The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Against the Ownership That Is Contempt

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the fourth section of the great 1970 lecture by Eli Siegel we are serializing, Selves Are in Economics. And with it is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carrie Wilson, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "What Are the Rivals of Love?" The two aspects of this TRO are of a piece, because Eli Siegel was the philosopher to show that what has interfered with love and had something false take its place, and what has made economics cruel and inefficient, are the same. The interference in both enormous aspects of human life has been contempt. 

Contempt is the feeling that reality, people, perhaps a particular person, exist to make oneself comfortable and important—that one does not have the obligation to be just to it, them, him, her. A big form of contempt, in economics and amour, is the desire to own rather than know. I love the following sentences by Mr. Siegel, for both their comprehension and their literary beauty:

We can own the world only by knowing it. We can possess the world only by having it in our minds; that is, by having knowledge of it. All other possession, both in love and economics, is false and hurtful....The unconscious will never be at ease. The world was meant to be known, to be felt, not to be parcelled out into huge segments or lesser segments for the complacent but deleterious delectation of some and the domination and manipulation of others. [Self and World, pp. 279-280]

In the 1970s, Mr. Siegel explained that an economy in which the impelling motive is to make profit from people rather than to be useful to them, no longer works. Economics based on a few persons’ possessing a very great deal of the world’s and nation’s wealth, while the rest are in various ways "dominat[ed] and manipulat[ed]," no longer works. And with increasing consciousness, people have been objecting to it. In this short commentary, I mention three matters of our very moment, April 2002, which have in them opposition to contemptuous possession.

1. In the segment of his lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel speaks about the family, and says there is a new attitude toward it which is against the profit system attitude, against a certain ownership. The fight Aesthetic Realism describes as the largest in every individual—between respect for the world and contempt for the world—has gone on intensely in the family, and still does. But the tendency to say, "What matters is our clan. We own each other, are better than outsiders, and should be against them," is opposed even more than it was in 1970. It is opposed by the fact that families now have more of the presence of the wide outside world in them. First of all, families are much more multiethnic. All over America, people can look at a cousin whose race seems different from their own. This sense of difference and width is against the confining which is basic to ownership. 

Also, because many people are in second marriages or have had children (to use a phrase) out of wedlock, the family is a new relation of close and distant, of one’s own blood and that of strangers: there are often half brothers and sisters, and these may or may not live in one’s home. So while trouble about love is sometimes part of the cause, the family is less "traditional." And as the family is less traditional, it is also in various ways wider; this width, again, is opposed to a certain sense of ownership.

2. A tremendous instance of people’s objecting to ownership has shown itself in relation to the scandal in the Catholic Church. I am not commenting now on the revelations of widespread abuse by priests— about which so much could be said. What I refer to is that this scandal has brought to the fore something which has grown in recent decades: the feeling of millions of Catholics that their religion has been owned privately, by a certain group of persons, and should belong instead to all Catholics. We see this objection, sometimes furious, in many commentaries by Catholic writers. (Maureen Dowd writes about the Church’s "huge institutional conceit," New York Times, Mar. 24. Anna Quindlen, in a fierce Newsweek column of April 1, says "ordinary Catholics...have been too little consulted by the highhanded hierarchy.") The feeling that religion should not be owned privately is an aspect of the feeling that the world itself, the birthright of everyone, should not be owned privately.

3. The third instance is the situation in Israel, about which I have written extensively over the years. For now I say this: it is very clear that the land of Israel/Palestine cannot and will not be owned by only a certain people, the Jews, with contempt for others, for Palestinians. The suicide bombings are, of course, horrible. But the fact is, and most people know it: Palestinians will finally have land that is rightly theirs. The Sharon government is furious about this fact, and in the fury of its frustrated conceit is behaving with more and more viciousness and brutality—just because it knows it has lost and cannot have its way.

