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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1735. —January 7, 2009
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941. 

True about the Self of Everyone

Dear Unknown Friends: 

ery early in the history of Aesthetic Realism, from August 1946 through April 1947, Eli Siegel gave a series of 37 lectures in New York City's Steinway Hall on this new American philosophy. He had been teaching it since 1941.

     The Steinway Hall lectures were not recorded, but notes of them exist, some by Martha Baird, others by Blanche Hoffman. And so it is an honor to begin, as the year 2009 begins, to present at least some aspects of those lectures, which were on such subjects as “Love & Confusion,” “Children as Selves,” “Unhappiness in America,” “Reality Includes Sex,” “Aesthetic Realism & Economics,” “The Philosophy of Stuttering,” “The Philosophy of Depression,” “Why Aesthetic Realism Is New,” “Education & Feeling Good,” “Why People Hurt People,” “Snobbishness & Self-Conflict.”

     In the earliest years, Mr. Siegel called the philosophy he founded Aesthetic Analysis. He changed the name to Aesthetic Realism in 1948. Throughout the present serialization I shall substitute Aesthetic Realism for the original term, except in the 4th paragraph of the introductory lecture, where Mr. Siegel speaks about the nomenclature itself.

     In this TRO we publish the first part of that opening talk. I think the lecture is great. It presents what is true about the human self—including the one we each go about with every day, which is so illimitably precious to us.

     In 1946, and earlier and later, Freud was viewed as the mental Authority. Today's psychiatry has essentially put Freud aside, yet it has not shown what was amiss with Freud; it has not stated that what Freud said about the human mind was untrue, and why. I consider this evasiveness cowardly. It also comes from lack of knowledge, because what is true about the self and what isn't is not something that the psychiatrists understand. The New York Times of December 18, 2008 quotes “a leading historian of psychiatry,” Edward Shorter, the author of Before Prozac, as saying, “In psychiatry no one knows the causes of anything.” That is why psychiatry today is largely pharmacological.

     Eli Siegel had the courage and knowledge to criticize Freud at a time when to do so was considered heretical. Some of that criticism, and the resplendently lucid, kind logic behind it, is here.

     In this first part of his introductory lecture, Mr. Siegel is presenting what he would describe three decades later in his Preface to Self and World:

Is it true, as Aesthetic Realism said years ago, that man's deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis? And is it true, as Aesthetic Realism said later, that 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?...
     Aesthetic Realism in 1941 first said that it was one's way of seeing the world which caused mental mishap or difficulty. And it was in the same year, 1941, that Aesthetic Realism said the useful way of seeing mind was to look upon it as a continual question of aesthetics.

     Again I quote Edward Shorter in the New York Times: “In psychiatry no one knows the causes of anything.” Eli Siegel did know. And Aesthetic Realism explains that the cause of all mental difficulty is contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Mr. Siegel identified contempt as the hurtful purpose in the human self, making for every other hurtful emotion; making for every human injustice, including racism and economic exploitation; making for self-dislike—because in having contempt, in elevating ourselves by lessening other things, we have betrayed our deepest purpose, which is to be ourselves by being fair to the outside world.

     Aesthetic Realism is not only true, but beautiful. It is, while being the fullest critic of humanity, that which shows most fully the grandeur of humanity—of us. Our great, constant need, it shows, is to be like art: we are hoping to put together all the time the opposites that are one in every good painting, song, poem, dance: freedom and order, lightness and heaviness, emotion and logic, self and world.

     Though, as I said, these lectures have come to us only through notes, we can still see in them, hear in them, Eli Siegel's style. It has simplicity; it is utterly unpretentious. Yet it is deep, warm, learned, charming. His kindness and knowledge come to us over the decades. They are what people need now.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism


The Problem of Self & World
By Eli Siegel

esthetic Realism says that every person—whether Hedy Lamarr or Harry Truman or a dishwasher or a philosopher—has one problem: the problem of Self and World. A problem can be something morbid, harassing, pathological; but strictly speaking, a problem is anything which can be made better, more efficient, or more beautiful. If anyone looks at himself he will see—and at any time, too—that there is a something inside him which must go together with something which is outside him.

      We are all a strange, wonderful, mysterious, sometimes paining thing called self. Self is a philosophic term. If you look at yourself and keep on looking, you can see that your self goes pretty deep. Then you will see there are two sides to it. We all know something about the two sides of self. A girl will say, “Oh, I wasn't myself last night.” There are Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And we know people who can be grouchy at 10:05, then smiling, and then grouchy again. There are some people who don't seem to be “themselves” at all, who eat breakfast but who seem to be in a world apart.

