The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Attention and America

Dear Unknown Friends:

We begin to serialize Mind and Attention, by Eli Siegel. He gave this great lecture in 1949. And in it, that subject attention—so wonderful yet often so distressing to people—is understood truly, with Mr. Siegel’s beautiful kindness, depth, scope, and also humor. He explains the deep mix-up: how we are, without knowing it, both for and against the giving of attention, and the getting of it. Later in the lecture, he will explain something that psychiatry is still massively ignorant about: what in a person interferes with his or her giving attention. I anticipate that discussion by saying: Mr. Siegel has shown that the big thing hampering the ability to give attention is contempt for the world. 

He showed—and there is nothing more important in the understanding of mind—that contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it,” is the cause of all cruelty. And having contempt is also that which weakens our mind. The chief reason we don’t give attention is the feeling within us that outside things don’t deserve it. A seeming inability to be attentive is both a result and form of contempt for a world we see as unworthy of our thought. 

Meanwhile, the magnificent fact that our minds were made to give attention to the world—to its objects, colors, sounds, knowledge, to the feelings of other people—is evidence for something else Eli Siegel was the person to explain: “Man’s deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis” (Self and World, p. 1). 

In Mind and Attention, Mr. Siegel describes a huge cause of human pain. It is the fact that a person can be made much of, yet not get real attention—not be thought about for the purpose of seeing who he or she truly is. That is so likewise about historical events. And I comment here on something in American history that has certainly been “paid attention to” in a sense—celebrated, praised—yet has a meaning which people haven’t wanted enough to see, and which some people want intensely to evade. That event is the American Revolution.  

I think it is urgent that attention—real, accurate attention—be given to what the American Revolution was most deeply about. This is because what the American Revolution was concerned with is the same thing Americans are in tumult over now—as people across this nation are so worried about jobs and money, about being able to afford things they and their children need in order to have good, or even decent, lives.  

For this occasion I use, not a prose text, but a poem. In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote lines to be sung at a ceremony commemorating the first battles of the Revolution. These battles were in Lexington and Concord, in the Massachusetts of 62 years before Emerson’s time: April 19, 1775. Here is the first stanza of his “Concord Hymn,” with its famous phrase: 

By the rude bridge that arched the flood, 

Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, 

Here once the embattled farmers stood 

And fired the shot heard round the world.

In history classes people study, and should, the various causes of the American Revolution—including the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, the Intolerable Acts. And causes are clearly given in the Declaration of Independence: “facts [are] submitted to a candid world.” What do these facts most fundamentally come to? 

Who Should Own the Land?

“All beauty,” wrote Eli Siegel, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” This principle is the basis of Aesthetic Realism. And two opposites present in the colonies in 1775 were Selves and Earth, human beings and the land. These are forms of the biggest opposites in our lives: self and world. By April 1775 there came to be a fury in many persons in America that while they lived on the American earth, planted it, built on it—the wealth which that combination of themselves and the earth produced was being robbed from them by an English king and his aristocratic confreres. There was fury that George III saw the American land and the people who lived on it as means to enrich England. All the offenses he committed, which the Declaration of Independence enumerates, were ways of showing that “what happens on this land, including your lives, is mine to decide—because I own it!” 

In the stanza I quoted, Emerson uses the phrase “the embattled farmers.” There is, in terms of sound—in terms of poetic music— a good tumult in that phrase. But the phrase is also a way of stating that it was the persons who worked on the land and put seed into it and harvested crops from it, who were now standing up against the most powerful army in the Western world. As they came out, that April day, with their flag and weapons to face the trained soldiers of England, they were saying, “This land on which our lives take place is ours. It does not exist for some monarch and his henchmen to make profit from, while tyrannizing over, sapping, and ruining our lives in order to do so!” 

The Revolutionary Question

In his essay “Ownership: Some Moments,” Eli Siegel writes: “How land should be owned is the great revolutionary question” (TRO 944). What Emerson calls “the shot heard round the world” was about independence, of course; but independence is connected inextricably with ownership of earth—with that oneness of opposites selves and earth. For the 13 colonies to be independent was for the people living in them to own the rocky Massachusetts earth and the lusher Virginia earth and the earth at New York harbor, where ships could come. Emerson is saying what historians have said in prose: the American Revolution stirred the world. It encouraged the French Revolution. And the French Revolution was not about independence. As Carlyle described, it was a good deal about bread, about having enough to eat—and the wheat of bread comes from earth. It was about who should rule, and therefore be able to own the wealth the French earth could produce. Writes Mr. Siegel, “As lasting a result of the revolution in France of 1789 as any was that France, as land, was owned by more people.” 

Later in his essay he says about our present years: 

How the earth should be owned is the major economic question of this time; as it is the oldest. It has in it how man should look on what is external to himself.

How should the American earth be owned? is the big, insistent question in America today, even though the press and politicians don’t act as though it is. A true attention to the American Revolution—seeing that this is what every battle, from the Canadian border to the deep South, was about—can have Americans beautifully clear now. 

