The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Anxiety or Knowledge?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the lecture Mind and Attention, which Eli Siegel gave nearly 50 years ago. It is alive with Mr. Siegel’s clarity and humor and the might of his understanding. The way of seeing the human self that is the basis of this great lecture is hugely different from the approaches people are meeting in the media and from practitioners. And the way Aesthetic Realism sees the self, is, I am immensely grateful to say, not only TRUE — revolutionarily and immortally true—but beautiful and kind, and happiness-making! Aesthetic Realism shows: 1) The deepest desire of every person, what every baby comes breathing, feeling, and soon yelping and gurgling into the world for, is to like the world honestly—to know it, to give it deep and wide attention. 2) However, we have a competing desire: for contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” 

There is no more important accomplishment in the understanding of humanity than Mr. Siegel’s showing that contempt is “the greatest danger or temptation of man”: the desire to make oneself more by lessening something else is the source of all unfeelingness and cruelty, and is also that in every person which impairs our mind and emotion. And he showed that the biggest matter in our lives is the fight between our desire to diminish and despise reality and our desire to see meaning in it. Our intelligence, our ability to love, our ease in the world, our opinion of ourselves, depend on what happens to those two desires.  

I am going to use an article that appeared in the New York Times of October 20, to illustrate, a little, the difference between Aesthetic Realism’s way of seeing the self and that of contemporary psychiatry. It is the difference, really, between kind civilization and dark, mean, fundamental ignorance. The headline writer gave the article the misleading title “Old As Society, Social Anxiety Is Yielding Its Secrets”: if one of those “secrets” is the cause of such anxiety, it’s quite clear that it hasn’t yielded itself to the various psychiatrists cited in the article. 

First, reporter Erica Goode describes a man with “social phobia,” or “social anxiety disorder”: “Gatherings of his fellow humans” caused him “heart-pounding dread.” “At work he dreaded meetings” and “pray[ed] he would not have to speak.” Then we are told that this disorder is “the third most common psychiatric condition,” and that there are “new drug treatments” for it. And we meet the customary psychiatric method for covering up the fact that therapists do not understand the human self and why people feel bad: we are told “evidence suggests” that the cause of this trouble is “genetic.” 

The reason millions of people feel large—sometimes massive—unease in the presence of other people, has been explained by Aesthetic Realism. And as men and women have learned this explanation in Aesthetic Realism consultations, the difficulty has stopped. 

Where “Social Anxiety” Begins

It happens that a primal way we have contempt is that we make the reality within ourselves different from what is within other people. We grant ourselves sensitivity, intricacy, dimension; we make the depths of other people non-existent. What Mr. Siegel in his James and the Children calls “separation from the feelings of others” is quiet, underlying contempt; and many other modes of contempt accompany this expunging of what other people are inside. It is our contempt for people that makes us feel anxious, nervous, agitated among them.  

We feel deeply that people should be against us, because of the way we have thought about them, made fun of them, despised them in our minds—and not thought of them, made them into shadows. The state of mind of a person terrified about speaking among a group of people is like that of a thief who is surrounded by persons he recently robbed, and who has their hot cash in his pockets: he breaks out in a sweat because he bilked them, is scared he will be found out, yet also thinks he deserves to be. That is why people have “social phobia": they feel deeply they have been unjust to their “fellow humans,” and then they are confronted by people representing those “fellow humans.” They also have a hope to see people as against them, so they can continue to feel they are sensitive royalty in a world of uncaring philistines and brutes. 

Aesthetic Realism Consultations

In Aesthetic Realism consultations, which represent thrilling, true civilization, a person nervous amid people might be asked questions such as these: Do you think you’re more different from other people, or more like them? All people are both like and different from other people; but in the way you make yourself different from people, are you fair to them? When you’re among people, do you feel somewhere that you’re too good for them? Have you had thoughts about people you wouldn’t want them to know—have you seen them as ridiculous, hoped they would flop? Do you think people should dislike you for how you’ve had them in your mind? Do you think other people are worth understanding? If you were with people and really wanted to understand them, would you be afraid? 

