NUMBER 1615.— June 2, 2004
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
Toward “Respect for What Is Real”!
Dear Unknown Friends: 

ere is the conclusion of the great 1950 lecture by Eli Siegel that we have been serializing: Aesthetic Realism and the World. He gave it just after an off-year election. And he discusses a newspaper article on mental health. Throughout, he makes a relation never before made with such clarity: between personal life and national life, the intimate feelings of an individual and what is taking place in the nation. 

     Mr. Siegel describes what is still true: the psychiatrists do not understand the cause of mental difficulty, nor what mental wellness really is. Meanwhile, as people went to work in 1950, as they were affected by the Korean War, and affected by the statements and motives of politicians, what they were meeting, Mr. Siegel explains, was an encouragement to mental unhealth, because through it they saw the world they were in as something to dislike.

There Was a Sourness

eople, he shows in this lecture, can use how a nation is run to feel the world they’re in is not a friend, and to be, therefore, ill natured in the kitchen, angry at the job, murkily depressed. That ill nature too can be present as citizens go to the polls. Regardless of one’s political party there was, he says, in the election that had just occurred, an atmosphere of sourness, an unclearness and feeling of grouch. And he says about the mental health agencies told of in the article he is discussing: 
Unless the agencies [want] to stop the people who add to disturbance of mind by raising prices, by talking hate for most of the world, by being liars in public...—unless these people are stopped, there cannot be much reason for a person with the ordinary advantages to think that what is going on is worthy of his respect. 
     Though our time is different from the time of this lecture, people today want more than ever a nation that looks fair to them, looks ethically beautiful. And they want a means of understanding themselves that is true. The knowledge they are looking for is Aesthetic Realism, which has the real comprehension of mind. I’ll say something of how, in relation to a current matter which has brought together crashingly and intricately the two aspects of Mr. Siegel’s lecture: national happenings and the individual troubled mind. This current matter is the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American MPs, revealed in photographs that have shocked people across the nation. 

The Means of Understanding 

The one means of understanding how ordinary Americans came to humiliate and torture other human beings day after day and obviously enjoyed doing so, is in Aesthetic Realism’s explanation of contempt. I quote Eli Siegel describing the crucial battle within every person, whether one is a 5-year-old child or a senator: 
The large every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now, the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality. [TRO 151]
He defined contempt in the following principle: 
There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world. 
     We need to see the tremendous ordinariness of contempt. It is the thing in self, Mr. Siegel showed, which interferes with every aspect of life, from love to education. Contempt is that which weakens one’s mind. And it is that which makes a person cruel. 

     So we come to the photographs at Abu Ghraib prison. One effect of the revelations in them is that Americans are being forced to question themselves, to be less complacent, less assured of one’s superiority to the rest of humanity. And that is very useful. 

     To understand how a representative person—however much encouraged by higher-ups—can do horrible things, I’ll quote from two New York Times articles about Pfc. Lynndie R. England. She appears prominently in the photographs—in one, holding a leash to which a naked Iraqi man is attached at the neck; in another, giving a thumbs-up in front of humiliated, naked prisoners. 

We Need to Ask 

e need to ask: Is there a desire in people—not under extraordinary circumstances, but every day—to lessen, punish, humiliate, to have a contest with what’s not oneself and show that oneself is victorious? Last week I saw a man walking with a friend down a New York sidewalk where pigeons were eating crumbs. He turned to a pigeon, uttered a sudden deep “Boo!,” and thrust his foot toward the bird. The pigeon was very frightened and flew away, and the men laughed at it. 

     This was ordinary. It was contempt. It was a having of power through lessening, making seem foolish, a creature different from oneself. It should be related to the following, from a sworn statement to investigators by Pfc. England, quoted in the May 16 New York Times: about detainees piled naked with bags over their heads, she said, “We thought it looked funny so pictures were taken.” 

     On PBS television’s NewsHour, psychologist Philip Zimbardo, asked about Abu Ghraib, gave this as cause: prison situations make for a “sadistic impulse” in “good” people which they ordinarily don’t have; “it was a special kind of mentality.” That is not exact. We go after contempt in thousands of ways, and every day. It’s not something extraordinary, which suddenly appears in a prison. And unless we’re able to criticize our ordinary contempt, when we find ourselves in certain circumstances we may give that contempt free rein, have it be untrammeled, unconfined, horror-making. 