The beloved land of Israel is small in size, but it is large enough for two peoples to own, in some fashion, together. And the fact that this has to be, is against narrow possession and is beautiful.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


To Understand, or Own?

By Eli Siegel

The presence of self with industry, also the ethics of industry, are commented on by an Aesop fable I once discussed. One of the reasons for the profit system’s leaving is the fact that the family is not seen, even by members of the family, as used to be. There was a disposition for a family to be the same as a continuing company. This went along with the idea of dynasties in Europe—the Hohenzollerns, the Hohenstaufens, the famous families. There is another attitude about the family, and it is one that goes not so well with the profit system. I think it’s adumbrated in this very famous story of Aesop, "The Thief and His Mother":

A Little Boy...stole one of his school-fellow’s books and took it home. His Mother, so far from correcting him, took the book and sold it, and gave him an apple for his pains.

The mother begins by saying, Well, if it’s done by one of the family, it’s different from when it’s done by a stranger. 

The Boy became a Thief, and at last was tried...and condemned. He was led to the gallows, a great crowd of people following, and among them his Mother....[He] put his arm around her neck, and making as though he would whisper something in her ear, bit it off....

[He said to the crowd,] "My first theft was of a book, which I gave to my Mother. Had she whipped me for it, instead of praising me, I should not have come to the gallows now that I am a man."

Families have encouraged each other to beat other families, and a good deal of sociology and social history goes with that.

The International Thesaurus of Quotations, compiled by Rhoda Thomas Tripp (1970), has some current statements, and also has some of the famous phrases of English or of the world. There are many things in it which deal with the situation making for profits, the world as leading to the profit system, that should be known.

The editor has, as Section 8, "Acquisition"; and there’s a quotation from the wife of Charles Lindbergh, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, who was a popular writer once:

The collector walks with blinders on; he sees nothing but the prize. In fact, the acquisitive instinct is incompatible with true appreciation of beauty. [Gift from the Sea (1955)]

What has to be asked is whether there are two things in mind: whether there is the desire to see and the desire to have; the desire to understand and the desire to possess. They can be talked about, but they haven’t been seen as sober facts.

"The collector...sees nothing but the prize." We know very well that if somebody can get a Renoir, he doesn’t have to know anything about Renoir. He can just feel wonderful because he got it. The acquisition can make you think you understand, sometimes. As within the family: if you have children, you automatically think you understand them, which has made for more screaming in the world than has to be. You might as well say that you understand breathing because you breathe. It doesn’t follow. You have to study a book telling you why you breathe.

"The acquisitive instinct is incompatible with true appreciation of beauty." Whether that is so or not is something to see. It’s been said there’s a kind of instinct which goes against the seeing of this world as pleasing; and Mrs. Lindbergh says that. We shall meet it elsewhere.

John Stuart Mill is quoted under the heading "Advantage":

The concessions of the privileged to the unprivileged are seldom brought about by any better motive than the power of the unprivileged to extort them. [The Subjugation of Women (1869)]

That is quite true. People will usually not be just until they’re forced to. That is why strikes usually don’t go by the rules of etiquette. It’s a great pity, but that’s the way it is.

Then, one of the most poetic things in the New Testament is quoted, from St. Mark, under the head of "Ambition":

What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? [Mark 8:36]

Yes, it’s a very good question. And it has troubled people.

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The Rivals of Love

By Carrie Wilson

When I was in my early twenties I wanted to think I was all for love and the reason I hadn’t found it was that there was something wrong with all the men I met. I didn’t know I had purposes that were rivals to my hope to care for someone. I knew I had, as I put it, "played games with men." But I hoped that if Mr. Right (translated: Mr. Perfect Enough to Be Good Enough for Me) came along, then all would be well. I was angry with the world for, as I saw it, holding out on me, and I was also afraid that something I didn’t understand in myself would always prevent me from having real love in my life.

The Desire to Feel Superior

The biggest rival to love for another person, I have learned, is the desire to love oneself only, through being superior to everyone and everything.

