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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1747. —June 24, 2009
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941. 

Happiness& What Interferes

Dear Unknown Friends: 

e publish here the first half of a lecture by Eli Siegel, given early in the history of Aesthetic Realism—in 1946, at Steinway Hall. Its title is Unhappiness in America. And working in it are two principles of the new philosophy he was teaching. The first: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” As he shows what that fervently desired thing happiness is, he speaks about the opposites of rest and motion, and the biggest opposites for everyone: our dear self and the wide outside world.

     The second principle describes the thing which people think will make them happy but which really makes them miserable. “The greatest danger or temptation of man,” he writes, “is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself; which lessening is Contempt.” Mr. Siegel explains that if we go after being happy by contemptuous means—by lessening the world, and trying to own and manage portions of it—we will suffer.

Edmund Spenser Tells of Fake Happiness

o illustrate, I'm going to quote from Edmund Spenser's mighty and lovable work The Faerie Queene, published in 1590. Cantos 9 and 10 of Book 3 are about Malbecco, an ill-natured old man who (like everyone) makes the choices he makes because he thinks they're the way to be happy. He dislikes the world: he's a “crabbéd Carle,” a nasty churl, and “all his dayes he drownes in privitie”—that is, he keeps away from people. There are two things he feels will make him happy. The first is money, and the second is having a woman whom he can see as belonging to him. There is this (“mucky pelfe”=filthy cash):

But all his mind is set on mucky pelfe,
To hoord up heapes of evill gotten masse,
For which he others wrongs, and wreckes himselfe.

The Faerie Queene is allegorical and symbolic, and Spenser meant Malbecco to represent something in people: the feeling that through making certain aspects of a disliked world be governed by you, be servants of yours, you conquer reality. In fact, Malbecco's way of seeing money is central to the profit system—the basis of which is to see other human beings in terms of how much money you can get from them. Spenser says that, Malbecco, seeing pelf as the main thing, not only wrongs others but wrecks himself.

A False Approach to Love

e also is “linckéd to a lovely lasse.” That's his young wife, who herself leaves a lot to be desired in terms of ethics, but whom he keeps shut up in a bower, away from other people. Malbecco's approach is a bit extreme. Yet it does represent something exceedingly popular. The great mistake about love, universally made, is to see it, really, as the owning of another human being: if this person is mine I'll be happy—we'll make a separate world for ourselves, locked away from the large world, which we can look down on.

     If I own this car, this rug; if I eat a lot of these cookies; if I'm invited to the right parties; if those people praise me: these are some of the many things people have gone after as a means of being happy. They've been used to have part of reality soothingly and aggrandizingly one's own, while one despises so much else.

     Much happens to Malbecco, but his fate stands for the everyday unhappiness people have because they've gone for happiness through contempt. In these lines we're told he is pursued by awful feelings—grief, spite, jealousy, and scorn—and that he loathes himself:

Griefe, and despight, and gealosie, and scorne
Did all the way him follow hard behind,
And he himselfe himselfe loathed so forlorne.

If we try to manage reality to suit ourselves, we will feel tormented by an array of bad feelings, because the human self was made to care for the world and respect it.

     Moreover, we'll always feel deeply afraid, because somewhere we know we've tried to pull a fast one and ought to get punished for it. That fear is symbolized by Malbecco's having to feel that a huge rock may any moment fall on him. He has

                                   continuall feare
Of that rockes fall, which ever and anon
Threates with huge ruine him to fall upon,
That he dare never sleepe.

Never, we're told, “rests he in tranquillity.”

     Spenser, then, in his rich and vibrant, intricate and sharp verse, is illustrating musically what Eli Siegel would explain centuries later—including in the work we're proud to publish here.


Unhappiness in America
By Eli Siegel

eing what we are, we have to go after happiness. It is the biggest aim or objective of everyone. Aesthetic Realism explains that no one can be happy unless he can say, “I like the world.” And not to be interested in what that means, is not to be interested in finding out what one's happiness might mean. The reason “I like the world” is such a necessary phrase is: everything that makes us happy arises from something—from what is real. If we are pleased by something but are not pleased by what it comes from, our happiness is uncertain.

     If a man thinks he gets pleasure from a woman but doesn't like the world from which she comes, he is saying, to put it in biological terms, “I have found an accident, a sport. The reason I can be happy is that I found something which is not representative of the world.” Therefore, if the particular instance of reality giving him happiness should vanish, the happiness would too. That kind of happiness, which is the sort mostly gone after, is not the real thing. It is too accidental; it doesn't have a basis. I can say, having studied the matter of happiness in history, that most happiness in the world has been of a casual, uncertain, not surely based nature.

