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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1628.—December 1, 2004

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Mind and What Hurts It

Dear Unknown Friends:

In 1966 Eli Siegel gave a number of lectures in which he discussed terms defined in a glossary of the American Psychiatric Association. The lectures are wide-ranging, critical, casual, compassionate, often humorous—and they contain what psychiatry lacks and people long for: the real understanding of mind, in its turmoil and hopes. Earlier this year we published the first of those lectures. And now we begin to serialize the second: Everyday Life and Aesthetics Look at Psychiatric Terms, of April 29, 1966.

What Is Necessary

To comprehend a person, one has to understand what the human mind—as represented by a wife in Iowa, a toddler in Tokyo , a working man in Naples—is most deeply going for, what its purpose is. And one has to understand what in the mind of everyone interferes with that purpose. Mr. Siegel explained: the largest purpose of a person "is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis." And "the desire to have contempt for the outside a continuous, unseen desire making for mental insufficiency."¹

Further, Eli Siegel is the philosopher who saw that the questions of the human self are aesthetic questions. The criterion for how well or ill a mind fares is the criterion for a work of art: "All beauty,” he explained, "is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." The chief opposites in everyone's life are self and world. And the goodness of our mind, also how kind we are, depend on how much our care for ourselves goes along with care for the outside world, is the same as the desire to be just to things and people.

As large a mental health concern as any today is that terrible matter afflicting many aging people, Alzheimer's disease. I comment on it here because of a recent New York Times article titled "Alzheimer's Steals More Than Memory." Something little talked about, writes reporter Denise Grady, is the fact that people with Alzheimer's are not only forgetful and confused but are often "angry, sometimes even violent." They may be terrifically lethargic, but can also "slap, push or shout" at people, curse, and have "paranoia"—think people "are out to harm or rob them."

     The abundant writing on Alzheimer's describes its cause as unknown. And I believe the ailment will not be understood until scientists and others study what Mr. Siegel showed to be the big fight in every human being: between the desire to like the world and the desire to have contempt for it.

What is notable in the Times article from which I quoted is that the little talked of aspects of Alzheimer's—the fury, belligerence, suspicion—are presented as so different from the memory loss. The practitioners do not see that there is something in common among all of these. The thing in common, as I'll describe, is a dislike of the world, a contempt.

We Are Mind and Body

Alzheimer's, it is said, has an organic component. As a report on "BBC News Online" puts it, "degeneration of tissues in the associated with Alzheimer's." Yet why the tissues degenerate is not known. And there are more and more statements like the following, from the Alzheimer's Association's website: "Research has found that keeping the brain active seems to increase its vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections. You could even generate new brain cells." The Association says "mental activity" seems to have a "protective effect," and recommends: "Stay curious and involved."

The language in those statements is hardly exact. After all, "mental activity" is of many kinds, and some is ugly and weakening. People have used their minds to rob banks, cheat someone, come up with lies. People have kept their “brain[s] active” reading, with pleasure, dishonest books; thinking about how hurt they've been; hoping people flop. Does every “mental activity” have a "protective effect" on our brain tissues? I think the answer is no. Meanwhile, with all their imprecision, statements like those I quoted hint at the following tremendously important fact: our cells are affected by how much we like the world —how much we see the world as worth knowing, worth being active in, how much we feel it should stir us, how much we feel we should go out to it and have it get within us.

Two of the big opposites in life are mind and body. How are they related? Body can certainly affect mind. We can see—with those physical things, our eyes—a tree brilliant with yellow leaves on an autumn day, and this can make for that mental state called wonder. But mind affects body too. An example Mr. Siegel sometimes gave was the fact that a thought a person is ashamed of has blood come to her cheeks.

How Important Are Justice & Contempt?

With Alzheimer's, degenerate tissue can certainly affect the way a person thinks and feels. But the statements I quoted tell us that thoughts can also do things to that tissue, including revitalize it. Will that happen because our thoughts are simply "active," or is there anything else involved—like care for the world, justice to it, ethics? Is there a way of mind that causes brain cells to degenerate? The implication is that dullness, non-interest, does. But dullness is an aspect of contempt, and there are other aspects.

