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 NUMBER 1613.— May 5, 2004
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
Are We Proud of How We're For & Against?
Dear Unknown Friends: 

This issue includes a section of the great 1950 lecture we have been serializing: Aesthetic Realism and the World, by Eli Siegel. And with it is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Joseph Meglino, from a recent public seminar titled “The Drama in Men about Boredom & Excitement.”

       Mr. Siegel gave this lecture just after an off-year election, and he describes something large in the state of mind of Americans as they went to voting places. He says there was a pervasive sourness, grouchiness, ill nature—because people had a feeling of deep objection about their working lives, their economic lives, the cost of healthcare and goods, but were not clear about the objection, or its cause, or how to give form to it.

       America now is different. Yet there is still that smoldering, sometimes exploding objection. It's more intense than ever. And it's still looking for comprehension, form, clarity. It is the objection Mr. Siegel articulated in his Goodbye Profit System lectures of the 1970s: people resent having their lives used to make money for somebody else—some employer or stockholders who don't do the work. They resent being seen in terms of how much profit can be gotten out of them. And they resent being made to work longer hours for less. They resent having to worry that they'll be jobless tomorrow because their employer can make more profit by replacing them with a horribly paid person in Malaysia or India. What that tremendous yet still tumultuous objection comes to, Mr. Siegel described in 1970: there is this feeling “all through the world: Let good will be the cause of production!”

The Understanding of For & Against

If we're not trying to see clearly what we're against, and also what we're for, we'll have ill nature, pain, shame, and unkindness. Therefore there are a lot of these in America and elsewhere.

       For and against are two of the largest, most primal opposites; and this Aesthetic Realism principle is true of them: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” So I'll present some points toward the understanding of for and against, these elements in our lives that are equivalent really to what we feel and who we are.

       1) We can be for something for a good reason or a bad one. And we can be against something for a good reason or a bad one. The only good reason for being for something—whether a leaf, or a kiss, or a candidate—is: that thing or person adds to the goodness and beauty of the world, and enables us to be in a better relation with everything.

The Bad Reason

The bad reason for being for something or someone is: our feeling that this thing or person makes us comfortable, important, superior, without our caring how other people and reality itself are affected. An example Mr. Siegel sometimes gave is the lady friend of a gangster, who feels, “He's a great guy—he makes me feel like a queen with those presents he gives me! Who cares what he does with other people.”

       This basis for being for something or someone is very ordinary, yet is horrible. It's why the gentle wife of a plantation owner was for slavery: having slaves made her life comfortable; also, she could feel superior to them. And people have been for a head of state because he made them feel they were important, superior, didn't have to question themselves. That has happened often, though the most dramatic instance is the way the German people were for Hitler.

       Then there is the only good reason for being against something. The reason is: this thing (be it a poorly arranged room, a certain foreign policy decision, an insincere smile) makes the world uglier, meaner, less just, or makes oneself and others in a worse relation to the world.

       The bad reason for being against something is: that thing, if justly seen, interferes with our ego, questions us in some way, threatens our sense of superiority—while through despising it/him/her/them, we feel important. This reason is what racism comes from: the feeling, if I can be against those people different from me, I'm Somebody! Behind all ugly againstness is contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

       It's an emergency for our own lives and for humanity that we be for and against for a beautiful reason—and that we want to be exact about why we're for and against. The most widespread, hurtful conceit is the feeling in a person that one is simply entitled to be for and against however one pleases, and that since the feeling of for or against comes from oneself, it must be right.

We May Fool Ourselves

2) The second point, for now, about these opposites is: We may fool ourselves about them—not see that we're against something, or for something. Mr. Siegel describes an instance of this fact in his short, wonderful, also humorous poem “The Story of the French Revolution”:
For many years,
There was no French Revolution.
Then, look!
There was a French Revolution.
The French Revolution began in 1789; but in 1779, say, millions of French people did not see clearly how much they were against the way France was run and owned; did not see that they were for an overthrow of the monarchy and for a France that belonged more to everyone. Yet these feelings of for and against were in them, murkily, dimly: astir, but not seen by their possessors. “Then, look! / There was a French Revolution”: a certain unclear for and against took on terrific consciousness and momentum.