     A May 7 New York Times article on Lynndie England tells us that her friends and family say “she must have been following orders.” That, of course, was the excuse given by accused Nazis at the Nuremberg trials—they were following orders. The American guards were likely acting on orders of some kind. Meanwhile, if those orders did not appeal to something in oneself, satisfy something in oneself, they would not be followed. And the thing that has chilled people in the photos of Ms. England is her clear pleasure: she was not merely dutiful. 

     An article in Time magazine (May 17) suggests that the cause of abuses by prison guards and soldiers is “group dynamics.” Psychiatrist Ilan Kutz is quoted as saying, “Even people who think of themselves as very moral people, if other people are doing it, [feel] that makes it O.K.” I heard Mr. Siegel speak about the fact that persons will do in a group what none of them would do singly—that has been so in lynchings. But what the psychologists and psychiatrists do not see, and what humanity needs to understand, is the hurtful thing in each individual person that is appealed to, that can be backed up and ratified by others, that is ready to come forth full throttle, that has already come forth in other ways in daily life. That thing is contempt. 

A Desire to Know—or Have One’s Own Way?

n the May 7 article, we have this, by defenders of Lynndie England: 
“She’s kind of stubborn,” her mother, Terrie England, said....Her family brims with accounts about how strong willed Private England could be. 
Yet if we’re “stubborn” and “strong willed,” the important question is: Are we stubborn out of respect for what’s not ourselves, or with contempt? Stubbornness, which most people have, is contempt. It’s the feeling one doesn’t have to see what’s true—one is above what’s true. In stubbornness, and often in the more glamorous term “strong willed,” there’s the feeling: What’s against me shouldn’t be valued, given the same reality, as what I want—I can ride over anything that seems to question me. That’s the trouble with stubbornness; because if stubbornness arises from a desire to know, to see what is true and just, then it’s not stubbornness—it’s integrity. 

     I’m commenting on these words attributed to Ms. England’s family, because they’re a means of seeing the quiet, ever so ordinary beginnings of horror. Like Ms. England, we can all be stubborn—which means we’ll try (however decorously) to slap down any interfering fact, compel reality to yield to our commands, force it into submission. And that is what was done with Iraqi detainees. “Evil,” writes Mr. Siegel, “often begins delicately and culminates massively.”* 

     The Times of May 7 has this about Ms. England: 

A friend...said: “She is straight in your face, tells you how it is....There’s not a malicious bone in her body.” 
The friend doesn’t see, nor does the Times, the contradiction in those sentences. The contemporary idiom “in your face” happens to present a certain contempt. To be “in someone’s face” is not the same as being honest. It means, again: I don’t have to look at your feelings or what’s true—what I feel is what should run things—and I’ll shove my opinion at you, so close against your body, your face, that you’ll be forced to accept it. 

     The principle in contempt is always: By taking away the meaning of this thing, or this person, or the world itself—by making him or her or it less—I’m more. Contempt can be the quiet of boredom, with its underlying feeling, This world is not good enough to interest me! Contempt can be in economics: the seeing of a person in terms of how much profit you can get from him. Contempt can take the form of racism and is what racism begins with: I’m Somebody because I can see these people different from me as less. (To be sure, this form of contempt was present too in the Abu Ghraib brutality.) Contempt can be the casual uttering of an obscenity: the summing up of a person or situation in one demeaning expletive. And contempt can be the leading of a prisoner on a leash. All these are that victory, that self-importance, through the making less of what’s not self. 

Described in Newsweek

n Newsweek, May 17, there is a column by Fareed Zakaria which says essentially that various individuals used the September 11, 2001 attack to feel they could have contempt for the world and do anything they wanted. He writes: 
In the name of fighting terror they have systematically weakened the traditional restraints....Alliances, international institutions, norms and ethical conventions have all been deemed expensive indulgences at a time of crisis....Congress is barely informed, even on issues on which its “advise and consent” are constitutionally mandated.
     I want to be very clear: Al Qaeda is an organization which is based on and puts into action contempt of the fullest, most virulent kind. Meanwhile, Zakaria is expressing what many others have said too: that 9/11 was used by some in this country as an opportunity. It was a chance to unbridle their own contempt, to say: We’ve been hurt; therefore we can do whatever we please—and if we can call it “fighting terrorism,” no one will have a right to question us. 

     Whatever specific orders may have been given to the MPs at Abu Ghraib, that way of mind affected them. Its huge presence in recent years encouraged a related state of mind in them. There is a terrific readiness in people to feel, If I can see myself and what’s mine as hurt, anything I do is justified—all my contempt can be set free! Some of the results have been recorded in photographs from Iraq. 

