The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

There Are the Self & Sleeplessness

Dear Unknown Friends:

The two essays by Eli Siegel printed here were written (I surmise) fairly early in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism. The first, “What Has Aesthetics to Do with Feeling Bad?,” along with explaining what had never been explained before, is a description of the philosophy Aesthetic Realism itself.

The second, on “Why People Don’t Sleep,” is about something that has agonized human beings for thousands of years. There has been eloquent, even beautiful writing on the subject. There is, for instance, this, of Shakespeare:

O sleep! O gentle sleep!

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,

That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down

And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

[2 Henry IV, 3.1.5-8]

And there has been writing that’s bright and witty—like this, of Dorothy Parker: “How do people go to sleep? I’m afraid I’ve lost the knack.”

Meanwhile, insomnia, in all its misery, has continued—because, without Aesthetic Realism, it has not been understood. Today, prescription sleep medication is a multibillion-dollar industry—testimony to the fact that psychiatry has not known why people don’t sleep and so has not solved the problem. It is equally unknowing about the tremendous subject of the first essay: why people dislike themselves.

Aesthetic Realism sees these matters, with all their personal turbulence, in a way that gives a deep dignity to the human self. Aesthetic Realism shows that they have to do with what art is. They are about the big opposites, the aesthetic opposites, of self and world. They are about what Eli Siegel described as the largest fight in every person: “the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality.”

In these essays we see what was always present as Eli Siegel wrote or spoke: knowledge at one with kindness. He had more of both than any other person I’ve heard of or known. And we see what so distinguishes Aesthetic Realism: it is philosophy in the fullest sense, and is also down-to-earth, immediate. It makes sense of our minute-to-minute lives—including our life within, our bewildering feelings and thoughts.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


What Has Aesthetics to Do with Feeling Bad?

or, The That in Us We Don’t Care For

By Eli Siegel

1. Are the World & Yourself Aesthetic Situations?

Aesthetic Realism is a way of looking at the world, saying: The world, like oneself, like art, is a oneness of contrary things, or opposites; and the world, as real, being a oneness of contrary things, is aesthetic. To see the world really, then, is to see it as aesthetic. And because the world, as real, is aesthetic, we come to the term Aesthetic Realism.

Unfortunately, these words won’t mean as much as they should to many people. How, then, is Aesthetic Realism about people at this very moment?

First of all, Aesthetic Realism is critical. It is critical always.

In a vague and lingering way, people feel that the goodness of their lives is in proportion to how well related they themselves are to the outside world. Every person knows, in a fashion, that to be happy is to get along with the world.

It is important to see what “get along” means. Could it be that the one way to get along with the world, to feel right and proud, is to be in an aesthetic relation with the world? This is what Aesthetic Realism says.

And Aesthetic Realism says that a man cannot get along with a woman, or a woman with a man, or any person with any person, unless one is in a good relation with the world; that is, an aesthetic relation. Another tall statement, certainly, but verifiable.

It is fairly clear that people would like to be pleased by the world, and yet they are afraid of it. The world is that which gratifies us, but it is the cause of all our pain.

In the way we see the world, we see a person close to us. That person is needed by us, may give us our most pleasing moments, but is also most likely, over the years, the greatest cause of our pain.

And if husbands were asked, do they like the way they see their wives, they would say—at least when they understood the question—that they do not. There is not oneness or continuity or organization in the way a husband in America sees his wife, or a wife sees her husband. The way a husband criticizes his wife is not at one with the way he adores her.

Husbands and wives act a little crazy towards each other because the way they care for each other is so apart from the way they resent each other. And if husbands and wives are a little crazy in the way they see each other, it is because they are a little crazy—or disorganized—in the way they see the world. Every person goes towards the world as if he loved it. Every person also retreats from the world as if it were an enemy. And we go towards those we care for as if we needed them exceedingly and we go away from them as if they were unfriendly.

This doubleness of motion, with doubleness of motive, is hurtful. It is not like the way the lower or bass notes are played on the piano simultaneously with, mingling with, the upper or treble notes.

As soon as we study how notes on the left half of the piano, while different from the notes on the right or upper half of the piano—how dissimilar instances of the musical scale—merge in music, merge in the playing of a pianist, we are in the midst of aesthetics.

