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  The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known
 NUMBER 225. — July 20, 1977
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

We Build Up Ourselves

Dear Unknown Friends: 

     There are two ways of building up oneself. The first of these ways is honestly to respect a thing, give it meaning. Respect for a match is with respect for the stars. The second way is to diminish as much as possible, give as little meaning to things as we can; and feel the less we have given meaning to other things, the more the edifice of ourselves is substantial. This is hinted at in many places of literature, but perhaps the most notable is in some lines from Meredith's Modern Love. Meredith saw that the desire for contempt could make for a diminution or dulling or thinning of feeling. It is necessary that we see what he saw.

1. Meredith Is Looked At

In Poem XLI of Modern Love, Meredith tells us:

Yet for us still 'tis nothing! and that zeal
Of false appreciating quickly fades.
This truth is little known to human shades,
How rare from their own instinct 'tis to feel!

     George Meredith hardly saw contempt as Aesthetic Realism sees it; but in his Poem XLI, he clearly implies that contempt is a competitor with deep feeling for anyone, even from the first day of life. The two ways of building up oneself—the way of giving meaning and the way of contempt—are in a fervid, virulent, frightening battle in the field of love. Contempt and meaning are fighting now, everywhere in New York, with casualties for all the combatants.

      That the desire for contempt may be present even before a "living passion" is declared is told us in these lines from Poem XLI:

We two have taken up a lifeless vow
To rob a living passion: dust for fire!

     That man's desire to change fire into dust may likely succeed, is in these earlier lines of Modern Love, Poem XXIX:

A kiss is but a kiss now! and no wave
Of a great flood that whirls me to the sea.

     The Victorian poem makes it clear that persons in love in the 1850s were not deprived of the possibility of making someone less, even though that someone was a wife or husband. When present-day psychiatry sees the necessity of studying contempt in all its forms, it will be a psychiatry no longer unable clearly to succeed in its purposes.

     Is contempt as pervasive and as deep as Aesthetic Realism says it is? I now use a poem of Emerson to illustrate or elucidate lines of Meredith.

2. Two Realities Quarrel

The Emerson poem I have in mind was much printed in American readers of the 1890s or 1900s. Nevertheless, it has been given the dignity of the grown-up anthology. I copy the poem from American Poetry and Prose, edited by Norman Foerster (Boston: 1925), page 359:


The mountain and the squirrel
Had a quarrel,
And the former called the latter "Little Prig;"
Bun replied,
"You are doubtless very big;
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together,
To make up a year
And a sphere.
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I'm not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry.
I'll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track;
Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut."

     This poem, with its imperfections—and it is still a poem—if understood, makes for the seeing of contempt in a manner which would lessen crime, give repose to families, and make war less likely.

     The poem tells us in its philosophically jumpy way that a thing, seen as alive, may have contempt for two reasons: One, because a thing is itself, is just what it is; and Two, because something else is different. All we need to have the most hurtful contempt is sameness and difference unfortunately placed. We are disposed to think less of others because they are not ourselves; and that's enough. We are disposed to think more of ourselves because we are ourselves; and that's enough. And from these two likelihoods of difference and equivalence, the most frightening and painful things can ensue. "You are not me," the unconscious says, "and so I have the right to think less of you and to place you as I want to." The social consequences are told of poetically in the Modern Love of Meredith.

3. John Selden, Robert Burns

Because we have a preference for ourselves and a possibility of contempt for what is not ourselves, we can make less of the occupations or activities of others. A famous passage in English literature is about this. It is from the Table Talk of John Selden (1584-1654), quoted in Craik's English Prose (II, 172):

Nash a poet, poor enough (as poets us'd to be), seeing an alderman with his gold chain upon his great horse, by way of scorn, said to one of his companions, "Do you see yon fellow, how goodly, how big he looks? Why, that fellow cannot make a blank verse."

     No matter what our situation is, we can use it to be contemptuous of something else. The housewife uses her good fortune at the hearth to be contemptuous of the unsettled, albeit dazzling, situation of the surmised-about Hollywood lady of note. And, of course, Hollywood can be contemptuous of all the shuffling Griseldas that make our meals. If it is different from ourselves, an adage of the unconscious tells us we can have contempt for it. Furthermore, if we need this contempt, we should get it.

