NUMBER 1618 — July14, 2004
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

What Interferes with Mind?

Dear Unknown Friends: 

ith this issue we begin serializing a lecture Eli Siegel gave on April 22, 1966, titled Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things. He discusses, with clarity, grace, depth, and often humor, a list of psychiatric terms. As he does, he speaks about what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the interference with mind. Mr. Siegel is the philosopher who identified that thing in everyone which weakens our minds and hurts every aspect of our lives, sometimes ruinously. It is contempt, the feeling that we get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

     He showed that this feeling we’re somebody if we can look down on and dislike what’s not ourselves, is the cause of trouble in love, education, the family. It’s the beginning of every cruelty, including racism. And Mr. Siegel wrote:

The desire to have contempt for the outside world and for people and other objects as standing for the outside world, is a continuous, unseen desire making for mental insufficiency....Both nervousness and insanity are caused by the common human inclination for contempt. [Self and World, pp. 1, 8]

     He documented that statement extensively, using rich evidence from world culture and history, psychological studies, and immediate human life. “Contempt must be defeated,” he wrote, “if man is to be kind”—and also civilized and fully sane.

The Education against Contempt

he philosophy he founded, Aesthetic Realism, has been these decades the beautiful, logical, critical, kind education against contempt, and for what Mr. Siegel showed to be the deepest desire we have: the desire to like the world on an honest basis. In my opinion, Aesthetic Realism is the greatest strengthener of people’s minds that has ever existed. And this opinion is accompanied by infinite personal gratitude.

     Mr. Siegel explained too that because our deepest desire is to be just to reality, our contempt makes us dislike ourselves. That’s so of everyone. No matter how much we cover up this objection to ourselves, we have it. It may take such forms as nervousness, emptiness, “low self-esteem,” a profound unease. But it’s inevitably there, however praised or famous we are. It’s a tribute to the deep ethics of the human self.

There Is Psychiatry

uch can be said about what has happened to psychiatry in the four decades since Mr. Siegel gave this lecture. The principal psychiatric “solution” these days is through drugs. As I’ve written before, this attempt to deal with mental difficulty through altering people’s bodies is really a covert admission that the psychiatrists still don’t understand what in a person’s way of seeing has him or her feel bad, become depressed, get to a phobia perhaps, or obsession.

     Meanwhile, the real understanding of mind—beautiful and effective—has been in Aesthetic Realism these many years. And a large reason (along with competition) that psychiatrists have not wanted to acknowledge and learn it is this: If the cause of mental ailment is a certain size and accumulation of contempt, and that same contempt is also what people as such, including the psychiatrists, have and treasure in themselves—then in order to be of any use against mental ailment, practitioners would have to be against contempt itself, including their own. They would have to welcome studying their own contempt, welcome criticism of it, welcome seeing it as hurtful and ugly and deeply stupid.

     So there has been, in various milieux, a terrific desire to evade the real explanation, given by Aesthetic Realism, because that explanation, in all its grandeur and kindness, does interfere with a certain sense of self, a notion of one’s supremacy, an ability to look down on people and things as much as one pleases.

Robert Browning Describes Contempt

s a prelude to the first section of the 1966 lecture, I’m going to comment a little on a poem of Robert Browning. “Porphyria’s Lover” is a means of seeing the dislike of the world, the contempt, which becomes insanity when it’s sufficiently massive, but which people go for constantly and hurtfully every day. This poem of 1836 is one of two dramatic monologues Browning included under the heading “Madhouse Cells.” The speaker in it begins:

The rain set early in tonight;
The sullen wind was soon awake—
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake.

The person speaking, we’ll find later, is not sane. But what Browning keenly presents from the very beginning of the poem is the man’s dislike of the world. This man, Porphyria’s lover, gives an extra something to the weather: he endows the wind with a mean purpose; he says it does things out of “spite,” does all it can to “vex.” He wants to feel that nature itself has ill will—the wind wants to hurt lake and elm trees. And the question is, does he get anything out of this way of seeing?

