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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 
A PERIODICAL OF HOPE AND INFORMATION
 NUMBER 1861.—November 6, 2013

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Guilt, Profit, & Poetry

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue our serialization of the great 1963 lecture Romanticism and Guilt, by Eli Siegel. And we print an article by sportswriter and Aesthetic Realism associate Michael Palmer. It is part of a paper he presented last year at a public seminar titled “Care for Yourself & Justice to Others: Do They Have to Fight?” As you’ll see, that subject has much to do with a poem of Wordsworth spoken of in the lecture. It is a famous poem, but its meaning is made clear for the first time by Mr. Siegel.

The opposites in the seminar title, care for self and justice to what’s not us, are the biggest opposites in our lives. And, Aesthetic Realism shows, all the cruelty in the world comes from dividing them—from feeling that the way to take care of ourselves is to lessen and look down on other people and things. That feeling is contempt. It’s immensely ordinary, and also the worst thing in humanity. Mr. Siegel explains—and I find these resounding, vivid, deep, clear sentences beautiful:

There is only one thing that is immoral in the world: liking oneself too much and the outside world too little....Once you feel what is owing to yourself is more and what is owing to other people is less, you can rob people’s purses, tell lies, keep back things that would do good to people, start wars.

Contempt is also the cause of guilt—or, as it’s often called today, low self-esteem. Guilt can take such forms as anxiety, nervousness, excess unsureness. But the reason we have it is that there is what Mr. Siegel described as an “ethical unconscious” in us. And that ethical unconscious punishes us for being unjust. It says, within all of us, You, Jason, you, Megan, were born into reality to see meaning in it—to become yourself through knowing and valuing what’s not you! You weren’t born into the world to get some sleazy, fake importance by looking down on other people and things.

Do They Feel Guilty?

A New York Times article is a means to look at our subject—care for self, justice to something else, and guilt—in relation to matters of right now. The article (Oct. 8) by Jan Hoffman is titled “Cheating’s Surprising Thrill.” What it says is: people today don’t really feel guilty about cheating—in fact, they feel good. Hoffman writes:

When was the last time you cheated?...Let your eyes wander during a high-stakes exam. Or copied a friend’s expensive software. And how did you feel afterward?...New research shows that...you may have felt great.

The article tells us that “psychologists and management specialists...want to understand...why cheating appears to be on the rise.” And: “researchers found that those who cheated experienced thrill, self-satisfaction,” not shame.

Well, there’s so much that’s unscientific and, really, uneducated, in what the article describes. For example, it’s important to see what the nature of that “thrill” and “self-satisfaction” is. Is there a kind of satisfaction that does not displace or negate guilt but is accompanied by it—even causes it? Then, there are the diverse activities the article describes as “cheating.” Some may be quite different from others, but they’re all lumped together and just called “cheating.” In the passage I quoted, looking at someone else’s answers during an exam is called cheating; and so is copying “a friend’s expensive software.” Yet these two may have some big differences in their cause.

There Are Contempt & the Profit System

Let’s take some classic examples of cheating: playing poker with marked cards; passing off a phony Cézanne as the real thing; plagiarizing—lifting passages from someone else’s writing on Andrew Jackson and publishing them as yours in your new biography of our seventh president. In each of these activities, there is contempt—with the ugly satisfaction that is part of contempt. You feel that the world is an opponent, and now you have beaten it out! You’ve fooled people—and therefore can look down on them and feel you’re oh so superior. The “researchers” are wrong in saying that such cheating does not make for guilt. What happens is: the victory of contempt, the thrill of superiority, can temporarily mask the fact that a person is deeply ashamed.

Then, there is a huge matter not talked of in the article. It’s this: a central reason why “cheating appears to be on the rise” is that people have come to feel the profit system itself is a cheat. All over America people feel, “The way corporations and bosses are getting rich through using other people—using me—may be technically legal, but it’s robbery. It’s thievery. I’m being rooked, swindled. So why shouldn’t I ‘cheat’ some myself?”

There’s a difference people feel between the cheating of, say, using anabolic steroids to win a race, and that activity mentioned early in the article: copying “expensive software.” It happens that in copying software people don’t exactly feel they’re cheating. They think that the company has no right to charge them so much for it; that they’d be cheated if they paid full price for it; and, even, that they’d be doing the right  thing if, after copying it, they enabled someone else to copy it from them. I am not advocating this logic, but it is what people all over America feel.