     If in America people can't feel, “I like what I am” and “I like what's around me,” they can't be happy. The essential feeling of happiness has, as basis, the perception that the world and oneself are in a state of intense, permanent, and deep friendship. Happiness is an intense state of oneness with reality. From that, there follows a oneness in oneself.

Warring Objectives: For Motion, for Rest

he first cause of unhappiness in America is the division in self had, in one way or another, by every person. Happiness is the accurate acquisition of an objective accurately had. But if we have two objectives and two motives, how can there be that accuracy? If one looks at oneself, it seems that two things are required for happiness: you have to be quiet, have some sense of peace; you also have to have some sense of activity, some wideness of interest. In other words, you have to have a self that is rest and motion.

     Everyone can ask, “Do I want to have adventure only? Could I really be happy if I were shuttled from one thing to another, as a cork in a bathtub?” Hardly. Adventure would be got at too unwelcome a price. On the other hand, if a person says, “Oh, it's nice to have a quiet little cottage where the atom bomb doesn't reach but where I can be in a love nest with refreshing novels,” after a few weeks it is possible that that also be displeasing. Every person wants quiet and adventure. America is like Rumania there, or Japan, or like the people in Palestine. In being alive, a person wants to feel he is doing new things and at the same time has peace and quiet. The motivation, therefore, of every person is towards these two things. The purpose should be the having of one not at the expense of the other.

     Is it possible to have quiet and adventure? Take the situation of maybe 300,000 young women in America. Five years ago they were in a round of seeing boy-friends, going to movies, having all kinds of aspirations. Since that time, they have become married. What was once a life of adventure, dates, hopes, uncertainties, and happy surmises has by now become a life of comparative quiet. Let's assume the young woman is now living in Rochester. She's pretty secure. Her husband is making a good living, is educated. But she feels she is not interested in enough things. She feels, though she can't say where, that something is missing. She reads books, sees people, is part of movements. But as marriage goes on, she feels things are too quiet, and she is looking for a great revolution in the coming of a child.

     In her life, which is a pretty good one, we have an example of the desire of a person for security and comprehensiveness, rest and mobility. This woman went at security so strongly after a life of social adventure (nothing sensational) that the relation of the two is really causing her a good deal of unease. She gets irritated. She feels sometimes when she takes a nap in the afternoon that she is desolate. What is going on is: she wants quiet, as all people do, but she also wants a life of happenings, of change, and she is not able to put the two together. There are so many persons like that. They feel in a vague way that life goes on, it is not too hazardous, but it is incomplete.

Self versus World

he most important phase of division is a feeling that a sense of self-importance, ease, perfection, can be got in a way that is inimical to what is outside oneself. Persons do look on the world either with contempt or fear, with anger or a sense of self-criticism. When a person looks at the world and thinks how various it is, how encyclopedic, that person is disposed to say, “What is puny little me compared to all these things, all these streets, books, people, happenings, all these years?” There is a sense of fright—the world doesn't seem so friendly. There is a looking for shelter. There is a looking for inward victory. The inward victory becomes such a triumph that from then on there is a disposition to accentuate the world as hateful.

     Most people do not like the world. They do not see it as completing them, as friendly to them. They are interested in getting happiness from immediate sources: a husband, a job, office, money. In the meantime, there is the biggest of all jobs, the feeling “I like what is. I see what is as my friend. I'll feel it is my friend even though something bad happens,” and that feeling is not had.

     Take the woman whom I just talked about. One of the reasons she came to see her marriage as a kind of luxurious trap is that earlier she had seen marriage as a way not of liking the world more, but of saying, “How various, confusing, terrifying the world is. If I find the right man, we shall marry and say bye-bye to the world and live happily.” That kind of feeling, which asks for a spurious sort of happiness, is had by most people. They are afraid of the world in its immensity. They want to take certain parts of the world that are nice and convenient and forget the rest. As soon as you forget the world in its largeness, you are saying you don't want all of yourself. This begins long before marriage in Rochester.

