NUMBER 1623 —September 22, 2004
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Respect or Contempt for Truth?

Dear Unknown Friends: 

e continue our serialization of the 1966 lecture Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things, by Eli Siegel. And in this instance, the “things” are psychiatric terms, defined by the American Psychiatric Association in a list published in the Reader's Digest Almanac. Mr. Siegel discusses them with casualness yet depth, exactitude and (as he says) “some jocosity.”

     Eli Siegel is the person of thought to show that the fundamental cause of mental difficulty is contempt for the world. He identified contempt as the principal damager within the human self. People constantly go after contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else” —usually without knowing it, and without knowing that our desire for contempt is at war in us with our deepest desire, our desire to like the world and be just to it.

     The psychiatry of 1966, when Mr. Siegel gave this lecture, was a failure, though of course the practitioners of then didn't say so. Its failure is the reason why its ideas are pretty much absent in the psychiatric practice of our present time. And the psychiatry of now can hardly be called successful either. Its largest ability is the ability to lull people through medication. The understanding of the human mind, including that which weakens our mind, exists firmly, gracefully, powerfully, beautifully in Aesthetic Realism.

The Two Victories

or example, I quote these sentences by Mr. Siegel from his book Self and World. They describe the basic fight in the self of everyone. The sentences are ever so important as science, and ever so fine as English prose:

There are two means, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, of bringing some satisfaction to ourselves. The first is, the seeing of something like a sunset, a poem, a concerto, which can stand for the world and which pleases us through what it is: its structure in mind, time, and space. This is the aesthetic victory, which is the most sensible of all victories. The other victory is our ability to depreciate anything that exists. To see the world itself as an impossible mess—and this is often not difficult at all—gives a certain triumph to the individual. [P. 11]

A Continuity

ne of the great things Mr. Siegel has done in his explanation of the self is show the continuity among 1) what's amiss in the everyday thoughts of people, 2) the tremendous amissness which is insanity, and 3) that tremendous amissness which is cruelty. Take, for example, the contempt Mr. Siegel describes in a sentence I just quoted: “The other victory is our ability to depreciate anything that exists.” The going for this victory is ordinary, and people weaken their lives every day through it. A wife finds herself driven to look for things to dislike in her husband. She gets a triumph every time she sees he left his socks lying on the rug instead of putting them in the hamper: Hah! she wouldn't leave her socks there! Then she feels mean and sort of sick inside. She's also sure he'll forget to take out the garbage, and when she sees he's remembered, she's disappointed—then ashamed.

     She doesn't know she has a desire for contempt, at war with her desire to care for her husband and reality and to be an accurate critic who hopes to respect them.

     Meanwhile, the “ability to depreciate anything that exists” is at its most thorough in mental institutions. In all insanity and full depression, there is a finding of the world repulsive—both fiercely and dully repulsive. There can be a seeing of rats where others see flowers. There can be the finding of every face disgusting. There can be the sense that reality is one big unclean bathroom. There is such a “depreciat[ing of] anything that exists” that one goes into another world, a world of one's own making.

     That “ability to depreciate anything that exists,” felt as victory for oneself, is also the chief thing in cruelty, including historic cruelty. It's what made Hitler attractive to the ordinary people of Germany . To see oneself as of the “master race” is certainly a depreciating of all other people, with a feeling of triumph. “Hitler,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history” (TRO 165).

     Yet persons of about every nation, religion, race, and family have a tendency to see themselves as superior to those of other nations, religions, races, families, to “depreciate” them and elevate oneself. Germans had that tendency fairly quietly too, not so juttingly, until Hitler called it forth. The popularity and ubiquity of contempt do not annul its wrongness, ugliness, and danger.

The Tremendous Subject of Truth

ne of the most important ways to see the relation between that which hurts life as such, the life of every person, and that which makes for mental ailment, is to look at the tremendous subject of Truth.

     Contempt for the world is the same as contempt for truth. And never was there so much awareness of lies told in the public arena, of contempt for truth, as now. People have always found lying convenient. But during this pre-election time, we see persons putting forth fake “facts” day after day, with ferocious persistence. The good news is that, as I said, people are more aware than once that lying is going on. More than at any other time in history, Americans know they're being lied to, and are furious.

