|NUMBER 1854.—July 31, 2013||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the conclusion of the great 1964 lecture Aesthetic Realism Looks at Feeling, by Eli Siegel. Central to it is his showing that feeling is always a matter of the fundamental opposites for and against. Our feelings—so personal and so confusing—can be made sense of at last through this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In this final section Mr. Siegel speaks about the fact that throughout history people have questioned their feelings; they’ve objected to some feelings of theirs. At the present time there’s an effort to have people not question their own feelings very much. The directive, implied and sometimes explicit, of psychology today is: whatever you feel is okay, because it’s your feeling. People have always tried to sell themselves that idea, but the salesmanship has never worked. The reason is in the very nature of the human self.
We have, Aesthetic Realism explains, an “ethical unconscious”—and it’s the most beautiful thing in us. It says to us, Whatever you do, whatever you think, whatever you feel, should be fair to two things at once, which are opposites: it should be fair to yourself and to the world that is not yourself. Any feeling we have which is not trying to be fair to the outside world is one that the depths of us dislike and are ashamed of—no matter how much we want to convince ourselves it is just fine.
A Feeling about the Past
Let’s take a very interesting feeling that was the subject of a recent New York Times article: nostalgia. As useful a definition as any is that given by thefreedictionary.com: nostalgia is “a bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past.” The point of the Times article (July 8) is the following: while nostalgia was once looked on as questionable, it’s really—according to various psychologists—a good thing. People’s nostalgia, we’re told, “helps them feel better.”
I’ll say simply: without Aesthetic Realism, the feeling talked about in this article will not be understood. In fact, Aesthetic Realism—with its exactitude, depth, kindness—is needed to comprehend any feeling, and is the means of our seeing our feelings with authentic, beautiful, critical pride.
Aesthetic Realism shows what nothing else does: that every feeling of ours is an aesthetic matter, and its aesthetics is the same as its ethics. That is, the goodness of any feeling depends on how well it puts together reality’s opposites. The psychologists do not know this, and so they do not understand feelings. Nostalgia is not one of the emotions people worry about most, like anger or love. But it’s a means of seeing the aesthetics of feeling—and also the fact that people hurt themselves by being tricky and political with the opposites.
Nostalgia is always about the tremendous aesthetic opposites of past and present; also past and future; also absence and presence. It is not necessarily bad; but it can be very bad, and most often is bad, because of how a person uses those opposites. The big matter is: Are you using the past to see the present truly, to be fair to it? Further, are you trying to see the past itself accurately? Do you make the past nicer than it was, as a means of disdaining what is happening now? The psychologists in the Times article don’t see that nostalgia can be contempt. And contempt, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the most hurtful thing in the human self.
A large aspect of contempt is the desire to feel that what’s around us is not worthy of us—that we’re too good for it. This desire can take the form of “a bittersweet longing for...the past.” Such nostalgia, however yearning, is ugly, sleazy, mean, and fake. One of the things the person engaging in it does is change the facts. That is: in becoming misty over certain good old days, you’ve usually annulled the fact that you were angry at the people around you then, as you are now; that you were unsure of yourself, bored a great deal, agitated, and worse. A hint of the contempt that can be in nostalgia is in a phrase of the article, though the writer doesn’t see it as contempt: nostalgia, he says, “tend[s] to feature the self as the protagonist.” We’ll either use the past to respect the world in its fullness, or to feel we are the biggest thing in it, with everything else subsidiary to us.
The article notes praisingly:
Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety....Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories....[People’s nostalgia] helps them feel better.
Those statements should be looked at. And a large part of the looking is to distinguish between an effect which is momentary and the effect that goes beyond the moment. Contempt, in its many forms, is a comfort and pleasure; otherwise people would not go for it. For example, people also “feel better,” have less “loneliness, boredom and anxiety,” when they diminish the world through liquor or drugs, or make themselves superior through uttering some racial slur. These seem to wipe away one’s doubts of oneself and make one feel important and secure—temporarily. Then one pays for one’s contempt by feeling lonelier, more nervous, more self-despising than ever.
As to “couples feel[ing] closer” through “nostalgic memories”—the question still is, Are you using those memories to value truly all the people you know now, all the things you may meet, or to feel that the two of you belong to a superior world? If it’s the latter, it’s like another way couples “feel closer”: through gossiping contemptuously about people. In both instances, the couple will pay for this fake feeling of closeness: they’ll find themselves soon arguing with each other, resenting each other, feeling empty and lonely even as they are together.
When It’s Honest
Nostalgia can be honest, and kind. That will happen only if it is respect—if a person feels, “This meant something big, means something big. I’m trying to see it exactly. And as I miss it, I am using it to love and relish more than ever all that deserves to be relished and loved.” That is aesthetics. It is like what can happen in music. As a symphony proceeds, the composer may have us hear again an earlier melody or a hint of one. Through the bringing back of that sound, there’s a feeling about what was, but also a strengthening of what’s taking place musically now and of what will be heard.
There is powerful art that has something like nostalgia in it. One instance is the last two lines of this stanza from Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break”:
And the stately ships go on
To their haven under the hill;
But O for the touch of a vanished hand,
And the sound of a voice that is still!
The grandeur of those lines is that in their music, absence and presence are one; longing is inseparable from glorious immediacy. For instance, the consonants in touch, vanished, hand are so tactual; there is friction in them, there is grip, which has us feel the here, the immediate moment. Yet the line goes wide, goes into space, reaches achingly.
Past and present, absence and presence, are great opposites. They are with us all the time. Art makes them one, uses them to be fair to everything. That is the way we should use them. Aesthetic Realism can teach us how.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
And Always, For & Against
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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