     A person's approach to happiness is usually in terms of a situation to be arrived at: friends, marriage, economic security, and the rest. Such things are very necessary, but they are necessary because through friends, marriage, economic security we are that much being at one with the world which provides marriage, friends, and economic security. Unless we make sense out of that world, we cannot see it as friendly. That is why philosophy of an honest kind is necessary. A person has to tackle the question of whether the world makes sense or is good. Otherwise she shall have division: first between the self as resting and the self as wanting adventure, activity; then between the self and what is strange to it—and from that come very definite divisions in the self as such.

The Fight between Desire and Logic

One tormenting division is this: almost every person, despite the unpuritanical aspect of our age, is in a conflict between what used to be called the flesh and the spirit, and can also be called desire and logic, or selfishness and ethics. It is an agonizing fight. It has happened very seldom that a person has really managed these two things, and the going after them has made for civil war. Literature is filled with narratives of how this fight went on in various people. It goes on now. A person wants to know, wants to look on himself and say, “I'm not a heel. I'm in control of myself. I'm fair to the persons next to me.” But there also seems to be a having of desire that is disorderly, brings pain to the person himself, makes for messiness within. Because desire and logic, or, if you wish, flesh and spirit, have not been made one in America , there is a great deal of unhappiness in America.

     There was a great deal of unhappiness in 1850. But despite the unshackling of the American people from the chains of Puritanism, as was thought in 1920, that fight goes on now, because enjoyment versus ethics, desire versus logic, is not a fight that was given to us by hard-faced ladies and gentlemen or reverent saints. It is a phase of the aesthetic fight which, in terms of strict aesthetics, can be called substance and form.

     The having to make a body that has blood in it and sex and moving flesh, at one with a self-body that has a critical feeling toward itself—this need is an aspect of the form-substance relation, which is in the world itself. The one way to settle it is to be able to say—not with terminological resonance and not glibly, but with deep honesty—that one can see oneself as flesh and mind, as weight and form, as self and body at once. That job is not easy, but it is the only way a person will be at peace.

Grabbing & Fairness

here are other aspects of division that are undergone by people in every state of the union. There is a desire on the part of everybody to be selfish and grab and take and fool and manage, and then there is a desire to be fair, to give to the other person and to things generally what is coming to them. This is part of the fight between contempt for the world and respect for it. Unless that fight is seen clearly, there can't be much substantial happiness. If the fight takes a steep form, it can make for what is called nervousness or neurosis. But the fight is present in everyone. It can be put as the fight between the desire to be acquisitive and the desire to be fair, but in the deeper sense, it is a fight between the self as point, or at rest, and the self as moving.

     For example, every person has sometimes felt that he is neglecting others, has been unfair to others, has taken advantage of others, and has felt bad. The more dramatic form this unfairness takes is the desire not to be interested in the world at all. In my work, people have told me that they can't be interested in anything. A glass of water leaves them unmoved, ice cream leaves them untouched, music leaves them bored, friends leave them unaffected, the sky leaves them unaffected, and the whole world seems to be one tasteless universal mess.

     That kind of unhappiness is coming to be more and more, because events in recent times have brought out the likelihood in every person of thinking the world is not a friend but an enemy, not interesting but dull, not something sensible but something which is a confused affront to individuality. That is why the asylums are growing more populous and there is distress in America and the world. If the personality of a particular man or woman has been based unconsciously on not being interested in the world, when a showdown comes there can be a refusal to be interested, and a corresponding desire to go within. It is the most dramatic and dreary kind of unhappiness: “I don't care a bit.”

     Deeply, in that dramatic form we have the very basis of happiness and unhappiness. If one has the central belief that the world completes one, is not an enemy, does make sense, is romantic, is joyful though uncertain, and is amiable in its heterogeneousness—things can happen and one can say, “A department went wrong but the show is still good.” Most people don't have this stable feeling that the world is good, which would enable them to meet surprise, the new, a demand one hadn't expected. The contempt in one, the desire not to be interested in the world as an outside thing, is lurking all the time, and if something troubling happens, that contempt is encouraged and unhappiness is made a banner.

     There have been people who, when asked “Are you interested in anything in the world?,” have said “No.” What happens in such instances is something the seeds of which are present in all of us all the time. We are either going to complete ourselves by liking the world, or we are going to base our personal intactness on an inability to be affected by it.

     Unhappiness in America comes from the fact that people do not believe in what isn't themselves sufficiently so that they can enjoy it for what it is. The true way of enjoying it is by knowing it and feeling it more and more. There is a desire to take portions of it, capture them, and when that goes on some bad things can happen.   

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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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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