The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Attention: An Aesthetic Matter

Dear Unknown Friends:

The lecture we are serializing, Mind and Attention, was given by Eli Siegel nearly 50 years ago. I think it is great—culturally great, scientifically great, and great in its kindness. Mr. Siegel shows the grandeur, the loveliness of that subject, attention. And he also explains, definitively, the trouble people have about it: what stops a person from giving attention.

In recent years, difficulty with attention has been talked of mainly as a clinical matter. Many children are said to have “attention deficit disorder"; and they have been given, abundantly, the drug Ritalin as the supposed mighty pharmaceutical bringer of attentiveness. Ritalin is now being questioned more. Under the headline “Attention Disorder in Children Still Eludes Treatment Method,” the New York Times of November 19 reported the findings of a panel selected by the National Institutes of Health:

Doctors still do not know the best way to treat...attention deficit disorder in children, even though more than a million children now take powerful drugs to control their hyperactive behavior.... Symptoms include the inability to sit still for reading, study or even to watch television....[A panel member said] Ritalin and other such drugs were prescribed too often and complained that long-term studies had not been conducted....The panel also concluded that although Ritalin...might correct classroom behavior problems, there was no evidence that such correction improved a child’s academic performance.

While “more than a million children” suffer and are drugged, the understanding of attention has been in Aesthetic Realism these many years. Before one can know how to “treat” problems about attention—and everybody has problems about attention—one has to see what Aesthetic Realism explains: attention is not essentially a clinical, chemical matter; it is an aesthetic matter. In the following principle, Mr. Siegel describes the aesthetic nature of the self, which no previous philosopher understood: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” 

Self and world are the biggest opposites in our lives; and attention is a tremendous joining of them. To give attention to anything—a leaf, a person’s voice, words on a page—is to say, “I take care of myself, become more myself, by being fair to this thing not me, this representative of the outside world.” The oneness of those opposites, self and the world, is the tremendous beauty of attention—and what all the difficulty as to attention is about.

When Self Is against World

The chief reason persons have trouble giving attention, or simply do not want to give it, is that they don’t feel the world deserves their attention. “Attention is a kind of love,” Mr. Siegel explains in Mind and Attention, “...The idea of being attentive is the giving of oneself. Anytime we look at something, we are giving ourselves to that thing” (TRO 1334). I think these sentences are beautiful—and they make attention a much more beautiful thing than do the deeply false, insulting chemical approaches to the subject. The sentences also explain so much. Mostly, people feel that the world is not to be loved but is a confusing, painful place, and they feel they will lessen themselves if they give themselves over to this enemy. So people do not give full attention: they listen, in a conversation, with only part of themselves; they “see” objects but don’t really look at them. 

No so-called “expert” will begin to understand a boy who can’t concentrate on a book until she (the “expert") wants to see how she is like that boy. The patronizing semi-attention or non-attention she may give as her husband talks at dinner; her trying to impress people rather than trying to understand what they feel; her perhaps forgetting so much of a book she just read—these have the same source the turbulent child’s inattentiveness has.

That source is described by Eli Siegel in the following principle: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.” There is nothing larger in the understanding of self than Mr. Siegel’s showing that the desire for contempt is the chief cause of mental mishap, and the beginning of all injustice. Attention is respect. A world we have contempt for is a world to which we will begrudge our deep attention. 

Not to This World!

Contempt for the world can come to be in various ways. Millions of American children, enduring the hideous cruelty of our profit economy, have come to feel the world is not worth much. They have seen their parents angry and humiliated about not having enough money. Children have felt this is a world in which they don’t get to eat as much as they want or the good foods they want; in which they don’t have enough warm clothing; in which they hear gunshots and see people selling drugs. Then they are asked in a classroom to give attention—that is, to give themselves. A child can feel, “Not to this world! I have a better world in myself.”

The “hyperactivity” that often accompanies the inability to give attention is really a terrific fight. It has in it a child’s franticness to find something he can care for, his franticness to like the world, battling with his fierce disinclination to give himself to anything representing that world which he so dislikes.

Inattention can come too from other modes of contempt. If you have the feeling, perhaps encouraged by your parents, that you are the best thing in the world, and that other people and things exist to praise and serve you, not to be known and respected by you, you will not feel you need to be attentive to them. In fact, you will feel deeply that to give attention to them lessens you—as a royal prince can feel lessened mingling with the rabble.

A drug may chemically curb some neurological manifestations of restlessness. But the one way for people to be able to give real attention is for them to like the world they need to give attention in. Until America is owned by all her citizens, and an 8-year-old in Trenton stops being robbed by the profit system of the food, housing, and other good things that are rightfully his—it will be brutally difficult for that 8-year-old to feel he is in a world he should welcome into his mind. Further, for there to be truly successful attention, in schools and elsewhere, people need to feel that through giving their thought to something—a subject in the curriculum, the depths of another person—the world will look good to them, and they will know more who they are. The basis on which people can feel this has been stated at last, by Eli Siegel. It is in the following principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” And (I say swiftly) that is why, in New York City public school classrooms where the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method is used, there is a magnificent increase in students’ attention and ability to learn. There is the successful learning that parents, educators, and children long for. 

The article by Michael Palmer printed here is from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this June titled “Our Greatest Need: What Is It?” The article is, really, about the victory of attention to the world.