       How people can fool themselves as to for and against is part of literature. In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, we see Darcy and Elizabeth thinking they're so against each other, when they're for each other mightily.

       There is a growing, pretty turbulent sense in millions of Americans right now that their being “for” the war in Iraq last year did not stand for them truly: it didn't come from knowledge that was accurate or thought that was deep enough. Millions of Americans feel they fooled themselves—and were assisted in fooling themselves.

An Unseen Hope

3) The third point about for and against is: People haven't seen that they hope to be against the world—that there is a terrific feeling in them that the way to be for themselves is to be against other things. This feeling, again, is contempt; and Mr. Siegel showed it to be the cause of cruelty and mental ailment:
It is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker....It is clear that as we say something is a mistake, is not so good, is not to our liking, is imperfect, we are reaching heights of affirmed individuality.1

The Only Way We'll Be Proud

4) The only way we'll ever be proud of how we see a person is if our being for that person goes along with how we're against her or him. A woman right now, Katy, often gets extremely irritated at her little boy, Jake, for doing just what she doesn't want him to do. And that irritation seems in a different world from another feeling she has—when she hugs him tenderly and sees him as the sweetest child. The resentment and tenderness seem to come from two different parts of her—in fact, seem to be about two different people. Katy is representative: she feels both mixed up and ashamed because her for and against are so apart from each other.

       Aesthetic Realism shows that the thing that will have these opposites coherent for us, have them one, enable us to be proud and intelligent and kind, is good will. Mr. Siegel described it as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” (TRO 121). How good will is the aesthetic oneness of for and against, is one of the largest, most beautiful studies in the world. But Mr. Siegel described it succinctly this way:

We want to care for people; we want to encourage them. But we also, if we are really friendly, hope to see their weakness less and their faults decreasingly powerful. [TRO 1000]
When our being for a person is for the purpose of his being “stronger and more beautiful,” in a better relation with the whole world, and our being against the person is for the same purpose because it's to have his “faults decreasingly powerful”—we'll like ourselves, and we'll be kind. This is the great, beautiful kindness Mr. Siegel himself had for every person.
A Contagion of Grouchiness
By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing a New York Times article (Nov. 10, 1950) about mental health care in America.

There is a reference in this article to “the problem of absenteeism in industry.” That exists, and it worries the employers—because the absence comes from an anger. There are thousands of persons who are working and are trying to work less and less, and trying to get by doing as little as possible, because they feel that other persons are getting by with as little as possible, and they don't feel the freedom in their jobs that they should. There is a lot of talk about “free enterprise,” but free enterprise also means for many people free enterprise to go home. And they do go home. If you're going to be free, why do you have to be behind a machine at all?

       So there is a lot of grogginess and grouchiness and general feeling of subtle distemper. And it shows itself in industry. There are strikes. It is present in some of the wildcat strikes we hear about: a person suddenly feels that he doesn't like the looks of the machine—too much oil. It hurts his sensitivity: “Hey, boy, look. They're putting something over on us, you know. They're being careless. The whole place just stinks with oil!” There's a strike. The CIO says, “What's this about?” And they usually find a few malcontents. But it really came out of a contagion of grouchiness.

What Does It Mean?

Take something that happened recently—I'm afraid it helped give Mr. Quill2 his heart failure—a new reason for a strike: the windows weren't clean enough in the buses. They have a strike. Who ever heard of such a thing thirty years ago—people not wanting to go to work because the windows weren't clean? Who ever heard of it? What does it mean?

       It has a very big meaning, because there is a great deal of anger that cannot show itself politically. There are lots of possibilities of ulcers among workers. It used to be among executives, but now it's gotten to the working class. It's a sort of reverse of the old statement: "Nothing is too good for the working class—even ulcers.” A great deal is happening because there is this grouchiness without any clear way of showing it.

Another Kind of Feeling

People used to like to go to vote. They were angry with something, and they were rather proud. That was so even though really most people didn't vote. The surprising thing is, lots of people voted this time. And they voted because: “Well, let's see, how can I get rid of that grouch on November 7th?”

The Drama in Men about Boredom
By Joseph Meglino

Aesthetic Realism shows that we have two different hopes. We want to find things interesting. But there's also something in everyone that hopes to feel nothing matters, everything is dull and meaningless.

