NUMBER 1638 —April 20, 2005
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
The Most Important Study for Our Time
Dear Unknown Friends: 

art 6 of Beginning with Psychiatric Terms: An Aesthetic Realism Consideration appears in this issue of TRO. Eli Siegel gave the lecture in 1966—“beginning,” as the title says, with an American Psychiatric Association list of definitions. And in his discussions of them, he does what psychiatry has failed at: he describes truly the fight in the human mind; what makes for mental trouble; what the mind of everyone is most deeply after.

     In the present section, he comes to the term insanity. And we see an illustration of the principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” As no one else has, Mr. Siegel in this section describes what can be called the structure of insanity: opposites made to be severed.

The Cause of Insanity

r. Siegel elsewhere has identified, stated, described, documented richly, the cause of insanity. That achievement alone gives him a paramount place in the history of human understanding. He 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 showed that every person has this desire for contempt—to dislike the world and lessen “what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” And in all of us, contempt is in a fight with another desire: the purpose of our very lives, to like the world honestly, through knowing it.

     How contempt is the source of both cruelty and mental difficulty, is the most important study for our time.

     This study, for example, is the means of understanding a terrible happening in America last month, one of several like it in recent years: a 16-year-old's shooting rampage at his high school on the Red Lake Indian Reservation in Minnesota. How, on a Monday in early spring, did Jeff Weise come to kill his grandfather, the grandfather's lady friend, a school security guard, a teacher, and five fellow students? In Newsweek 's account (4 April 05), the reporter notes:

School officials had sent Weise to a psychiatrist last year and put him on Prozac. They allowed him to be schooled at home with a teacher so he could get special attention and work through his emotional problems.

Obviously, there was something fundamental that the officials and psychiatrist did not understand.

Why the Interest in Nazism?

The Newsweek story begins:

Jeff Weise's school notebook was covered with swastikas and a picture of Adolf Hitler.

This young man, then, of the Ojibwa Nation, found Nazism or fascism attractive. In the last TRO, I wrote about fascism in relation to a person who seems very different: a Japanese man of 69, who has become chief spokesperson for the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class A war criminals of fascist Japan are among those deified. Yet what appealed to the Japanese aristocrat who is politely justifying perpetrators of atrocities during World War II, and to the tormented young Native American who admired Hitler, was the same.

     All fascism is contempt, and people have liked it only because they have liked contempt. All fascism offers, with a certain fulness, this viewpoint: the world different from you, represented by persons and nations different from you, is inferior to you, and you should look down on it, run it, and punish it. That is what Jeff Weise felt and wanted to have ratified, and Hitler and Nazism seemed to ratify it.

    Contempt has no national or ethnic bounds: persons of every culture have it; and it begins very quietly. It's present every day in the life of everyone. Contempt is there as a woman, introduced to another woman, hopes this person is less intelligent than herself, is dressed less well, so she can feel comfortably superior. It's present when a man, at 11:30 pm, yawns with a disgust that takes in everything he met that day, and gets into bed feeling at last he can get rid of a world that sullied him and be with the only company worthy of him: himself.

The First Thing

he first thing in understanding the school killings in Red Lake is to see that a 16-year-old young man disliked the world, and that, with all the pain, he got a triumph disliking the world. Jeff Weise had material to use in behalf of this dislike. His father had killed himself. His mother had been in a car accident and suffered a brain injury. And I'm sure he felt there was not enough desire in people to see him truly, to understand him. Then there is simply that terrible phrase “Red Lake Indian Reservation.” It is printed so quietly in the periodicals, but it exists because Native Americans were robbed viciously and continuously. And there is the awful poverty to which Jeff Weise and others have been subjected because of the contempt in profit economics.

     All this should be disliked. But there is a huge tendency in people not to dislike accurately, with a hope to be exact and see also what we can value, but to dislike the world itself, so we can feel we're royalty, too good for what's around us. We're miserable royalty, but royalty nevertheless.

     It has been pointed out that the Columbine High School killings took place amid affluent surroundings, while the surroundings in Red Lake were so different. That is so. But the thing in common was a dislike of the world, a huge contempt for it. Then, that disliked world is represented by people, human beings not oneself. A disliked world is represented by that young woman near the classroom door; by that teacher; by that young man interested in sports.

