|NUMBER 1858.—September 25, 2013||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 3 of the 1963 lecture we are serializing—a lecture historic in the understanding of both art and the bewildering self of everyone. It is Romanticism and Guilt, by Eli Siegel.
He is presenting this big, new idea: every important movement in art has come from various persons’ welcoming a certain feeling of guilt. That guilt—felt keenly by an artist but present, however murkily, in others too—is: “Art so far, mind so far, our minds, have been UNFAIR to many things! We’ve deprived them of their meaning. We have not wanted to see all that may be beautiful, meaningful. There are beauty, form, even nobility, to be found in things and people we’ve passed over, spurned, sneered at. This is terrible!” The artist feels: “I’m ashamed of our injustice—yet as I try to remedy it, I’m proud, expressed, free!” A highpoint in the welcoming of this guilt and changing it to justice, was the romantic movement of the late 18th and early 19th century.
While the lecture is great in the history of literary criticism, the comprehension of guilt that is in it is something people need in order to like themselves, be at ease, kind, and truly expressed. Today guilt is often called low self-esteem or anxiety. And a sign of how much it’s with people is the fact that for over a year the New York Times “Opinionator” blog ran an “anxiety series,” posting over 70 essays by persons about their ongoing agitations and self-accusations. The essays are various. Yet in none is there a comprehension of why a person can feel so against herself or himself; be so often excessively worried, even panicky.
The Cause of Guilt
In 1942 Eli Siegel wrote “The World, Guilt and Self-Conflict,” chapter 2 of his Self and World. And there he explained what men and women today are still thirsty to know: we feel guilty because we have been unjust to the world outside ourselves—because we’ve made ourselves apart from it, looked down on it, had contempt for it. Further, this cause and effect—the fact that our contempt for the world has to make us guilty—is a tribute to the ethics of the human self, and its aesthetics. That is, our personal self and the world in its vastness are inseparable. Writes Mr. Siegel:
The greatest biological fact in human history is this: that the whole world went to the making of every individual; in other words, that it was the universe, or existence, or reality, which gave us birth....When we are unfair to the world, it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it. [Pp. 52, 45]
So let us look at three statements from the Times’s “anxiety series.”
On May 7, 2012, Tim Kreider wrote in his essay that often
between 3 and 6 a.m., [I] lie quietly thinking about everything that could go horribly wrong with my life and all the ways in which I am negligent and reprehensible. I have spasms of panic over things I shouldn’t have written, or, worse, things I should have; I regret having spent all the money...; I’m suddenly convulsed with remorse over mean things I did in middle school...; I force myself to choose my least favorite death (drowning).
This writer is being somewhat specific in his self-accusations, and each matter mentioned could be asked about. Meanwhile, we won’t understand guilt until we understand contempt, which Aesthetic Realism identifies as “the greatest danger or temptation of man.” Contempt is “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” The big question, for Mr. Kreider and everyone, is: as we meet things, is our purpose to be just to them—or to use them to make ourselves superior? The latter is the cause of guilt, including guilt in the wee hours of the morning. Was the belittling desire to see the world as material for one’s self-glory behind each of the specific matters with which Kreider torments himself? Does it impel unjust writing and not-writing, carelessness with money, meanness in middle school?
It happens that we can, without knowing it, prefer to torture ourselves with instances rather than abjure the contempt which was behind those instances, because we’d like to hold on to our contempt. So we accuse ourselves, lacerate ourselves, as a means of atoning for contempt while at the same time continuing to have it. We can prefer to beat ourselves rather than be good critics of ourselves. Besides, without Aesthetic Realism, people don’t know how to criticize themselves exactly—because, for one thing, they don’t understand contempt.
We Use Symbols
On June 18, 2012, Thaddeus Rutkowski wrote about anxiety:
When I leave our apartment, I can’t remember if I’ve turned off the toaster oven....I have a picture in my mind of the heating elements glowing red and the food crumbs catching fire inside....The fire inside the appliance could spread to the plasterboard wall. The cardboard layer is flammable; a high temperature will set it off....
The recurrent feeling that one has neglected something and must take care of it has been part of guilt for thousands of years. In Self and World Mr. Siegel explains:
Obsessions are symbolical punishments that we give ourselves because we feel that what the obsessions symbolize has been neglected by us. It is a kind of diseased concentration making up for an evasion or dislike of objects in their inclusiveness. [P. 148]
Mr. Rutkowski, fearfully guilty as to the toaster oven, is, like other people, a bad symbolist. If he were having Aesthetic Realism consultations many questions would be asked, and I think he would see there was a self-critical feeling in him of which he could be proud: a sense that he hadn’t wanted to be exact about the things and people he knew. He’d wanted too much to use them without knowing them, without being fair to them. And he’d inaccurately seized on the toaster oven as both a symbol for this injustice and a punishment for it.
We Are Low & High
On March 25, 2013, Adane Byron wrote about “my social anxiety disorder.” This is a description of waking up:
The sun shot through the window and attacked my eyes. The laughter of carefree children...made me want to punch myself in the face....One voice in my head said, “Don’t get out of bed, it isn’t worth it.” Another said: “Do you know what’s out there? Everyone is after you....They all want you dead.”
A person can get to the feeling—and millions do—that he or she doesn’t deserve to function in the world. But the reason we get to this sense of unworthiness is our contempt for reality. That is, we loathe ourselves as punishment for feeling we’re too good for the world: it’s ugly and cruel, while we are sensitive and royal. Both feelings are in the description just quoted: there is a despising of the world and a despising of oneself. We may be miserable feeling the world “isn’t worth it” and is “after” us, but with that misery is the victory of contempt.
Guilt, then, can be sloppy, wretchedly inexact. Something in us, our desire to maintain contempt, prefers it that way. However, when we see what Aesthetic Realism shows—that our deepest desire is to like the world—we can have a thrilling time, an expressive time, a proud time seeing why we’ve disapproved of ourselves, how we haven’t met our own hopes. Art, Aesthetic Realism explains, is evidence that demanding justice of ourselves is our real glory, self-importance, and magnificent originality.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
There Are Wordsworth & Coleridge
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
Subscriptions: 26 issues, US $18; 12 issues, US $9, Canada and Mexico $14, elsewhere $20. Make check or money order payable to Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
© Copyright 2013 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation • A not–for–profit educational foundation