Aesthetics and the Child

By Eli Siegel
(1947)

Every child is born into a world and the rest of his life is spent in doing something about it. Every child who has been born has done something about it. It is right to criticize what children and people not children have done with themselves and their universal material. Aesthetic Realism sees a successful dealing with the universe as being like the success in a great painting, grand music, validly exciting poetry. Birth brings up a great question of aesthetics; an immediate and persistent question.

Every child born, and therefore every person, has been indescribably single. People are not islands, but they have a great chance of appearing so. Just what a child comes from is hardly to be described, because to say that a small human comes from anything less than reality is not just either to reality or the child. Certainly, none of us would like to think that only part of existence was necessary for our being. An exacting small boy, told that the United States, his mother, and his father were all from which he came, would rightfully object, and probably would, that this wasn’t enough: “How about Europe and Asia and all those other things?” The idea of everything is difficult, appalling, and immeasurable; but it is indispensable to a person looking at himself and not getting tired, and not in a hurry to be satisfied.

It isn’t to be theological or inexact to say that we, when born, come from everything. If we didn’t, where is the line separating what we did come from, from what we didn’t come from? And really, our unconscious won’t be satisfied with anything less than the all as the source of our dear, breathing, intricate personalities.

Undoubtedly, the all is a subject hard to handle. It is a philosophic subject. It is not the kind of subject one is quickly comfortable about. It isn’t in fashion generally. It has been spurned for a long time. Aesthetic Realism, however, sees the all, particularly under some of its other names, like Reality, Existence, World, Everything, the Universe, as inexorably indispensable.

For Instance, a Little Boy

A little boy is surrounded by everything. We know that everything exists even before we know much about what is in everything. When a little boy feels bad for a vague reason, he feels that everything and he don’t get along so well. We can imagine a person of five saying, as a person of sixteen may, “I hate everything.”

There isn’t a moment in our lives when the fate of everything as a thing to be liked or not, isn’t in question. A child doesn’t make up his mind really about everything, but he comes to important attitudes on the way. When a child is depressed, is not interested in what’s about him, he is inclined to dismiss everything as an unsatisfactory intruder which might just as well not be around. When a little boy enjoys ice cream or a lively aunt, he is disposed to carry over his approval to the everything without which neither ice cream nor lively aunt could have a philosophic home.

A great deal of philosophy goes on right after birth. A new mind has come to be, and that mind is taking stock of both itself and things. Pleasure and pain are critical, and, the new mind is essentially, though not entirely, pleasure and pain. It is to be expected that the mind newly come to be have a suspicious attitude towards things when there is pain; that it be in a conciliatory state when there is pleasure. A mighty game of diplomacy, war, and peace has been played by every mind functioning along with a body out of another body, and in the world at large.

If a child is to get pleasure, it will be from the world in general. However, it is very easy (and it has been done thousands of times) to feel that if the world in general isn’t sufficiently gratifying, then one has to depend on the more intimate world of oneself for important pleasure and inward success. That way mischief begins, but it can hardly be expected that the child see this: so many others besides children haven’t.

All through history, adults have tried to present the world to children. But these adults have not themselves thought the world was good, or made sense. So the children didn’t wholly take to the idea of liking the world. They didn’t see their way clear to do it. It is necessary to like the world; it is, on the other hand, very easy not to.

The Need to Like the World

Aesthetic Realism believes that a person who can’t say that he likes the world is a failure in life. Surely our terms must be made clear. We shall try to do this.

When a birth takes place, a self, a new self, exists. This self will come to recognize its own existence by seeing what it is not. For a self to become aware of what it is, there must be some distinction between what it is and what it is not. And as soon as a self sees that existence for it consists of what it is and also what it is not, an attitude to what it is not must be had. Certain solutions, all philosophic, no matter what the age of the would-be solver, are possible.

The new self can say: “I get pleasure only from myself, and everything else is a strange interference”; “I get pleasure only from what is not myself, and I'm an unimportant, frail little thing that depends whimperingly on all this big spreading-out something”; “I get pleasure from the way I have to do with that everything—we’re really a team.” Good sense is to be found in the last solution, but when everything can be puzzling, insulting, paining, disappointing, and generally so uncertain, it is hard to maintain the last solution. It is easy to meddle with the first and second.

Children and adults are in some murky process of accepting the third solution. But we accept it as a guest, thinking that at any time he may be ejected, or otherwise insulted. The reason is, to think really that oneself and everything make a team, requires aesthetics. And aesthetics hasn’t been around.

