The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Your Particular Self—& All People

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of the great 1948 lecture Mind and People, by Eli Siegel. And we print, too, part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein presented this July at a seminar titled “What Does It Mean to Bring Out the Best in People?—& Do We Want To?”

In Mind and People we see Mr. Siegel describing the biggest confusion, opportunity, turmoil, field for kindness or cruelty in the life of everyone. It is this: We want, terrifically, to see ourselves as just us—unique, apart—and to take care of our own self. Yet we also, simply by existing, have to do with everything and everyone—and we have a deep, impelling desire to see ourselves as of them, related, close. These desires are opposites, and people have gotten and given much pain because they haven’t been able to put them together. In fact, all the cruelty in the world has come from people’s feeling that care for their own self was different from justice to all other things and people.

Aesthetic Realism explains that our constant and burning need is to see ourselves as at once unique and related to everything. It is an aesthetic need, described by Eli Siegel in 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.” The various psychiatrists and counselors today do not understand the aesthetic nature of self, any more than those of the 1940s did. Therefore they don’t understand the cause of human troubles, either the frequent troubles or the less frequent. I’ll comment on one that was the subject of a New York Times article in August: “selective mutism.”

Why Are They Silent?

The article tells about a group of children taking part in a program in Florida:

It has been months, sometimes years, since these children have talked to anyone apart from family....They are terrified of talking in social situations. They may be chatterboxes at home, but at school or around unfamiliar faces, they are stone-faced and silent.

The National Institutes of Health website says of selective mutism: “The cause, or causes, are unknown.”

The various discussions of this condition present it as quite unusual, something most people don’t have. In a way that’s true. Yet it’s not seen that everyone has some selective mutism: there are times we find we cannot talk; also, don’t want to talk. And the cause of selective mutism won’t be understood while the condition is seen as just different from what most people do. For instance, all over the world, wives are complaining that a husband doesn’t talk; parents are complaining that their child replies to questions in one-syllable answers.

I believe both the cause of and solution to “selective mutism” are given by Mr. Siegel in Mind and People. If a person, of any age, finds herself unable to talk though she’s physically capable of speaking, it has to do with the central matter: How can we affirm our individuality, yet see ourselves as related to other people? Since people represent the world, that question is a form of this one: How do we see the world which is not ourselves?

If a child felt the world was her friend, would she be able to talk to people outside the family—that is, people she didn’t see as belonging to her? Yes.

Is there in “selective mutism” a feeling that people don’t deserve to hear you? Yes. Can that be accompanied by a feeling that you don’t deserve to speak to them? Yes.

The feeling that the world does not deserve for us to express ourselves in it is widespread. It’s had by men, women, and children. There is an aspect of us which, even as we may suffer, gets an importance, a satisfaction, from feeling we’re in a world not good enough for us; we’re among people who are crude and fearsome while we are sensitive. This satisfaction is contempt. There is no more necessary study for humanity than the study of contempt, as Aesthetic Realism describes it: the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Contempt, Aesthetic Realism shows, is “the greatest danger or temptation of man.” It has thousands of forms.

For instance, a person (we’ll call her Doreen) can feel, without articulating it: “Only people who act like I’m much more important than other human beings, who make me a princess, deserve for me to speak to them.” Then, because the self is deeply ethical, Doreen also feels that this way of seeing people is unjust and ugly—and that therefore she doesn’t deserve to speak to them.

Are People Like Us?

The Times article describes an attempt to deal with selective mutism through a new technique: in an “immersion program,” selectively mute young people are brought together in groups. We’re told that in certain instances the technique has been somewhat useful. And here I’ll say: if such a technique has a good effect, as big a reason as any is that the participants are in a position to feel somewhat related to other people. They see that other children have the same problem.

I am sure that selective mutism—and many other difficulties—would not exist if a person saw other people as like oneself. Further, this, and many other difficulties, would not exist if a person felt that knowing the world made him or her important.

There are many ways persons make a rift between cherishing themselves and having to do with people. You can be the life of the cocktail party, yet feel your real self is hidden from everyone—and have triumph and also pain from that feeling. The Aesthetic Realism study of the opposites in us is magnificent, exact. It is what people thirst for.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Meaning of People

By Eli Siegel

An article in yesterday’s New York Times (9-30-48) has to do with the possibilities of people:

The $45,000 Stradivarius of Louisa Terzi, violinist, will be buried with her tomorrow, as she wished....The news...evoked a protest....

