The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

A Magnificent Self-Dissatisfaction

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to begin to serialize a lecture that is groundbreaking, mighty, and beautiful in the understanding of art and of the human self—the self that belongs to each of us. The lecture is Romanticism and Guilt, and Eli Siegel gave it in 1963.

Today the word guilt is not used as much as once. Yet that dislike of oneself, which can be gnawing, or sharp, or take the form of agitation or unsureness, is with people as much as ever. Often it is called “low self-esteem.”

It was over 70 years ago that Mr. Siegel began to teach the philosophy he founded. Aesthetic Realism explained then, as it does now, what guilt is and comes from—which is one of the many things psychologists today still do not understand. Guilt, Aesthetic Realism shows, is always about the opposites of self and world. Guilt is the inevitable self-dislike with which we punish ourselves for having contempt for the world.

Mr. Siegel described contempt as “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” It is, he saw, the most hurtful thing in everyone. Yet even as we go after this fake victory of looking down on or putting aside what’s not ourselves, we feel bad, because our deepest purpose—the purpose we were born for—is to like the world, be just to it. Mr. Siegel wrote: “The unconscious, as judge, has said: ‘Do not separate yourself from reality. If you do, you are not being yourself entirely, and one side of you will punish the other.’” That is from “The World, Guilt and Self-Conflict,” of 1942, chapter 2 of Self and World.

In Romanticism and Guilt, he is showing that the progress of art has come from a magnificent self-dissatisfaction: the feeling, Humanity has not seen the world well enough! We have limited the meaning of things, the beauty of things! As Mr. Siegel explains this, not only is he doing something culturally tremendous, but he enables us to see the rightness of asking ourselves to be fairer, deeper, better. We should not be trying to do what various counselors advise: get rid of self-doubt and decide we’re fine as we are (a futile task anyway). Instead, we should be like the history of art: welcome seeing that we have been incomplete, and go after that fairness to things which is always fresh, new, original, proud.

How Contemporary

The romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th century may seem far away to some people. But it, and certainly what Mr. Siegel is explaining, have to do with us right now. To say a little of how, I’ll comment on a big aspect of current life: the use of mobile devices.

They’re wonderful, of course. And their goodness has to do with the fact that through them, we can be better related to the outside world, less separate from it. To be able, at any moment, to text a person a thousand miles away makes a one of what’s close to us and what’s distant. That is related to romanticism, because one of the large, new things the romantic writers did was present what seemed strange and distant as also close to oneself, of oneself. Byron, for example, swept English readers by writing about his intimate personal turmoil and at the same time far-off places he was visiting: like Lake Geneva or the Roman Colosseum.

Those opposites, the close and distant, personal and vast, familiar and wondrous, are one in all art. They were joined in a bigger, fuller, more elemental, also wider way in romanticism. But it happens that they are in Twitter too. Through tweets we feel that words which have come close to us—we may see them on a device held in our intimate hand—are being seen by perhaps scores, hundreds, thousands of people we don’t know. And to be, along with many other people, the swift recipient of a tweet, and then retweet it, is to feel the world coming close to us and our going out to it.

We can use the smartphone or tablet we carry close to us to find out (for instance) the holdings of a library in Ankara, Turkey. As we do so, the intimate and distant, familiar and strange, are together.

The Fight Is Here Too

Meanwhile, the fight that has always been in people is with us now. It’s with us as our fingers move over devices that would seem like science fiction to Byron, Coleridge, Wordsworth. Mr. Siegel describes it: “The greatest fight man is concerned with is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151).

In an important writing of romanticism, chapter 14 of Biographia Literaria, Samuel Taylor Coleridge speaks about

the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude, we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.

That non-seeing, non-feeling, is “contempt for reality.” And what Coleridge is writing about is one of the enormous ways mobile devices are misused. People are using their smartphones, iPads, etc., not to see what’s around them. It may be necessary to walk down a street and text; or to check one’s email while among people one might speak or listen to. But a lot of the time (I’m being conservative), it’s not necessary; it’s just preferred. Mobile devices can be used in behalf of the worst thing in self: the desire to show we’re in a world that’s not worthy of us, not worthy of our seeing it and having large feeling about it. We can use focusing on a mobile device to absent ourselves scornfully from “the world before us” even as we seem to move about in it.