Growing up, as I listened to my father’s phonograph records of Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and looked for hours at the great works reproduced in Rockwell Kent's World Famous Paintings, I had large, respectful feelings about the world. But I also had a sense that I was superior to other people from at least the age of 2½, when I remember crossing the aisle of a train to correct a little boy who, until then, was happily using a green crayon to draw someone’s hair. 

My desire to be superior affected badly every relation I had with a man. At the time I began to study Aesthetic Realism, I was seeing a man I’ll call Roger Clark, who, like myself, was an actor. I admired the serious, excited way he talked about acting, and liked very much his admiration of me. But I also felt he was too angry and too rough-hewn, and I would offer more than a few suggestions for the improvement of his disposition and social graces. I felt he was lucky to have me in his life. When I was critical, I forgot about what I respected in him, and often, with maddening coolness, set about proving that my way was right and his wrong. I went between devotion and scorn, self-righteous indignation and repentant tears.

In a class I attended three weeks after I began to study with Mr. Siegel, he spoke about how the kind of power people think is love, is really one of its great rivals. "Man and woman both want power," he said, and asked, "Miss Wilson, are you interested in power in any manner, shape, or form?" I answered, I’m sorry to say, evasively: "Right now I don’t feel like exercising power over Mr. Clark." Mr. Siegel continued, "Do you believe two hundred people in the New York area are saying to someone, ‘Don’t tell me what to do!’?" "Yes," I said. "Have you heard the equivalent from Roger Clark?" "Yes," I answered.

"Every person," Mr. Siegel explained, "is interested in power. The question is, what kind? Power can have a good effect, but it can be truly objectionable." "Good power," he said, "makes the world more beautiful and makes the immediate recipient more respected." In this class he asked, "Miss Wilson, do you see Mr. Clark through clear eyes, or with your eyes?" I answered, "With mine." "Do you believe," he asked, "you have changed Mr. Clark to your own image?" "Yes," I answered. "Why?" "I’ve changed him to what is more comfortable to myself," I said. "Did you ask his permission?" "No," I said. "Well," he explained, 

that’s in the field of power. The greatest problem in art is the problem in life: truth and imagination; what a thing really is and what we can do with it. We all want people to do our will, and we like people to be like pigeons in a zoo—we hold out some crumbs and they’re overjoyed. One reason we feel bad is that while we go after what we see as desirable, we aren’t sure our desires represent us. Miss Wilson, do you think your desires represent you?

I did not, and in such classes as this I was learning for the first time how they could.

Conquest and Contempt

For example, in another class Mr. Siegel asked: "Do you see Roger Clark as an enemy to tame or someone you have beautiful hopes about?" It was the first. And he continued, "Do you believe your end purpose with Mr. Clark looks good to you?" No; and the reason was in the next question: "Do you believe you are interested in men to glorify yourself?" "Yes," was my reply. Mr. Siegel said, "Ask yourself, ‘Do I want this person’s life to be better?’ The other thing is strategic hostility—you want to make fools of people without them knowing it. Do you?" "Yes," I answered.

The desire that truly represents a person, I learned, is good will, "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful." When I saw that my drive to have contemptuous power over a man didn’t represent me, and that good will did, my life changed tremendously.

Through Mr. Siegel’s knowledge and kindness, I was spared a loveless life of vanity, scorn, and unhappiness. I came to see that men had feelings as sensitive as mine that I could be proud trying to know and be fair to; that they could love ethics with a passion I could learn from; that men had a desire to be kind that I should respect, not exploit as a compliment to me; that men were not adversaries to be outwitted and defeated, but colleagues through whom I could know the world with more depth, accuracy, and pleasure. I am grateful to feel this in my marriage to Edward Green, who is a composer, music educator, and Aesthetic Realism associate, and grateful that we are learning from Aesthetic Realism together.