The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Your Self: A Philosophic Drama

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we publish the second half of Aesthetic Realism Doesn’t Mind Being Philosophic, the great lecture Eli Siegel gave on September 19, 1946, at Steinway Hall. With grace and logic, he does something enormous. He describes what the human self is—the self that is our own, so particular to each of us, that walks down the street, goes into restaurants, speaks, dreams, can feel delighted and also awful.

He shows, in keeping with the lecture’s title, that the one way to understand our self is philosophically—what we are is aesthetic, described by this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We are trying to put together, in everything we do, the opposites that are the makeup of the world and the very structure of art: for instance, freedom and order, power and delicacy, assertion and yielding, wonder and everydayness.

And there are the biggest opposites in our lives, which Mr. Siegel describes in many ways in this talk: our individual self and the unlimited outside world. In the decades that followed he explained with vivid detail what he presents philosophically here: the thing in us that hurts every aspect of our lives—from love to education to our approach to money—is contempt, the feeling we make ourselves more through lessening what’s not us. Contempt has thousands of forms. It’s the source of boredom, and also of every human cruelty.

Lack of Feeling

To illustrate the philosophic battle in us that Mr. Siegel is speaking about, I’ll comment on lines by Sir Walter Scott. In the poem titled “The Dreary Change,” the author of Waverley, Ivanhoe, Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Kenilworth, Rob Roy, and more, writes about looking at the Scottish landscape that had once stirred him mightily—and says that now he’s not moved very much. These are the first two stanzas:

The sun upon the Weirdlaw Hill,

In Ettrick’s vale, is sinking sweet;

The westland wind is hush and still,

The lake lies sleeping at my feet.

Yet not the landscape to mine eye

Bears those bright hues that once it bore;

Though evening, with her richest dye,

Flames o’er the hills of Ettrick’s shore.


With listless look along the plain,

I see Tweed’s silver current glide,

And coldly mark the holy fane

Of Melrose rise in ruin’d pride.

The quiet lake, the balmy air,

The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree,—

Are they still such as once they were?

Or is the dreary change in me?

Right now millions of people have the painful sense that they are not responding vividly to things, that they’re cold, unstirred—which means not fully alive. This ever so ordinary yet aching emptiness goes on, even as the person jokes, attends parties, visits interesting places. It can take the form Scott describes: this sight (often this person) once did so much to me; now it (or he or she) leaves me rather cold.

The Fight about Being Affected

Aesthetic Realism explains what nothing else does: there is a fight going on in every person between the desire to be affected resoundingly, deeply, multitudinously, indeed unlimitedly, by the world—and the desire to be unmoved, affected by nothing but ourselves. The second desire is contempt. As soon as something stirs us, we can’t be superior to it—it has power over us. And so, if someone we’ll call Jillian sees a grand sunset and does not feel agog; or if she hears great music and is not particularly moved; or hears a person speaking with fervency and precision, and is cool—two things have happened: while Jillian is pained by the smallness of her feeling, that smallness is also what something in her wanted and arranged.

People do not know how deep and pervasive is an actual desire in them to be unaffected. They don’t know they want to feel little as a means of feeling superior to everything.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) is one of the persons who most wanted to be affected by the world. Otherwise he would not have been able to come to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of characters who live because of how he felt them and told of them—for instance, Jeanie Deans, Jonathan Oldbuck, Dandie Dinmont, Meg Merrilies. He would not have been able to get within him and make vivid on paper thousands of happenings and landscapes. He would not have been able to feel the past with such fullness that he could make it alive in historical novels that have thrilled readers for two centuries.

Yet even in Scott there was a desire, which he did not know about, to be unaffected. He describes one of the results in the poem I am quoting.

We can meet, in our lives, things that confuse and disappoint us. And they can appeal to the desire, already in us, to say, “The way to take care of me is to feel not so much. I shall go into the castle of myself, where nothing will get to me. After all,” our contempt sneers, “the outside world was never good enough for me anyway.” Then, as time passes, we have the pain of, “Why aren’t I more affected? What has happened to me?” Our triumph is our defeat.

Because of how much Scott wanted to respect the outside world, have it do ever so much to him, he was more consciously horrified at having insufficient feeling than most people are. He also had a clearer notion of what insufficient was. To be “listless” in looking at the river Tweed! To see that ancient structure, Melrose Abbey, and meet it “coldly”! This, to Scott, was terrible. And so it is to the deepest self of everyone, though most people’s deep criticisms of themselves are not clear to them, not articulated; their self-criticisms take the form of such things as irritation, emptiness, agitation, and a nagging (sometimes piercing) sense of shame.

