, and next Friday I shall deal with some more.

What's Real Intelligence?

By Leila Rosen

I liked to see myself as exceptionally intelligent: In college, I studied not some ordinary subject, but the more esoteric field of linguistics. I thought I had practical know-how, and also superior radar for spotting what was wrong with people—especially men.

So why did this same young woman who felt I was the keenest thing in Brooklyn often go blank when I was trying to study? Why was I so inept in social life, making stupid choices at every turn? Why did I feel incapable of caring for anyone? I was like many people who feel, “If I'm so smart, why aren't I happy?”

In his lecture Mind and Intelligence, Eli Siegel explains:

Intelligence can be defined as the ability to take care of oneself and also to care as such.... We want to be smart about how to take care of ourselves, but we also have to do a good job with everything else. [TRO 706]

That intelligence has centrally to do with how much a person cares for other things, how much he or she likes the world itself, Aesthetic Realism explains for the first time. It also describes what people often feel intelligence is: trying to outwit other people, show them up. That is contempt, and had I not had the good fortune to study Aesthetic Realism, this unintelligent way of seeing would have led me down the road to a life of academic and personal emptiness and despair.

Some Early Decisions about Intelligence

In Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World, Mr. Siegel defines intelligence as “the ability of a self to become at one with the new” (TRO 310). This stands for the thing I was hoping for most deeply as I was growing up. I had a sincere interest in learning. Yet I also liked feeling superior to my classmates. I was in an intense fight between wanting to become at one with the new as to knowledge, and the desire to see other things and people as not very interesting and also as inimical. I found something wrong with everyone I met, and felt justified in keeping to myself. When I began to have Aesthetic Realism consultations, my consultants saw I felt this, and they asked: “What do you use to be superior, aside from your Rosen-esque innate charm? You're more intelligent?” I said hesitantly, “I don't think so”—but I did; and understandably, it didn't help my social life.

“Do you think there's any pleasure in turning people into shadows?” my consultants asked. And they explained: “What people generally do is change the puzzlingness of the world into a contempt triumph.” This was what I'd done, beginning with my father, Barney Rosen. I thought he and I were the intellectual ones in the family, though I conceded that my mother had that lesser kind of intelligence, “common sense.” Sometimes I felt he was the person closest to me—also the one who made me most important and whom I knew how to manage—but at other times I felt he was an angry stranger.

My education in how to be intelligent about people included these questions: “Do you think your father is a full-fledged person?”; “Is there in you enough desire to know who your father is?”; “Do you think the pain your father has says anything about a desire in him to put opposites together and an inability to do so?” 

Because I began to see Barney Rosen as a subject as worthy of thought as the structure of a Latin sentence, I felt more at ease not only with him, but with other people. And this new way of seeing people made it possible for me to have a career I love as a high school English teacher, and a marriage to Alan Shapiro, jazz pianist and music teacher, which I cherish. Studying together in the scholarly classes taught by Ellen Reiss is making us more intelligent, enabling us to have larger feelings for the world and other people. And it is making our marriage deeper and more exciting all the time!

I Learn about Intelligence in Marriage

For example, there was the occasion when my husband returned from a trip and I felt hurt that he hadn't brought me a special gift. I mentioned this in an Aesthetic Realism class and said I wasn't proud of my response. Ms. Reiss explained: “Women, for a long time, have judged men on what they gave them, when, how much. This is a classic subject about which women have hurt their lives.” And she showed that the reason I felt bad didn't essentially have to do with gifts but rather with what I want from another person. She asked: “Do you think you see Alan Shapiro on the one hand as a person, and on the other, just as someone who should honor you?” Yes, I did. I saw that what I wanted was a tribute to me. While not denying the possible goodness of gifts, Ms. Reiss said: “The greatest gift Mr. Shapiro can give you is to want to know you.” This discussion had me value so much more Alan's deep, good-natured desire to know who I am and how I see the world, and has had me want more than ever to do the same for him.

Feeling and Intelligence

Early in my knowing Alan, I saw I had a fear of feeling too much for him. Ms. Reiss asked me in a class: “If you're afraid of large feeling, do you see that large feeling as accurate? You can be afraid that you won't be proud because the big feeling is not exact. But you can also be afraid of having large emotion because the emotion is exact and will get you.”

I said I felt I wouldn't be in control if I were stirred, and Ms. Reiss asked, “Do you think being 'in control,' as you put it, is the ideal of beauty?” It's not. I've seen that the people I respect most show that the world has affected them, stirred them in big ways, and that's how I want to be!

“Intelligence,” said Mr. Siegel, “is a kind of justice.” That justice is a beautiful, practical, learnable thing. It is what the study of Aesthetic Realism can bring to every person's life.