     Time magazine's report (4 April) has this sentence about Jeff Weise in earlier days:

Many classmates saw his drawings of guns, Nazi soldiers, and people being shot and hanged.

The interest in guns, in violence, in demolishing things and people suddenly, is much in America now, and various computer games appeal to it. But that interest exists because contempt exists. Contempt is always a self-importance through lessening something. In everyday life, there are thousands of ugly triumphs through swiftly lessening things and people. If one can sum up and dismiss a person by sneering “He's just a jerk,” or by issuing a vulgar curse word, or by saying “Oh, drop dead!,” or by using an ethnic slur—one feels one has annulled a representative of a displeasing universe. Not only the person but reality itself seems, for the time, dealt with utterly, with oneself supreme.

     But when contempt really takes over the show, it wants the lessening to be complete. That is what Jeff Weise was after with his drawings, and then through the actual shootings: the self-glory of lessening fully, of annulling, that which stood for a disliked, confusing world.

    Yet the purpose of our lives is to see value in the world. Therefore, going after contempt is what makes us dislike ourselves. Contempt, Mr. Siegel explained, “is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker” ( Self and World, p. 362). As with every human being, Jeff Weise's contempt made him despise himself. The steeper his contempt, the steeper his self-loathing. His triumphant scorn for reality and people made him feel that he himself did not deserve to live.

There Were Conversations

Time magazine gives the following description:

He had a small but close group of friends. They hung out a few times a week at one another's houses, talking and watching TV.... Among the girls in the group, Weise was known as the rare boy who could talk about his feelings and listen to others. “He was always trying to help other people with their problems,” says Marissa White, 14.

     This statement by Ms. White is evidence for what Mr. Siegel explained about the fight within everyone. Jeff Weise had a self that wanted to care for people, have them better off. He also had the other self, with its contemptuous purpose. Both were real. —Then, as Mr. Siegel describes in the lecture we're now serializing, “There [was] a desire to say, ‘I'm tired of this fight—one of these selves has to win.'”

     We also have to ask about the conversations. Two things can happen as people of any age talk together about “their problems.” There can be a desire to be of use to each other. But there can also be a using of one another to confirm the feeling that the world is no good, people will hurt you, and only we are good to each other. Whether in Red Lake or New York or Paris or anywhere, in seemingly cozy conversations people can fortify that contempt for the world which harms one's mind and makes one cruel.

“Racial Purity”

escribing Jeff Weise's interest in Nazism, Time magazine notes:

Racial purity became an issue for him, and he lamented that Native American stock was being diluted by intermarriage.

     The hideous idea called “racial purity” is something that persons of about every background have gone for. It's contempt. But it's related to a contempt much more frequent. Everyone is interested in self -purity: that is, there's a tendency to feel that the outside world, what's different from oneself, dirties one; to feel that “Just-I-to-myself am superior to other things, and if I let the world get too close, if I don't keep it in check, it will corrupt me. There's a certain self-to-myself I should keep hidden from everyone: separate, pure.” From this contempt can come the feeling that my “race” has got to be kept separate from those other “races,” which will corrupt it.

    Time magazine uses the phrase “whatever demon finally compelled Weise to act.” The phrase has in it a taking for granted the press and mental practitioners do not understand what drove him.

Something Else Could Have Been

ere I must say this. For years—beginning long before Jeff Weise was even born—teachers using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method in public school classrooms have enabled young people not only to learn successfully, but to become kinder. Through this method, as students of all ages learn a particular subject, they see it is evidence that the world itself is something they can respect and consider a friend. That is because in each item of the curriculum they are seeing reality's aesthetic structure: the oneness of opposites, which they too have. Seeing (for instance) the way known and unknown are one in an algebraic equation, the way freedom and order are together in the structure of a paragraph, the way past and the immediate moment are in history, the way logic and feeling are in a scientific discovery, the way the individuality and relatedness of things are fundamental to physics—has had students, including students who had been in an intense war with reality, give the world another chance and stop being so contemptuous and angry.

