The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Is Frustration?

Dear Unknown Friends:

In 1948 Eli Siegel gave a talk on the subject of frustration. No audio recording or transcript of it exists. But as I did this May with another 1948 lecture, I am using notes taken by two people—Martha Baird and my mother, Irene Reiss—to recreate some, at least, of what Mr. Siegel said in that class 67 years ago. And clearly: what he said is great in its logic, vividness, depth, exactitude, scholarship, and kindness.

In 1948 the Freudian approach to mind still reigned. People were being told that all troubled feeling, and certainly frustration, had a sexual cause. Meanwhile, from the time he began to teach Aesthetic Realism, in 1941, Eli Siegel showed courageously that Freud’s way of seeing the human self was untrue: it was, in fact, ridiculous, and insulting to humanity. Mr. Siegel explained early that the fundamental matter in a person’s life is not sex but how he or she sees the world itself: how we are as to sex arises from how we see reality. The lecture we’re publishing was revolutionary when it was given. It is also revolutionary now, because, while people don’t think of frustration as chiefly a sexual matter, they still do not understand it.

This Goes On

Frustration is huge in everyone’s life. There are the particular frustrations people feel day after day. One person tells another (or thinks about the other), “Trying to reason with you is so frustrating—I can’t get through to you, no matter what I say!” There’s the frequent feeling about a computer or program, “This thing is so frustrating. I just can’t make it do what I want it to do!” People can spend a whole day feeling frustrated: “Ughhh—I’m stuck in traffic again!” “My wife always keeps me waiting—why isn’t she ever ready on time?” “The dog wants to walk in that direction when I want him to walk in this—it seems we’re always in a contest.”

Millions of people feel they’re in a world that essentially frustrates them: a world they have to fight in order to get what they want. And there is frustration with oneself. For instance, “I don’t know why I can’t give attention to something for any length of time: my mind keeps wandering.” And, “Why can’t I remember things?”

The basis of this decades-old, completely new lecture is the following principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Mr. Siegel shows that the only way not to be frustrated is through seeing the aesthetic nature of ourselves: that we are trying to put opposites together, the chief of which are Self and World.

Contempt Has Its Idea

As introduction, I’ll comment swiftly on another Aesthetic Realism principle: “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.” The desire in everyone for contempt is accompanied by a certain fake idea of frustration. Contempt says: The only thing not frustrating is having the world do anything you please, having it subservient to you. Contempt says: If there’s something you don’t understand, that thing is frustrating, mean. If something or someone asks you to think beyond a certain point—you have a right to feel frustrated. Anything that doesn’t praise you or agree you’re superior is frustrating you. Then, contempt says too: If you see something as frustrating you, you have the right to punish it, do anything you please with it. This contemptuous way of seeing is ordinary. But all the cruelty of the world arises from it.

The one opponent of inaccurate frustration is the desire to know: the feeling that to know what’s not ourselves is the same as being ourselves. Eli Siegel had that desire to know, unlimitedly, magnificently, beautifully all the time.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Aesthetic Realism Looks at Frustration

By Eli Siegel

Frustration can be defined as an inability, which you are aware of, to get what you want. There are two causes of frustration: one that comes from ourselves, and one that seems to come from other people. A person who is very disturbed doesn’t know whether to kick himself or to shout at other people.

It has been felt by the worst school of psychology that all frustration comes from an inability to express oneself sexually. But nowhere in Freud is there the possibility of a person’s really doing what he wants to do. Freud never said what it is a person really wants. And a person cannot be clear unless he can say what he is after. We can’t say our desires have been successful unless we can say what those desires are.

In order not to be frustrated, we have to know who we ourselves are. Then, we have to find out what we are in, what we come from; this means knowing things outside of ourselves. Where there isn’t knowledge, there must be frustration. We shall never have a feeling other than frustration unless we know what we are truly after.

Any person who hasn’t put together himself as an individual with the outside world is frustrated, because to put these together happens to be his biggest desire. Also, a person who doesn’t want to put himself together with what is not himself cannot be successful in sex. You have to feel that something outside yourself is able to become one with you while still being not yourself, to be successful in sex. Freud says frustration comes because of sexual repression, incompleteness. Aesthetic Realism says that sexual incompleteness arises out of an incompleteness of attitude to what is not yourself.