     It can be said of everybody that he has two sides—everybody in the telephone book, in the New York directory, in the Omaha directory—because the very nature of self is of opposites. If we do a good job with those opposites, we feel pretty good. If we don't, we can start scolding our wives for no good reason, get grouchy, count stairs as we visit someone, get depressed, and feel we have no right to make decisions. However, there is a possibility of being an individual, which everyone wants to be, and at the same time of feeling that this world is really meeting us and is affecting us and we don't mind.

     When I first came to the term Aesthetic Analysis, I didn't do it to get into competition with Freud. It was a simple act of terminological honesty. Even now, if I knew a better word than aesthetic I should be glad to take it. There are words like dialectic and philosophic, but there is no word like aesthetic. It so happens people think aesthetics is a soft term made by sissified people, people who don't know anything about OPA1 or railroads or the building of bridges. That is not true. Aesthetics, in its deepest sense, is the desire to make order out of opposition.

     We have opposition in ourselves. The question is, how are we going to make order out of it? If we don't, no matter how much money we make, or how many women we captivate, or how many 83-cent cigars we go around smoking, we won't really feel at peace with ourselves. I state dogmatically: if a person does not follow, instinctively and otherwise, an aesthetic procedure in his life, he won't like himself.

     When we look at a person, when we look at ourselves, we find a person is a little world in himself. There is a strange intimacy that we have about ourselves. Instinctively we all seem to be out for Number One. Then, from our birth, things come to us. There may be a mother, nurse, friends, teachers, relatives. And as we go on we are surrounded by a universal Sears-Roebuck catalogue of new things and people. Our job is to maintain ourselves as individuals and at the same time to meet all the new things.

What Is Our Job?

hen a person is nervous, he is not, as Dr. Freud has said most of the time, nervous because he has not advanced sexually or because there is repression in him. I am not interested today in combating Freud. It isn't necessary. But when some idea which is untrue happens to reach many people and seems to affect them, it is only right to say this is untrue. Freud has given an impression of the human being which is definitely false.

     Freud did not present the essential human problem. The big difference between Freud and Aesthetic Realism is this: even though he came later to the “death instinct,” throughout Freud's works there is the impression given that when a person is disturbed it is because of sexual mishap. Freud did say that a person's attitude to reality is governed by his sexual life. Aesthetic Realism says that a person's attitude to sex is governed by his attitude to reality. It is important that this difference between Aesthetic Realism and psychoanalysis be seen.

The Chief Problem

f the chief problem, in terms of mental disturbance, is not sex, what is the problem? It is a problem that will be with you for the rest of your lives. You have it at ninety days and at ninety years. It is a problem of: how are you going to be yourself while meeting what is not yourself?

     If any person asks himself what his self is, he can't say it is only his hand. And if he never had sex for the rest of his life, he would still be himself. A good question to ask is, just what is a self? In order to find out what your self is, you have to find out what other things are. If somebody sees a new thing in Vancouver, he has found out something new about himself. Knowledge is very important: a person who doesn't want to know has accepted failure in life, because only through knowledge of what isn't yourself will you find out what you are.

     You will never understand yourself if you are not interested honestly in philosophy; that means aesthetics. I am talking dogmatically. Perhaps it is bad to be dogmatic, but it is worse to be dishonest. In my observations over many years, I have found that the only idea that can explain what people are going after is the aesthetic idea.

The Self Is Relation

he self of everyone is a relation. To show this, I often ask a person to give me nine numbers. He picks, say, 434,261,732. That number is unique. But it couldn't exist without other numbers, without the number 17. We are like that. We are unique, but we can't say we don't have something to do with everything. The nervous person says that some of the time he wants to have something to do with things, but at other times he just wants to be “himself.” Everyone can see that at certain times one does not want to have anything to do with people.

     If that in a person making for his desire to be an individual is apart from, and is opposed to, his desire to be related, to meet diversity truly, then various bad things can happen. The summation of these bad things is that such a person will, in time, not want to be happy, because being happy through yielding to other things seems to be against his individuality. In my work, I've noticed that every person, to some degree, is afraid of being happy. To be happy means to be affected by things not yourself. If a person unconsciously feels that being more and more affected is against his individuality, then the contemptuous aspect of his unconscious will see to it that he is not affected by the outside world, and that the outside world doesn't please him.