     It's my opinion that had the Aesthetic Realism teaching method been widely known in America , studied, and used, events like those of Red Lake and Columbine would not have occurred. But the chief reason students in Red Lake and elsewhere did not meet this method, is that various persons, including persons of the press, have wanted to hold on to their own contempt for the world and people. Aesthetic Realism is that which has understood contempt, criticizes it, stands for and encourages respect for reality. And if Aesthetic Realism is widely studied, then persons in power who want to look down on and manage people and facts won't be able to do so. So Aesthetic Realism and its teaching method, while becoming known more and more, have been stopped from doing the good—the urgently needed good—they could do across this land.

     It is, meanwhile, what people everywhere are looking for—because we are looking to understand ourselves and to like honestly this world we are in.

The Structure of Insanity
By Eli Siegel  

he next term we come to in this glossary is very large:

Insanity: Vague, legal term for the psychotic state, now obsolete in psychiatry.

     So it's “vague,” “legal,” and “obsolete.” Well, something is not obsolete, whatever you call it.

     Insanity is a word which, among other things, says, “Don't have it both ways.” The message of the term insanity is that if you have it both ways, you'll have it lots of ways. You go from split to disintegration, or decomposition, or medley.

    Junction and separation working against each other is the central thing in the notion of evil. And there are two phases of that. One is where two things are close but they're not for each other. Then, we can have a group of things not caring for each other. This is what is present in death, in decay. It's present in an aspect of fermentation, where the elements seem to be going more for themselves than for being of something. And it happens also in cloth when something is so frayed that it can't be worn at all. The threads and the planes in the cloth have a tendency to be little colonies by themselves. When people say, “My nerves are frayed,” it isn't so wrong: there's a kind of separation in nervousness.


nsanity is the same thing—always has been—as not wholeness. The Latin sanus is a word meaning whole, and insane is simply not whole. That term really holds, still. And why should a person who is simply not whole act the way he does? We get back to the earlier idea, of separation: people do want to have parts of them separate. However, though it is a bother to have two separate things fight in us, we don't usually hope that one show its independence. Insanity can be described as the ability of one part of oneself defiantly to show its independence, without caring for the things it deals with.

     When a man, let's say, comes home and kills his mother and his wife and his children, that part of him which always was against them and previously took the form of being morose or saying something sarcastic is now after bigger game. He doesn't want just to show that he can say critical or censorious things of them. He wants to show that he's entirely against them, and that the self that has accommodated itself to that which was against things can now be put aside—the restrictive self. (The self opposing another part of oneself is always restrictive. Evil inhibits good, and good inhibits evil; evil restricts good, and good restricts evil—and neither of them has a monopoly on restriction.)

     But there is a desire to say, “I'm tired of this fight—one of these selves has to win.” So a man sometimes hits a woman and his defiant self wins and has a moment of strange glory. Then he finds himself weeping—and he's now going to give himself over to the worm self. He changes from defiance to worm.

     The ricocheting from one way to the other can take many forms. But there is a desire to say, “I don't need that at all and I can destroy it.” There is a feeling that this self can work by itself and doesn't have to be cluttered with that other thing. When we have two selves, the other one can be awfully cluttering—it can be like a child around its mother's shins—and we want to get rid of it.

Manyness & Oneness

he two forms of insanity that have been around for a long time are still to be seen in terms of the opposites: manyness and oneness. If you have the manyness form, you utter phrases; you're talking to yourself and you say, “Tomatoes. Keys. Why should Napoleon like them? If I were Napoleon I'd give a tomato to my grandmother.” This is very delightful and it means the self can say anything and go from one notion to another. You're muttering. And you can make up words. Then there's another form: where you don't say anything at all.

     There's something in between: where you have a few phrases. For example, a person in an upstate asylum has been a tremendous conversationalist—he has only one phrase: “The sons-of-bitches.” Outside of that, he's completely silent.

     But the beginning thing is the fact that you think that two selves are better than one, and that if you are going to deal with a question, you have to choose the self that likes you more, as you see it at that time.

     “Insanity: Vague, legal term.” But it is interesting that plays have been described as fundamentally unsound. Compositions have been described as fundamentally unsound; for instance, certain works of Tchaikovsky that have been criticized in terms of their structure. So with Brahms. They don't hang together as well as those that are thought of most. There's a structure that is seen as not worthy, as unsound.     

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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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
More 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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