The Respect That Is Art

What Scott does in this poem constitutes tremendous good news—big, practical hopefulness—for every person: Scott uses his regret about feeling little to feel a lot. This poem, like every good poem, arises from and contains large and accurate feeling. Scott has used seeing his contemptuous coldness to have respect for the world.

There are these lines, which are at once heavy and soaring: “Though evening, with her richest dye, / Flames o’er the hills of Ettrick’s shore.” In their music, we hear the world as weight and the world as simultaneously terrific agogness.

And there are these lines: “The quiet lake, the balmy air, / The hill, the stream, the tower, the tree.” Scott is listing things that haven’t stirred him sufficiently. But there are a caress and an electricity in the way he names them. Each is excitingly alive. In this poem Scott has—and enables us to have—big emotion about the world as a oneness of intensity and fading, fullness and emptiness, thrill and vacancy.

The date of the poem is 1817. It is clear that in the years that followed, Scott was able to feel powerfully again: he wrote novels that matter in the literature of the world.

Meanwhile, the pain and shame about feeling not enough, being tepid, having things leave one cold, has been expressed by others too. Perhaps the greatest poetry on the subject is in Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” There has been grandeur about the pain of insufficient feeling, but the pain is real. It is dully, sinkingly real for people every day.

The poem from which I’ve quoted is not the greatest instance of Scott’s work. But it is art. And it is what Aesthetic Realism shows all art is, a oneness of opposites: an individual person taking care of his own individuality through being resplendently just to the world. That, as Mr. Siegel explains in the 1946 lecture, is what we want to do. How we can, is the beautiful study of Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Aesthetic Realism Doesn’t Mind
Being Philosophic, II

By Eli Siegel

I comment now, from the point of view of philosophy, on the cause of feeling bad.

The self, as I have described, has the philosophic problem of being one and many. And our bad unconscious has decided that our many relations, our being affected by all sorts of things and happenings, interferes with our self as one, as perfect. The self experiences quite a few things. As far as it knows, it likes them, but that in a person which long ago decided that the self under one’s skin had to be opposed to the self outside, doesn’t like the fact that the person enjoys experiences not coming from oneself.

That is why depression often follows a period of pleasant excitement. The vanity self thinks that yielding to things, even though they make for happiness, is an interference with the self as secure. So we can want to be miserable.

There is a turmoil. It is a philosophic turmoil. It is the philosophic drama in self. What we are trying to do all the time is feel that we are indefinitely unique and warm and wonderful, and that at the same time we have to take outer things justly, accurately, wonderfully, beautifully, philosophically. How can we do that?

We are trying to answer the question of how to be unique and how to be related. In Aesthetic Realism lessons I have dealt with this question in the following way: I have asked a person to give me nine numbers. She gives me 917,432,613. This number is unique. Nothing can take its place. At the same time, we see that it is in an indefinite number of relations. What number is it not related to? It seems to be unique and fixed; then it seems to be in a dance with all other numbers. That is the way we are. If we decide we are fixed at one time and moving about at another, we are going to be jumpy in our actions. A good deal of that which makes us want to slow up and then talk like anything, is an aspect of the philosophic warfare between the self as unique and immobile, like Death Valley, and the self as that which wants to be an infinite hummingbird.

The relation of stillness to motion in physical terms is one of the clearest examples of reality’s aesthetics. We know that if we look at a wheel which is accelerated in its motion, it appears as if it were completely still. There is a relation between the utmost stillness and the utmost motion. If we could go to Boston at 400,000 miles per second, we would be in Boston and go to Boston at the same time. Atomic physics is dealing with the problem of existence as something which is and something which moves.

The Self Is Always Related

We want to like ourselves, but we cannot like ourselves unless it seems that something outside of ourselves is approving of us. The utmost in the wise guy, the most conceited person going, likes someone to admire the trim of his trousers. This person who seems bumptious does seem also to want the approval of others. That, in its hypocritical way, is a showing of what the truth is: that we are not only unique but related.

