Dear Unknown Friends:
It is an honor to begin to serialize Aesthetic Realism Looks at Feeling, a 1964 lecture by Eli Siegel. Nothing is closer to us than our feelings. Nothing confuses us more. Since every human act of kindness or beauty began with a person’s feeling something, and so did every vicious or ugly act, it is mightily important to know what feeling is. Aesthetic Realism is the means to that knowledge.
What Is Fundamental
In this lecture, Mr. Siegel describes what is fundamental to all feeling, however complex. Feeling—whether a child’s on touching a cat, or Hamlet’s during an intricate soliloquy—is always a matter of pain or pleasure; it is always for or against. In any day, every person has feelings about hundreds of things. That means we are for and against in ever so many ways. And Aesthetic Realism explains this: in order to like ourselves, we have to be for and against in a way that makes us proud. A huge cause of shame and tragedy in the lives of people is, they’re not proud of their feelings. They’re not proud of why they’re for and against.
For example, right now a person we can call Don is for those people and things which make him feel important or comfortable: someone who flatters him; a political idea that doesn’t seem to question him too much; a social event where he can be among the “right” people and so feel he’s accepted and impressive. He is against those persons and things which seem to question his superiority, which ask him to think more deeply than he finds comfortable, which don’t go along with some picture he has of himself. Don is a representative citizen. And whether he or we know it or not, such a basis for being for and against, such a basis for our feelings, makes us ashamed and unsure.
The reason is, that basis is contempt. As Mr. Siegel points out here, contempt is the big corrupter of our feelings. It is that which stops them from being just. Contempt—the being spuriously for ourselves through lessening the outside world—is the most hurtful feeling in the human self. It is also a constant purpose, a drive.
In this issue we print an article about a very popular phase of contempt. It is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Steven Weiner, from a public seminar of last month: “Cynicism: Does It Make a Man Stronger or Weaken Him?”
Robert Herrick Looked at His Feelings
Around 1640, Robert Herrick wrote a poem that describes, with simplicity and charm, two opposed feelings. “Discontents in Devon” is about being for and against a place. (The word numbers means verses.)
More discontents I never had
Since I was born, than here,
Where I have been, and still am sad,
In this dull Devonshire;
Yet justly too I must confess,
I ne’er invented such
Ennobled numbers for the press,
Than where I loathed so much.
As a clergyman, Herrick had been sent to live in Devonshire, and he’s clearly against the place. He longed to be back in London, speaking about literature and more with his friend Ben Jonson and others, in the busy taverns. Yet, he says, it’s in Devonshire that he has written his best poetry.
Along with the need to be proud of our feelings, there is another need that is, perhaps, even greater: to look at our feelings in a way that makes us proud. Our feelings may be wrong, unjust—but we have been given by reality an ability to criticize them, try to see them truly. Though this poem of Herrick is not his very best, it is definitely good. And the reason is, he is doing that which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the source of all poetry: he is looking on his own feelings as a beginning point for seeing and feeling the world itself truly. So he makes verbal music of his mix-up.
Herrick has used his confusion to get to, to see as one, the opposites which are the structure of reality itself. And we hear them, feel them, in his lines. In the sound of this poem, reality’s neatness and mystery are heard together. There is a musical simultaneity of disgust and wonder. There is an immortal inseparability of tumult and repose.
Aesthetic Realism is based on the idea that the way of seeing in art is what we need in our lives. We need to see our feelings as things to be exact about; and as means to know and feel accurately the world itself. That is utterly different from what people usually do: assume any feeling of theirs is correct because they have it. There is nothing more dangerous.
I have seen that Aesthetic Realism is the means to both the knowledge and the accurate, proud emotion people thirst for. It arose from feeling-and-thought at its finest, most artistic and scientific: that of Eli Siegel.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Aesthetic Realism Looks at Feeling
By Eli Siegel
As mysterious as anything in this world is feeling. And as one talks about feeling the whole past and the culture of the world are present. In Greek literature, Roman literature, in Sanskrit literature, there is a great deal about feeling. In the literature of France, America, Germany, England there is also, because man has shown he was pained and pleased by what was about him, by the world. The word feeling is associated with things clearly mysterious, like the unconscious, and “drives,” and so on; however, the original meaning remains.
From one point of view, a feeling can be defined as any instance whatever of pain or pleasure. It perhaps is not necessary to use the word mind, since the only thing having pain or pleasure is mind, but if it is necessary, the definition can be changed to any instance of mind having pain or pleasure. The big thing about feeling is that it has pain or pleasure in it.
