The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Worry, Art, & William Wordsworth

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we publish the second half of Aesthetics and Worry, a 1947 lecture by Eli Siegel. He is speaking about the inaccurate worries people have, which they feel driven to have, which they can’t shake. The psychiatry of neither then nor now has understood their cause.

What Mr. Siegel shows is that such worries come from the fact that there is a battle going on in every person between two large desires. The first desire is: I want to become all I can be through being just to the world outside me, trying to know it, seeing meaning in it. The second desire is: I want to make myself important and comfortable through lessening what’s not me, looking down on it. That second desire is contempt. And Aesthetic Realism shows it to be “the greatest danger or temptation” of everyone. It’s that in us which weakens our minds and lives, and it’s the source of every cruelty.

The two desires, to respect reality and to have contempt for it, are in us all the time, though mainly we don’t articulate them to ourselves, and every aspect of our lives depends on what we do with them. Even our dreams are about them. In Aesthetics and Worry Mr. Siegel comments on a dream, and we see an instance of Aesthetic Realism’s logic, kindness, and clarity about dreams. That phase of our lives is not in some weird, mystical territory. The self that dreams is coherent with the self that has a conversation, eats a meal, pays a bill. In Self and World Mr. Siegel explains:

A person, whether he knows it or not, is criticizing himself all the time....The way we hope and the way we criticize ourselves, the way we say this is what we can be, and the way we warn ourselves—all this is to be seen in dreams, which take place in the theatre of our minds.

...Dreams are always about something: the way a self wants to be, and the way a self can stop itself from being what it can be. [Pp. 383-4]

In Aesthetics and Worry Mr. Siegel shows that the not wanting to make up our minds about our desire to care for the world and our desire to lessen it, is the reason for the inexact and sometimes tormenting worries that beset us. And he describes the various ways these worries come to be.

In a Noted Poem

As a prelude, I’m going to comment on a poem by Wordsworth that has a famous instance of unreasonable worry. People, including Wordsworth, have not understood why he has that sudden, unwarranted dread told of in the poem’s last lines. But I believe the lecture we are publishing explains it.

So I use “Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known” to discuss a little the battle of purposes that people have about love, and how those purposes can make for worries, fears, anxieties. The poem is in seven stanzas; I quote the first three and last two. The word passion here does not mean amorous passion, but intense feeling, like the sharp worry Wordsworth is about to describe. And in the last stanza, he uses the word fond in its earlier meaning of foolish.

Strange fits of passion have I known:

And I will dare to tell,

But in the lover’s ear alone,

What once to me befell.


When she I loved looked every day

Fresh as a rose in June,

I to her cottage bent my way,

Beneath an evening moon.


Upon the moon fixed my eye,

All over the wide lea;

With quickening pace my horse drew nigh

Those paths so dear to me.

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My horse moved on; hoof after hoof

He raised, and never stopped:

When down behind the cottage roof,

At once, the bright moon dropped.


What fond and wayward thoughts will slide

Into a lover’s head!

“O mercy!” to myself I cried,

“If Lucy should be dead!”

This is one of five poems, written between 1798 and 1801, which later editors grouped together, though Wordsworth himself had not done so. They came to be called the “Lucy Poems,” and for more than a century and a half scholars have tried unsuccessfully to ascertain who Lucy was. Today the preponderant view is that the Lucys of those poems are not a single actual person.

In the poem quoted here, Lucy represents a woman Wordsworth cares for. Perhaps she includes various women he knew. Whoever she is, we can presume that he had the questions about caring for someone that people as such have in love. We want to love a person. But at the same time, we can feel that loving what’s outside us lessens us, takes us away from loving ourselves. So people have been affected by another, and been resentful. They have been affected by another, and tried to own the person, make the person some adjunct to themselves. Mr. Siegel says in the lecture we’re publishing, “Contempt won’t enjoy anything except by possessing it.” I think that Wordsworth was not only lyrical about Lucy, sweetly and mightily musical about her, but—being human—he was mixed up about such a person and about how he saw her. Why does he have that sudden worry about her, immortal in English literature?

Worry: A Punishment

Worry, Mr. Siegel explains, can be something we punish ourselves with—a punishment for our contempt. Wordsworth could punish himself in relation to a woman. He was sensitive enough to feel bad that he didn’t want sufficiently to understand a woman but just see her as a sweet English girl. He could punish himself for that—and for making a rift between care for her and the desire to love only himself—by suddenly feeling she would be taken away from him.