In his lecture Mr. Siegel says, “Awareness, alertness, is concerned with guilt.” It’s important to ask what a much touted activity of our time, “multitasking,” does to our possible awareness. Everyone really knows that mostly when we multitask we are not giving our full attention to anything. Romanticism and art as such say, That skimping of attention is horrible! But so do the depths of ourselves.

When we’re at a gathering of some kind, listening to someone present his ideas, and at the same time we’re texting somebody else, we’re usually making ourselves superior to both. We’re saying, Neither of you deserves my full attention—who you are doesn’t matter that much.

Sometimes, I know, persons are told by a boss or supervisor that they must do more than one thing at a time. However, in daily life the giving only partial, divided attention is, most often, a choice. It has an enormous appeal. Long before anyone heard of a mobile phone or the Internet, people liked the idea of not giving their full attention to anything. One could, for instance, be in a conversation, and inwardly be planning what to eat for dinner, as one smiled and nodded at the person talking. It was, and is, contempt. People have gone after the triumph of pretending to be in relation to things and people, but really having themselves regally and scornfully to themselves. In Self and World Mr. Siegel describes that triumph; it is a person’s saying:

I can be a deceptive emperor; be present and not present in a room;...have myself, myself, myself while I fool everything and am not affected by anything. (I can pretend I am affected.)

Mobile devices give one the ability to have this age-old contempt in a new way.

To Know the World or Grab It

Our handheld devices can be a means of knowing the world better. But they can also be a means of that entirely anti-art purpose: to grab the world through aspects of it; have people and things quickly, on one’s own terms. It’s good to get information speedily, and mobile devices can assist that. However, there is a huge tendency to think that what one can find out quickly is all one needs to know.

There’s Twitter. It can, as I said earlier, encourage us to have more interest in the world. It can also be used to feel that anything needing more than 140 characters shouldn’t matter to us.

The impelling question behind any instance of art is: What does this thing—this object, happening, person—deserve; and deserve from ME? If we use a mobile device to love that question, we’re using it well and will be proud. However, very often the device is used to feel it’s our due for the world of things and people to place itself at our fingertips, to be grabbed, managed, and dismissed; responded to hurriedly and gone away from. If we use our devices this way—for contempt—no matter how tech-savvy we are, we will feel guilty.

A Cover-up for Unsureness

Mobile devices have also been used to mask a deep unsureness. That is, they’ve been used as a cover-up for discomfort with oneself, or guilt.

Right now, millions of people feel ill at ease, agitated; they feel uncomfortable among other people. They’ve found that if they can play with their cell phone, they’ll seem at ease, and busy. If their eyes and fingers are occupied, they may even appear popular to those around them: it will seem that they’re being texted constantly and are texting back, that their opinions are widely sought. Mobile devices are useful in many ways. But one subsidiary way is in the ability to put on a good show, including to oneself.

The question of how we can honestly like ourselves goes on. The beautiful answer is in Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Romanticism and Guilt

By Eli Siegel

A question in the study of Aesthetic Realism is: just what is the relation of the notion of guilt to the principle that beauty is the making one of opposites? Today I’m going to use, somewhat, the history of poetry and art to show what that relation might be. The subject is rather new.

The Aesthetic Realism idea of guilt is that it comes essentially from the fact that you use yourself to fail to enjoy what is not yourself. Guilt is the feeling that you’ve used yourself to be more miserable about other things than you have to be. Therefore, the idea of guilt is opposed by the notion of beauty or art. What this means has to be seen in terms of happenings.

The history of art consists of the fact that guilt reaches various communities. I mean by this that Masaccio in the 15th century felt there was something to do in art other than what Giotto had done, which had been quite good. Or, for that matter, Giotto felt something should be done that the Byzantines or those crude people of the 11th century hadn’t done. There was some notion of guilt present, which here means that the world can be seen in another way and man can enjoy that way too.

Revolutions in art come from the guilt that was unconscious becoming conscious. When the Renaissance occurred, what it meant was that though people before had felt the world could be seen only, for instance, in the way of St. Bernard or even of some Breton lays, it could be seen in another way. Changes in art can be shown to arise from guilt becoming an active thing.

If any person knew there was something for him to like and knew clearly that he himself was stopping himself from liking it, he would feel awful. Let us say a person was trying to see a parade but knew that he had taken his overcoat and put it across his eyes and so couldn’t see the parade he had planned for years to see. He felt awful! That kind of thing occurs. The ego is a great duller. It is ambitious and so it kills.