There are many other questions Aesthetic Realism consultants would ask. The questions Aesthetic Realism enables a person to ask are the most beautiful, kindest questions in the world. And, as to the last two, I love Aesthetic Realism for showing: no person who truly wants to understand other people will have that awful nervousness about them! 

Inferiority and Superiority Are Close

The Times article notes that many people are “socially uncomfortable,” though not so devastatingly. For example: 

They banter confidently with colleagues while running an internal monologue that goes something like “O.K., here comes that new guy from Department 12. I better say something witty. Jeez, that was stupid. Now he probably thinks I’m a boob.”

Yes, this is common. But the Times writer and the psychiatrists she cites do not see that it is contempt. The person having a monologue is obviously much more interested in himself than in knowing the persons he is speaking to. He doesn’t see “that new guy” as a full human being, real as himself, through whom he can understand himself and the whole world—but as someone whose main function is to be impressed by him. Inferiority and superiority are close. If you rob life from other people and from the world they have to do with, you likely will say something “stupid,” because making reality dim, small, and centered around you is not only unethical but unintelligent. And you will most certainly punish yourself by feeling you are not worth much, either on the spot or later. All this is going on massively all over the world. 

I’ll introduce the following statements by saying simply that their foolishness is very large. Ms. Goode writes: “Some degree of social anxiety, researchers point out, is not only normal, but essential.” And she quotes the director of an anxiety clinic: “If you’ve never been concerned about the opinion of others, then you’ve never been an adolescent. And if you don’t think about it a bit every day, you’re probably not a very sensitive person.” The tremendous (and hurtful) foolishness of this is to make no distinction between one way of being “concerned about [people’s] opinion” and another way. We will want to know another’s opinion because 1) we are really interested in how that person sees the world, and because we want to learn about ourselves and be a better person, fairer to him and to everything; or we will be “concerned” about his opinion because 2) what we’re most interested in is whether we’re liked and because we want to conquer that person. The first is respect, and will never make us nervous. The second is contempt; it is the way people mostly are “concerned”; it is completely not “essential”; and it doesn’t have a thing to do with “sensitivity.” 

From an Aesthetic Realism Lesson

It moves me tremendously now to quote from the first Aesthetic Realism lesson of my mother, Irene Reiss. It took place about 50 years ago. She was afraid to be among crowds of strangers, for example on the subway; and that fear went away because of what Eli Siegel explained to her. Irene Reiss learned what people are learning from Aesthetic Realism today: that the relation between herself and the world is an aesthetic relation, in keeping with this principle stated by Mr. Siegel—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” If we try to take care of ourselves by lessening our great opposite and friend—the world, from which we came, and which we need to complete us—we will inevitably dislike ourselves and become ill-at-ease under our own skin. Now, as an Aesthetic Realism consultant, Irene Reiss has quoted passages from this first lesson to audiences at seminars, and to individual women in Aesthetic Realism consultations. 

I am looking at notes of the lesson, and Mr. Siegel’s beautiful kindness and knowledge glow with life. In these questions and statements to a young woman 5 decades ago are the understanding and answer to what the Times calls “social phobia.” 

Mr. Siegel said, for example: “Do you believe your being afraid of people is your being against them?” “Do you suppose that if other people exist, you are less important?” “When you go into a subway, you feel, ‘There are the people whom I was trying to forget about when I went to bed last night.’” “Do you think of the world as being Irene and everything that isn’t Irene? Everything that isn’t Irene is the world. Do you believe you are for that or against that? Do you believe that if you weren’t against it, you could be afraid of it?” “To meet new people, you think is an intrusion, an insult, because they haven’t approved of you yet.” “Contempt says, ‘The more I can despise and be against, the more important I am.’” “Everything that we look at should be seen wholly. If you would like to be seen wholly, don’t you think other people would like to be seen wholly and not as shadows?” “The reason that when we meet people we feel inferior is that we have had a false superiority.” “If you said to yourself, ‘I want to know things and I want to be all that I can be,’ no person could frighten you.” “I am trying to renew your love for things that are not yourself. The more you will like the world, the more you will like yourself.” 

