The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Art versus Cruelty

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish here, from notes taken at the time, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on February 27, 1947, at Steinway Hall: Why People Hurt People. It is definitive on its subject, a subject that alarms and stymies people now.

For example, discussions of bullying are taking place all over America. Teachers, parents, and school administrators don’t know what to do about it. The New York Times of September 22 described the bullying going on in a school honored last year as “the best high school in the state” by New Jersey Magazine. For more than a decade, senior girls there have cruelly hazed freshman girls—it is a “long-standing tradition.” And the administration has been unable to stop it. The Times quotes the principal: “I felt we had taken probably all reasonable steps we could’ve to address bullying. Obviously we need to address more.”

What Bullying Comes From

In the 1947 lecture, Mr. Siegel explains what this principal and the psychologists and sociologists do not know: he explains what bullying comes from. The thing that makes a senior at a highly praised New Jersey high school get pleasure tormenting a freshman is described in this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.”

Mr. Siegel shows that we shall never understand the overt, fierce ways people hurt other people until we understand contempt—and how it is present in everyone. Let’s take a guidance counselor whom we can call Janet. She is worried about reports of bullying at her school, but sees no relation between them and herself, her own thoughts, her marriage. Janet does not see—and might not want to see—that the satisfaction a senior girl has pushing a freshman into a locker is like the satisfaction she, Janet, had this morning at breakfast when, with a sarcastic remark, she brought a look of pained unsureness to her husband’s face.

W.S. Gilbert Says Criminals Are Like Us

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance there is a very funny song on the subject of people hurting people. It is “The Policeman’s Lot,” and it is also a true poem. The idea in it, is that people who commit crimes don’t do so all the time—and when they’re not behaving criminally, they’re pretty much like other people.

It’s possible to infer from that what Aesthetic Realism makes clear—because if a criminal is like all other people, then it’s to be expected that all of us have in some way that which impels a criminal. Gilbert has the Sergeant of Police say:

When a felon’s not engaged in his employment,

Or maturing his felonious little plans,

His capacity for innocent enjoyment

Is just as great as any honest man’s.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

When the enterprising burglar’s not a-burgling,

When the cut-throat isn’t occupied in crime,

He loves to hear the little brook a-gurgling,

And listen to the merry village chime.

When the coster’s finished jumping on his mother,

He loves to lie a-basking in the sun.

Ah, take one consideration with another,

The policeman’s lot is not a happy one!

Crime, like bullying, should certainly be fought; and it should be punished accurately. Meanwhile, as the response to the Godfather films and The Sopranos makes evident, there is that in law-abiding citizens which finds crime attractive. Mr. Siegel explains what the that is: it is, again, contempt, the desire to be superior to a world one sees as inimical—to defeat it, punish it, grab what one wants from it, look down on it.

And in 1947 and later Mr. Siegel explained that the one real opposition to contempt is aesthetics. It is the seeing that opposites which fight in us—care for self and justice to the outside world—are made one in art, and can and need to be one in our lives.

Take the poem I just quoted. It is delightful and, really, beautiful, because William Schwenck Gilbert used himself to give something that wasn’t himself justice (justice can sometimes be funny). In the process, he was not lessening himself, humiliating himself, but expressing himself, being himself richly.

And we hear in the lines a oneness of other opposites: reasonableness and wildness, relish and precision, the charming and the terrible.

The real fight, then, for every person and the world itself is Art versus Contempt. Aesthetic Realism explains it.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Why People Hurt People

By Eli Siegel

If one takes for granted that in everything one does there is a motive, it would seem we have a motive in hurting people. Of course, the immediate justification is, “He tried to hurt me first,” but sometimes that reason is uncertain. The question is, is there a pleasure in hurting people? Aesthetic Realism, being tough, says there is (and we can avoid words like sadism and the rest).

Why should people want to hurt people? Freud associated the desire to hurt people with the control that goes on in sex. But there is a deeper reason than sex: if one is against what isn’t oneself and can hurt what isn’t oneself, this gives one importance. And everyone is, to a degree, against what isn’t himself. I’ve talked to children who said they felt more important when they were fighting with their mother and father than when everything was going smoothly. And children have wanted to worry their mothers by running away from home, scurrying around at Coney Island. If something in one feels that the more the outside world is retaliated on, the more one is an individual, one will want to hurt.

