|NUMBER 1766.—March 17, 2010|
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are honored to publish here the first part of Aesthetics Is the One Way, by Eli Siegel. He gave this lecture on January 23, 1947, at New York’s Steinway Hall, and our text is notes that were taken at the time. The lecture is about mind, our minds, what makes them good, sensible, beautiful, intelligent, deep, kind, and what makes them go wrong, including very wrong.
At the basis of the talk are these two principles: 1) “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves”; and 2) “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself; which lessening is Contempt.” Contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, is the cause, from within the self, of all mental difficulty. It injures every aspect of our lives, even though we think it makes us clever and safe.
The two principles I quoted are inseparable, because, as Mr. Siegel describes in this lecture, contempt is the contrary of art. Contempt takes the central opposites in a life, the personal Self and impersonal World, and pits them against each other.
A Shooting in Alabama
To place a little the might of what Mr. Siegel was explaining 63 years ago, I’ll comment on a matter in the news recently, which has affected people very much. It is a University of Alabama professor’s shooting of six of her colleagues, three of whom she killed. The shooter, neuroscientist Dr. Amy Bishop, was, it seems, furious at having been denied tenure. Authorities are now revisiting her supposedly accidental killing of her brother in 1986. And articles on her refer to various outbursts, as well as to a mail bomb plot about which she was questioned in 1994.
Amy Bishop is being seen as a terror, and I gather she is; but we have to see what that means, and what it has to do with every person. What makes someone, an educated someone, shoot people? Is the central cause a way of seeing the world, which can be described, and which is related to that had by other people?
Aesthetic Realism explains that there is a fight going on in every person about the world itself. It corresponds to a fight between respect and contempt, and can be put this way: Is the world something for me to know, to see accurately; or is the world something for me to beat, manage, look down on? In proportion to how much we see it as the latter (and everyone does, a great deal), we are welcoming meanness in ourselves, and mental amissness. Amy Bishop wanted to know the world to some extent—you have to be somewhat interested in knowing to get a Harvard doctorate. But she was very interested in making the world and people give her her way, and in punishing them if they didn’t. She is described as ferociously competitive.
In his book Self and World Mr. Siegel writes about another academic, whom he calls Hal Stearns, a professor of English at a California college. Hal Stearns is much nicer than Amy Bishop. Yet he too has that fight, which Aesthetic Realism explains: between knowing the world, and contemptuously conquering it. And he does not see how much the second hurts him. Here are some of Eli Siegel’s kind, beautiful sentences about Hal Stearns:
Stearns is learned, but he sees learned people, deeply, not as comrades but as adversaries. The charming and wide and subtle field of learning is for him a battlefield of egos....The acquisition of knowledge is a happy exposure of oneself to facts. That exposure should be electric, and accurate, and loving; it should give and embrace....Otherwise, the acquisition of knowledge is just acquisition.... The question is: How well does the self like it? The self of Hal Stearns does not like it altogether....He isn’t happy. [Pp. 291-4]
A New York Times article of February 21 describes a worry of “those who know Dr. Bishop”: “that she could go to great lengths to retaliate against those she felt had wronged her.” There has been a lot of retaliation in this world; history is horribly filled with it. And for every overt act of retaliation, there have been thousands and thousands of personal imaginings about how “I’m gonna get back at that guy!” Mainly, the acts and thoughts come, not from a desire to see justly and to have truth prevail, but from a desire to humiliate another and show one’s sneering supremacy. In other words, the thing that makes retaliation wrong and ugly is contempt.
I am trying to show that Amy Bishop went exceedingly far with a contempt that other people play around with, use, count on. She had contempt with a fullness and unrestraint—what Mr. Siegel called “the contempt which crosses the fence” (TRO 141). When she came to the faculty meeting and shot her colleagues that day in February, she was doing, with a certain utterness, what he describes in his preface to Self and World:
It is like a prizefighter summoning up his combative strength to defeat an opponent;... should he find the opponent lying on the floor with the referee counting over him, the prizefighter’s purpose has been successful: he can now have the repose of contempt. All anger would like to become contempt. Anger has pain in it, but contempt is inward bliss; repose; some quietude. [P. 9]
About “Brilliance” & “Empathy”
In the Times article, there is this sentence about Amy Bishop:
Her life seemed to veer wildly between moments of cold fury and scientific brilliance, between rage at perceived slights and empathy for her students.