We hear a bass note and a treble note simultaneously as one sound. Insofar as they are bass and treble, low or high, thick and thin, they are opposites. There!—we come to the definition of aesthetics. Aesthetics is the study of how opposites in the world, seen or apprehended as one, make for the situation or feeling of beauty.

If we see a man strong as to his wife, but graceful too—along with seeing fortunate domesticity, we see aesthetics also.

With the definition of aesthetics, we come again to the questions I implied earlier. Do people want to be aesthetic in their lives? Do they have to be aesthetic? Do people want to put opposites together in their lives? Do they have to put opposites together in their lives?

Aesthetic Realism says, Yes.

The reason is, at its beginning, the nature of the world, the structure of reality. The world is an inextricable co-presence of opposites; reality is an endless simultaneity of opposites.

2. Feeling Bad

The first thing everyone wants is not to feel bad. Feeling bad has two main causes: the cause outside yourself, and the cause which is you.

Criticism of self is chiefly concerned with how, while wanting to take care of ourselves, be good to ourselves, protect ourselves, make ourselves important, we do that which we don’t like ourselves for, and which is against ourselves.

The chief cause of feeling bad, arising from ourselves, is our tendency or desire to separate ourselves from the world. This desire or tendency to separate ourselves from the world is the same as guilt. Insofar as a child has the likelihood of separating himself from the world, he already is critical of himself, or incipiently guilty. If this seems too heavy a thing to say of a young, young person—well, one should see some of the signs of dissatisfaction an infant can show with his very self—not just with his mother or father.

While, then, our relation with the world is not all that it should be, or we want it to be—and these are the same thing in the early run and the long run—we are critical of ourselves. And we should know where we are.

Feeling bad in man, as something caused by himself, is dissatisfaction with self accompanied by a fear of changing to meet this dissatisfaction, or a disinclination to do so.

We want to change very much, but we also think it is disgraceful to do so. We think we are imperfect, but we think it would be humiliating hell to admit it, see it. There is nothing we want more than to be other or different. There is nothing we dislike more.

Man hasn’t made up his mind about this. So he feels bad.

Before man can be happy, he has to see his desire to change as something he is proud of. He has to see his discernment or awareness of imperfection as pride.

There are now two opposites, desperate opposites, with us: man’s untiring inclination to be pleased with himself, or complacency; and man’s untiring displeasure with himself, his desire to be other than he is.

These two desires of man are akin to classicism and romanticism in art, inertia and motion in physics, structure and activity in biology, sameness and change in the world itself.

To be pleased with our desire to change is to be a good critic of ourselves. To be in bliss with our restless desire for improvement is to put the opposites of self-satisfaction and self-questioning together.

It is an aesthetic situation. When we have it, we like it.

3. Aesthetics Will Be There

The next time, then, we feel good, aesthetics will be around—as it is around when a picture is well painted, a concerto well made, a poem well fashioned, a dance well thought out, a drama truly come to.


Sleep as Judgment

or, Why People Don’t Sleep

By Eli Siegel

But for consciousness both activity and its own actual deeds remain miserable. Its satisfaction is its sorrow; and the freedom from this sorrow, in a positive joy, it looks for in another world. —Hegel, “The Contrite Consciousness,” translated by Josiah Royce

People don’t sleep because at night they are trying to shut out or banish the world they were in during the day. The passage from Hegel I have used as a motto is a philosophic, even theological presentation of an everyday or every night fact in America and elsewhere. Hegel’s “Contrite Consciousness” as such is a description, quite forbidding in its abstract verbal portentousness, of the constant war within selves. Yet when Hegel’s language no longer impedes, what we see is a common anguished fact.

Every night people go to bed deeply displeased with their day. They have felt outraged and not free, though they may have seemed busy. The world they met was not to their liking, though they were brisk in it. Briskness does not mean satisfaction.