Fred H. Rothstein, insurance broker,... wired...the dead artist’s granddaughter, as follows: “I, as well as many other music lovers, have been greatly shocked to hear that you intend to bury a Stradivarius violin....May I suggest that it would be a far finer gesture to your grandmother...if you were to create a Louisa Terzi scholarship and lend this beautiful violin each year to some noteworthy young violinist.”

In a very unusual way, the story shows the desire of people to hug things to themselves and to feel that something through which they’ve gotten esteem should always be with them. This woman is saying no one can play this violin but her. There is something wrong with the statutes that such a thing should be permitted. Louisa Terzi may have played the violin, but she didn’t make it. What she asked for represents vanity that is covered by a feeling for music. There can be a possessiveness that goes beyond death.

The Electrical Feeling

The diversity of what people are can be seen in the fact that we love a parade and also love being where nobody else is. Those two possibilities insist on being understood. I’ll read two Civil War poems which show what the meaning of people is.

In 1840, very few people were abolitionists. But twenty years later the Civil War began. There were acquisitive and selfish reasons for it, on the part of the South. But in April 1861, when the men and women of the North learned of the firing on Fort Sumter, there was an electrical feeling of people really acting at once. By 1862, the Union armies had suffered defeats. Then a Quaker poet, James Sloan Gibbons, wrote a poem that helped bring the electrical feeling again to people. “Three Hundred Thousand More” begins:

We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more,

From Mississippi’s winding stream and from New England’s shore;

We leave our ploughs and workshops, our wives and children dear,

With hearts too full for utterance, with but a silent tear;

We dare not look behind us, but steadfastly before:

We are coming, Father Abraham, three hundred thousand more!

This represents the people’s courage, the surge of people with people. At certain times, when something that seems to affect everybody is concerned, people forget that things may come to their bodies and cause blood. This is hard to realize, but it has happened. It happened at Stalingrad, and in the American Revolution.

There is a swing to this poem. It is a good poem. It does not really overstate. Thousands of people did feel that something ugly had to be stopped. The matter is still going on. We should feel that when black people in the South—or anywhere—are not seen as people, it’s an insult to us.

A Single Person

The individual aspect of people is shown in another Civil War poem: “All Quiet along the Potomac,” by Ethelinda Elliot Beers. It tells how one picket wanders around; there is a shot, and it kills him. But the report is sent, “All quiet along the Potomac”—forgetting that he is a person with feelings and with people concerned about him. There are these lines:

...There’s only the sound of the lone sentry’s tread

As he tramps from the rock to the fountain,

And thinks of the two in the low trundle-bed,

Far away in the cot on the mountain.


Hark! was it the night-wind that rustled the leaves?

Was it moonlight so wondrously flashing?

It looked like a rifle—“Ha! Mary, good-bye!”

The red life-blood is ebbing and plashing.

“All quiet along the Potomac to-night!”

No sound save the rush of the river;

While soft falls the dew on the face of the dead—

The picket’s off duty forever!

This represents the opposite of “Three Hundred Thousand More”: that is, the singleness of people. There is nothing having to do with people that doesn’t concern us. This is shown by the fact that in a movie anyone can get our sympathy: someone in England, in Africa, someone in the 18th century, someone in Palestine, India, Algiers.

This poem has in it the problem of loneliness. Aesthetic Realism goes after having people see themselves as the same whether they’re alone or with people. There is a tendency in people to feel that through discarding everything else they have individuality purely. Loneliness is an aspect, from one point of view, of anti-people feeling. From another, it has with it an honest desire: we are all lonely because not enough from the outside world has come to complete us, and we want it to.

The desire for people and things is a desire that implies that through what is not ourselves we are going to be ourselves. A person by himself is an unexpressed fact. If we really cared for people, we would never be alone. If our care were that warm, and that clear, and that honest, we would feel that the deepest thing in people was interested in us.

