NUMBER 1637 —April 6, 2005
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Our Inner Self and World Events

Dear Unknown Friends: 

e have been serializing the lecture Beginning with Psychiatric Terms: An Aesthetic Realism Consideration, which Eli Siegel gave in 1966. As he discusses, critically, sometimes humorously, a glossary published by the American Psychiatric Association, he is describing what the human mind truly is. He is describing the mind which is so particular to each of us, and which psychiatry has not understood—neither the Freudianism of the 20th century nor the psychiatry of now.

     The self, the mind, of every person, Mr. Siegel showed, is an aesthetic situation: each of us is trying to put together the opposites that are one in every instance of beauty.

Expressing and Holding Back

We have come, in the glossary, to the letter I; and here he comments on two terms: idée fixe and inhibition. Inhibition as defined in this APA list was a foundation piece of psychiatry. It was a concept that for decades impressed and frightened people. And very early, in the 1940s, Mr. Siegel showed how illogical and, really, barbaric that psychiatric notion of inhibition was. The term is not in use so much now. But what he explains about the aesthetics of self in relation to it is something people today long to know—because everyone is troubled about the matter of expressing oneself and inhibiting or holding oneself back.

     He shows here, and showed in the early 1940s, that we need to be like art, where something is stopped or checked or not done for the same purpose as something is expressed. In a chapter of Self and World, likely written in 1943, he says the following about inhibition—and this is an instance of Mr. Siegel's explaining with tremendous clarity something uncomprehended before:

In not doing something which we see as ugly, there is just as much expression as in doing something. In fact, all doing of one thing is the negation of the doing of something else.... When a writer refrains from using a fancy word or a needless sentence,...the abstinence clearly can be a part of his expressing himself accurately—the only kind of real expression....Inhibition does not exist as a thing in itself....A perception is intense not only by what it includes but by what it leaves out. [Pp. 196-9]

World Events and Aesthetics

ust as aesthetics, the study of how opposites are one, is necessary to understand ourselves, it is also necessary for the understanding of world events and history. As an example, I comment on a recent newspaper article.

     The Saturday Profile in the February 12 New York Times is of a Japanese businessman of 69, Toshiaki Nambu. He was just appointed, the Times tells us,

chief priest of Yasukuni Shrine, the place of worship where 2.5 million war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals, are enshrined as deities....Mr. Nambu [is] a former aristocrat.

Those sentences bring up a lot. They bring up World War II; and fascism, which the “14 Class A war criminals” were representing; and the matter of aristocracy. What do these have to do with aesthetics? How is aesthetics the means of understanding them?

     The biggest opposites in reality and in the life of every person—including Mr. Nambu, and emperors, presidents, secretaries of state—are sameness and difference. The biggest question for every person is, How should we see what's different from ourselves? Our own lives depend on how we answer this question. But what has been called the fate of nations, war and peace, what regimes do—these also depend on sameness and difference: they depend on how politicians, government leaders, persons of the media, ordinary citizens see what is different from themselves. That was so in Japan in the 1930s and '40s. It's so in America and every nation now.

Contempt Is Always about Difference

esthetic Realism explains that the ugliest, most dangerous thing in the self is contempt, and contempt is a certain way of seeing sameness and difference. Mr. Siegel defined it as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” The world is filled with things and people we see as different from ourselves, and to get a triumph looking down on these is an ordinary and continuous desire. A person can dismiss as worthless, music that's different from the kind she cares for, and feel victoriously superior to those who like such music. A person can feel that everyone else on the subway is rather repulsive; and this contemptuous feeling, with all its displeasure, has a furtive, smug victory of superiority in it. A little boy can set himself up feeling that girls are stupid, with their dolls and stuff, and therefore he's superior to his sister because he's a boy.

The Fundamental Thing in Fascism

his contempt, this “lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase,” while being an everyday ugliness, was also the fundamental thing in fascism, both in Europe and Asia. And if ordinary people didn't get pleasure from contempt, if ordinary people didn't like looking down on what they could see as different from them, fascism would not have taken such a hold in Germany and Japan. Mr. Siegel is the scholar who explained this. In doing so he explained what many people still call inexplicable: how could millions of Germans welcome Nazism, with all it did to Jews, with all its conquest and humiliation of one nation after another? “Hitler,” he wrote, “is perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history” (TRO 165). In Japan too, there was contempt for difference—including for persons of other Asian lands—contempt ready to be evoked and made to flower hideously.