The understanding of contempt is so large, we can expect to be in the process of getting that understanding for the rest of our lives. Contempt is that which makes us feel that unless what isn’t ourselves is nullified, our ego can’t persist. This is in everybody.

The Big Question

The big question in the unconscious is, How do we look on all that which isn’t ourselves? Most people do look on the world as an opponent. And when I say world, I mean all that which isn’t oneself. For example, when a person gets in a rage and starts tearing up paper, kicking a wall, breaking crockery, we feel this is more than a sociological hate: it’s a hate that goes back to things themselves.

Everyone can think other people—including his wife, mother, boss, closest relatives and friends—are against him. As we meet people, one part of us says, “These people exist to make me more”; the other part says, “These people are here to bother me, to get in my way, to take books from the library when I want them, to get into lines first.” Most persons are in a state of wavering between the two. They don’t like the world well enough to be solidly happy, but don’t dislike it enough to go to an asylum.

When somebody is able to hurt another, there is a feeling of superiority. A woman told me she consciously tried to hurt her boyfriend, and when she’d done a good job, would consciously turn her fireworks off. Another woman told me she didn’t feel she had power over a man until she got him so angry he’d try to hurt her.

We want to feel we can hurt others because it’s a way of showing the power of our individuality. And we want to be able to be hurt by others so we’ll have an excuse to separate from the world.

We should see clearly that the contempt in everyone does want to hurt. People have been surprised at how mean they can be sometimes, and have felt, “That wasn’t myself.” That is foolish; we should see that it is ourselves. The basis is the feeling that the self can be itself only by opposing what isn’t itself.

In a Cartoon

A cartoon called “How to Torture Your Wife” appeared in the Herald Tribune. It’s by Webster, and shows a woman who has come in with her coat and hat on. She says, “Oh, Warren, I saw the loveliest movie this afternoon. It was about a couple of old folks who had been married 45 years. He was so sweet and thoughtful—showered her with the little attentions that women love....Every time he entered the house he brought some nice little present.” The man, a very disheveled looking person lying on the couch with his shoes off, his tie askew, and pipe ashes and newspapers all around him, says, “What’s for dinner tonight? I could go for some fried liver an’ onions.”

She’s trying to hurt him by showing how wonderful the husband in the movie was. In the same way, a mother can try to hurt her child by saying, “Look at Jacky— look at how he studies.” The mother can also wish to help her child to study better; both motives can be present at once. Then there’s the man. He tries to hurt his wife by saying, I’m not interested in this at all—what’s for dinner?

How We See What Is Different from Us

We can resent persons because they’re different from ourselves. When two people have to act as if they were very close and they know they’re still different, and they can’t make a one of being close and being different (which would be aesthetics), they will get into showings of resentment and act as if the closeness limited them. We particularly resent what isn’t ourselves when it refuses to be possessed by us.

A purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to have us like what is not ourselves while still seeing it as different from us. It’s easy to like what is not ourselves if we can possess it, make it ours; but to like it and still see it as different—that is hard. That requires a putting together of opposites as happens in art.

Unless we can like the outside world as different from ourselves, there will be, however latent, a desire to hurt, and also to be hurt. We know that people can, when they’re hearing a conversation dimly, imagine things are being said against them. That is because the big fight in everyone is whether I’m going to be I by being plus what isn’t myself or minus what isn’t myself.

When we see children and men and women oppose others by doing violent things, we shouldn’t see these violent things as too much apart from the things we do. Most of us have enough care for the outside world to keep from doing violent things, but none of us can say, “I’m completely for what isn’t myself.”

I’m going to read, from An Anthology of World Prose, edited by Carl Van Doren, a passage by Mo Ti, of the 4th century BC:

As he loves only his own family and not other families, the thief steals from other families to profit his own family. As he loves only his own person and not others, the robber does violence to others to profit himself....When everyone regards the states of others as one’s own, who will invade?...If everyone in the world will love universally: states not attacking one another; houses not disturbing one another;... the world will be orderly.

Mo Ti mentions the family, and the family has been objected to chiefly for the reason he implies: because it can encourage the ego as narrow. Here we see the relation of contempt to provincialism. One is narrow because one sees the outside world as an enemy. Mo Ti says the thief cares only for his own family and uses this to justify being against others.

Provincialism begins with the self, and can get to the family, the town, the race. What we had in Germany was, on a large scale, the narrowness that is present in some fashion in everyone.

