The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Beauty versus Depression

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we print the second half of one of the earliest Aesthetic Realism lectures. It is Ethics Isn’t Soft, for Guilt Exists, and Eli Siegel gave it at Steinway Hall on October 10, 1946. He explains what psychiatry is still far away from understanding: the cause of depression and other mental ailment.

In this half Mr. Siegel does something that I find magnificent—thrilling in its logic and newness. He describes in detail the relation of victory and self-loathing, supremacy and self-disgust, which, he makes clear, is in all depression.

He would explain in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism that contempt is the cause of mental difficulty. It’s the making of ourselves more by lessening what's not ourselves, and it’s the primal injustice in every person. From contempt all particular injustices arise—from everyday coldness, to racism, to physical cruelty. Contempt is that in us which interferes with love, and with the ability to learn. And contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, taken far enough by a person, causes insanity. The reason is: our deepest, most fundamental purpose is to like the world honestly, be just to it; and so we loathe ourselves for our contempt, however slick a show we may put on. Contempt, Mr. Siegel wrote in Self and World, “is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker” (p. 362).

Emily Dickinson Describes Contempt

As a prelude to part 2 of the 1946 lecture, I’m going to comment on two poems of Emily Dickinson. She is without doubt one of the authentic poets of America and the world, and yet at various times she suffered from depression.

This woman of Amherst, Massachusetts, who looked lovingly, joyfully, precisely, mischievously, deeply, and widely at birds, grass, weather, light, insects, skies, wrote a poem that has been seen as a description of depression. Its first line (and title) is “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” As far as I know, it has never been related to another poem of Emily Dickinson, written around the same time. It needs to be. That other poem, which I’ll comment on first, is about the self, not as feeling low, but as feeling important. It begins:

The Soul selects her own Society

Then shuts the Door

To her divine Majority

Present no more.

This is a musically satiric description of the thing in every person that feels we are better than the rest of the world. We want to be in the edifice of ourselves with the door shut. We are our own “divine Majority” and no others should be presented to us for entrance—they’re simply not good enough for us. The poem continues to describe this self:

Unmoved she notes the Chariots pausing

At her low Gate

Unmoved an Emperor be kneeling

Upon her Mat.

That is the victory of contempt. Human life, represented by the moving chariots, asks us to join it—pauses for us at our gate. We most certainly will not! We have superior company—ourselves. The grandeur of outside things may beg of us to welcome it—“an Emperor be kneeling”—but we turn up our nose. We are triumphantly unaffected.

Emily Dickinson needed very much to know what Eli Siegel is showing in the lecture published here: the way of mind she tells about so keenly in this poem is the cause of the depression told of in “I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain.”

From Smugness to Suffering

So let us look now at the poem about mental misery. It begins:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading treading....

In “The Soul Selects,” other people were despised as the self reveled in seeing itself as supreme. Here, the self feels different—it feels awful, deadened. Yet what continues is the seeing of other people as oppressive. We’re told with weighty rhythm that they “Kept treading treading.” And later:

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again....

In the first poem I spoke about, the self preened itself on despising people; it was smug in its contempt. In the second we find the result of that contempt: the self feels miserable. But within the misery, the scorn for people goes on: they “creak” and are given “Boots of Lead.” What Mr. Siegel wrote of another woman is true about the self Ms. Dickinson is telling of: “She found the world not much good; but in finding the world not much good, she endowed herself with disaster” ( Self and World, p. 362).

The “I felt a Funeral” poem has lines in which Ms. Dickinson says she’s apart from—in fact a different race than—other people: “And I,” she says, “...[am] some strange Race / Wrecked, solitary, here.” This feeling is exceedingly painful. But the pain, as Mr. Siegel shows, is the penalty for the false triumph of making oneself apart. The agony of “Wrecked, solitary, here” is punishment for the smugness of “The Soul selects her own Society / Then shuts the Door.”

Depression Is Contempt; Poetry Is Respect

Poetry, Eli Siegel explained, “is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” When someone writes a true poem, no matter how wretched its subject, that person is fair to, is respecting, loving, musically presenting the structure of the world.

Aesthetic Realism shows that what makes for depression is completely opposed to what makes for true poetry. The poems from which I quoted are about contempt for the world, and about the result of that contempt. But in their technique, in their use of words and sounds, in their music, they are respect—a mighty respect for the world.

