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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1751.—August 19, 2009
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Stuttering & the Human Self

Dear Unknown Friends:

We’re honored to publish one of the early talks Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall: The Philosophy of Stuttering. In publishing those lectures, we’re using notes taken at the time, and those for the talk on stuttering, December 26, 1946, are quite incomplete. Nevertheless, we meet the explanation—clear, logical, kind, exact—of a matter that torments people now. And it would not do so, were Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of the subject widely known.

The lecture can be seen as a companion to Mr. Siegel’s rich, stylistically beautiful discussion of stuttering in his Self and World. There he shows that this difficulty in expression is a phase of the fight all people have: the fight between respect for the world and contempt for it. “Stuttering is a collision,” he writes, of the desire “to be other, to be related,” and the desire “to be a snug, perfect point, capable of dismissing anything and everything” (pp. 324, 331).

To accompany the 1946 lecture, we reprint parts of an important article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Miriam Mondlin. It appeared in this journal in 1994, with the title “How My Stuttering Ended.”

Perhaps the most eminent person in America connected with stuttering is our vice president, Joseph Biden. There are moving accounts of how, as a boy, he overcame his stuttering by persistently memorizing and reciting poems and prose passages. This is truly admirable. Yet what Mr. Siegel says in his talk about certain exercises of speech is true about the affecting tasks Mr. Biden gave himself: “they don’t get at the deep cause”; and so, even if they’re useful in varying degrees, the fight that made for the stuttering will take other forms.

I have not seen any relation made between the youthful stutter of Mr. Biden and something the press loves to seize on and mock: his impulsive uttering of things that he and others wish he had not said; also his tendency to talk longer than he should. The fight in self that made for the stutter also makes for these difficulties in expression. If a person wants very much to say things, yet something in him doesn’t want to be expressed at all, wants to have himself to himself—the jam-up can have him be insufficiently exact when he does speak. Also, he can tend to keep going, be propelled to say too much, to make up for a big inclination to say nothing.

Stuttering, then, is an aspect of a subject that Aesthetic Realism magnificently understands: the human self.

—ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Philosophy of Stuttering
By Eli Siegel

Stuttering is perhaps the most dramatic example of a dislocation of self and world. Explanations of stuttering in terms of “trauma” aren’t sufficient. Stuttering arises because a person wants to say something and at the same time wants to keep it to himself. It’s a battle between the self intimately and the self that wants to be expansive.

There are two reasons why people won’t talk: because they’re afraid, or because they feel they’re too good. That is what the stutterer feels: “Why should I give myself to these people?” He’s afraid—fears if he gives himself he may lose himself—and feels superior at the same time. Then, because he has wanted to go away from people in his mind, he also feels he doesn’t deserve to talk to them.

Speech is something that has very much to do with the way a person sees himself and what is not himself. A stutterer feels people don’t deserve to hear what he has to say—it’s too important. At the same time, he feels inferior. The relation between shame and magnificence in the unconscious is hard to see, but it’s there. Wherever there’s a so-called “inferiority complex,” there’s also a superiority complex. Stuttering is a very definite manifestation of that.

When we make two people of ourselves—one for our very own self, our individuality-under-the-skin self, and the other for other people—we are inviting trouble. One of the ways of the trouble, as I said last week, is insomnia. That takes place privately. Stuttering is another way the trouble is shown, publicly.

A child who stutters on the one hand wants to talk, but has been so frightened that he wants to keep himself to himself. Most stuttering begins in childhood. To get away from the inimical world, a child makes a world for himself. But while he’s done this, he has to talk. The memory of the private world exists while he’s talking to the other world.

Stuttering is the conflict of two desires. A person who wants to say something and also doesn’t, will say it very fast, or very softly, or he’ll stutter. A person who goes about the world thinking that the people he talks to are his enemies will show it in his speech. Stuttering is related to unconscious contempt. Stutterers should know this. If they don’t, they may allay the stuttering through exercises or something of that sort, but what the stuttering comes from will show itself in another form.

Other Trouble about Expression

Asituation like stuttering can be understood in terms of other happenings. Take a singer who sometimes thinks she can’t go on—she’s in a panic. Often she thinks people are rubbish. Well, she is the same person who’s now trying to please people by singing. Can this duality make her fearful?

If we don’t have an attitude of factual pride towards others, we won’t talk in the best fashion. To express ourselves, we have to have a respect for what we’re expressing ourselves to.

All of us at times don’t feel like talking. We’re hurt by something. We think, “What’s the good of talking?” The silent treatment is common in domestic life. The stutterer consciously wants to talk, and unconsciously doesn’t.