          People who are not crazy can also arrange to feel things are more against them than is so. There’s a feeling in millions of people every day that, because they missed the train or bus, the world is against them. Also, all over America right now, people are getting a certain miserable triumph deciding in advance that somebody won’t appreciate them, or something will go wrong again. The triumph is that of contempt: other things and people are not good; therefore I’m superior; I’m sensitive; the one person really valuable is me; the only thing I should really love is myself. This is the triumph had by Porphyria’s lover. Browning gets it into the very sound of the first lines, which seem to thrust their somewhat sputtering revulsion.     

How Do We Use a Person’s Doing Us Good?

The poem’s next lines are:

I listened with heart fit to break.
When glided in Porphyria; straight
She shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled, and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm.

So Porphyria has a good effect. She makes things warmer and brighter. But an important question for everyone is, if good comes to us through a person, how do we use it? The just way to use it is to feel: if a person standing for the world, coming from the world, can have something I like and bring good to me, it shows that the world itself has more good than I thought, and I should have more like and respect for it.

      Unfortunately, that is not the choice people usually make when they “care” for someone. The choice is usually: this person is the one nice thing in a cold world, and I’ll use “liking” her to dislike the world even more. Also: the fact that she was nice to me shows she belongs to me—therefore I should own her completely and not have to think about who she is or what she really hopes for. That is what goes on within Porphyria’s lover.

     We learn that this man is angry because Porphyria, while caring for him, has been hesitant to join herself with him entirely, for life. But now she

...made her smooth white shoulder bare
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me....
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good; I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around
And strangled her.

      If we dislike the world, we cannot like another person’s relation to that world—her feelings and thoughts about it, her connection to it. And we will want to get rid of those relations which she has to the world. That happens to be tantamount to killing the person, because, as Mr. Siegel writes, “the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things.”

     This man wants to make Porphyria’s being nice to him equivalent to who she is, and wipe out everything else. So he strangles her: in doing so he has gotten rid of all her superfluities—that is, everything about her which isn’t praise of him. This is horrible and crazy. Yet something like it is gone after between men and women all over the world: there is the feeling the chief function of a “loved one” is to make much of me. A woman, for example, usually makes how a man treats her much more important than how he sees anything else. Many a wife right now takes her husband’s interest in something other than her as an annoyance and even an insult, as interfering with his adoration of and service to her—and she’d prefer to do away with that interest. 

     Disliking the world, millions of people want, as I said, to obliterate another’s connection with the world, to own that person fully, and call it love. Porphyria’s lover is thorough about the idea—he kills her. He is crazy: he has what Mr. Siegel once described as “the contempt that crosses the fence.” But the same contempt, staying for the while within certain bounds, perhaps approaching the fence or straddling it, is had by people not in Madhouse Cells.

Art Is Mental Health

he Browning poem is art. And central to Aesthetic Realism is Eli Siegel’s great, historic showing that art is the real opponent to contempt. Art is mental health. Whether in a painting, song, dance, poem—art arises from the desire to be just to reality. And the justice is so full that the structure of reality, the oneness of opposites, is present in the painting, song, dance, poem. In the verbal music of “Porphyria’s Lover” we hear at once juttingness and grace; harshness and delicacy; the immediate moment and rich, strange, subtle depth and width.

     Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to see the world with the justice that is in art. Therefore it is the most necessary of studies, and the most beautiful.

Looking at Psychiatry 
By Eli Siegel

oday, under the topic of “Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things,” I look squarely at what is called psychiatry. And the best way I found of doing that is to look at a list which is in the Reader’s Digest Almanac of this year, 1966. The list, of 74 terms, is taken from the American Psychiatric Association. There are many other terms. One of the things I recommend is that persons interested in Aesthetic Realism honestly ask whether Aesthetic Realism can cope usefully with these terms. I could discuss most of them for a long time. This can be called an early look.

     A basis of Aesthetic Realism is that there is a tremendous desire on the part of everybody not to like the world sufficiently, as the one means of maintaining oneself. And there seems to be reason for not doing so. There’s also a limitation people put on true respect. I hope this proposition is looked at with fulness. What does it mean for people not to want to like the world? has to be looked at as if the question were real. —The first term is accident prone.

Accident prone: Special susceptibility to accidents due to psychological causes.

The word prone is not exactly the same as desire or wanting, but there is a quality of inclination. I should say that psychiatrists are not interested in the finer nuances of words, the quarter notes, but in this definition we have three words or phrases that come to the same thing: prone, susceptibility, psychological causes.