All of Ourselves

Unless we make the two parts of ourselves one—the part that wants to care only for ourselves and the part that wants to care for other things—we shall always be frustrated. For example, a person wants to be angry at somebody and then meets that person and finds himself talking sweetly: he may say later, “Was I a sucker!” This will always follow unless we see that our being pleased by something and angered by something go for the same purpose.

Every time we do something, we will be frustrated if we don’t see that it expresses all of us. Take a child: he is nice to his mother, but unless he feels that in being nice he has expressed all of himself he’ll later feel, “I was nice and now I have to take it back.” In being successful with one part of himself, he’ll feel he has frustrated the other. We like the world for a while, and then we feel we’ve been giving in: “Uh-oh! I’m not getting pleasure from just myself.”

The 1920s were full of gabble about inhibitions and frustrations, also sublimation. It wasn’t seen that sex itself can be a means of “inhibition” and “sublimation”; psychologists still don’t see that. In a chapter of Self and World I wrote on the subject. And I’ve told about a man who, disappointed because he couldn’t go to a union convention, made up for it by having more sex than usual with his wife. The whole idea of sublimation ought to be given back to the Assyrians.

If we can’t put the opposites in ourselves together, whenever one part is successful, the other part will be frustrated. The only way not to be frustrated is to feel that both sides of oneself are being taken care of at the same time. Take a girl at a party: she is popular, but she also feels that the “just me” part of herself is not at the party; and she’ll feel bad—because feeling bad is the only way to get to her lonely self. We have to feel both aspects of ourselves are successful at once: to feel while reading a book, “This is the real me,” and feel the same thing at Madison Square Garden. If we could feel at Madison Square Garden that the lonely me is also here, we would feel that the center and circumference of ourselves are both being affected, and we would have the aesthetic state, which is equivalent to non-frustration.

It is important to see that people want to be frustrated. Whenever we get along badly with the outside world, we feel we are getting along well with the “just me” part of ourselves. A poem on the subject is “Great King Gus,” by Robert Clairmont:

Great King Gus

Didn’t give a hang for masses;

Great King Gus

Drank from diamond drinking glasses:

Great King Gus

Was unhappy, sad and lonely,

For he was the one and only

Great King Gus.

We can all be like this. We are so bent on safeguarding our individuality that as we succeed in not frustrating our individuality we become very lonely. Our success is our failure; our achievement is our frustration.

The big desire of every person is happily, courageously, to meet everything in the world. This is how we find out who we are. And the desire never really stops. If we check ourselves in the meeting of things and liking them, we are frustrating ourselves. The first way to frustrate ourselves is to like the world insufficiently. Any moment without trying to like the world is a frustrated moment. For example, the purpose of marriage is to like the world. As Aesthetic Realism sees it, you cannot like the world too much. Success in life is the liking of life: liking it proudly, knowing the reasons why. If we cannot do that, we have not gotten our deepest desire.

Frustrated by the Laws of Reality

While persons are pained because the world is very confusing, they also have been frustrated by the fact that things happen by cause and effect. This seems slavery, and they would like to have a world where cause and effect does not work, a world that has no laws. “Lucifer in Starlight” is a sonnet by George Meredith about the frustration of the devil because the world is so regular. [Here is how the poem begins and ends:]

On a starred night Prince Lucifer uprose.

Tired of his dark dominion, swung the fiend

Above the rolling ball.


Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars

With memory of the old revolt from Awe,

He reached a middle height, and at the stars,

Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.

Around the ancient track marched rank on rank,

The army of unalterable law.

This is a poem about everybody, because everybody has the anarchist in him. We like to have the world conform to notions of our own. On the one hand, we are frustrated because the world is so confused, and on the other hand it seems to be so regular. Then we make a world for ourselves that is hostile to the one we see. We try to make our own world where things are regular when we want them to be and disorderly when we want. In the meantime, war is set up between oneself and outside things, and the very seeds of frustration are in it.

There are three ways people think they can be free: One is by saying, “To hell with the world—I’ll make my own laws and my own confusion.” That’s what the psychotic says. The second is in what most people say: “It’s a pretty good world—I get my bread from it—but whenever I want to get away from it I can.” That’s politics and it doesn’t work; it makes for difficulties. The third way, which is the Aesthetic Realism way, is: the more you accurately care for the world, the more your self will be free. The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to show there is a logical, rapturous freedom. That way can come through a sense of sameness and difference with the world. Whatever else happens to a person, if he doesn’t have that sense, he is frustrated.