I was told of a child who did not talk until very late. The first time he spoke was when, after he had drunk some ink, his mother became very angry and struck him. The child said, “Mama, me.” Then he didn’t talk again for a year. However, the fact that he’d spoken those two words months earlier showed that the child could talk; but he did not see fit to.

In expression, we have to give ourselves to people. This is much harder than many of us believe. It involves thinking that what isn’t us is on our side. If a stutterer could believe that what wasn’t himself was on his side, there wouldn’t be stuttering.

Aloofness and suspicion are always in the unconscious of a stutterer. It often happens that a stutter is less when a person drinks. The reason is, when drinking, a stutterer doesn’t see people so much as impediments, interferences—even though he gets to that in a false way.

A stutterer is like a child who for a while stands in the door with his finger in his mouth, then suddenly runs into the room, and then runs back out. The stutterer sees people as inimical, and the good part of his unconscious wants him to reconsider. Then he sees people as friendly, and the bad part of his unconscious wants him to see them as inimical.

Language Is Personal & Impersonal

Language has its personal and its impersonal sides. Often, a schizophrenic won’t want to talk grammatically. He doesn’t see how using a language he got from other people is serving his individuality. Even when we talk to ourselves, we use English. Whom did it come from? Our most intimate thoughts are put in a collective form—a language. The schizophrenic won’t have it. Either he makes up a new language, or he won’t talk at all.

Sometimes children make up languages of their own. Some of this is charming; but also it’s to say, “Look, parents, you think you know all about me, but I can talk so you don’t understand a word of it!”

Talking very fast can be done for the same reason as stuttering. Suppose Mark owes John $22. John says, “How about that $22 you owe me, Mark?” Mark says, “I don’t owe you any money.” John says, “Sure, Mark— don’t you remember? Here’s the receipt you gave me.” Mark says, “That’s not my signature.” John says, “Sure it is. Charles and Archibald were there when you signed it.” Then all of a sudden Mark pulls out his wallet and says very fast, “Here, here, take your money.” He’s in a hurry, because he doesn’t want to pay it.

To understand more about stuttering, the matter of trauma has to be considered. There are examples of soldiers who see something terrible, and then they stutter. There are children who are frightened by something and stutter from then on. The melodramatic incident has to be distinguished from the possibility which has been in the person all along.

A child has been thinking about leaving home from the time he was 12. Then something happens when he’s 16 and he does leave. But we have to see the four years of preparatory meditation, not just the melodramatic incident alone. Another incident: a woman hears of the death of a niece and becomes psychotic. That wasn’t what made her psychotic; it was a culminating incident in a process.

Aphasia is the technical term for the inability to talk at all. It’s akin to the inability to remember, the inability to act, or move, or hear. When there is the kind of aphasia caused by a definite inward state, what has happened is, a person has come to the triumph that the contemptuous unconscious wants: “I don’t want to talk to anyone—what has anyone to do with me?” If a person can feel important by not saying a word, that feeling can take a deep and constant form in the inability to talk.

A stutterer is a person who doesn’t want to talk and at the same time wants to very much. A babbling brook joined with Death Valley is something like what goes on in a stutterer’s mind.

When a Person Is Afraid

Stuttering is related to speaking with certain affectations. When a person is afraid, and many people are, there can come a certain aroma of speech. People have tried to cultivate Oxford accents. That is obvious, but there are more subtle tricks a person isn’t aware of. It can be a little phrase he associates with himself, even if it’s only “and so forth.” And you’ll be surprised at his ingenuity in getting it in.

The Aesthetic Realism attitude to stuttering isn’t as something only in itself, but as something expressing the general fight which I’ve tried to outline.

New things—books, crowds, places—aren’t meant to make us smaller, but to complete us. A stutterer isn’t afraid of people because he stutters; he stutters because he’s afraid.

Stuttering is a condition of unaesthetic for-and-againstness. The stutterer has been caught by the desire to hide and the desire to express. He needs to see that in talking he isn’t going to lose anything of himself. If he could see he was the same person when alone and when talking to other people, he wouldn’t stutter.

This can be said with certainty: each stutterer has a private world that he isn’t able to join with the world he is talking to. Consequently, those ways of getting at the cause of stuttering which look for the “precipitating stress,” the trauma, or which deal with it through rhythmic exercises—these can be useful up to a point, but they don’t get at the deep cause.

The stutterer is a person who is ashamed and also arrogant. If he can see that the job of everyone is to make a one of the intimate, private self and the self that goes out, listens to music, buys books—if he can understand this, he may see that he need not stutter.