Wordsworth’s friend Coleridge thought the person in another Lucy poem, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” was Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy. Coleridge wrote in 1799: “Most probably, in some gloomier moment he had fancied the moment in which his sister might die.”* I don’t think that’s what “A Slumber” is about. Yet we can feel deeply as to anyone who means much to us, including a sister, that we’ve been unjust to her in our minds—and so, self-punishingly, get to the thought Coleridge describes. As Mr. Siegel shows, self-criticism that we don’t see clearly can take the form of an inexact worry. It can in us, and in an important English poet.

A Preference

Contempt can also make us prefer worry, prefer to feel things are against us. That’s because we feel more important seeing ourselves as hurt by the world than being grateful to it. In the lecture, Mr. Siegel describes this false, ugly “equation in most people’s minds[:] ‘If I like what isn’t myself, I’m not important; if I don’t like what isn’t myself, I’m important.’” So Wordsworth could have a sudden preference to be hurt in relation to Lucy—maybe she’s dead!—over feeling that through her existence he values the world more.

Such a preference is working in people all over the world now. For example, today a woman in Iowa had a compelling idea, not based on evidence, that her fiancé was going to stop loving her, break off their engagement, and have an affair with her best friend. Painful as the thought was, it gave her a sense of superiority she didn’t get from feeling, “Here is someone I respect, and through him I have more respect for the world.”

Contempt can also make us prefer worry to the difficult, humble, proud work of trying to understand a person.

Aesthetics: The Oneness of Opposites

Meanwhile, Wordsworth’s poem is beautiful. And so it represents what Mr. Siegel describes as the real opponent to bad worry: aesthetics, “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” Take the second stanza:

When she I loved looked every day

Fresh as a rose in June,

I to her cottage bent my way,

Beneath an evening moon.

In its music, in the way the syllables fall, the stanza is a oneness of excitement, springing, vividness—and quietude, repose. These are two of the world’s opposites. As Wordsworth feels them as one, expresses them as one, he is also putting together the great opposites of Self and World: he is using himself to be fair to the world as he tells his story.

That oneness of self and world is what’s usually lacking in how we see a person we care for. We want to see a person as just ours—not as having to do with the whole, large world. This is contempt, and aesthetics is the opponent of false worry because it’s the opponent of contempt. Many of the sudden fears that people will have tomorrow—that a loved one will get into a car crash; or become ill; or stop loving us; or even, as Wordsworth wrote, “be dead”—are punishment for our non-aesthetics. They’re punishment for our limiting the person, seeing him or her only in terms of ourselves, not as related to everything.

In this poem a specific person, called Lucy, joins with the earth Wordsworth loved so much, with the motion of a horse, with the sky. A line like “Beneath an evening moon” reverberates mysteriously even as it’s very definite—and it makes us feel the wonder and definiteness of Lucy, too.

The speaker in the poem may take the sinking of the moon as a sign that Lucy could die; but the poet, telling of such a thought, makes a different kind of relation. He makes Lucy part of a large geometric picture. We have the horizontal motion of a horse across a wide English landscape; we have the moon above, which appears to drop in a downward curve—and it’s all about one English girl.

In his preface to Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, Eli Siegel writes: “Poetry, like life, states that the very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things.” In the poem I’m discussing, and others, Wordsworth sees what he’s writing about as related, having to do with the wide world. That is not how we usually see things and people in our lives—and therefore we worry. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to see in life the way an artist sees. It is my opinion that Wordsworth would have loved it

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Aesthetics and Worry, II

By Eli Siegel

The essential cause of worry is that one part of us wants to see as good the world as affecting us, and one part of us fears that we will see this.

Some Specific Worries

The fears we sometimes get strangely come from the fact that we use our distresses to get away from everything. We have separated to such an extent that we feel we have to be punished. For example, there are people who feel they can’t cross streets. The Freudian idea is that there is a symbolic feeling that we’re completing the sexual act, and since we aren’t able to have sex, we can’t cross the street. That isn’t so. The reason is that in crossing the street, a person has to put together two aspects of himself: the part that is alone and the part that is over there, with other people.

Take a worry that is dealt with a good deal in the medical books; Stekel has written a tremendous amount about it. Men worry about impotence and premature ejaculation. A man wants to give himself to a woman and he has a fear that he will. He hopes and fears he won’t be able to give himself to the woman, and he hopes and fears that he will. He gets into such a worry that he can’t respond at all or he just wants to get it over with as quickly as possible. He resents the fact that he needs the woman. A woman can become “frigid” for the same reason: she wants to have pleasure, yet she doesn’t want to give herself to the man. She wants to have pleasure without acknowledging what the pleasure comes from. It’s an awful state, but it’s pretty frequent.