     The job of Mr. Nambu, the Times article says, is to be a PR person for the Yasukuni Shrine. That people who committed atrocities against others—who murdered and tortured Chinese and Korean and Philippine men, women, and children—should be enshrined as deities, and that persons today should think the enshrinement correct: such a thing can occur only because of contempt. It can occur only because one sees what is like oneself as mattering, as superior, and what is different from oneself as insignificant, low, and bad. That is why Mr. Nambu can describe his work as honorable; in fact, noble. The Times quotes him as saying that to speak in behalf of the shrine is his “responsibility as an aristocrat.”

    The matter of aristocracy too cannot be understood unless contempt is understood. The contempt way of seeing sameness and difference is fundamental to the idea of aristocracy, which is the notion that certain people who are like each other in some fashion, are superior to everyone else and deserve things that people different from them don't deserve. However much it has been glamorized, the idea of aristocracy is sheer contempt, and the only reason persons ever found it attractive is that they have found contempt attractive.


The Times reporter, Norimitsu Onishi, notes that

Yasukuni has been the backdrop of an unfinished drama between an increasingly nationalistic Japan and an ever-more-powerful China...which, like other Asian countries invaded by Japan, regards the shrine as a symbol of unrepentant militarism.

Here we have an important word: nationalism. What makes nationalism good or bad? How is it that we should love our country, and yet nationalism helped lead to the Rape of Nanking and to the Nazi SS and death camps?

     The answer is in aesthetics, and in the distinction between contempt and respect. Again and again, people have used being of a particular nation to look down on nations other than theirs, on what was different—and called it love of country when it was really contempt. The only time nationalism will be other than dangerous is when people use care for their own land to value other lands too.

     The question of a nation is the question of an individual: Do we want to see that people different from us are also like us? To do so is to honor aesthetics. We are in a drama of sameness and difference with every person, from our mother to a person of another continent. We can make our mother too much the same as ourselves, too much ours and owned by us, and not want to see her as a full, distinct person in her own right. Much pain in families has come from this. Then, we can see a person whose background, perhaps, is different as only different. We need to see other persons—and our nation needs to see other nations—as having the relation to us that instruments in an orchestra have to each other: a bassoon is different from a violin, of course; yet they have music in common, notes in common, the symphony they are playing in common, and they need each other to play it well, to be fully themselves.

Changing the Facts

ameness and difference are related to the opposites of self and world, because the outside world is felt by each person as other than, different from, oneself. And another term for the world is the facts. A big part of contempt is the feeling that because one is oneself, one has the right to do anything with the facts that one pleases—change them to make oneself important or comfortable. People do this very much, in talking both to others and to themselves. In other words, contempt is the beginning of every lie. The same contempt also impels what is called “revisionist history.” So we have this statement in the Times article:

According to the museum at Yasukuni Shrine, Japan waged war against Western powers to liberate Asian countries. It brushes aside Japan's own brutal occupation of Korea and Manchuria and its other aggressive acts against China, like the Rape of Nanking in which 100,000 to 300,000 Chinese were slaughtered.

     I think it is a magnificent fact that Aesthetic Realism, which explains what makes for beauty, what art is, also explains the cause of the greatest cruelty. Because it does, humanity can finally understand contempt. And in the lives of people and nations, aesthetics, in all its power and kindness, can be victorious at last.

The Aesthetics of Mind
By Eli Siegel  

ext in this lexicon of the American Psychiatric Association is the term idée fixe:

Fixed idea. Loosely used to describe a compulsive drive.

     The idea of having something done at a certain time, of “this has to be,” can be very distressing—and it can also make life interesting. Inventors, for example, have to have an idée fixe. Morse had an idée fixe for a while with the notion of the telegraph.

     This term is in the field of the need for oneness and for giving some form to our lives. If a mother has an idée fixe that the child she's going to bear is going to be a girl and she has to be in Hollywood by a certain time—there is, though falsely, a unification of oneself here. The cause of it; why it should take that form; the relation of idée fixe to inspiration—the seeing of all of this would bring the notion closer to the aesthetic idea. We do have the motto “Do one thing at a time.” An idée fixe sure honors that: one idea at a time.

