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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1410.—April 12, 2000

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Biggest Matter in Your Life

Dear Unknown Friends:

A principal way Aesthetic Realism differs from every other approach to mind is its showing that the biggest matter in your life is the fight between your desire to respect the world and your desire to have contempt. Every person wants to find value in things and people. But every person also wants to look down on other people and things as a means of feeling important and superior. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." He showed that contempt is the source of all the unkindness in history, and contempt is also that in a person which causes mental ailment or distress. 

We are serializing Poetry and Slowness, a magnificent 1949 lecture by Eli Siegel. And the poem Mr. Siegel speaks about in this third section of his lecture—George Crabbe’s "Peter Grimes"—he would write about nearly three decades later, in one of the most important documents for the understanding of 20th-century history and the human self. There, in 1975, in issue 142 of this periodical, he relates the character Peter Grimes to Adolf Hitler. And he explains what impelled Nazism.     

In the 1949 Poetry and Slowness, Mr. Siegel is speaking about the poem’s technique, not its main character. The basis of that lecture is this principle, in which Mr. Siegel defines the crucial relation of art and life: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." When a line of good poetry is slow, it isn’t only slow: there are a vibrancy, drama, electricity within the slowness. We can see these, hear these, in the lines of Crabbe that Mr. Siegel discusses.  But since "Peter Grimes" would become part of a document at once historically mighty and urgent—showing the relation of contempt at its most brutal to the contempt present in ordinary life—I include some sentences from TRO 142.

A Poem, Contempt, & Nazism

There, quoting a phrase about Nazism from a history text, Mr. Siegel says: "The question ... is whether ‘utterly ruthless and inhuman behavior’ was sustained by a national contempt akin to the contempt an individual may have." He quotes lines by Crabbe, beautiful and terrible, about Peter Grimes—who, Mr. Siegel says, "felt he had a right to revenge" against a world that hadn’t pleased him: 

He wish’d for one to trouble and control; 
He wanted some obedient boy to stand, 
And bear the blow of his outrageous hand; 
And hop’d to find in some propitious hour 
A feeling creature subject to his power.

Mr. Siegel asks, "Was the dissatisfaction of Peter Grimes like the dissatisfaction of many a storm-trooper in the Germany of 1932? Did Peter Grimes of Aldeburgh, Suffolk, use his grievance somewhat the way Adolf Hitler of Austria used his?" And Mr. Siegel writes this sentence, which is both beautiful prose and an emergency: "We have to understand contempt and anger in one person and many to understand Lidice, 1942."

We leave for now that 1975 TRO about Peter Grimes, Hitler, and ordinary contempt, and point again to the contents of our current issue. In it is part of a paper that Sally Ross, a New York City high school science teacher, presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "Change and Steadiness in Our Lives: How Can They Both Be Beautiful?" Ms. Ross describes ways that our contempt has us unable to make a one of opposites that we need and long to put together. 

A Current Matter

The fight between contempt and respect in the human self needs to be understood for people to be understood, in both our hopes and our worries. To comment on this fact, I speak a little about an article in the New York Times of March 21, on "obsessive-compulsive disorder" in children. The writer quite carelessly calls the disorder "biologically based," even though she states some paragraphs later that "researchers have yet to identify the cause." So, what is it that makes a little boy, described in the article, feel he will be contaminated by what he meets?:

Germs were the initial obsession and hand-washing the compulsion, but his symptoms soon expanded .... He feared contamination from pesticides on the lawn and household cleaners.

We all have a tendency to see ourselves as polluted by outside reality. That is a fundamental way contempt works: it makes the outside world an opponent to our treasured self. A child, early, can come to feel that the world, with its confusions, is not to his liking. And like an older person, he can feel deeply he is important, in fact himself, by seeing the world as something that defiles him. Yet he is against himself for this way of seeing—because his deepest desire is to find the world his friend. There is a jam-up. So he goes through a symbolic mode of behavior through which, on the one hand, he shows his dislike for reality, and on the other, punishes himself for that dislike.

The Times tells us that earlier this boy "would wear only shoes with Velcro closures that he could pull tight and his pants had to have skin-tight legs." Clothes are the outside world which we put on ourselves to assist us. But if we feel that the world does not deserve to fit or assist us, we can have trouble about clothes. We may be able to wear a garment only when it is so close to our skin that it seems ourselves and we don’t recognize it as outside world at all. At the same time, we may criticize our apartness from the world by feeling compelled to have it, in the form of a garment, ever so close to us.

In his lecture Mind and Persistence, Mr. Siegel discussed various compulsions. They are, he explained, "a way unconsciously of admitting that you haven’t dealt with the world with all of yourself, so you can punish yourself and at the same time despise the world by going through [a] persistent mechanism" (TRO 626).

There is a little girl told of in the Times article who has "a compulsion to lick—the garage floor, electrical outlets, a gym mat at school." This too has in it punishment for disliking the world: she is compelled to show care for it, and humility, through the licking. At the same time, in licking things she is taking them over, managing them.