Aesthetic Realism itself exists because of Mr. Siegel’s beautiful, faithful, passionate, critical, loving attention to the world and humanity. I speak for men, women, children of all the coming years in saying: because he gave that great and brave attention, we are able at last to give the proud, happy attention we long to give — to that world which he showed is the other half of ourselves.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Attention and Polonius

By Eli Siegel

Hamlet plays around a little with the idea of attention, when he has Polonius see everything he wants Polonius to see:

Hamlet. Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel? 

Polonius. By the mass, and ’tis like a camel, indeed. 

Hamlet. Methinks it is like a weasel. 

Polonius. It is backed like a weasel. 

Hamlet. Or like a whale? 

Polonius. Very like a whale.

Hamlet is representing the fact that people who seem to be sure of their opinions can change them. He says, Yonder cloud—it looks like a camel, doesn’t it? Polonius: I’m supposed to see it as a camel; I do see it as a camel. Then: He wants me to see it as a weasel; I’ll see it as a weasel. 

This means that people’s attention is of an uncertain sort; they don’t respect objects. Aesthetic Realism is against that. Aesthetic Realism says that you can never be too attentive to something, and you’re never through, really, with seeing something entirely.

The problem of attention is the problem that can be put in two phrases. There’s a phrase very common in America: “You’re on the ball.” That’s being attentive. The other wisdom is: “Take it easy, relax!” So it is an aesthetic problem: how can you be on the ball, watch your step, take care, and still be relaxed? These two things have to meet in full attention. If we look at something and are afraid of seeing, and feel there will be a loss if we succeed, we cannot be relaxed. Further, if we don’t want to look at something, we won’t be on the ball. So the problem in attention is how to give all ourselves to the perception of something without being afraid of the consequence.

If we look at something and think that if we succeed in seeing it, it’s good for us, then in the process of being severely attentive, we feel relaxed. A person, for example, in listening to something he feels is good for him, will not be in a state of strain. A person in saying something very attentively, will not be in a state of strain. However, if we relax because we have got away from something, then our relaxation will have a state of strain, because we’ll feel guilty about it. In other words, if a person is trying not to be attentive to something because that is the way to protect himself, he will feel guilty.

So the only way to be attentive is to feel that through honest attention, we can be relaxed; and that while we relax, it isn’t because we want to be inattentive—it is because we want to see the world as also being soft and passive and flexible, not because we don’t want to see the world.

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What Is Our Greatest Need?

By Michael Palmer

“The thing most needed by man,” Eli Siegel explained, “to have a like of himself or respect for himself that is valid, is the feeling that the world is seen by him in a fair way, an accurate way, and one that goes towards, as much as possible, liking the world” (TRO 1000). I have been thrilled testing this principle and seeing that there is actually a solid basis on which we can honestly look good to ourselves. And Aesthetic Realism explains what interferes with our liking ourselves: our contempt.

I remember walking along the streets of New York and hardly noticing what was around me. I felt that people who got worked up about beauty—flowers, trees, art of any kind—were just foolish. Meanwhile, as a boy I was constantly after my father and older brother to take me to Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds, and Madison Square Garden. I didn’t know it, but the reason I loved sports was that they put together opposites. For instance, mind and body, surface and depth, individuality and relation were one in the greatest hitter I ever saw, the Red Sox’s Ted Williams. Along with having unique physical ability, he studied deeply the art of hitting—and he generously wanted to help other players, including by giving hitting advice to members of opposing teams. As Aesthetic Realism so magnificently shows, I needed to put these opposites together in my life. I needed to be deeply interested in other things and people as the means of being my individual self. 

When I was about 9 or 10 and guests came to our home, I felt very uncomfortable and often would go to another room. I would think, “Who needs this? I don’t want to be with those boring people.” My parents, concerned, would refer to me as “anti-people.” While I appeared shy, I was a snob, feeling nobody else had a life worth thinking about. This ugly desire to ward off and lessen others literally made me feel hollow and lonely, and I thought this was how I would always be. 

I thank God that I was able to meet Aesthetic Realism. In 1972, in one of the first classes taught by him that I had the honor to attend, Mr. Siegel asked me, “In the field of ethics, is there anything compulsory? Do you think there is something that impels one to hope one has had a good effect?” I had no idea such a hope was in me. He continued, “Do you think you would feel bad if you felt you had a bad effect on anyone?” I answered, “Yes. I think I had a bad effect on my parents.” And Mr. Siegel asked, “Where do you think you hurt them?” “I could have been kinder,” I said. Then he asked, “Do you like to encourage people? Do you think if you failed to encourage people you would feel bad? The chief thing we are concerned with is what we might have done that we didn’t do.”

Studying this gave me a beautiful, new purpose. Shortly after that class, I met with my father, who was visiting from Florida, and we had the first real conversation we had ever had. I actually asked him questions about his life! He told me about his childhood on the Lower East Side and how he saw his father, who, to support the family, had sold secondhand clothes in a cart. We were both tremendously moved, and he wrote to Mr. Siegel that day, thanking him for Aesthetic Realism’s effect on me. He said, “I feel this one day added 20 years to my life.

I love Mr. Siegel for enabling my life to be so rich and happy. And my happiness very much includes my marriage to Lynette Abel—whose keen, lively seeing of the world, and whose kind criticism, I am so proud to need.