Profit economics is, in fact, one of the most massive, pervasive, hurtful cheats in the history of the world. It is based on a severing of those opposites care for self and justice to what’s not self. The profit motive is the motive to aggrandize yourself through the weakness of someone else: pay him as little as possible for his labor; hope he’s so desperate that he’ll work for a pittance. Then you take the profits which he has worked to produce. That is the cheat. It’s an aspect of the following vast cheat: the world by right belongs to everyone—but, through profit economics, it is owned mainly by a few people, while millions of others struggle.

A Poem—& Who Is Cheated?

Wordsworth is present very much in the lecture we’re serializing, and so it seems right to quote him on this matter of cheating and how the world is owned. In his poem “Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” of 1798, he describes a woman:

Old Goody Blake was old and poor;

Ill fed she was, and thinly clad;

And any man who passed her door

Might see how poor a hut she had.

 

All day she spun in her poor dwelling:

And then her three hours’ work at night,

Alas! ’t was hardly worth the telling,

It would not pay for candle-light.

So Goody Blake is like millions of people over the centuries and in America right now: she works hard; yet she cannot afford what she needs. Wordsworth’s poetry here is beautiful. It is musical. It is factual and tender. Clearly, he sees Goody Blake as cheated. And he tells how, in the winter, she cannot pay for firewood—so she does something that’s technically robbery. A rather prosperous and very mean person, Harry Gill, lives near her—and at night she takes some sticks of wood from his hedge:

Now, when the frost was past enduring,

And made her poor old bones to ache,

Could any thing be more alluring

Than an old hedge to Goody Blake?

And, now and then, it must be said,

When her old bones were cold and chill,

She left her fire, or left her bed,

To seek the hedge of Harry Gill.

He suspects her; lies in wait for her; grabs her: “And fiercely by the arm he shook her, / And cried, ‘I’ve caught you then at last!’”

Goody Blake, by English law, is a thief. But Wordsworth does not see her that way. He sees her as robbed by the economic structure of England. And he sees Harry Gill, not her, as the offender. Wordsworth writes that Harry, because of his coldness to a person, will become physically cold, irreparably: no matter how many coats and blankets Harry uses, “He never will be warm again”—“His teeth they chatter, chatter still.”

In the 1970s, Eli Siegel explained that, after centuries, the profit system was no longer able to succeed. Like Harry Gill’s temperature, it was irreparable. Today in America, there are persons trying to force its continuation the only way they now can: through having most Americans become poorer and poorer—become more and more like Goody Blake—so some few others can make profit from them.

As this effort goes on, lo and behold! the Times article tells us that “management specialists” are very concerned about cheating. We can presume the cheating involves not only software copying, but, perhaps, such things as employees’ “borrowing” office supplies, and “liberating” product and setting up a cottage industry of one’s own with it. These activities are wrong; they should not take place. But the matter won’t be dealt with honestly until people are asking, Is the way economics is now run, essentially a cheat; and do people in America know it, resent it, and feel (however incorrectly) that they have a right to get revenge?

Ethical Fidelity

This TRO is being published two days before the 35th anniversary of Eli Siegel’s death. I have written many times, with detail, about how that tragic dying came to be. For now, I’ll say just this: he was true, through his very last days, to the ethics of the philosophy he taught. He wrote in Self and World: “To be ethical is to give oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things.” That is what Eli Siegel went by, with depth, beauty, grandeur, all the time.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

The Sensible Skylark
By Eli Siegel

Something present in Wordsworth’s poetry very much is his desire to be elsewhere and his desire to be right where he is. One of his best known poems—also one of his best—“To a Skylark,” is about this. It has his desire, as he puts it, to be fair “to the kindred points of Heaven and Home.” I write about that idea in some of the first sentences of “The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict”:

We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves....We have to be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves. [Self and World, p. 91]

To be unaware of that which would give meaning to where you are, is to be guilty. To go to what you see as beautiful as a means of relinquishing or leaving where you are, is to feel guilty. Insanity takes two forms: one in which you are Charlemagne on a star; the other in which nothing interests you and you are stuck in your own oblong. There are many variations. But the problem is solved by the lark, who is aware of the nest even as he is in the sky.

I’ll read “To a Skylark.” It’s an anthology piece and deserves to be. The question as such, Should one be where one's mind can go or where one’s feet are?, was always with Wordsworth:

Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky!

Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?

Or, while the wings aspire, are heart and eye

Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?

Thy nest which thou canst drop into at will,

Those quivering wings composed, that music still!