     One occupation has contempt for another. Plumbers likely have contempt for advertising people. Florists may have contempt for road builders. Grandmothers may have contempt for the mature and feminine and childless. Warriors may have contempt for those who didn't take part in some silly or cruel occupation of an Asian land.

      Money encourages contempt in us. And if we are ingenious, we can use lack of money for notable contempt. Contempt in Burns's "A Man's a Man for a' That" is musical and deeply justified; but there is something else, too. What does a famous stanza from Burns's "A Man's a Man for a' That" say? It says two things, one of them beautiful as all get out: that what a person deeply is, should be seen, not his wealth. But the stanza also encourages someone rather poor to have contempt for a person well-dressed in the 1790s, and with a good deal of what the Scotch often called the "gear." Burns's poem shows that contempt is subtle, various. Here is the stanza:

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His riband, star, an' a' that,
The man o' independent mind,
He looks and laughs at a' that.

4. Contempt without Limit

Shakespeare, La Rochefoucauld, and Baudelaire have all three, in their manner, presented contempt as something that tends to eat the world up, and to make it a nullity. La Rochefoucauld says this in an addition to his Maximes of 1665. Here are two sentences:

L'amour-propre est l'amour de soi-même et de toutes choses pour soi; il rend les hommes idolâtres d'eux-memes, et les rendrait les tyrans des autres, si la fortune leur en donnait les moyens…. La mer en est une image sensible.

Self-love is the love of oneself and of all things for oneself; it makes men idolatrous of themselves and tyrants of others if fortune gives them the chance….Self-love is like the sea.

     We have, then, in La Rochefoucauld, contempt presented as the exclusive possibility of love for oneself. It is only through deep care for something other than ourselves that this self-love can become less; can in time be absent. There is a tendency, not understood by either Freud or the existentialists, to make self the one form of reality. The matter needs much better understanding; an understanding that should get beyond epigrams.

     Hamlet, in the world play, anticipates La Rochefaucauld. In an early speech (II. 2) he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—of all people!—

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

     Hamlet is informing us that one way to conquer or annul the world, and so have contempt for it, is to go into oneself and stay there. The drawback is that even when one is monarch of the unbounded dark stillness of oneself, one may have a bad time—in the play described as "bad dreams.” Is it a wise thing to have supremacy over reality and yet not feel so good? Many persons have done some exploring here.

     The junction of contempt, lust, and hate—a dreary, fearful possibility in man—is present, not clearly enough, in Shakespeare's Sonnet 129. This junction makes for madness and shame in the person having it. An informative line is:

Enjoy'd no sooner but despised straight.

     The awful constancy and variations with which a person tries contemptuously to conquer another, are in this sonnet. Despite the fact that lucidity was hardly reached by Shakespeare, there is that in the sonnet deeper and more useful than psychoanalysis; or the contemporary way of seeing mind when intense. Often, contempt and intensity make up one situation of mind in the life of a person. I hope to say more about this.

     Another writer who has presented contempt as everywhere and devouring, is Baudelaire in his "Au Lecteur" of Les Fleurs du mal. Baudelaire calls contempt Ennui, just as there was a tendency in La Rochefoucauld to identify contempt with self-love, and in Hamlet to have contempt the equivalent of complete absence from the world, with the rule of it nevertheless. So again, I present Baudelaire:

Il ferait volontiers de la terre un débris
Et dans un baillement avalerait le monde;

C'est l'Ennui!—l'oeil chargé d'un pleur involontaire,
Il rêve d'échafauds en fumant son houka.
Tu le connais, lecteur, ce monstre délicat,
—Hypocrite lecteur,—mon semblable,—mon frère!

     I translated these lines in Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968) as:

He willingly would make rubbish of the earth
And with a yawn swallow the world;

He is Ennui!—His eye filled with an unwished-for tear,
He dreams of scaffolds while puffing at his hookah.
You know him, reader, this exquisite monster,
—Hypocrite reader,—my likeness,—my brother!

     The meaning of these lines, both in French and English, has a large part of the future of the world.

With love,    
Eli Siegel      

©1977 by The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

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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John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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