I have often quoted the maxim of La Rochefoucauld: “Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.” Persons can say, “I don’t care what people think about me,” but they do want people to say nice things about them. If, in order to justify ourselves, we need the testimony of others, that would show that even in self-approval there has to be a junction with what’s outside of ourselves. Well, that is true. The self must be seen philosophically as something which is unique and is related.

We come to this: what we deeply feel about the self is a sense of wonder—a sense of wonder that something can be so unutterably I and yet seem to have to do with everything. How is it that it does? That is the great question, the meaning of self. Then, because of this aesthetic oneness of uniqueness and relation, the opposites of imagination and logic also meet in the self: the ability to see something as being other goes along with great precision.

Our Deepest Purpose

Our deepest purpose is the affirmation of ourselves as unique and also various. This philosophic drama in the self goes on in every situation. If the self has a general purpose, then it is shown in every specific situation. If we use a situation so that our deepest purpose is evaded, we have worked against ourselves. When we think of subsidiary purposes, when we think of having some woman or man, of being famous, of having a lot of money, when we think even of having good food, we are always thinking, really, of a certain relation where the self can approve both of what it is and of everything that it isn’t. Assuming that the self does like ice cream sodas, it is approving of the world as ice cream soda.

While a self wants approval from the world, there is also the feeling that the outside world is an enemy. In the same way that clay is the sculptor’s material and also his opposition, so the world from which we get all that pleases us also seems to be an interference. When we decide the world is an interference, and yet we need it, there is a fight in us that is part of the great philosophic drama.

The drama in self is the drama of what a self is and everything it may meet. We want peace and we want activity. Everybody likes life utterly insofar as we are alive, yet we all can hate it because the changes of life, the ups and downs of life, seem to interfere with our desire for peace. In that sense, we want to die: there is a sense that death is the doing away with the troubled self. At the same time, the blood keeps circulating and there is nothing we like more than life. Every one of us has felt at times that life was small-time: what is the idea of having to worry about athlete’s foot or undergo the insolence of a waiter?

Our Self Is Nothing Less Than Aesthetic

Philosophy is in us. What is the self about anyway? Is it only chemical, only physiological? Of course not. The aesthetics of self is going on all the time. There is a certain rhythm between our memories as form and our hands as body. The whole body is philosophic. Take a phrase like “on one’s toes”: it isn’t just by chance that this stands for a state of mind. It has always been felt that there is a certain relation between reality as that which we touch and see and hear and taste and smell, and reality as meaning—what the world is all about.

The self is imagination and it is also logic. As we listen to a song that may move us to tears, may give us a mood, may make us think strangely, that song consists of notes arranged mathematically. What we hear makes us feel unusual, sentimental, but we are hearing mathematics and logic which also have suggestion. We are seeing something like a cube of steel in a sunset—because we are deeply imaginative and precise.

There can be precision about strangeness. If one said that the clouds of a 7 o’clock windy sky were moving, that would be true. We would have precision about the uncertainty of the clouds. As we look at the self, we find something unexplainable as to why the self is where it is and just what it is, and at the same time it is strictly logical—we can’t see ourselves as being anything else or anywhere else. We have to feel that we are, and at the same time there is wonder. In personality, logic and imagination meet. All of us can imagine: all of us can take a tablecloth and think of it as so large as to cover the Pacific in the time of Magellan.

There Is an Instinct for Logic

What we are looking for is a certain relation among our thoughts that satisfies, at the same time, our desire for freedom and our desire for precision. Logic, in the deepest sense, is that which our thoughts would have when our whole selves could accept those thoughts. Logic is organization among thoughts. It deals with sameness and difference. The unconscious is after logic. Logic came out of a fundamental instinct. When a child reasons, he reasons as instinctively as he eats. Logic is an instinct completed. We are logical insofar as we want to feel that we make sense and the world makes sense.

This Is What Happens

Every time we meet something, this happens: the new thing, let us say a tree, becomes ourselves. We make a new thing, which is ourselves-tree. As we do that, we can also think the tree can be seen by others, so we have an objective feeling and a subjective feeling. We can also think that this tree is the midway point between us and something tremendously unknown.

There are two great unknowns: the world and the self. The tree acts as an intermediary between the self and that great, glorious and horrible unknown which is everything. If we see it that way, we feel there is a kinship between the mystery of ourselves and the mystery of the world. Through objects, we come to the mystery of ourselves and of the world. That means every perception is particular and also general.

Everything we do is philosophic. And, because of the nature of ourselves and the world, there is drama in it.