What does a child want when it is born? To be as much itself as it can be while meeting as much of the world as it can. Meanwhile, frustrated people can change the frustration into something that looks like success. People are so fond of a certain kind of perfection that they can change the things they don’t like in themselves into perfection. This is a way of affirming frustration.

Our Desires Contain Opposites

It would seem that the world is opposition. The idea is to change the opposition into something we need. If everything were just marshmallows, it would be boring. We do want opposition, because opposition is the completion of freedom. There was a dream a man told me about, which he’d had pretty often: of flying, flying, flying in space, and longing for a floor and not getting one. If we have freedom without opposition we are like the person in that dream: he gets tired; he would like a floor or even something to bump into. If someone agrees with us all the time, it’s annoying. The problem is how to make the world disagreeable enough and agreeable enough. That is why people go after adventure: they need opposition.

So we have to put together agreeableness and opposition in order not to be frustrated. Either by itself would be a means of frustration. Our problem is how to like the world by being opposed to it: that’s the only way not to be frustrated. We have to feel that the world is tough, and at the same time we have to find it gentle. Unless we’re able to see that our desires contain opposites, we’ll feel our desires are never fulfilled.

There are deep obstructions for everyone, and one of the obstructions is matter itself. The very nature of existence consists of opposition, obstruction, frustration. We have teeth—we don’t just drink all the time, because it is necessary to have a sense of toughness and opposition. And rhythm represents freedom because of obstruction.

A person who is an authority on obstructions and frustrations is Lewis Carroll. His poem “The Mad Gardener’s Song” is a way of saying that our hopes frustrate us and also what we have around us does. We do have a fight between what we hope for and what we have—we can look at dishes in the sink and go away in our mind. If we cannot manage the fight, we have to be frustrated. Carroll was very much troubled by the world as oppressive, so he did as many other people have done: went to a world that was nicer, where everything was a circus. That’s all right; we all have a circus in us. The thing is not to play that off against the world around us. “The Mad Gardener’s Song” begins:

He thought he saw an Elephant,

That practiced on a fife:

He looked again, and found it was

A letter from his wife.

“At length I realize,” he said,

“The bitterness of Life!”

He wants to have a smooth and surprising world, and he gets the same ordinariness. If we use what we imagine against what we know, the fact against our hoped-for rapture, we have to be frustrated.

Everything can be used as a means of frustration. A person can come to a meal not knowing how much there’s going to be, and eat so many sausages that he can’t enjoy the other three courses. So his victory with the sausages is a means of frustration as to the rest of the meal. Any success, improperly seen, is also a means of frustration. If a person is interested in music but uses the music to keep away from other things, the music is a means of frustration. Sex has been a means of frustration, because there are two things we want: we want to like ourselves; we also want to have pleasure. When in having pleasure we feel that we have limited ourselves, the pleasure will be a means of frustration. Many women have felt this way, and it is one of the reasons for becoming “frigid.”

But the biggest source of frustration is that in all of us which says, “I am tired of looking at the world, of seeing people. Haven’t I got perfection in myself?” A poem that has this in it is Poe’s “Eldorado,” about a knight who is “in search of Eldorado” and never finds it. It has been said of man that he’ll never be satisfied. Aesthetic Realism sees this as a good thing. It has been made into despair by various philosophers, particularly Schopenhauer.

The first thing in not being frustrated is to desire to have good desires—to be proud of your desires. Then the desires can exist and still there is a sense of rest. If you really like a book, you feel, let it be long—you enjoy reading it: the process itself is interesting. And desire stands for process. In a world that is limitless, there’s no reason why our desires shouldn’t be limitless, as long as we’re proud of them. People want to make their desires limited because they want to grab the world.

A person does want the world. It isn’t so much wanting the world that is bad. It’s the desire to be contemptuous of it while wanting it that makes for so much pain.

What Are You Really After?

Frustration consists of two things: to consent to do that which you don’t want to do; and to consent not to do what you want to do. This is also guilt. What am I really after? is an eternal question and is always fresh, always has the dew on it.

There is a line in Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus that expresses frustration: “Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight.” Any person who goes through life not liking himself and the world at the same time is frustrated. To fight frustration is to fight a desire in ourselves to like the world less.