A woman told me her child had stuttered from the beginning. The mother was having Aesthetic Realism lessons, and noticed that as she herself became less afraid of the world, her child stopped stuttering. To the child, the mother was the world.

If the stutterer comes to like the world really, I don’t think he’ll stutter. 


How My Stuttering Ended
By Miriam Mondlin

From an early age, the battle that Aesthetic Realism describes, between two ways of seeing the world, was in me. Like every child, I wanted to be related, to go towards a world filled with the sights and sounds I loved—for instance, the sound of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony or “Apple Blossom Time” sung by the Andrews Sisters, coming from my family’s treasured Victrola.

I also saw the world as inimical and fearful. I was born during the Depression, and my family, like millions of others, was suddenly plunged into financial straits. My father lost his tailoring shop shortly after I, the fifth child, was born. Unable to find work, he felt very much a failure, and after a lingering illness he died. My mother did her best with the little we had, with my older sisters and brother pitching in, and while we never went hungry there was always worry about money for the next meal. I thought, ungratefully, that I’d been gypped out of the comfortable middle class life my family had had before I was born.

My mother was devoted to me. But she also could angrily accuse a salesgirl at Woolworth’s of trying to cheat her, or fight with neighbors and then suddenly take to the couch, sometimes for days, not wanting to talk to anyone. I used the weaknesses I saw in her and others to have contempt—to feel people weren’t good enough to hear what I could say.

Stuttering Begins

I began to stutter noticeably when I was about three, and as I grew up the stuttering increased. Often terrified to utter a sound, I felt I could never be sure of saying anything without stuttering. When I went to elementary school I was eager to learn to read and write, but I couldn’t say “Miriam” without a painful, long M-m-m-m-m sound. The most difficult thing for me to say was my address, 4117-15th Avenue, with the sounds of f and s. After many painful tries, I would act as if I forgot. The other children would laugh uncomfortably and I would feel mortified. The guidance counselor told my mother that I stuttered because I was “insecure” and would probably “grow out of it.” But the stuttering went on.

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that even as we are pained, we can have the triumph of contempt. And I did—giving people the message, “See if you can get something out of me!” As my family coaxed me to speak, inwardly I would go to a secret world where I was the princess Alicia and everybody served and adored me. Then when I tried to speak, the two directions in myself—wanting to go toward the world and wanting to go away from it—jammed up. Years later I was to learn about the hope that interferes with our expression as Eli Siegel explained to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson: “The way we are friendly to what is different from ourselves and then hope to see it as hostile affects us in ways we don’t know. Do you think this could contribute to stuttering?” The answer is a resounding Yes.

Aesthetic Realism has none of the unscientific, clinical way with which stuttering is usually seen. For example, in an April 1991 article in Health magazine, Jacqueline Shannon, while saying that the “precise origins” of stuttering are not “clear,” nevertheless writes: “New studies show that stuttering is a largely inherited disorder that may involve specific abnormalities in the brain.”

At age 19, unable to hold a completely fluent conversation with anyone, I read the following sentences from Self and World about a young woman called Hester Jackson and thought, “Eli Siegel really understands! This is how I feel”:

[She] has an attitude to herself that is at once too exalted and too depreciating. She finds it hard to be a princess and also a “good mixer.” She has a superior and an inferior feeling at once. When she talks, these inferiority and superiority feelings meet in a clash; and mouth, throat, and words reveal the clash. [P. 325]

Sounds Have an Ethical Value

I had most trouble saying s sounds, and when looking for a job I would pray that the company’s telephone number would not have a 7 in it. I remember turning down more than one job because I felt I would never be able to say the phone number. Persons who stutter are tortured by this kind of thing all the time. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel explained why I stuttered particularly on the s sound and on the word seven. He said that in the word seven “you have to accept the world as ugly and beautiful”: seven has both the sound of a hiss and the lovely ehven sound that is also in heaven. Mr. Siegel asked me, “Do you like to cheer people or hiss them?” I answered “Hiss them.” Then he asked, “Do you associate these s sounds with hissing?” I did.

Mr. Siegel explained: “All sounds have a certain ethical value. They can be misused [and] usually are misused. In order to get rid of a problem, you have to get rid of something. Don’t associate the s sound with the triumphant lessening of the human race....Reconsider sounds and say what you think about them. Practice this sentence: ‘I love you,’ he hissed.

The knowledge and good will of Aesthetic Realism enabled me to stop stuttering, and to express myself in ways I respect myself for. As he criticized my contempt, Mr. Siegel also educated and freed the best thing in me: my desire to like and be fair to the world into which I was born.  black diamond


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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"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

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More Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[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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