     In a definition I gave of emotion—a state of yes or no, or for or against, accompanied by the body or a change in the body—we have what is here in the words susceptibility, prone, causes, because at any one time we are trying either to like something or dislike something. As I said many years ago, if we dislike something for the wrong reason, we’ll dislike ourselves for the right reason. That situation has many possibilities. We can’t dislike something incorrectly, go on disliking it incorrectly, and think we have no attitude to ourselves. So in this description of accident prone, there is a dislike of two things: there is a seeming dislike of the outside world, and also there’s a dislike of oneself.

A Notion of Punishment

he customary statement about being accident prone is that people want to punish themselves and therefore they arrange for something to fall on them, or they slip down the stairs, or fall on the pavement, or bump into something and occasionally run into a vehicle. The word prone, then, here implies some idea of punishment.

     Why should we use the outside world to punish ourselves? Many forms of the outside world have been used. There are instances of persons who have gotten themselves tangled up with a machine too often in their working lives. Persons at home also have had various catastrophes occur. So there is a notion of punishment. The desire to punish is as much a desire as any desire.

The Beginning of Evil

According to Aesthetic Realism, the beginning of all evil is the desire to make less of reality as a means of hoisting ourselves up. The forms that this can take have to be looked at, and also the punishments. The fact is that we can want to punish ourselves for something without being able to say this is what we don’t like in ourselves, and this is where we want to punish ourselves. The punishment goes on, and the placing of it is not there. We have to ask why various people throughout America are accident prone. The word prone is the same, as I said, as unconscious inclination, unconscious desire. For what? What do we want to punish ourselves for?

     Now, when we punish ourselves, we usually like to get revenge on what makes us punish ourselves, and this is where things are complicated. That is, what we’d like to do—and we can arrange it—is to punish ourselves and get revenge on what we don’t like anyway. So if we can show that the world is bad by falling on a pavement, or getting hit by something, or falling down the stairs, or having some heavy thing fall on us, we do two things: we show this is a bad world to live in, and simultaneously we punish ourselves for thinking so.

     The complications may go further than that; but the question for the moment is whether there is a dislike of the world and whether there is an attitude to ourselves because of that dislike.

A Way of Not Liking

he next term is aggression.

Aggression: In psychiatry, forceful attacking action, physical, verbal, or symbolic.

      There have been some persons who have waved their fist at the sky, thought that God was there, and said, “Damn you!” Sometimes it’s been at an airplane—that was more specific. When we say “goddamn,” the meaning of it could be, as in accident prone, goddamn me. It could be goddamn this city, goddamn where I am. But it also means—and this is where theologians have objected—it also means damn God, and the desire for that is very strong.

     Since “goddamn” is in the field of the verbal and is aggression, and has seemed a very necessary phrase, what are we saying when we say “goddamn”? If a person has a clock fall on him, he certainly can say, “Goddamn the clock!”; but he can also say, “Goddamn the cause of things that makes for clocks!” He likewise can say, “Goddamn me, that I should have this clock around so it can fall on me, and also that I should be so careless!” So there can be a triple damning. Damning is a way of showing your dislike of something. There’s the phrase Thackeray uses so often, damme [damn me]—“Damme if I don’t send a note to her this very day!” In this instance, it has with it a tendency to condemn oneself in advance, but occasionally it can take in more.  

     If we’re in a state of aggression, it would follow that we don’t like something. It can be felt that if a bull attacks a red blanket, it doesn’t like the blanket. What we have aggression for, we don’t like. And aggression is usually pretty strong. It has some violence to it. Aggression is a colorful way of not liking.

     “In psychiatry, forceful attacking action.” But there can be a quieter kind of aggression. Here it’s said to be “physical, verbal”—that is, you can curse somebody and you can hit him; and “symbolic”—this means that you cover it up. If it’s covered up, I think the word forceful ought to be looked at again. Symbolic means indirect. It means many things. It is a word that could be looked at in itself. But aggression surely is concerned with the not like of things.

The Desire to Forget

hen a person says, “I want to forget everything. I want to put everything out of my mind,” is there a kind of aggression as to the world itself? It could be said usefully, yes.     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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Lord Byron | Harry Potter  |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns  |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources
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More Biographies of Eli Siegel:
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[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

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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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