       If a man can walk out of a museum and say, “I didn't see anything interesting” or leave a party and feel, “What a bunch of bores!,” it's a huge victory: it has him feel superior. Boredom, Eli Siegel explains,

is not pleasing; but what boredom begins with is not only pleasing but adds to one's individual importance....Persons [are] willing to pay for the pleasure and value to self of contempt with the distressing moments or hours that are in boredom. [TRO 187]
       Aesthetic Realism makes clear that we don't have to jump off a mountain or visit a jungle to feel excitement. Everything in the world is made up of opposites, and seeing how opposites are in reality, in objects, and in us, ends boredom—and makes for real excitement.

       The subject in school that most excited me was science, particularly physics. But I saw other things, including my family, world events, art, most music, as pretty dull, and I prided myself on being understated, in control. “Don't you get excited about anything?” people would say to me. One of my favorite questions was “What are you getting so excited about?”

       Even what I cared for most, science, I came to feel bored with, and by age 20 I felt old and rigid.

I Learn the Cause of Boredom

What I learned from Aesthetic Realism brought life to me. In a consultation, when I said my relatives had me feel I was a special being, the only son in an Italian family, I was asked, “Did you use the praise to feel this was a world you had to know—or one that should serve you? Did you feel that compared to you, everything else in the world was cold potatoes?” I did.

       The mistake I was making is described by Ellen Reiss in TRO 1133. Writing about the cause of boredom, she presents two questions that might be asked in an Aesthetic Realism consultation:

Do you think you are in some competition with every object you meet—let alone every person—and feel every bit of interest you have in something else takes away from interest in yourself? Do you think when you're bored, though you feel fairly miserable, you also feel you're the only important thing?
       Yes! Studying Aesthetic Realism, I heard questions that had me see and reconsider my desire to flatten the meaning of everything. For example: “Do you think a novel could be written about your parents that would be interesting, true to the facts, and that people would want to read?”

       I began to tell my parents what I was learning and to ask them questions—and I never saw them the same way again! My mother spoke of her care for reading and of meeting the novels of Dickens in high school; also of how she still felt bad that she had been ashamed of her mother, who spoke mainly Italian. My father too told me about himself—as a young boy growing up on Manhattan's Lower East Side, one of the six children of parents who had emigrated from Italy. For the first time, I saw my parents as full, exciting human beings from whom I could learn.

       And I was thrilled seeing that the science I'd cared for, physics, shows that reality is made up of opposites—which are in me and every person.

       Take for and against. Two protons, which are both positive, will repel each other because of their identical electric charge. So as we push these two protons together, the closer they get, the stronger will be the electric force pushing them apart. However, if we use a great deal of energy and succeed in pushing the two protons very close, at a certain point they will strongly attract each other and bind together. This is because there is another force, the strong nuclear force, which only operates over a very short distance and is much stronger than that of electric repulsion. It is the great energy of this force which holds together the nucleus of every atom of iron, oxygen, water, air.

       It's exciting to see that every object we come upon or touch—a piece of paper, a drop of water—is made up of atoms which are a dynamic relation of attraction and repulsion, energy and control, force and grace. And these are opposites every person is trying to put together! Who can be bored seeing that the world is made this way? I never was again!

Boredom vs. Love

Men have often seen love and sex as the only exciting things in a dull universe. But they haven't seen how much they've also wanted to be unaffected by a woman.

       I made the mistake of many men: I wanted a woman to be devoted to me while I acted cool. In a class, Mr. Siegel explained: “People want to care for other people, but at the same time they want to keep themselves out of circulation. Everyone is trying to love another without having a big dent in oneself.”

      What I learned enabled me to fall in love with Pauline Meglino. I saw in her a relation of boldness and grace, humor and sharpness, beauty and thoughtfulness that I wanted to know and be close to. Through her I am tremendously stirred, affected, and at the same time feel deeper and kinder. Aesthetic Realism is the education that makes boredom a thing of the past!   black diamond

1Self and World (NY: Definition Press, 1981), p. 362
2Mike Quill (1905-66) was founder and president of the Transport Workers Union.

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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Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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