I don’t have the space to show that with fulness here. But we can look a little at a line I just quoted: “The Soul selects her own Society.”

There’s contraction in the sound of this line: there’s something like a swift clenching, then separation, with each of its iambic feet—“The Sóul...selécts...her ówn....” Meanwhile, this line, in which we hear the self as tight and separate, has another kind of sound too, sound that is wide, large: the sound of O in “Soul” and “own”; the reaching sound of I and the going-on sound of ee in “Society.”   The line’s music, then, puts together reality’s opposites, contraction and width. It has what every person wants: a oneness of oneself as contained individual, “just me”—and wide comprehensiveness.

 The line’s five s sounds hiss with delicate aversion, even as the syllables are precise: that means being against and the respect of being exact are together in it.

 And in all the lines I’ve quoted, we hear the wonder of things and down-to-earth-ness, simultaneously.

 What distinguishes Emily Dickinson’s lines about depression from those of ever so many other people is that hers are lovingly just to the world. They have in their very music the opposition to what pained her. She wanted mightily to know this. She wanted to know Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Ethics Isn't Soft, for Guilt Exists, II

By Eli Siegel

Guilt doesn’t come from society. There is a purpose that causes it: to feel important by lessening the world, discarding what is not oneself. The guilt, the pain that comes from this purpose, can be misused. We use the suffering to say, “Oh, how I suffer!” That gives us a green light to keep on going away from the world.

Every person needs to ask, “What is coming to what isn’t myself?” If you get tired of asking the question, you are out of luck. It happens to be the deepest question the unconscious is asking.

There Is an Ethical Unconscious

There is such a thing as the ethical unconscious. It is that part of us which says that in order to be complete we have to see as completely as we can what isn’t ourselves.

We can like ourselves only if we are doing all we can to make a one between ourselves and what isn’t ourselves. Whatever excuses we give ourselves, the reason for not doing that is: we think we can get more importance by lessening what isn’t ourselves. The ethical unconscious doesn’t want this lessening. It will punish us in intricate ways. Every time we feel guilty, it isn’t society, sociology, people, saying to us, “We want to fool you into being guilty.” Guilt comes because we feel we have accepted incompleteness.

The incompleteness can show itself in many ways. It can show itself in terms of money, politics. It can be present as to sex: if we try to have importance by feeling here is someone we can manage, we are going to feel we got soothingness without knowing the person. If we want to use money as a means of putting on a show when we don’t give a damn for people, we are going to feel guilty about it. If we are interested in business not so much because work can be useful to people but because we want to manipulate people, we will feel guilty.

Knowledge is also ethics; accuracy is ethics. Any self that wants to stop itself from knowing as much as it can is a self heading for trouble; there is going to be interior pain. When we have lost our interest in life, it is because something in us has said we’ll get our importance by disliking the world.

If we want to understand why many people in America do feel bad, why many of them go around feeling they can’t talk in the morning, feeling they have to hurt other people, we have to see what has happened. What has happened fundamentally is that the person has consented to become an individual by lessening other individuals. This is stated dogmatically.

We see such a thing in a little boy’s saying he’d like everybody to be dead. What does that mean? The child has come to feel so oppressed by the outside world that he is articulating the contempt emotion straight. But it can be expressed in other ways. There is a desire in us all to be snobbish, despise things, manage things. In doing so, we seem heroes to one part of ourselves, but deeply we feel we have sold ourselves out. No policeman will go after us, but we will be our own court, jury, defense attorney, and prosecuting attorney—all of which Kafka was writing about in The Trial.

We punish ourselves, because no self really wants to be separate from the outside world. The self is, in its wonder, a thing that is intimate and indefinitely related. When we say, “I vote for the intimate only,” what we are doing is cutting off a leg. We are saying we’d rather manage half of ourselves than try to get to the wonder of managing all of ourselves. Then, when we feel bad, we are criticizing ourselves.

Penalty & Glorification

When somebody suddenly becomes melancholy and morbid, there is always deeply the infliction of a penalty on himself. There is likewise a glorification of himself.

For example, a person meets a new situation. His self, part of which wants to be secure and velvety, says the world has no right to present this new thing—why can’t the world be routine? It revolts at newness because contempt wants the world to be a butler. Then, the self knows it doesn’t have a right to feel that way—the outside world, in its mystery, is itself too, is its friend. At the same time, it has come to feel that the only way to get security is by lessening this new thing. Under cover of the suffering, contempt as something dismissing the new situation proceeds. There is also the feeling, “I have found the world to be miserable! It is against me!” and that is a great phony self-glorification. Therefore, there is punishment and there is glorification.