     Eli Siegel showed, with beautiful courage, fulness, and exactitude, that the human self is aesthetic, and ethical: our largest desire is to like the world, and if that is not what we are going after, the depths of us will protest in various ways. And he showed this too: art says always that the world, no matter how confusing or dull it may seem, has grandeur, form, and is our friend.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Poetry Tells of Dullness
By Eli Siegel

There have been some effects of poetry that obviously are of the slow kind. One of the best is by George Crabbe in The Borough, of 1810. There is a pretty bad, pretty unhappy person, a fisherman in Suffolk, Peter Grimes. And he gets into trouble: his apprentices die. He is bad, and at the same time suffers; and Crabbe describes him as alone. Crabbe is looked on as the first realist in poetry. He wrote about poor people, and wrote about them in the couplet. He gave them the majesty of the couplet and still presented them as people. So this is from "Peter Grimes," and the effect is slow and dismal:

Thus by himself compell’d to live each day, 
To wait for certain hours the tide’s delay; 
At the same times the same dull views to see, 
The bounding marsh-bank and the blighted tree; 
The water only, when the tides were high, 
When low, the mud half-cover’d and half-dry; 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float, 
As the tide rolls by the impeded boat.

When we think of a line like this one—"At the same times the same dull views to see"—well, that is a dull landscape, very dull. The word dull is used. Still, it is part of the world. It is part of the unconscious, because the unconscious, if it is a good one (and unconsciouses want to be good), has in it the world good and bad, dull and speedy.

And take this thing, of slowness with complications: "Heaps of entangled weeds that slowly float." Not much motion there; you just feel stuck. Still, it is a very fine line.—Then, the same dullness:

There anchoring, Peter chose from man to hide, 
There hang his head, and view the lazy tide 
In its hot slimy channel slowly glide; 
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
Where gaping mussels, left upon the mud, 
Slope their slow passage to the fallen flood.

That is pretty slow. Those mussels don’t seem to be interested in life: they "slope their slow passage to the fallen flood." There are many ls there, and l can be used for a slow effect.

Crabbe is one of those writers who tend to pile on the evidence showing how silly Dr. Freud is. Art with Dr. Freud was a means of getting away from the awful world. But when we have passages like these, which are about dullness and getting away from things more interesting, we see how unequipped Freud was on the subject.

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Change, Steadiness, & Truth
By Sally Ross

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the desire for contempt is the thing that makes a person changeable in ways she dislikes herself for; and also makes for that horrible but ordinary feeling of being stuck in a rut, unable to get out.

I was very troubled by the way I changed the facts according to the company I was in. For example, in 7th grade I wanted to be liked by a boy from the Catholic school in our neighborhood. I lied to him about my grades, because I thought if he knew that they were high he would see me as a "nerd." And when he made some derogatory remarks about Jews, I didn’t say a word; I was scared he would find out I was Jewish. Though I succeeded in getting him interested in me, I was very ashamed. 

Soon after, I found I couldn’t fall asleep unless I read the Jewish Day of Atonement Service. I didn’t know why, but I read it every night for months. Years later, studying Aesthetic Realism, I learned the reason: I deeply felt I had been untrue to myself, including as to religion, and that I should atone. I was punishing myself. 

     Yet I didn’t see how dangerous it was to feel I could change the facts, including the facts about myself, whenever and however I pleased. 

In high school if a boy I liked called me, or I got a part in the school play, I felt I was riding high. But if he didn’t call or someone else got the part, I would come crashing down. My moods became more and more intense. By my sophomore year of college, I felt fixed in a depression I could not shake, and at the same time was frantically anxious. At this point, I was given tranquilizers and hospitalized for four days.

I am one of the fortunate women in America that the next year, through a fellow college student, Edward Green, I learned about Aesthetic Realism. I was majoring in psychology, but I was surprised and tremendously relieved when I began to learn what no text I had ever read understood: moods don’t just come without bidding and take you over; they are the result of a purpose. We are unsteady because we have made less of the world. Also, our moods themselves may be a means of lessening reality. Ellen Reiss explains in TRO 1032: 

The decisive question about any emotion or mood is, Is it based on respect or contempt? When a person is in a "foul mood," he is, though miserable, also having the triumph of contempt, of feeling nothing is good enough for him.

I saw that I hadn’t just suffered from my moods — I had also worshiped them. I felt my moods were like gods. When I was in one I didn’t have to think about being fair to anything else. Learning about contempt is the most liberating thing for a person. Through seeing its debilitating effects, we can make a different choice.

In an Aesthetic Realism class in 1976, Eli Siegel explained, with the clearest logic, what had hurt me for years. (The changing one’s mind he was speaking of is the changing one’s mind without an accurate basis, without the desire to see.) He said:

People feel they have the privilege of changing their minds about what is true .... When you think you have a right to change your mind, what you are saying is that the truth of things depends on your mood, that there isn’t something which is true just so because of what it is .... And then what happens is, when we need to have something that is sure, we can’t get to it. That is the penalty of feeling we have a right to change our minds.

He added, "You felt you could use truth for your purposes — that you were not the servant of truth, but truth was the servant of Sally Ross."

Mr. Siegel was right. It is the greatest honor of my life that I was able to study with him, and be known by him. He is the person who most loved and respected truth. He was the steadiest person and the most flexible.

I now have a steadiness and an honest flexibility I never would have had. A great, happy means to this is my marriage to Derek Mali, who is an Aesthetic Realism consultant and an actor, and the fact that together we have the privilege to study in classes taught by Ellen Reiss. Aesthetic Realism has enabled me to be a happy woman — and my gratitude is enormous! black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.


2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.


3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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First Thursday of each month, 6:30 PM: Seminars with speakers from Aesthetic Realism faculty

Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

Subscriptions: 26 issues, US $18; 12 issues, US $9, Canada and Mexico $14, elsewhere $20. Make check or money order payable to Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Click here for subscription form. ISSN 0882-3731

TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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