This seems to be a description of opposites in a person. Yet it’s important to ask whether the qualities mentioned are really so different from each other and whether in having them Dr. Bishop was really “veering.” Certainly “scientific brilliance” can be respect for ideas. But showing how brilliant one is can also be a means of conquering a world one dislikes, showing one’s vast supremacy to others and to the facts, which one owns and can fling around to manage and dazzle one’s inferiors. Then “scientific brilliance” is not a “veering” from “cold fury,” but an aspect of it.
Next, we should ask about the nature of Ms. Bishop’s “empathy.” I’m sure there were times she desired to be useful. But so much of what people call empathy is really an agreement with another that the world is mean. One’s “empathy” can equal, “Look, I know you feel bad: it’s because the world hurt you, and the nasty thing has hurt me too. Let me encourage you to be against the world, as I am, and I’ll soothe you by acting as though you and I are too good for this disgusting universe with its brutal people.” Such “empathy” is not a “veering” from “rage at perceived slights,” but a continuation of it: both are ways of being against a world that injures one.
Amy Bishop disliked the world. That was the central amissness with her way of mind. She disliked it as a means of making herself superior to it. —There is this, in the Times:
In 2002, she was charged with assault after punching a woman in the head at an International House of Pancakes....The woman had taken the last booster seat, and...Dr. Bishop demanded it for one of her children.
She did not see this woman as a full person, but as an instance of the world that did not give her her way, and which therefore should be hated. This state of mind is present all over America—people have it in supermarkets and on highways—though usually without Dr. Bishop’s ampleness of expression.
We are also told that “in 1994, she and her husband were questioned in a mail bomb plot against a doctor at Harvard.” I do not know what occurred; but in terms of marriage, the question is: what way of seeing the world did Dr. Bishop and her husband encourage in each other? So often, husband and wife encourage each other to feel: other people are enemies, who are out to lessen us and to whom we are far superior. Such anti-world agreements between spouses are standard in marriage, and couples have some of their coziest moments going through the details of them. But these agreements are contempt, and completely against love. The result is, husband and wife increasingly resent each other—because they’re “protecting” each other from their true friend: reality in its fullness.
It moves me to say simply now: I love Aesthetic Realism for showing that the purpose of love is to like the world through a particular man or woman; and that the purpose of education is also to like the world, through knowing it—not to beat out other people, grab information, impress, get a prestigious position, show one’s supremacy.
Eli Siegel himself was the most learned person I ever met or heard of. Always, he used knowledge the way, in the passage I quoted, he wrote that it should be used. For him “the charming and wide and subtle field of learning” included all the arts and sciences, yes; but also the world of every day and all people. And the way he learned and taught was, all the time, “electric, and accurate, and loving.”
—Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Aesthetic Realism
Aesthetics Is the One Way
In previous talks, I showed how in stuttering, insomnia, and other difficulties, there is a bad separation of personal and impersonal, and that wherever there is such a separation a person feels ill at ease. It is important to look at the meaning of personal and impersonal. Aesthetics is the only thing that stops the war between them, a war that, consciously or unconsciously, is going on every minute.
Aesthetics very obviously puts together personal and impersonal. Whenever one looks at a work of art, one can see that. If a person painted something and didn’t put himself into it, the picture would be very academic. But if he were only sloppily and sensationally personal, he wouldn’t be an artist: there is a something to which he gives form.
Art has been described, in various ways, as “the universe seen by a personality,” which is a manner of saying personal and impersonal. But it has been felt that while this is all very good, art is something out of the stream of ordinary life, something to be looked at in museums.
Aesthetic Realism says that the only time life is really sensible is when it is like art; that what has been seen as a profound decoration of life is the thing which shows that life has value and meaning. Aesthetic Realism adds that wherever life has been drearily disorderly, it’s because the possibility of the personal’s becoming impersonal was not worked on, not seen.
In All Art
It is plain that the music of a great composer has his personality in it, expresses him, and also that it has something general to it, which can touch you. After all, you’re not interested in the composer’s feelings if they don’t have something to do with you.
I have not known of an instance of art that was otherwise, and I’m willing to say that in Chinese pottery, Slavic dances, every instance of art in every field, there has been a personality and the presence of something not the personality; and that in the instance of aesthetic felicity, those two things met.
It seems, further, that the desire for art has gone on wherever man has looked about him. There is at present a large interest in folk art and primitive art. These show that the desire of a person to become more oneself by welcoming what is not oneself has been a pretty staple desire. In any art—even a minor one—the two things are present: the strength, order, impersonality of the world and their expression through the personality of the artist.