     Going to the field of mental ailment: It's quite clear that a person who is crazy has changed the facts about the world; otherwise, we wouldn't call him crazy. People would hesitate to say a person who is crazy is lying about reality, yet deeply that is so. The lie may not be a conscious one, like that of a politician who changes the facts to make an opponent look bad. Still, as a man changes a rather friendly grocery store clerk into someone sent by the CIA to torture him, he's having contempt for the truth. If he continues, he may find himself in a mental hospital.

     Because truth, and whether we want to respect or have contempt for it, is the biggest matter in our personal and national lives, I am going to quote from a great lecture by Eli Siegel on the subject: Instinct Is Concerned with Truth, of 1964. It begins with the following statements. And we have again beautiful English prose—in this instance, spoken prose. All Mr. Siegel's lectures were extemporaneous.

Truth is the most avant garde idea still, and always has to be. Truth can be defined as fairness by an individual to reality, and there is nothing that is more avant garde than that, nothing more terrifying, and also nothing sweeter. [TRO 613]

     The reason truth is terrifying to a person is that it may interfere with one's having one's way—it's often different from what would make one comfortable or important or superior. Mr. Siegel explains:

Facts are interferences; they are worse than parents! So since the fact as such can very easily be associated with hindrance, frustration, not voting for us, we can go for the lie. [TRO 616]

     That happens every day in offices, schools, homes. But ordinary dislike of truth, the finding truth inconvenient, can have terrible consequences. For instance, a slaveholder of the American South had to lie about what a black person was, to tell himself and others that his slave was not as full a human being as he, the master. If he, and others, were to look at the facts, slaveholding would be in jeopardy: it would seem wrong. Having slaves was a big convenience; why have truth get in the way?

The Biggest Hater of Truth

he biggest hater of truth is the thing in people which wants to be able to have contempt, look down on things and people, “depreciate anything that exists,” do anything it pleases with the world. The more a person wants to do that, and the more one's desire is opposed, the more vehemently and massively the person will lie—whether in politics or everyday life.

     Some of the best news in the world is in the following statements from Instinct Is Concerned with Truth:

Aesthetic Realism says that the greatest desire a person has is the desire for truth....As soon as somebody seems to be careless with truth, we may admire his or her finesse, but we do have—and in this instance it is justified—a contempt. This never fails. We don't have to know what truth is, but we know that someone is careless with it, and it makes for bad air. It also makes for a feeling of uncertainty or even instability in ourselves. [TRO 613, 615]

     It's a lovely fact that even people who join each other in a lie despise themselves and one another for it—though they do not say so. This despising of a liar, even if he is your ally, is as inevitable as the fact that an object dropped from a tenth story window will fall toward the earth.

     The biggest need for humanity is to see that truth is the same as care for oneself. Aesthetic Realism is the means to seeing it. It is what Eli Siegel saw, felt, and went by all his life.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

An Opinion of the World

By Eli Siegel 

ext there is a technical term, commitment:

In psychiatry, the legal process for the mandatory hospitalization of an individual in need of treatment for a mental disorder.

A commitment, then, can be seen as someone saying to a person, “You've successfully shown you don't like the world; let's take you away from it.” Whether it's to Central Islip or Rockland —you've proven to other people that you want nothing of the world as you know it, and they will see to it that you get away from it. In fact, they will sort of compel you.

     There are two kinds of people: those who successfully show they don't like the world, and others who still pretend. Those who pretend have society with them.

     “Commitment”: if other people are concerned enough, and interested enough to have the law go with them, it can happen. If you do something that is so much not for yourself—as, let's say, you find somebody walking down the street and you try to hit him with a snow shovel, since you're not getting any good out of hitting strangers with snow shovels this will show that you don't like the world in which you are, and they will commit you. Particularly if you say, “God is making me do it; it's through God that I found this snow shovel.” All this sort of thing will make it quite clear that you don't want the world as you know it.

The Next Term Is Compensation

Compensation: (1) A defense mechanism, operating unconsciously, by which the individual attempts to make up for (i.e., to compensate for) real or fancied deficiencies; (2) A conscious process in which the individual strives to make up for real or imagined defects....