The wonder of this, the beauty of it, is that you cannot have pain or pleasure without knowing something. “How did you feel once you got there, to that small place in Maine?” There’s knowledge there: of getting to Maine, and a small place, and in “once you got there.” Maybe your feeling changed after you were there a week. But there is always knowledge.
Feeling itself is the greatest tribute to the opposites, perhaps, that there is in directly human terms, because you can’t feel anything without knowing something. When a person says, “I feel different now,” another can ask, “What makes you feel different?” There’s always an implication that something has been met or known by the person feeling different. And that is true.
Meanwhile, we have to see, and keep on seeing, that feeling is about pain or pleasure. There’s a tendency to get away from these two simple matters. Pain or pleasure, pain and pleasure, are too big ever to lose their presence, their efficacy, their usefulness.
A Great American Writes of Feelings
The fact that feeling is about pain or pleasure, and also that in having pain or pleasure there is always a judgment of the world—this can be felt in a paragraph from a work by Jonathan Edwards. He has been called America’s greatest theologian and also America’s greatest philosopher. He has been called great. This work—A Treatise concerning Religious Affections—appeared in 1746. It is really a treatise on feelings. The word affections, used as Edwards uses it, can be seen as being the same as feelings. Affection and the present-day psychological term affective come from the same source. When Edwards talks of the “affections,” he includes feelings of a very customary kind, ordinary kind. This is from the version edited by W. Ellerby:
The affections are of two sorts; those by which the soul cleaves to, or seeks; and those by which it dislikes, or opposes. Of the former kind are love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, complacence; of the latter kind are hatred, fear, anger, grief. There are some affections of a mixed nature; as pity, in which there is something of the former kind toward the person suffering, and something of the latter in reference to what he suffers. In zeal, there is warm approbation, as it respects one object; and vigorous opposition, as it respects another.
I say very definitely: we haven’t gone beyond this. There has really been no new psychological addition of any account. Whatever the word is today, the 18th century had it. And if the 18th century used certain words and we use different words, the old standbys are with us: that is, pain, pleasure; hate, love; anger, like. You can put all the parsley you want on these, but that’s what they are; garnish it how you may, the meat is what it is. So Edwards says, “The affections are of two sorts,” and we’re stuck with that. You can either be for or against something—or you don’t know which, which is very fashionable. But in all confusion there is a for and against. There are many fors and againsts. The fact that fors and againsts can be a medley, or even an orchestra, doesn’t change the fact that they are for and against. No matter how much you try, you can’t go beyond being for something or against it, or some combination.
“The affections are of two sorts; those by which the soul cleaves to, or seeks; and those by which it dislikes, or opposes.” We don’t talk now of the soul cleaving, but cleaving to something means that one would rather it be there than not. One wants to be near something. What the soul hangs on to it usually likes. Hang on is a vernacular term for “cleaves to.”
“Of the former kind are love, desire, hope, joy, gratitude, complacence; of the latter kind are hatred, fear, anger, grief.” Each one of these can also be a passion. It can also be an emotion. The affections, passions, emotions, feelings are the same things seen from different angles, or seen with different tempos or temperatures. For example, anger is definitely an emotion. It is also an affection, as Edwards uses the term. It is also a feeling, and can be a passion. Well, whether you have anger as an emotion, feeling, passion, or affection, you’re against something. If you have love as a feeling or emotion or passion or affection, you’re for something.
“There are some affections of a mixed nature; as pity....” Here we get to certain matters. Pity is usually a spawning ground for contempt, and contempt is a spawning ground for pity. As soon as contempt gets into the picture, the affections lose their first simplicity; the passions do, the feelings do, and we have strange colors present.
“In zeal, there is warm approbation...and vigorous opposition.” Edwards says there can be zeal for something and against something, and pity can be attended with approbation or disapproval. However, the feelings are here. Combinations can be made. They have been made.
All the feelings, all the affections, all the emotions, and the beginnings of all the passions are in us, every one of them. The important thing to see is that a feeling is always a for and an against. It is a cleaving to or a dislike. That is simple and contains ever so much.
A Man’s Cynicism: Weakness or Strength?
By Steven Weiner
By the time I was a teenager, I was already cynical. I felt that so much of the world was ugly, and unjust—especially to me. Instead of being thankful that my parents worked hard to provide a comfortable life, I was sure I’d been terribly wronged because our family wasn’t as well off as some of my friends’ families were. I used the anger between my mother and father to tell myself love didn’t exist. As I watched TV in the 1960s, I saw many persons courageously opposing the brutal treatment of African Americans in the South, and protesting the Vietnam War. Even though, through them, my respect for humanity did increase, the main thing I felt was “What a mean, screwed-up world!”