     I have heard from people that they have grown sleepy when something pretty big and perhaps exciting was coming their way. This can include sex. The deepest reason for such sleepiness is that while a person consciously may think that he wants to be pleased or excited by a thing or person, there is that in him which feels that yielding to this big new thing will be an interference with his individuality as it was, with the unconscious symmetry of his personality as comfortable and alone. Therefore a solution is found in sleepiness. We can yawn through excitement.

     This tendency of every self to get its importance by saying, “I won't have anything to do with anything; I am myself alone”—this is the cause of nervousness. The fact that the isolating tendency in a human self is apart from that in a human self which wants to see things, is the cause of unhappiness, self-conflict, or nervousness. This is the thing for you to verify. We cannot like ourselves until we feel we deserve to be liked by what isn't ourselves.


esthetic Realism is ethics. The Self and World problem is an ethical one. There is a trend at the present time to say that ethics is only something imposed on us by fathers, mothers, churches, schools, and newspapers. That is foolish.

     Let us see how Self and World, or ethics, is present in an everyday situation. Take Edward Murray, an average fellow, a shoe salesman. He meets a friend, John Devlin, for ten minutes. The personality of Edward Murray is being affected by something which is not itself: that is, John Devlin. They shake hands. The hand of Edward Murray is affected by the hand of John Devlin. Is this Self and World? To be sure, it's an acquaintance meeting another acquaintance, but it is Self and World.

     In the same way that atoms are present in a dress at Gimbel's, or a bit of furniture, or a cantaloupe at a fruit store, so Self and World is present in everything that humans do. Why not see it there? People will say that it's philosophic. The question is not whether it's philosophic, but whether the philosophy is there. Is it scientific to leave out what's there?

     Getting back to Edward Murray: Edward Murray, in meeting John Devlin, wants something to happen to himself and also to John. If there is a discord between what he desires for himself and what he desires for John, he is making for unsymmetry, disturbance, in himself. To be sure, he may not be aware of this, but that doesn't mean that it won't be working in him.

     And what does Edward Murray really want to do to John Devlin? If he were asked, he would say, “Well, I want to get along with him.” Many persons would say that Edward Murray is perhaps aggressive towards, or antagonistic to, John Devlin; that he is a competitor in life. In a way, this is true. But suppose Edward Murray looked over the situation. He would find three things were possible in his meeting of John Devlin: One, John Devlin could be left entirely unchanged; nothing at all would happen to him. Two, John would be hurt in some fashion, lessened. Three, John could become stronger, better off, happier. These are the three possibilities. Suppose we take Edward Murray to be an average member of the US census—which would he like? Which would his deepest unconscious like? He certainly wouldn't like the idea of leaving John Devlin completely unchanged. He wouldn't like the idea of hurting John Devlin. So the only thing left is that in some way Edward Murray wants to be of use to him.

     Now, Edward might say, “I'm not so much interested in John.” But the fact remains that his deepest unconscious—and, when questioned, his conscious— wouldn't be so comfortable unless his motive towards John Devlin were what Edward Murray liked. I am against Pollyanna when Pollyanna is wrong; but if a sunrise exists, it exists just as much as coal dust.

Two Desires

e have an ethical unconscious, and also a part of the unconscious which wants to despise. The only reason that a person sometimes sulks and doesn't want to meet anybody is that he unconsciously thinks that in being able to be bored three times a day he is a big shot. Every person has that tendency.

     “Neurosis” or self-conflict is a fight between the desire to be happy and the desire to be unconsciously important. There comes a time when a person feels that if he is affected he is losing his individuality. I can represent this by pointing to the following instance. Let us say a Southerner voting for Rankin 2 every two years were to hear a Negro play the piano. He likes the piano, but if he likes it being played by a Negro, it implies he in some way likes the person. He is in a dilemma, and he may choose not to like the music.

     Here is another instance: Mrs. Levinson is visiting Mrs. Buckstein. She wants to feel she is better than Mrs. Buckstein. Mrs. Buckstein has prepared a lovely meal, but Mrs. Levinson will not have a good time; she will not enjoy the meal.

      People will want to be miserable because then they can have their individuality. This kind of thing leads a lady in Rockland to get underneath a bench and stay there all day, because in not being affected by anybody—by Truman, or Woolworth's—she thinks she is Queen of the World.

      When we look at this matter of our desire to go away from the world and also to see it in all kinds of relations, we shall understand the problem of self-disturbance. People, without knowing it, would rather have a bad time than give up their contemptuous importance by having a good time.

1 The Office of Price Administration, a federal agency established during World War II to regulate prices. It would be disbanded, against the wishes of many, in 1947.

2 John E. Rankin, a fiercely segregationist 16-term Mississippi congressman.

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
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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

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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