|NUMBER 1868.—February 12, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
The great essay by Eli Siegel published here explains something that has confused people enormously, usually without their even knowing it. This thing, seen rightly, has made for all the art, intelligence, justice, science in the world, and, seen wrongly, for cruelty, suffering, and stupidity—both in people’s particular lives and in world history.
“There Is Individualism” was written, I estimate, in the late 1950s. And in it Mr. Siegel explains what had not been explained before: there are two kinds of individualism, one true and one false; one good and one hurtful. He defines the difference with logic that is clear and in prose that is vivid, graceful, often thrilling. For now, I’ll say that the two kinds of individualism arise from what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the two big desires at war within everyone. That is: is our individualism, our sense of our own importance and distinction, based on contempt, the looking down on other things; or is it based on respect—on wanting to see reality with justice and fullness?
History & a Self
To illustrate the difference between two notions of individuality, I comment on an obituary that appeared last month in the New York Times. It has to do with something huge in world history; and while the person written of seems unusual, what went on in him has its likeness to what goes on in everyone. The Times account begins:
Hiroo Onoda, an Imperial Japanese Army officer who remained at his jungle post on an island in the Philippines for 29 years, refusing to believe that World War II was over,...returned to a hero’s welcome in...1974. [He was] a soldier who believed that the emperor was a deity and the war a sacred mission; who survived on bananas and coconuts and sometimes killed villagers he assumed were enemies....Japanese history and literature are replete with heroes who have remained loyal to a cause.
It could appear that Onoda had something like individualism supreme. He refused to believe the loudspeaker announcements and the letters and leaflets dropped over the years, telling that the war was over and Japan had lost: he went by what HE decided was so. It could also seem that Onoda was the opposite of individualistic: that he was self-effacing, sacrificial, “loyal to a cause.” After all, the final orders he received from his superior officer were to “stand and fight,” and he obeyed them—for decades. Yet despite the desire in Japan, and in obituaries like the one I’m quoting from, to present Onoda as heroic, both his individualism and his sacrifice were deeply ugly. And the reason has to do with the life of everyone.
“Loyal[ty] to a cause” can sometimes be noble, and there are instances of such loyalty both in Japanese culture and elsewhere. We see it in Patrick Henry. It is in the Arthurian legends. It is in the Spartans at Thermopylae. However, in all politeness: being loyal to a cause, of itself doesn’t mean a damn. The question is, What is the cause? Is it a cause that one should be for? The Japanese cause and the Nazi cause, and also the Confederate cause during the Civil War, are alike: they were all in behalf of the ugliest, sleaziest thing in the world—contempt for humanity different from oneself. And remaining “loyal” to them is really remaining loyal to something like vicious, lying garbage.
What does this have to do with the daily life of everyone? Every person has made something ugly in himself stand for his “individuality,” and would like to make the ugly thing seem noble, even heroic. That thing in all of us is contempt: the feeling that we don’t have to be exact about other people and situations—we can see them in a way that suits us, makes us feel important, superior. And oh yes—we will be true to our way of seeing, no matter how many facts are brought to us disproving it.
Pride or Conceit?
The Times writes of Onoda’s return to Japan in 1974:
His homecoming, with roaring crowds, celebratory parades and speeches by public officials, stirred his nation with a pride that many Japanese had found lacking in the postwar years.
Conceit is not pride. The difference between these is the difference between false individualism and true. Real pride is the being for oneself because one is trying to be fair to the world outside oneself. If Onoda stirred so-called “pride” in people, it was because his being able to endure a lot for a long time seemed a justification of the filthy thing to which he and they had given allegiance. He was a means of their not having to be self-critical.
The Times says Onoda affected people because he seemed to stand for “devotion.” We can devote ourselves to something outside us because we associate that thing with our own contemptuous superiority. The Japanese cause during World War II, to which so many devoted themselves, was the cause to conquer as many other nations as possible and turn the people in them into slaves for Japanese companies. It was the seeing of the Japanese as far superior to other people—and the using of those inferior people accordingly. In the service of that cause was some of the most extensive brutality in history.
Japan is not the only nation that has gotten to individuality through looking down. All nations have—and I certainly include the U.S., which needs tremendously to be self-critical. However, fascism, Mr. Siegel said, “is the ego made iron. It is conceit made metallic.” And “it is always capitalism.” Fascism in Japan, as in Germany, was used to bring massive wealth to business owners, through destroying unions, stealing the resources of other countries, and providing slave labor. The profit motive itself, in any nation, is the fake individualism of contempt, because it’s the motive—not to see another justly—but to squeeze as much out of the person as you can while giving him or her as little as possible.
So we have “devotion.” Fake individuality can be very devoted. In the 1960s, some mothers in Mississippi were devoted to making sure black children were kept out of schools white children attended. Today, there are well-heeled persons devoted to trying to kill unions. Like Japanese fascists, they try to appear noble: they use a phrase like “right to work” when they really want to make working people poor so owners can aggrandize themselves at the workers’ expense.
Another word the Times uses about Onoda is “perseverance.” But perseverance can sometimes be terrible, and stupid. Often a woman has persevered in telling herself a certain man is a great guy—though fact after fact shows that he’s pretty selfish and has been mean to quite a few people. But she is an individual: her view will not be changed by mere facts. She perseveres in it, because the man makes her important. Fake individualism is contempt for truth, and for all the evidence that counters what oneself desires.
That was so of Onoda. The obituary says he was found by “a student searching for him, in 1974,” but rejected “pleas to go home, insisting he was still awaiting orders.” No explanations or photographs could make Onoda believe the war had ended and Japan had lost. He yielded only when his former commander, sent by the Japanese government, came to the jungle and relieved him of duty.
A more critical obituary than that of the Times appeared in the Independent (UK). It has, for instance, this description of contempt for truth and humanity: Back in Japan,
Onoda found common cause with ultra-conservatives who denied Japan was an aggressor and said it had no choice but to attack the rest of Asia. He bitterly blamed “left-wing propaganda” for promoting war guilt.
Then, There Is Art
All art is true individualism. Art is always a person expressing oneself, being oneself, through being vibrantly fair to what is not oneself. There has certainly been true individualism in Japan. It is in Hokusai, Basho, Lady Murasaki, and more. The mix-up about individualism has been explained, after centuries, by Aesthetic Realism—so that true individualism can win at last.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
There Is Individualism
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
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