That goes on in the person who is mentally pained. The mechanism of simultaneous glorification and punishment has to be understood.

A woman, let us say, is in an asylum, and doesn’t want to take food. She has allowed contempt to win out. She has come to feel that it was right, since the outside world didn’t please her, to bank on herself only as inside, unique. So she is in two states. She thinks, What a wonderful solution—you annihilate the world and you do anything you please in your own mind! She feels glorious. The world is her buttering knife. She feels she has put something over. She doesn’t have to meet landlords; she doesn’t have to undergo insults of persons better educated than she is. So she is on the top of the world, with the world nowhere.

But at the same time, she feels her victory has been got in a gumshoe manner; the means of the victory is not on the up and up. So she has also a feeling of guilt, because she has come to get importance in a way that looks to her very incorrect; in fact, ugly. She has the importance and that makes her feel wonderful, but she despises the means of the importance and that makes her feel ashamed. She is in a state where she is most important and most ashamed.

We all undergo, in a lesser way, feelings of shame and importance. But when contempt gets to that rigid classicism, a person, like this woman, leaves home. She is in an asylum, and puzzles people there. If she feels about the outside world that she has given it the licking of its life, and on the other hand feels deeply that this is not the way to deal with the world, it is apparent that in getting victory she also has defeat. She will be in a state of shame and glorification about everything.

She doesn’t want to eat. She has come to such a perfect job of discarding the world, becoming a glass ball of contempt, that the idea of needing anything is impossible. She has made herself 100%. She has come to perfection. She is no longer in time or space. She is governed no longer by the vicissitudes of existence. She is immaculate, unblemished. And then there is food: she looks on it as something interfering with the purity of her kingdom.

At the same time, her sense of guilt is so enormous she feels she doesn’t deserve to have the food—because that condition is really a tremendous impact of guilt and glorification, of shame and arrogance. The deadlock is terrific. So she doesn’t eat. If she does eat, through some trickery she can imagine she hasn’t.

If we want to understand what has happened to the people who go into those crowded places, we have to understand how a self can come to an intimate glorification and also to a self-loathing. That is the one way to understand it.

Only through Aesthetics

I am not pitting myself against people who deal with men and women in mental institutions, but I do not think they understand what has happened to the daily shipments of persons who have given way to this mechanism of guilt and glorification. The meaning of shame and glory would have to be understood. That meaning can only be understood through aesthetics. If one is to make sense of humility and glorification in a tangle, then that situation which is humility and creativeness—the humble creator and the masterful creator—would have to be understood. What happens in a mind that leaves home can be understood only if aesthetics as philosophy is understood.

Aesthetics is the only thing that can put together that paradox in a person: the wish to feel he is unique, and the wish to feel he is related to everything; the wish to feel he is really being nice to himself, and also that he is giving to the other fellow what is coming to him.

The Wrong Reasons

Many persons troubled by their separation from the world will try to ascribe their feeling bad to something else. There was a person I spoke to who insisted that all his feeling bad came from women who deceived him and because he might get syphilis. I had a hard time showing him that he wanted to master women and also say to hell with them and so he really felt he didn’t deserve women. His unconscious had got to the trick of feeling that he was afraid of syphilis. Persons will use tricks of various kinds.

Another person told me he could put aside people in his mind anytime he liked, but insisted that if he had a job everything would be okay. I told him he felt bad before this matter of needing a job came up. People, in order to justify the fact that they suffer, will pick out something insuperable.

Ethics Is in Everything We Do

Every time we meet a person we ask ourselves: were we fair to ourselves?; were we fair to the other person? Ethics is in everything we do. To be in touch with something beautiful and not see it as so, to look at a person and say he is stupid, to listen to music and not want to see what it is, is not fair. To know there is poetry in the world, and philosophy, and to say, “That is not for me. I’m too tired”—that is also being unethical.

Aesthetic Realism says: Be ethical—give yourself what is coming to you, while at the same time giving to what isn’t yourself what is coming to it—because it is the beautiful thing to do. And when you don’t do it you will say to yourself, “You are not entirely you. I don’t like you.”