You see, Johnny wants to be Johnny, different from everything. But if he keeps on being different he can be very lonely, and many children have been lonely. So Johnny wants to be the same as everything, too. If things go pretty well, Johnny will coast along, being in some unclear manner just himself and also like everything else. But if his mother does something inconsiderate or horrid, Johnny out of revenge will want to say he’s different from his mother and everything else. The philosophy of Johnny won’t have to take the form of sentences and paragraphs. Infantile and juvenile philosophy of the self need not be verbal.

What has all this to do with specific problems? A mighty lot. Aesthetic Realism states clearly, and if need be boldly, that the truly delinquent child is the child who hates Everything, or has gone further than most children in deciding that he hates Everything. I'm sure that if the delinquent child were described as one impelled to a wrong, or at least distressing, philosophy about Everything, this language would seem to lack specific application—in the judgments of many persons. Yet it is the only specific description of the bad or delinquent child.

There Is Eddie Long

Eddie Long, delinquent, like Napoleon and Nietzsche and Herman Melville and Rasputin, had the problem of individuality and society, which is the customary word for everything. When Eddie steals money from groceries, suddenly pushes a girl and runs away, makes off with another boy’s bicycle, bites his mother till she screams, he is saying that’s the only way he knows of being happy. Eddie, when born, had like all of us a possibility of seeing the world as on his side and a possibility of seeing it as against him. Out of the first comes the attitude that the more the world is seen truly, the better for the self. Out of the second comes the attitude that the more the world is tricked, fought, despised, and forgot, the better for the self. And Eddie’s mother and the society that went with her didn’t encourage the first attitude very much. The other thing in Eddie was encouraged.

Eddie was a compound of forces making for a separation of himself and forces making for a being one with everything else. If the forces making for separation become preponderant, a child withdraws, becomes morose, is misbehaved, is delinquent, and can even be a murderer of a child never seen before—for this child is taken as representative of the hated Everything. Eddie wanted to be an individual: we all want to be; and the way that came easiest was to be against things. Surely Eddie had bad stuff in him—bad stuff is pretty prevalent; the bad stuff, however, was encouraged.

The self of Eddie was disposed to go on its own. Eddie associated not doing what other people wanted him to do, with freedom. Discipline came to mean to him an attack on his personality, his soul, his reason for being, the Eddie of Eddie. How could he, then, be disciplined and like it?

Eddie had the problem of being disciplined and free at the same time. He had to find freedom in discipline. The only place where, really, discipline is found in freedom is aesthetics; and aesthetics didn’t come Eddie’s way. We cannot ask, ever, of a person that he do what he doesn’t want to do. If he does it, can we expect that no resentment follow? So we have the choice of letting children do as they truly want to do, or inviting an unconscious residue of disappointed or hateful feeling.

The world did not make it clear to Eddie that what it wanted of him, he wanted of himself. One principle of Aesthetic Realism is that when anyone or anything wants of ourselves what we don’t want of ourselves, there is enmity between ourselves and the outside force. This means that if what Eddie’s mother wanted of him didn’t go along with what he wanted of himself, there was war, not only between Eddie and his mother, but Eddie and the general constraining world his mother represented. Eddie is a casualty of personal, philosophical, and sociological ignorance.

The Aesthetic Solution

Let us assume, however, that as Eddie grew up, what was demanded of him went along with what he unconsciously demanded of himself. This would mean that the want of Eddie seemed to him the same as the want of Everything, or Society. Environment’s demands were coordinated with Eddie’s demands. And, since freedom is the ability to do what one wants, the discipline provided by the outside world would be the freedom Eddie wanted in himself. If an outside force permits us to do what we want, and an inside force makes for our not doing what we want, the outside force means freedom¬∑ to us more than the inside force. We want to do what our whole selves want, and in the long run we see as freedom whatever accuracy or truth outside of ourselves encourages us to be all we can be. Only in this fashion can the problem of freedom and discipline really be met. The meeting of the problem of freedom and discipline by making one of inward tendency with outward material, is the way the problem is met in art. The solution, in other words, is aesthetic.

The having of desire in Eddie’s mind was seen as a conquering of the object making for pleasure. It followed that when Eddie had “fun,” he felt he was having his way with the object and that the object was not having its way. The opposition of self and object was not an opposition of beautiful difference, but of antagonism. We have to ask children how they look on the things they enjoy. When they like something and get it, are they conquering an enemy or becoming one with a friend different from them?

In our dealing with Eddie and freedom and discipline, we have been continuing the problem of the newborn self and Everything. After all, Eddie, even though he now is in a reformatory, was a newborn self, too, once, and his companion was Everything, too. Eddie soured on Everything, and Everything in the form of a shocked relative and a judge (among others) struck back.

 

NOTE: “Aesthetics and the Child” was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 924, December 19, 1990.