I thank Mr. Siegel, with love, for my mother’s life, my own, and for the future of humanity. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Attention and Interference

By Eli Siegel

It happens that in the “bad” emotions, like anger, there is a desire not to see—that is, be attentive, know. If a person wanted to see, he couldn’t be hurtfully angry. Let’s say a person says, “I was very angry, and I regret it.” Then he is asked, “Did you want to see anything at that time?” The person says, “Oh, no. I just had to be angry!” 

Where any of the “bad” emotions does not interfere with attention, it is not a bad emotion. The big thing in a bad emotion is that it interferes with your desire to see, to be attentive. And it does so because there is a desire to feel a certain way—to have glorifying contempt. Attention is knowledge in action. And when a person is angry or depressed, if you ask that person, “Do you want to know anything now? Do you want to see anything clearly?,” the person will likely get very irritated. The idea that anything like knowledge could be compared to the depths and the discomfort of his or her emotion—it’s an insult! 

Anytime a discontented child, grandfather, great-great-grandmother could ever be made to look at something, be attentive to something, outside of the glory of her own anger or depression, there would be a lessening of that depression. Because attention—not just to oneself, but to something outside of oneself—if it could be managed, would that much mean an attack on a bad and fake emotion. The first thing that a person under the control of a bad emotion—whether it’s a sly depression, or an outward anger, or just a plain dullness—doesn’t want to do is look at something clearly. 

When something happens to us that’s important—if, for example, we get an important telephone call—it’s to be expected that we go around in a haze for a while. But while that is forgivable, to a point—the noxious kind of unconscious inattention, the hurtful kind, is the building up of a dull, unperceptive conceit month after month. It is a very bad thing and has to be studied, because the only way to fight it is to see what it comes from and what the motive is.

We are in the world, sleeping or waking, to look at it, to be attentive to it all the time. It is difficult to be attentive, but the desire must be there. There is a very charming poem by Walter Savage Landor which deals with inattention—about a girl who can’t do her work: 

Mother, I cannot mind my wheel; 

My fingers ache, my lips are dry: 

Oh! if you felt the pain I feel! 

But oh, who ever felt as I? 

No longer could I doubt him true— 

All other men may use deceit; 

He always said my eyes were blue, 

And often swore my lips were sweet.

Now, this girl has reason for not being attentive to her spinning wheel. If a person has been disappointed in love, one can expect that she won’t be attentive, in the ordinary sense, to her food, mother, brother, books, friends, because something seems to have swamped those things. And it is not necessary to scold the person. But what I have been talking about chiefly is the unconscious swamping that goes on even without a tragic event. 

If, for example, somebody is going through a tremendous worry, it can be expected that if you talk to him, that person is elsewhere. “I’ve got my mind on this; and what are you talking to me about the last superficiality of Governor Dewey for?” A worry, or a hope for that matter, can be so big that you get in a haze and you don’t look at anything; you’re not attentive; you just go through things. Every day somebody walks down the Grand Concourse and doesn’t see the Grand Concourse. If you’re happy, you don’t see anybody; if you’re grieving, you don’t see anybody—it’s a bad time for attention. But the desire to be attentive must be there all the time. 

Love and Attention

If the woman who didn’t see anything walking down the Grand Concourse were walking with her boyfriend and they were sensible, she would see all things in a keener way. “Love” can make one inattentive; but if it’s the true thing, it makes one more attentive than one ever was before—that is, more desirous of seeing a thing as it truly is, without disparaging other things. 

The girl in the poem has been deceived, and, I am sure, helped herself to be deceived by a young man. This is a decisive happening, making for inattention. But the point is that inattention can be built up over the years, not so much because of any tragedy, but because inattention is a means of protecting ourselves. 

The Senses

A good question that people should ask is: “Are my ears working fully?—my eyes working fully?—my taste?—my smell?—my touch?” If they are all working fully, then your self, which is a combination of all of them, is also working fully. But how we can interfere with the senses is a most comprehensive and constant important mystery. We do want to lessen the effect of the world on us, and one way of lessening the effect of the world on us is to have something wrong with one of our senses. Other things can coexist to help this along. But a good deal of interference with the senses comes because the self is protecting itself that way. 

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