Of course, art can be judged by the size of the world that has become personal and the size of the personality that has become impersonal.
The Pleasure of Contempt
I am going to read a description of the opposite of aesthetic pleasure: “2-A Pleasure Described.”* Contempt is by its very nature the opposite of aesthetics. It is that kind of pleasure which depends on the lessening of what is not the self. The artist, as in Beethoven’s Eroica, goes out to the vast universe and says, “My personality can take it.” If we look at the might and subtlety of the world, and really respect it, and are not afraid of it, we’re that much sensible and artistic. But artists very often can’t stand up as persons for what their being artists means. [Editor’s Note. Mr. Siegel read “2-A Pleasure Described” in its entirety. What follows are several points from it. The “2-A Self” is describing the pleasure of contempt:]
2. I can endlessly despise, and the more I despise the more, apparently logically, my own ego is glorified.
4. I am in touch with perfection; the boring and imperfect have been nullified.
5. I can make fun of everything I want.
8. I can talk of my pains eloquently, and fool people as to their cause and meaning.
9. I can be a deceptive emperor; be present and not present in a room; know the time and not know the time; exist and not exist; and have myself, myself, myself while I fool everything and am not affected by anything. (I can pretend I am affected.)
10. I (sometimes called Ego) know this pleasure. It is what I want, and I’ll use pain, pain, pain from the world to get it; pretend I haven’t got it; and justify my continuing to have it under opposition.
The Oneness of Concentration & Expansion
I don’t usually say the pleasure of contempt is all pleasure that is against aesthetics, but to see really what contempt is, we must see that. In aesthetics, as in happiness itself, there is a one of concentration and expansion. Therefore, where a person uses a concentrated pleasure (as a nervous person does) and is afraid of expansiveness, the very purpose of art is being gone against. We have such a hunger for ego security that we do go for snugness, complacency, narrowness.
This concentration can be accompanied by a false expansiveness—as when a person in an asylum says he’s God, or the generalissimo of the world. Such expansiveness wouldn’t be bad if his whole self meant it—that is, if he could be God and let everyone else be God too. But then, of course, the idea of being God would lose a lot of its glamour.
An artist, as artist, is happy. If he’s seeing something, and saying what he sees, he is happy. If he isn’t, it’s because the contemptuous unconscious, which doesn’t want him to be happy except through himself, is working.
Art is what puts the world into form. This is why the material of art has been able to be more and more inclusive. It has come to include even such things as hospital wards and dirty fingernails.
The tendency of people to be unhappy and miserable has, obviously, been very much present. What is not seen is that there is a desire to be, because this misery is the safeguard of contemptuous individuality. The artist as person has such a desire, but the art itself is a victory over it. There is no such thing as pessimistic art, because the artist is always saying, “I can see and still find pleasure.” Conceit is always saying, “I can’t combine with this external enemy; I must retreat.”
Where bad art occurs, it’s because the two desires, for concentration and for expansion, didn’t mix. Very often an artist can’t hold to the rigorous requirements of true aesthetics, and he gets the badly personal in.
A person who is contemptuous doesn’t want to use the outside world as creation. He says, “Yes, there’s the world. I’ll arrange it in my own mind, and there won’t be any real joining of subject and object.” In art, there is courage.
Beethoven perhaps became despondent after the Fifth Symphony, but Beethoven as artist in the Fifth Symphony said the world made sense. Artists very often don’t know enough about what they’re doing in their art. That’s why they suffer. And that’s why criticism of the artist is so important.
Can there be successful writing about, composing of, or painting anything, with contempt for that thing? Hardly. The purpose of making art of something is to show it has more possibilities than anyone thought before.
The Good & Bad
Art is a putting together of the good and bad, without any Pollyanna-ishness or quick trips to paradise. But in the egotistical mind, individuality is built up through contempt. Many people, without knowing it, have their most important times when they despise. They give all sorts of excuses—how people are bad, etc.—but what they don’t know is, they want people to be bad so they can despise them.
The novelist says, “Every person can have a novel written about him—every instance of humanity is wonderful.” (The word wonderful doesn’t necessarily imply approval.) If the artist feels this way, he is, as artist, the opposite of the person who is fooling around with contempt. That person says, “The more I can despise the world, hooray for me!”
*Eli Siegel, Self and World (New York, 1981), pp. 357-8. “2-A” was, in the early years of Aesthetic Realism, a term used for contempt.
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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