I love the following sentences from Eli Siegel's Self and World, and see them as a beginning for understanding mind at its best, worst, and everything in between. They are also beautiful as 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]

The danger of every person is, as time goes on, to build up that second victory. It is contempt; and it is bad aesthetics, this use of self against world: the inward, unarticulated, but intense feeling that I take care of me, I am much, by lessening and despising the outside world.

The fight between the victory of respecting the world and the victory of contempt for it is present at every age, including in childhood. A child can look at a flower and utter a sincere and happy "Ooh!" The same child can stick her fingers in her ears and say with a triumphant sneer on her tender lips, "Nyah, nyah—no matter what you say I can't hear you!" But year after year, we make choices. And if through the years we cultivate dislike of the world, what we cultivate can come in time to run us.

Memory Is Care for the World

As I said, the various modes of behavior the Times article tells of are all manifestations of dislike of the world. There is the matter most associated with Alzheimer's, loss of memory. And we need to see that memory as such is a tribute to the world, an honoring of it. In his 1949 lecture Mind and Memory, Mr. Siegel explained:

Every time we remember something, we have been saying, "You and I, World, have got along, because things in you are now part of me." . . . Memory happens to be the residuum of a friendship still going on. [TRO 334]

That is why people, at any age, can unknowingly be against remembering. They may be annoyed that they forget things, and make various lists so they won't, but if they don't like the world they won't want to have it as a lodger deep within them. Mr. Siegel describes a feeling in people:

"My mind belongs to me and I can evict anything I want; I'm the landlord of my memory and there is no rent control. Kick out anybody!" Now, people do that. Then after having gone through their youth and middle age, in later years, that which was a trick once becomes an inevitability. People have not wanted to remember the things that didn't seem suitable;...they have done a lot of rearranging and distorting. And then later, they don't remember. [TRO 335]

Lethargy, Outbursts, Paranoia

There is lethargy in Alzheimer's, and, as a person quoted in the Times says, apathy: "My wife is apathetic....Nothing makes any difference to her." However, all through life there is that in people which goes toward such a state. There is a tendency in everyone to say, "This world, this 'impossible mess,' doesn't deserve to affect me, doesn't deserve to have me active in it. As I'm unmoved, I'm royal. I'm too good for everything. And I love only myself!" This triumph comes to be, as Mr. Siegel says, "an inevitability." But we won't understand the inevitability, or stop it from being inevitable, unless we understand the triumph.

There are the "violent outbursts" and "paranoia," told of in the Times article. These are forms of two things which people also cultivate through the years, sometimes under cover of politeness: anger and suspicion. There is something in us which wants to be angry and suspiciousóbecause we can use feeling people are against us to see ourselves as superior, to feel we need not question ourselves, to justify our own unfairness and give ourselves the right to be unfair some more. The desire of a person of forty to be against the world may have her, at eighty-five, slap a rather kind nurse and think a neighbor is trying to steal her money.

Present in Alzheimer's too, as in every situation of mind, is the fact that we judge ourselves on how fair we are to the world. "When we are unfair to the world," Mr. Siegel writes, "it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn't like it." ² There is no more beautiful fact about the human self. We can show our dislike for ourselves in various murky and even agonizing ways, but the dislike comes because we were born to be fair to what is not ourselves, and therefore we punish ourselves if we're not fair.

Aesthetic Realism can change the murky punishment into proud, clear, happy self-criticism. It is the education in how to do what we were born to do: like ourselves through knowing and liking the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education   

What Is in Psychiatric Terms?
By Eli Siegel

The position of Aesthetic Realism is that every mental difficulty is an aesthetic problem and will not be settled until the aesthetics in that problem is seen. What this means can be seen with factuality and specificity. Meantime, I have found that one can begin by using the psychiatric terms of the American Psychiatric Association printed in the Reader's Digest Almanac, and get to a great deal.

A term I discussed last week was conscience:

The morally self-critical part of oneself wherein have developed and reside standards of behavior, performance, and value judgments.

The chief fact about man is that he's critical of himself and doesn't know how. He receives self-criticism but cannot give the items. A good deal of recent literature is on the subject, beginning with Kafka's The Trial, where there's accusation, but who is making the accusation, and what the accusation contains, and what's going to be done if the accusation is true, are not given

There's a general feeling, and everyone has it; every person is a great generating dynamo of self-accusation. It's not put clearly, and a good deal of it is not put at all, because conscience trouble can simply take the form of ordinary trouble.