This poem is about one person. The other was about three hundred thousand. Every time something happens to one person, it’s big news for him or her and a few others, but the ripples don’t go out very far. Though the poem has its sentimental touches, we see in it how we can be interested in one person—because, though we don’t even know this sentry’s name, we can think about him. Mind goes for an indefinitely strong concentration and an indefinitely strong expansion. The whole world can be interested in one person. A whole neighborhood has been interested in whether a fireman gets a cat off a roof.

These two poems represent the disparity in every person who ever lived.

Do We Bring Out the Best in People?

By Bruce Blaustein

I was about to meet Jimmy Kadish on the way to school: “Hey, Jim, what’s up?” Silence! He passed right  by  me.  Arriving  at  school, I  saw  two  other friends—they walked away from me. Later when I pleaded with them to explain, they let me know they were trying to teach me a lesson because “Bruce, when you are with us, you always take over, and you talk about us to each other!”

I knew they were right. Even as I cursed myself for monopolizing conversations and mimicking friends who weren’t present, I felt, “I have a winning personality” (a fact confirmed on my fifth grade report card by my teacher). But increasingly I felt ashamed, like a faker, and didn’t know how to change.

To my great good fortune, I learned from Aesthetic Realism about the questions in the title of this seminar: “What Does It Mean to Bring Out the Best in People?—& Do We Want To?” Aesthetic Realism explains that “the best” in every person is his or her desire to like, know, and be just to the world. I didn’t bring out the best in people because I wanted to be the most important thing in their lives and didn’t care about whether they were fair to other things and people. This way of seeing, I learned, is contempt. And it’s very common.

What Kind of Effect?

I now see I was in a terrific mix-up between wanting to be truly useful and wanting to impress people. When I marched in opposition to our shameful war in Vietnam, I felt part of something big, and was happy joining with others to oppose a large injustice I knew had to end. In college I organized a blood drive at a time of severe shortage. When hundreds of students lined up around the Student Union to give blood, I was proud. Yet soon after, I became angry that I didn’t get a special award from the Red Cross.

I wanted to make a big impression on my relatives—but that isn’t the same as bringing out the best in them. I’d say: “Uncle Morris, driving that cab is tiring. It must be hard for you. Sometimes that’s my last thought before I go to bed!” Or: “Aunt Tess, I read this story about a kind aunt, and guess who I thought about? My Aunt Tessie!” My relatives raved: “He’s so perceptive!” Inwardly I felt I’d put one over on them.

I was elated when my friend Norman bragged that I was his “resident psychologist.” He called me with his school problems, girl problems, family problems, money problems—even animal problems. When he wanted to buy a dog and asked, “Do you know anything about how to paper train a Great Dane?,” I replied, “Of course—but let me get back to you.” After reading two paragraphs on the subject, I called Norman, appearing like a canine expert.

How could I bring out the best in people when I wanted them to think that I was the best thing in the world and that the world itself was a flop? I never tried to stop Norman from drinking or doing drugs, and together we mocked other people. Several years later I learned that he had a nervous breakdown, and, visiting him in the hospital, I felt awful: somewhere I knew I’d contributed to his weakness.

I Learn How to Bring Out the Right Thing

In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked: “Do you like people?” I answered swiftly: “Of  course—I love people!” When my consultants asked, “What do you like about them?” I was surprised, and blurted out: “Well, I like them because I can utilize them.”

Consultants.That’s not the same as like. How would you feel if we said we like you because we can utilize you? Would you take that as a compliment?

BB. No, not at all.

Consultants.Would you even say that it had contempt in it? If we can manage people and manipulate them and get them to do what we want, the thing we love is not the person but the power.

Through what I was learning in consultations, the direction of my thought began to change. And as a result, I felt a new self-respect. As I thought about and had to do with people, I consciously asked myself, “What is your purpose, Bruce? Do you want to strengthen people or ‘utilize’ them? Do you want to be the central thing in this person’s life, or encourage him or her to see value in the world and respect others?”

Seeing that I’d actually wanted people to care less for the world so they’d need me more, and that this had harmed them, and also me, was a turning point in my life. I cherish the true friends I have today and the authentic good effect we have on each other. One of these friends is the woman I love, my wife, Lauren Phillips. We have seen that encouraging each other’s care for the world in our moment-to-moment lives brings out the best in us—and is exciting, cultural, and tremendously romantic.