There Is More to Value

This principle is somewhat in my poem “History of Art,” where it is said that a good many things, particularly things that were disagreeable or ugly, had been thought not to be in the domain of art. Anytime, whatever the object is—whether it is something not so symmetrical or something in imbalance—if we don’t see its value because of a cause in ourselves, somewhere there’s guilt. All the changes in art have come from persons who were precursors in the field of guilt, who said, “There is another way of enjoying the world than what you people know, and I’m going to show it.” Sometimes it takes the form of someone like Courbet, another time of somebody like Keats, saying, “This is more lovely than you know.” “There is loveliness you haven’t seen in this tired ox”: Courbet could stand for that. Or Soutine: “You just see a butcher shop as something you might go into and get some food from—but there’s color here. There’s rapturous ooze!”

Awareness, alertness, is concerned with guilt. A slowpoke is one who doesn’t have enough sense to be guilty. I hope this principle will be seen historically. There’s a great deal of history about it, some of which has been gone at by a person like Wölfflin, and even Burckhardt. In the history of poetry, too, there have been various critics who have tried to show the aroused sensibility of, say, a Corneille, or the aroused sensibility of a Blake, or of a 17th-century lyricist like Sedley. Originality is a displeasure with community guilt, and a feeling that one doesn’t have to have it.

I am trying to show a relation: between that aspect of Aesthetic Realism which is about guilt—which is concerned with why people go into institutions, why they have all sorts of things happening to them mentally, some of which are intensely sad and unbearable—and that aspect which describes what art is. This evening I accent poetry and the time, perhaps, of the greatest awareness of guilt in the history of man: the beginning of romanticism, just about the end of the 18th century.

A Call for Better Seeing

Sometimes in the books dealing with the anticipations or forerunners of romanticism, a friend of Pope is mentioned and quoted. Thomas Parnell (1679- 1718) was Irish; he was Archdeacon of Clogher. His life is written of by Goldsmith, and people have said how likable he was. There is a poem of his, “A Hymn to Contentment,” in which, toward the end, Parnell says something like what is in “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana” when I say, “The world is waiting to be known.” When there is something good to know and you don’t want to know it, and you hinder yourself from knowing it, through a means in yourself—you feel guilty, and you should. I’ll read these lines of Parnell to show a relation of guilt and romanticism, and guilt and art:

The sun, that walks his airy way,

To light the world, and give the day;

The moon, that shines with borrow’d light;

The stars, that gild the gloomy night;

The seas, that roll unnumber’d waves;

The wood, that spreads its shady leaves;

The field, whose ears conceal the grain,

The yellow treasure of the plain;

All of these, and all I see,

Should be sung, and sung by me:

They speak their Maker as they can,

But want and ask the tongue of man.

The word should is here. What should be and can be, if it isn’t, makes for guilt. Is is always attended by the should be. If we can bring should be and can be to is and we don’t, we don’t feel good. We are less through our own doing, and we are guilty.

Parnell calls for better seeing and says he himself should see. The fact that he is writing about stock subjects—the sun, moon, stars, sea—makes what he is saying seem different from the calls to see that are in contemporary art: “There’s a beauty in a dirty carpet! There’s a beauty in a pair of scissors that has collected dust!”—which is true. If there is anything beautiful in the world and man could see it and doesn’t, why shouldn’t the rascal feel guilty?

“The sun, that walks his airy way”: that should be seen. If there is anything that hasn’t been seen about the sun that should be seen, and a person could see it and stops himself, he’s going to feel bad.

“Should be sung, and sung by me.” Parnell is introducing that note of guilt, with the auxiliary verb should.

Where Imagination Begins

“They speak their Maker as they can, / But want and ask the tongue of man.” That concerns imagination. There’s a certain way you can see which the world needs, and you shouldn’t be lost in conventional seeing or community seeing: you see. This is where imagination begins. As soon as a person adds his own seeing to bring out something in an object, he is doing a good deed. And he is assuaging guilt. So when the romantics saw the world in more ways, bigger ways, richer ways, more subtle ways, they were assuaging the guilt of the world.

When Parnell asks that there be better perception, that goes along with the art way. The lines I read are important. And when Benjamin Woods in his 1916 anthology—a pretty important book—English Poetry and Prose of the Romantic Movement, included Parnell as an anticipator of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley, and so on, he was doing something very useful. The Parnell lines are calm, they’re placid, they’re bucolic. They don’t have the stridency that a person asking for what is necessary often has.