If we fear the outside world while all our pleasure comes from it, we’ll have to be in a state of worry all the time.

The man who goes through sex in a hurry isn’t “frustrated” and he isn’t “sexually neurotic.” He’s against pleasure except when it comes from himself. Further, if we get pleasure from something we see as possessed by us, we want to think the pleasure is self-created. And the reason people feel guilty after masturbation is that they used the masturbation to support something in themselves which wants to separate from the world and be pleased only by themselves.

Worry Contains Desire

Worry always expresses a desire too—a desire we don’t know and are ashamed of.

Take a mother who is greatly worried about her son. She can’t sleep; she’s afraid he’ll be drowned—all kinds of things. Why? Because on the one hand she wants her son to herself. She can’t admit this, but deeply she wants him to be pleased only through her. She feels that as he grows up and marries, she won’t be so important to him. But also she feels guilty, because what right has she to use her son only to make herself important?

All kinds of feelings arise because we can’t put together seeing something close to us as also different from ourselves. Contempt won’t enjoy anything except by possessing it.

To make this matter of worry a little clearer, I’m going to deal with a dream that a woman described to me:

There is a party at my apartment. Many little things go wrong—curtain rods fall, doors won’t close, chairs collapse—many inconveniences. But in spite of all, everybody continues to have a good time.

Ater everybody leaves, R.J. (a young man who once needed help badly and whom I couldn’t help at all) and I have a heart to heart talk. I look upon him as a big baby. But what we say is adult stuff. (Subject matter of talk not remembered.) He leaves me, going in a good frame of mind.

The first part of this dream is classical, because it exemplifies what goes on in the unconscious of everyone. Our biggest worry is about whether the world is good or not. Our biggest desire—no matter how profound this sounds—is to feel that the reality which accompanies us is good. Our biggest desire is to like ourselves for a true reason, and that means liking what is not ourselves. However, the equation in most people’s minds is, “If I like what isn’t myself, I’m not important; if I don’t like what isn’t myself, I’m important.” In thousands of Aesthetic Realism lessons, I’ve seen that people would rather have their vanity and be hurt than give up their vanity and have pleasure. The biggest subject of worry has to do with giving up a picture of our ego to like the outside world.

We are thinking of self and world all the time. There is a disposition when something goes wrong to say the whole world is wrong. This dream means that while previously the dreamer could have used those mishaps with the curtain rods and the doors to go into herself, now she sees it’s possible to have inconveniences and still like the outside world as a whole. The dream is telling the dreamer she should watch out for misusing small things. If we feel the main show makes sense, we can take the fact that some of the side shows go wrong. The main show, here, is the world.

In the second part of the dream there’s a person whom once, apparently, the dreamer wanted to be weak so she could be superior. The dreamer wanted to find the world as represented by this young man something she could be contemptuous of. But in this dream, there’s a feeling that even though there are defects in the young man, they won’t be exploited to make the dreamer important.

Aesthetics versus Worry

Aesthetics says hope and fear can be put together. It is a putting together of ourselves as alone and ourselves as related, and as we do this we’re putting together the selves in us that hope and fear the same thing. If we can’t put the two aspects of self into aesthetic organization, we won’t stop worrying.

There’s no such thing as morbid worry without confusion. Morbid worry comes from the fact that as we look at the world, we hope we can get away from it. Schizophrenia is a putting aside of the world—a more complete separation between oneself and what is not oneself. Fatigue, irritability, wanting to hurt others are results of the confusion or division that goes along with worry.

In aesthetics there is a seeing of the world as one, whether it pains or pleases us. Aesthetics shows that the world itself is not our enemy, that we can criticize the world because we like it and know its possibilities. All fighting for progress comes from this source, and fighting for progress which isn’t based on a like for the world is superficial. This goes for progress of the individual too.

To avoid worry, I don’t think the Freudian explanation will do, or ministrations “not to worry” will do. We need to understand that we’re two people, and to see that in aesthetics there is the putting together of the self and what isn’t the self, the personal and the impersonal. Aesthetic Realism says people worry because they don’t know the inevitability of aesthetics for themselves.

*Letter to Thomas Poole, April 1799, Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E.H. Coleridge (London, 1895), I, 284.