Profit vs. the American Revolution

In 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that the profit system is no longer able to work. This system is based on seeing people as means for one’s private profit—the way George III used America for his profit—and it has failed throughout the world. That is why the press is now describing the world economy as in a state of meltdown. (Periodicals are no longer able to keep up so well the lie they have been telling for years, that profit economies are “booming,” including our own.) 

There is more and more anger in America at the fact that some few people have much wealth while millions struggle. This anger is present in living rooms, as people look at television. It is present, terrifically, in offices, factories, other workplaces. It makes people ill-natured, sometimes fiercely ill-natured, at dinner tables. 

The American Revolution should be honored. A child in Detroit should feel that the earth of this nation, and the wealth arising from it, belongs to her. It doesn’t belong to her now: she doesn’t get enough milk, from America’s cows, because her parents can’t afford it. Her home is cold, and paint is old and peeling from the walls. She has heard her father curse and sob because he can’t get decent paying work. Yet she was born a citizen to this land, with so much food growing in it, so many buildings where a child could be warm and deeply comfortable, so many products that should come to her and don’t. The farmers of 1775 who took on the British troops at Concord, the Americans who bled and died at Bunker Hill, the people who marched with bandaged feet in the snow near Trenton—what are they asking for in behalf of this child, Yolanda? The American Revolution, which said American earth and American lives should be one, wants to be completed now. It wants to be given real attention, have its meaning be seen: which is that the resources of this American land should truly belong to the American people. That is the only way Americans now can prosper—including Yolanda, age 5, who could not eat all she needed on a sunny autumn afternoon in Michigan. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Mind and Attention

By Eli Siegel

The word attention, from one point of view, is very severe. When a person gives attention, he usually thinks of himself as frowning, and doing something he doesn’t like. Then, it is one of the sweetest words: a girl gets attention; his intentions and attentions are so serious that they’re going to lead to the altar, or the wedding ring. People want to get attention. 

There’s a kind of attention that shows itself in staring. I have seen people who can’t help staring. The same people usually feel that others are staring at them, are trying to hurt them, and are taking something away from them. 

We have, it seems, some difficulty about attention. If a person does not give his attention or attentions, we feel neglected. And thousands of women, or for that matter, thousands of men, go around fuming because they don’t get enough attention or attentions. The complaint of most women after a few years of marriage is that the attentions Wilfred was so happy in giving years ago are no longer given. A man complains that his desires are not attended to by his wife and she doesn’t pay much attention to how he feels. 

The job of giving attention, in the full meaning of the word, is a difficult one. And we won’t give attention until we feel there’s something in it for us. Most people are afraid of giving attention. To give attention would mean to give yourself, or have yourself go toward something, for the purpose of seeing it wholly as it is, and clearly. That is a big order. It would mean you weren’t afraid of seeing a thing clearly. A man can give thousands of attentions to a woman and not give her any real attention—because to give attention to a person would mean that your job was to see that person completely and clearly, everything that she was and nothing that she wasn’t. Now, if Wilfred did anything like that, Wilfred wouldn’t have much of a chance, because people have wanted attentions but haven’t wanted attention. Attention is for the purpose of finding out about a person. But most persons want attention for the purpose of feeling important. There is a big difference: we want attention, but we don’t want to be known. 

Attention is the desire for knowledge, concentrated, aware; and it is something severe. Suppose someone were giving us real attention for a year, trying to know us day after day—who wouldn’t get frightened? We like attentions, certainly. The idea of a shoe salesman giving us his attention is very agreeable. But attention for the purpose of having ourselves known is something else. 

We don’t give attention entirely, because most attention is given not so much because we think it is good but because we are in a state of peril. The purpose of attention is to know a thing thoroughly. The purpose of getting attention is to be known thoroughly. But we’re afraid of that. I’d say most wives have got thousands of attentions but have never got any attention—because attention is knowledge in a straight line, and that is hard to give. Further, the wives haven’t given it. Attention implies a certain kind of concentration. Attention means that you’re able to look at something and, while not neglecting other things, not use those things to interfere. 

Most often when we look at something, without our knowing, we interfere with what we are looking at. We don’t want to see it entirely. And anytime we do look at something, it is likely that the way we want that thing to be will put a haze, a contempt haze, around the object. Since marriage begins with the desire of two people not so much to see each other but to accommodate themselves to each other, they never really see each other. There’s a haze of comfort and fear around. 

Attention is knowledge when it’s determined. To give attention to something means that we don’t mind knowing it, and it’s very pleasing. For example, when we are listening to music or reading a book and feel the attention is spontaneous and nobody has to tell us “Read that book and get every syllable!” or “Listen to every note!” we have a good time, because knowledge is unimpeded. When someone interests us that much that, while we approve, we want to know that person—that is very good too, very pleasing. But it is a kind of feeling that occurs very rarely. 

In most persons there is a factory, a subjective factory, very complicated—and sometimes it takes the form of the senses—which interferes with a fulness of knowledge. I have mentioned the person who read a book and on every page found he had to skip three lines. This was a way of saying, “Well, I’ve got to read this book; I’m taking a course. But I’m going to get back at every page—and three lines I’m going to skip!” Most persons do play tricks in looking at something. They do not want to see a thing as it is. 

Click here to continue reading lecture.

Click here for Lectures page.