“The world, certainly,” writes Ellen Reiss,
has ugliness in abundance. It has injustice, disorder, pain. Aesthetic Realism explains that we have two choices as to the ugly: 1) We will try to see accurately something that’s awry and wrong—and accurately means deeply, widely, and in relation to what’s not ugly....2) The other choice about the ugly is the one people usually make: to use it to have contempt for the world....There is an actual thirst in a person to see things as ugly—so that we can feel superior. We can prefer to despise rather than respect, be disappointed rather than grateful. [TRO 1692]
As much as I wanted to think I was just saddened by the misfortunes of humanity, I came to see that I did hope the world was ugly. As Eli Siegel writes in Self and World, “To see the world itself as an impossible mess...gives a certain triumph to the individual.” It is the triumph of contempt, and cynicism is a form of contempt.
Once, I thought my cynicism made me strong, keen, tough—unlike all those blindly naïve people who acted pleased by things. But I’ve seen that cynicism is hardly an intellectual accomplishment. After all, it doesn’t take much to realize the world has injustice and pain. What is an achievement, what is truly strengthening, is what the study of Aesthetic Realism is centrally about: how to like the world honestly, by seeing large, deep meaning in reality and people.
When Does It Start?
One of the last things associated with childhood is cynicism. But that is when it most often begins. In a 1950 lecture, Mr. Siegel explained:
We [can] decide even as a child that the world will not be beautiful enough for us....At the age of four we [can] decide to be cynical and say, “I’m going to hide....I’m not going to give myself entirely. I’m going to call people phony, and I’m going to say they are no good for me.” [TRO 438]
That is essentially how I used my parents, Sam and Lillian Weiner: to mistakenly feel that people were “no good for me.” My mother was a lively, very capable woman. But I used her inaccurate praise of me (when I was 7 she told me I had a keen understanding of people) to feel superior to everyone, including, very much, my father. I expected this treatment from others—my two brothers, teachers, friends. When it wasn’t forthcoming, I got hurt and angry. So I began to “hide” from all those “no good” people. Instead of going out to play, I’d stay home alone.
Unlike my mother, my father treated me as he did my brothers. He expected us to act responsibly, and when we didn’t, he objected. I used this to feel he was the bane of my existence, and I used his frequent ill nature to see the whole world as harsh and mean. I often said, “I’ll never be like him,” thinking I was so far above ordinary, crass humanity.
Once in a class, Eli Siegel asked me if my thoughts about people were “acidy.” They were, and often took the form of a running sarcastic commentary about nearly everyone. In the midst of one of these, my brother Paul got very angry and said, “For God’s sake, will you give people a break already!” I felt he was right, but I didn’t know I was poisoning my life by my contemptuous way of seeing.
In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked: “Do you feel this is a world that is for you, against you, or indifferent to you?” I was 18, and replied without hesitation, “Against me. I feel I have to beat the world out, or else it’s going to beat me out.” My consultants said: “You, like every child, were born to like the world, but do you think early you made decisions to have contempt for it and people?” In consultations, they said, I would be looking at these decisions, so I could make new ones through which I could like myself. That day was a tremendously happy turning point in my life!
In a matter of months, my parents saw their son become more hopeful and less cynical. My father later told me that the change in me—from being scornful, to being, for the first time, interested in his life—was so big that he felt “I had to find out for myself what Aesthetic Realism is!” That is just what he did. Both Sam and Lillian Weiner began having consultations too.
Cynicism about Love
A form of cynicism many men have is the feeling that a woman cannot affect us well, cannot strengthen us—including intellectually. I once felt this intensely. In an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me: “Do you think it’s possible to like the way a woman sees you?”
SW. I’m not sure.
ER. But do you like feeling that a woman cannot meet your hopes?
SW. I never thought of that.
ER. That is the biggest insult you can give a person: that he or she cannot meet your hopes. It is contempt, and it is also conceit.
I began to see that my hope for women was unjust and really stupid, and that I’d robbed myself greatly by having it. I’m very glad to feel now that I need a woman—her perception, her criticism, her encouragement—to be all I can be!
What the men of America need most to learn is what Aesthetic Realism makes clear: the more we respect and honestly like reality, the stronger we will be.