The Success We Want

n issue 165 of this journal, titled “What Caused the Wars,” Mr. Siegel writes:
The next war has to be against ugliness in self. And the greatest ugliness in self is the seeing of contempt as personal achievement....Respect for what is real must be seen as the great success of man. 

That is what his beautiful, courageous lifework, Aesthetic Realism, makes possible.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

What the Human Mind Wants
By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel has been discussing a New York Times article, “U.S. Mental Care Called Primitive” (Nov. 10, 1950).

The article has this passage, quoting Oren Root Jr.:
Mr. Root declared that the goals of the new association [the National Association for Mental Health] were two-fold: to wage an educational program “so that every person in the United States can be reached and helped to understand a few central truths about mental health”...
I’d like that. But what are those “few central truths”? And why not have a few samples? A “few central truths,” as the psychiatrists are able to give them, would be, “Be at one with your environment,” “Love your neighbor,” and “Don’t worry.”

     If the psychiatrists ever put down the “central truths about mental health” that they’re aware of, they would sound like the things that one used to get in the first reader. They have no central truths, except those that one has already seen in the Bible now and then, or heard in the synagogue, the ones that the pastors say: “Love thy neighbor.” 

     There is no way the psychiatrists know of maintaining mental health. If they tried to put down the rules, people would soon be writing in, saying, “It doesn’t work with me. What does it mean?” You can tell a person how to ship burlap—that’s a specific thing. You can tell a person how long to cook milk. You can tell a person what kind of sponge to buy. But you can’t tell a person what goes on in him in a general way and in a deep way, unless you know.

Federalized Happiness

...and “to see to it that mental health facilities are available to everyone who needs them and at the price he can afford to pay.” 
This sounds so wonderful: “at the price he can afford to pay.” It is also very silly, because unless the way America is looked at, the way it is managed, is ethically changed, there will be no general mental health facilities that come to anything. To have them would mean that money, instead of going for causes which are found monetarily advantageous to those who have some power in the government, would go to the people in general. 

     Suppose every person who was emotionally disturbed had a fair chance of not being emotionally disturbed. You’d have socialized mental health—and persons would rather not have the mental health than have that! Suppose every person had a chance, as soon as he was disturbed, to get an explanation. In the first place, there is no explanation that is forthcoming. But suppose there were, and everybody could get it, and this were a national concern. Immediately, happiness would become nationalized. Then we’d have various politicians making speeches, saying, “We’d rather have private unhappiness than nationalized happiness. The local powers have taken over happiness; the state powers; and now the federal government has gotten into it. This is impossible! Federalized happiness!” There is talk of mental health, and in the meantime, those things are permitted that make for mental non-health.

The Two Are Meeting 

he reason I have spoken about this article so lengthily is in order to take the very beautiful and mysterious problem of what a human mind is after, and relate it to very current sociology. Sometimes the two meet. I think they met on election day, this November 7. 

     Unhappiness is not very clear. If it were clear, it wouldn’t be unhappiness. I must say that the vote was unhappy. One of the things going along with the unhappiness is that, without any real ability to transmit the feeling politically, there is more and more a disgust with the means of making a living, with the living that one makes, with working itself, with the situation; and it becomes a disgust with the world. I don’t think that this disgust is well founded, but there are too many things working to make it seem well founded. 

     Aesthetic Realism is anti-disgust. In order to be anti-disgust, it has to be against those things justifying disgust and for those things that could justify taste and a radiant feeling for accurate beauty. Without the going for what would justify a radiant feeling for accurate beauty, there can be no dealing with the disturbed mind, because the opposite of disturbed, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, is wonderful, complete, true to oneself—nothing less. That is why I say to people, “You’ve made a lot of progress, but unless you go after everything you want, you’re going to fall down again.”


he human mind is an insistent thing. It says, “Look here, Jacob; look here, Mildred: you’ve got to be everything you want to be. You’ve got to go after that every moment of your life. And you’ve got to feel that you’re in a wonderful relation with yourself, not just non-disturbed—wonderful, radiant, effulgent, glorious.” 

     For a person to do what he truly wants to do is a glorious thing; but he can be satisfied with nothing else. Every person doing as he truly wants is beautiful, wonderful, glorious. There is no other opposite to disturbed.

*James and the Children (NY: Definition Press, 1968), p. 153.

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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Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
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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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