Any one of us, if we were alone in a room with $1,500 lying on a table, would have a desire to take it. That is not a saying that every one of us would take it, or would have the same amount of desire on the subject. Similarly, a woman told me that she hoped her newly married girlfriend wouldn’t get along with the man she married. Her having these thoughts didn’t mean she was going to send blackmailing telegrams. But we should see that we have such feelings, and see them clearly: it’s the only way to cope with them.

We don’t have to hurt people by stealing or blackmailing. We can be unkind in a quiet way. Take a Jewish lady. She’s nice, but she’s come to think that good things are only Jewish. She hears a non-Jewish violinist and refuses to have pleasure. Provincialism from one point of view is funny, but it’s also a phase of contempt. And from contempt came the recent occurrence of a young person’s slashing the tires on cars parked near a synagogue.

A Fight of Desires

While there is a desire to get gratification from hurting another, there’s also a desire, a deeper one, to have gratification by pleasing. We do try to hurt, but we are ashamed of it. Then we can feel, when we’ve atoned sufficiently, it’s all right to do it some more.

In keeping with the Mo Ti statement, people do want to love. But they have to feel there is something in it for them. If a person feels, without being aware, that there’s more in it for him to hurt people, he’ll do that. The only thing that will make people love is their seeing it as good sense. It is. And I’m not talking of love as meaning blue skies and the cheep-cheep of birds. Aesthetic Realism defines love as proud need. It must be shown that the desire to love—to be happy other people exist—most definitely expresses one’s personality.

We need to feel that what is different from ourselves, as it becomes ourselves, is still different. That would mean a man, while he is being affected by a woman, feels he becomes more an individual; at the same time, he sees that by his affecting her, she becomes more an individual too. And he is glad of both. Most often we do not want to grant another complete individuality: we do not really feel that another person has insides such as we have. Yet if we can’t do this, we’ll try to love from one point of view, while we’re hating from another.

So what Mo Ti is writing is true. But we have to see love as something tough, having good sense; not just having to do with orchids or mellifluous people talking on Sunday. Mo Ti’s statement is in a lovely prose, and it relates what goes on in oneself and one’s family to the state of the world generally.

Unhappiness: Preference & Danger

A person in a showdown unconsciously would rather be unhappy and have his individuality, as he unconsciously sees it, than be happy and seem to give it up. This is why people can seem to be spiteful, to hurt themselves, so that we say of them, “He is his own worst enemy.”

When we’re miserable we often want other people to be miserable, because we want to say it isn’t our fault we’re miserable—it’s the nasty world. If others are unhappy, that confirms our judgment. Therefore, unhappy people can be dangerous. Misery does love company: it’s a proverb, but it’s true. In proportion as we suffer, we want other people to suffer too. So unhappy people are a walking, sitting, standing peril.

And there is a desire to be angry, because there’s something in us that feels that when things are nice we’re not so important. It’s when we’re angry that we can become the Napoleons of the unconscious.

The definite desire not to be pleased can be called sulkiness. Most people go around with a certain satisfaction in being bored and displeased.

A criminal is one whose attitude to the world is that of falsely glorious opposition. He makes planned expeditions in opposition to the world. He’s not against anyone in particular; he’s against everything that he hasn’t identified with himself. Something of the desire to be a criminal is in everyone, because we all have a desire to be in opposition to the world. We should not sentimentalize the criminal even though the desire is in all of us.

Fascism arises from the feeling that through another’s pain, we are important. It can take the form of pain to a group, to a race—to everything. This feeling is present in everyone. It doesn’t mean we’re all fascists. But as we fight fascism outwardly, we should see that we’re also fighting it in ourselves.

Our Biggest Job

We need to see that the outside world is our first problem. When we were born, our mother and father represented the outside world. Our biggest job isn’t what Freud described, to gratify ourselves sexually, but to see the whole world as our friend—not as a depressor, a minimizer, but as a completer, a bringer-out. We all try to complete ourselves, but we can all settle for something premature, for incompleteness and a superfluous againstness. A person who doesn’t like the outside world is a failure in life. I don’t mean the sociological world; I’m speaking about the deepest thing: our attitude to ourselves and what is not ourselves.

In being fair to the outside world, we are enjoying it and knowing it. We want to hurt the world and be hurt by it, because we don’t see that there is an aesthetics of liking the world and being different from it at the same time.