Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism
Back before his name acquired common-noun status, Marshall McLuhan had some difficulty publishing his book Understanding Media. One publisher said, "We only do books that are ten percent new; this is 75 percent new."
Definition Press of New York has done the bold and necessary thing in publishing a book that is new—revolutionary—on every one of its 400 pages, even as it is solidly in the tradition of inquiry begun by the ancient Greeks. Eli Siegel's Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism is that book. Praising Siegel's poetry in 1951, William Carlos Williams wrote, "We are not up to Siegel even yet....But at last I am just beginning to know, to know firmly what the present day mind is seeking." Of everything Siegel has written (and the number of works in poetry, literary criticism and Aesthetic Realism is large), this book, written between 1942 and 1946 and updated until his death in 1978, is the hardest to be up to and the most worth trying to be. It is not hard to read; the prose is fresh and clear. It is hard because it calls for more fairness to all reality than has been demanded before.
The thesis of the book is fourfold: (1) that the most critical thing in a person's life is his attitude to the whole world; (2) that a person's deepest desire is to like the world on an honest basis; (3) that disorders of mind—from everyday boredom to insanity—arise from contempt for the world, the lessening or dismissing of the outside world in order to be superior to it; and (4) that sanity and good sense, in love and in medicine, in an individual as well as in an economic system, are arrived at through esthetics. And this is not the customary idea of esthetics: it is a living, breathing, rugged way of seeing the whole world, from a matchbook to a mother-in-law, as being composed of opposites in a relation making for beauty.
In essence, Self and World and the doctrine of Aesthetic Realism are saying that the only way to like yourself is to like what's not yourself, and the only way to like what's not yourself honestly is to do all you can to see it the way an artist sees his subject—that is, as a oneness of esthetic opposites. All the arts and all the sciences, says Siegel, are at once the evidence of man's hope to like the world and the basis on which he can like it through knowing it.
Whether child or adult is spoken of, this book sees a person's concerns with dignity and compassion. Take the matter of guilt, for example. In The Ego and the Id (1923), Freud calls guilt a tension between the ego and the ego-ideal, an expression of condemnation of the super-ego, which in some individuals is intense and cruel. Erich Fromm in The Heart of Man (1964) calls guilt an aspect of self-loathing and sadness which anyone hoping to love life should shun. R. D. Laing in Self and Others (1969) distinguishes true and false guilt, one arising from the obligation to be oneself, the other from the feeling of not being what others wish one to be.
Siegel says that guilt is the world in a person, criticizing him for the best of reasons: so that he can change. "In every instance of a guilt feeling, there is evidence pointing to the fact that the cause is a feeling of separation of oneself from reality as a whole," Siegel says. Guilt, which is self-criticism, can change to anger as a means of directing the criticism away from self; it can change to fear because a world one has separated oneself from is hard to see as friendly. In any one of its forms, guilt can be used to see where a person has not been fair to outside reality.
Of all the statements in Self and World concerning the welfare of mind, clearly the boldest is this: contempt causes insanity. Siegel comes to this conclusion in the long preface that updates the book and confirms the author's earlier ideas based on 30 years' experience. Siegel taught Aesthetic Realism steadily over all those years and learned from everyone he spoke to.
This book invites a workout from any reader.
Linda Ann Kunz
English instructor, School of Visual Arts,
New York City