 

Leave to the nightingale her shady wood;

A privacy of glorious light is thine;

Whence thou dost pour upon the world a flood

Of harmony, with instinct more divine;

Type of the wise who soar, but never roam;

True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!

It is well to look at this: “Ethereal minstrel! pilgrim of the sky! / Dost thou despise the earth where cares abound?” When we despise something, despise it for our own purposes, we feel guilty. The danger of going away from earth is that one may despise it.

“Or, while the wings aspire, are heart and eye / Both with thy nest upon the dewy ground?” The lark has put opposites together: the wings are aspiring, but the lark is aware of the nest on the dewy ground.

“Those quivering wings composed, that music still!” Here we have fixity and flutter, or the rigidity of things and their vibration.

“A privacy of glorious light is thine”: this makes the lark religious. It’s like what the saints have been given: halos, nimbuses, wreaths of radiance. “A privacy of glorious light”—that’s what a halo is for: to get some of the sun for personal purposes.

Then the moral: “Type of the wise who soar, but never roam; / True to the kindred points of Heaven and Home!”

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Care for Self & Justice to Others
By Michael Palmer

I love Aesthetic Realism for explaining a crucial question every person has: Can I care for myself and be just to others—or do the two have to fight? “The most beautiful thing a person can do,” Eli Siegel writes, “is to be interested in justice so much that his care is a deep cause of his happiness. However idealistic it may sound, a person not caring enough for justice cannot be definitely happy” (TRO 274).

Early in school, I was very interested in learning about people who cared for justice—like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who put their lives on the line in the coming-to-be of the Declaration of Independence. But in my own life every day, I did not see being just to people as mattering much. I wanted to be liked. I would often entertain friends with comic routines and imitations, but I was not interested in their lives. Deeply, I felt most people were not good enough for me to know.

For example, there was Cynthia Hecht, a young woman I asked out on a date. We went to dinner at the Jade Garden Chinese restaurant in the Bronx. The egg rolls, fried rice, and chow mein were great; but what my thought mostly revolved around was my own impressiveness, how personable I could be. I thought I was making quite a hit, but I never asked Cynthia anything about herself. It didn’t occur to me that I should try to know her, have a truly good effect. When I asked Cynthia to go out again, she said politely, “I’d rather not.”

I never asked why. But the truth was that I preferred my own company to being interested in another person. I liked doing things alone, taking long walks, and listening to baseball broadcasts, rooting for my team, the Yankees. When they won, which was quite often, I felt I was special—“the number one Yankees fan.”

In a class, Mr. Siegel explained that “there’s a satisfaction in having something associated with oneself—a team—win out. For instance, years ago in Brooklyn, when the Dodgers won you felt you were a better person.” But this symbolism can be misused. I felt that because of the Yankees I was a superior being and didn’t have to think of being just to anyone else.

Meanwhile, no matter how good my team was, I had a gnawing sense of shame. And, as time went on, I worried about how little affected by people and things I was becoming. I’d stay at home a lot, watching TV, feeling bored. Then, for “excitement,” I’d gamble, bet on sporting events and go to the racetracks. I thought, despairingly, that this was how I’d spend the rest of my life.

But some years later, I had the good fortune to meet the tremendous knowledge and kindness of Aesthetic Realism, and I began to understand myself. In the very first class taught by Eli Siegel that I attended, he got right to the center of me when he asked, “Do you care for anything more than yourself?”

MP. I don’t think so.

ES. Is your attitude to people good enough?

MP. No, it isn’t.

ES. That’s right. Courageous, man!

Mr. Siegel showed me that the way I’d really care for myself was to be just to other people. And he explained something that surprised me very much: that a desire to be just was already in me. He said, “There is an imperative to think as well of ourselves as we can.” And he asked, “Is there a need to do the best with yourself that you can—a hope that one has a good effect?”

I’m grateful to Mr. Siegel for enabling me to understand what stopped me from caring for people, and how I could change. In another class he said, “Your mistake is not seeing the full possibilities of a person. Try to see what another person is hoping for.” As I began to have this as my conscious purpose, it made for the greatest pleasure I’ve known, and has given me a life that is useful, proud, and exciting. I no longer found gambling necessary; it simply lost its attraction. Instead, I’ve had big emotions about things, happenings, knowledge, people—emotions I never imagined I could have.

And—I fell in love with, and married, Lynette Abel! Wanting to know her, encouraging her strength, strengthens me, and is a source of romantic, passionate feeling between us. black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
 

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.

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PUBLIC PRESENTATIONS

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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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