The fact is that if conscience exists, it is testimony to the possibility always in process that the self is criticizing itself. How one is criticizing oneself is the large matter, and what the details may be. Then, there is a kind of see-saw, the most terrible see-saw: criticize yourself, call yourself names, then get tired and call somebody else names; call somebody else names, then get tired and call yourself names. There's a constant interchange of accusation. The accusation of oneself is guilt, and the accusation of another is anger. This interchange has been present in every human life.

Guilt and Anger: Aesthetic Opposites

To say that guilt and anger have an aesthetic relation does look unusual, but the fact is that they do. It is only when we have criticized ourselves fully that we can be angry and get away with it. In other words, if we have not taken care of where our conscience is asking something, or we feel guilty or self-critical or inwardly censorious or self-accusatory, and we have the presumption to be angry, something in us will say that the two motions are not in a relation.

Only a person who can accuse himself rightly has a right to accuse anybody else and feel correct about it. Not that what one says may not be accurate. A person can say, "All three of you are very mean to me!" and it may be true—the three people this girl is talking about are mean—but the statement will not do the person who is making it good, because it isn't for the purpose of adding to the justice of the world. It is a means of assuaging the sense that oneself is mean.

It is a very delicate matter to be angry with something else, and unless we are sure that we take care of where we could be displeased with ourselves, our anger with other things that much has a bad effect on us.

Since conscience is the hovering matter in all mental unease, we'll get to conscience again. In French, the word conscience also means consciousness. Conscience used to mean that in English too. But knowledge and questioning of oneself are quite the same in French—and in fact they're really quite the same, in any language.

What Do We Defend, & How?

We next have a term that is comparatively modern. It came to exist at the same time as Clara Bow was getting famous, or, let us say, Norma Talmadge: defense mechanism. If you disliked something and you didn't know what to call it, it was the other person's defense mechanism. If a person said having a vacation this way was better than the way you were proposing, it was a defense mechanism. And it was a lovely phrase. It was almost as terrifying as telling a person he didn't have a sense of humor—you can't answer that. Well, a defense mechanism in the present definition looks very sensible. I don't see why it should get into a psychiatry lexicon at all:

A specific process, operating unconsciously, that is employed to seek relief from emotional conflict and freedom from anxiety..

I would say if that is what a defense mechanism is, the more the better. So I think the definition is quite inadequate. In fact, it's quite hurtful.

Defense as such is not bad. But there are two things that are suspect: what you're defending, and what you do about defending it. Take the international field: every wily diplomat feels that departments of defense are really departments of war—that is, of offense. I'm afraid that even the Washington representatives of the Department of Defense have been smirched by this surmise. In the old days, the title used to be Secretary of War.

The definition here is really surprisingly innocuous: a " seek relief from emotional conflict...." But we feel that something is done which shouldn't be. First, untruth is welcomed. As the father of Samuel Weller in Pickwick Papers didn't tell his son but could have, “The best defense is a good lie.” That idea has been used a great deal. Something of untruth gets into the defense mechanism—because if it were only what is in this definition, there would be nothing wrong with it. But since we are uncomfortable, we are going to do things—as in the field of compensation, a term talked about last week.

If you are an unkind person, you can "compensate" by proving that you pay your rent. That is, you make up for lack of a good quality by showing that you do something else which people could call good. A defense mechanism is related.

A defense mechanism can be defined as anything we use to tell ourselves that all is quiet along the Potomac which is ourselves and fine along the Potomac, when it isn't. A defense mechanism, then, is a justification of ourselves that has the facts for an opponent. It can be used a very great deal. As soon as a family starts arguing, the defense mechanisms fly thick and fast. Everybody defends oneself—finds something amiss: "You didn't do anything on Tuesday." "But what did you do on Wednesday?" And if a business is losing money, the partners will likely indulge in defense mechanisms.

We'll get back to the subject, because these descriptions take up a few lines but cover so much. A defense mechanism is in the field of feeling, even though the word mechanism can make one think feeling wasn't present. It is said in a version of the Tao which is not accepted in China and which I had access to: "If the truth isn't for you, slap it down." This is a defense mechanism used by some of the ancient warlords.   

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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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

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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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