The person who wrote most about that is Adler. For instance, you have very little to say, so you ask the chairman if you can talk for an hour—that's a burlesque of it. An example is a person weighing perhaps 96 pounds who wants to fight everybody; he gets himself into fights and also tries to cultivate a basso profundo voice. When you have a defense mechanism, you don't like the way the Lord made you, and you want to show that it seems he made you this way but he really didn't. In the field of sex, if you don't have much libido power you will make propositions to every girl you meet.      I may take up these terms from another point of view, but today I am trying, fairly, with some jocosity, to present what is said in these American Psychiatric Association descriptions. make up for real or imagined defects in such areas as physique, performance, skills, or psychological attributes.

     As soon as a definition has four terms, seemingly different, I have to ask, What is the difference? As to “physique”—well, you've got a defect that means that you can't lift anything, but you have dumbbells. Then “performance”: There have been boys who set buildings on fire. They weren't noticed by their teacher and this is a way of changing that. If they set the school on fire, the teacher will have to notice them. It's also called pyromania.

     The four terms here run into each other. “Skills”: If you can't play baseball you try to get to the pitcher, who may be named Ricky. You meet him before he reaches the pitcher's mound and you call out, “Hi, Ricky!,” and this shows you're good at baseball. “Psychological attributes” can cover about everything. One form is, if you feel you are not sure of your masculinity you begin wearing lumber jackets. Well, we'll have to get back to this definition. I'm really very skimpy there.

Do You Need a “Complex”?

ext is complex. The word is sort of fading. It's been discovered recently that you can be silly without necessarily having a complex. A complex is really silliness where it begins. If a person thinks that she's the best coffee maker in the city, her silliness clusters around the concept of coffee. Therefore she has a coffee complex.

Complex: A group of associated ideas that have a common emotional tie. These are largely unconscious and significantly influence attitudes and associations.

     We have four words here that show a tie: group, associated, common, and tie. A complex is a preference. Persons are interested in some things more than others, and express themselves through some ways more than others; and what expresses you, you go heading for. It's a pity to see there are only two complexes written of here, both of which I doubt. I don't doubt the inferiority, but I don't see why it has to be called complex.

Inferiority complex: Feelings of inferiority stemming from real or imagined physical or social inadequacies which may cause anxiety or other adverse reactions.

     Occasionally, you don't have to have this unconscious. A child sometimes is born to a musical family. His father and grandfather and even great-grandmother all played in Vienna in the golden days, and this person is not interested in music at all. He's only interested in riding horses in Kentucky . So he feels superior to his whole family; and he also at a certain time feels inferior, because the piano simply doesn't interest him, nor does any instrument, and he knows this.

Anyone Can Have It

nybody, for example, who listens to a convention of chefs and doesn't know too much about cooking, gets that thing called inferiority. They talk about the kinds of sauces, and he has to listen to it. There's nothing unconscious about it. People talk about things you don't know. You can get an “inferiority complex” by watching ten children play in a sand pile and not knowing what they're excited about. You feel they're in on something that you don't know anything about.

     So there's just inferiority, which can be got in hundreds of ways. I remember a person who used to make everybody feel inferior. He'd suddenly ask, “Do you have a pair of Turkish trousers at home?” Most persons would say, “Oh, I don't think so.” If they said they did, he'd say, “You know, likely the kind you have is now out of style.” If you really know how to have somebody feel inferior you can do it very quickly, because every person is inferiority prone—not just accident prone, inferiority prone.

     Though we can do many things, there are so many other things that we can't do. You can ask many questions and you will find all kinds of inadequacies in people. Let's say Abraham Lincoln was in a group of flute players.

     So inferiority as such definitely exists and can be shown to exist much more than we know; but the word complex I question. I question the accuracy, verbal and otherwise, of what is said here.

No Such Thing

hen we have the “Oedipus complex,” which has really fallen on bad days, and I have a notion the American Psychiatric Association almost left it out.  

Oedipus complex: Attachment of the child for the parent of the opposite sex, accompanied by envious and aggressive feelings toward the parent of the same sex. These feelings are largely repressed...because of the fear of displeasure or punishment by the parent of the same sex.

I simply say there is no such thing as the Oedipus complex. Not that any possibility about a mother doesn't exist: the person who makes you feel important, whoever it may be, is a person you can have a feeling about. But the Oedipus complex, as complex, can still be denied. 

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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Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources
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Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

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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:
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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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