     “Loosely used to describe a compulsive drive.” Well, there may be an idée fixe which doesn't take the form of a compulsion. It's simply in one's mind and affects what one does, but doesn't take any fervent form. So I should say that the description of this has a lot to look for, a lot to seek.

Inhibition: An Aesthetic Matter

Inhibition: Interference with or restriction of activities; the result of an unconscious defense against forbidden instinctual drives.

It's this kind of thing that set back psychiatry and made it, in a certain sense, unendurably immature.

     “Inhibition: Interference with or restriction of activities.” There's not a time when there is not a restriction of activities. To do any one thing is to put aside and occasionally to deny something else. Inhibition, as I have said, is part of life itself. Control always implies inhibition. The fact that a hand outstretched can go so far and no further means an inhibition is necessary or is just. All accuracy implies it. This definition brings up the fears of man and doesn't do anything to make those fears less.

     “Interference with...activities”: we have to ask, Who is going to interfere with our activities? It's not said here, but the implication is that the only interference with our activities is from some awful thing, very pervasive, called society or other people. The interference with activities is done by ourselves. A child will crawl across a room and then sit up as well as he can and look. That is inhibition: the child felt there was something else in this world than crawling. Then after looking for a while, the child may sit back against something soft or even hard and doze. And that's inhibition too. All choice implies inhibition.

     The awful thing is, there's the atmosphere implying that the “interference with or restriction of activities” is going to be done by society: society gives us the cue and then we, being afraid of society, interfere and restrict. Interference and restriction are part of an aesthetic choice. When, say, Shakespeare had Mercutio giving that speech about Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet, at a certain time Shakespeare decided, Well, Mercutio said what he wanted, I had him say what he wanted, and now I go to other things. There was an interference with Mercutio at that time, there was a restriction, but it's part of the play Romeo and Juliet.

A Hurtful War

he making a war between restriction and expression has been one of the hurtful things present all the time but present in a different way in this century. The notion has been fostered that inhibition has to be other than expression.

     There are three terms that have been central in life: one is protection, or the safeguarding of oneself; another is inhibition; and the third is expression. I do say they are the same thing. Whenever a person expresses himself and doesn't think that he's restricting himself too—doesn't have the sense that there is some precision in his expression, some accuracy, some control—then he is just slopping over. If he is expressing himself not as a means of safeguarding himself, the expression has no good cause whatsoever. To express oneself is a way of protecting oneself—as a person who is drowning says, “Help!” He is expressing himself and shouting as loud as he can in the water, but he's also protecting himself. Or a person says, “Stop thief!” He's protecting himself, but he may rouse the neighborhood.

     Inhibition is a showing and also a stopping. To sing is to inhibit one's voice and also to let the voice go. This has been seen, but it's felt that it's different in the more uncontrollable fields. It is not different. And this definition making inhibition too apart from expression is hurtful. Maupassant's story of the knife-thrower has a great deal to do with the subject: he couldn't do anything else but aim the knife in the right way. The relation of the inhibition that shows what we are, to expression, is something to see.

    “The result of an unconscious defense against forbidden instinctual drives.” Inhibition doesn't have to be a “result of an unconscious defense.” The walking in a narrow path, the choosing of a dry place as against a wet place on a damp day: that is inhibition and expression at once. This description in the psychiatric lexicon shows psychiatry not aware of the largeness of the term, the fact that it implies reality.

Reality Is Both

s we think of reality, we can think of reality being restrictive—because one has to go by reality. We can have this bit of dialogue:

“You must go by reality.”
“Fine, I wish to. But where does reality itself stop?”

     In the first part of the dialogue we have reality as inhibitory. In the next, when we ask, Is there any end to reality? we have reality as something else. Which is the way it is, and the way objects are too. The reason that objects have shadows is to show that their lives are not given to inhibition; that is, they're not just self-contained.

     But there's so much in the idea of inhibition in its fullest sense. The tendency of everything to insist that so much is a way of saying all, is a phase of inhibition—as, let's say, a lark that really wanted to show off would not go so high into the sky that you couldn't see it at all, but it would go high enough to make it seem a lark and not a sparrow.

     “The result of an unconscious defense against forbidden instinctual drives.” But sometimes a person says, “I don't know why I have such a big mouth. I don't know why I have to say these things. I knew it was going to get me into trouble, but I said it anyway.” It would seem then that there was some kind of drive to shut up which wasn't honored.

     Well, this description is not about life itself.    

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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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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