There’s a woman, for example, who was displeased with her husband and her two children. They didn’t satisfy her sense of self-esteem or what was due her. She was assiduous and solicitous during the day. She was busy. At night, however, she wanted to get her revenge. She wanted to forget the insulting impassivity of her husband, and the careless ingratitude of her son and daughter; also the querulous, insistent dependence of a younger, married sister. Her day was full. There were customers to attend to, likewise, in the store of her husband and herself. Hegel would not have used the term, but she was really fed up. The universe she knew hardly gave her what she expected. During the day, she pretended things were all right with her.

At night, however, she, like many others, could put aside, or try to put aside, distressing attachments. There are many mothers who try to forget their children at night, even while they may worrisomely come to mind. Many wives try to forget their husbands. Husbands try to forget wives; fathers, their children. I am not saying that they do; I do say, however, that they try to forget. The reason is that wherever something in mind is distressing or puzzling or just bothersome, while we try, perhaps, to get order and soothingness into the situation by thinking intensely about it, we also are hoping to forget it, send it elsewhere, put it far, far from us.

At night the desire to think about things may be present with a big desire to see those things as not existing, just not of us. There are many persons who, because they have worked at jobs during the day, taken orders, met family responsibilities, conformed to this and that and this, feel they have a right to forget it all at night. Why not?—something in them says.

Comfort in Ourselves

A young woman may find even men she’s interested in too exacting. She may find her mother too much for her. Life may just be too bristling—asking too much, giving too little. If life seems so hard and intricate and disconcerting, there is comfort to be sought in our very selves. Oh, for the green meadows of undisturbed ego! Oh, for the sweet mists of self unimpeded. Oh, for the heard-only-by-oneself gentle music of oneself.

This soothing retaliation is gone for, even while it means the negation of the experience of the day. The garish dissatisfaction of the day is shut out. I have quoted Hegel to illustrate my meaning. I can use likewise a poem of Christina Rossetti, “Who Shall Deliver Me?,” which she wrote in 1864. This poem is about the common, rather continuous practice of displeased human beings to shut out the world which has displeased them. This is best to be seen in the second and third stanzas of the poem:

All others are outside myself;

I lock my door and bar them out,

The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.

I lock my door upon myself,

And bar them out; but who shall wall

Self from myself, most loathed of all?

These lines are likely about Christina Rossetti, but they are about thousands and thousands of people who never wrote melodiously agonizing poems, of sweet importance. The question is, does the situation described by Christina Rossetti have to do with why people don’t sleep? Aesthetic Realism thinks it does. Indeed, according to Aesthetic Realism, the reason within people for their not sleeping, the ethical reason, is: each night people are trying to find shelter in themselves from an unliked though participated in world, while at the same time they are trying, hoping, to meet this world on better terms than ever, with more lucid, comprehensive courage. The debate makes for the nonsleeping.

I have used the term ethical. I have done this because whenever we try to put aside the world, shut it out, or make it less (or for that matter make any person in it less, or any other object), there is that in us which sees it as unethical. Our deepest ethical desire is to know the world so well, like it so much, we can like ourselves. And so, if at night or any other time, we try to dismiss the world, there is that in us which sees it as unjust, and bad for ourselves. What is deepest in us sees putting aside the world or diminishing it as sin. There is a bad, ugly glory for ourselves that we get through lessening the world not ourselves.

The import of this is to be seen in the 139th Psalm. In fact, if persons could thoroughly and logically see the meaning of this psalm, they would have a means of dealing with non-sleeping. The psalm tells people not to hide in themselves, for it can never be successful: God, who also includes reality, will be there. For instance:

Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?

If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.

If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea;

Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me.

These verses say, in substance, that at any one time, however much we may be disposed to flee from the world, we are somewhere, we are in everywhere; we can be seen.

The next two verses are perhaps more immediately relevant to the great why-people-don’t-sleep question:

If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.

Yea, the darkness hideth not from thee; but the night shineth as the day: the darkness and the light are both alike to thee.

By Seeing Why

It is the viewpoint of Aesthetic Realism that if the meaning of Hegel’s “Contrite Consciousness,” Christina Rossetti’s “Who Shall Deliver Me?,” and Psalm 139 were thoroughly and organizedly welcomed, people would see why, often, they cannot sleep. By seeing why they often don’t sleep, they would be in a position to do something about it, with ethics and good sense applauding.