The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Care for Self: Relation vs. Contempt

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Eli Siegel’s great 1970 lecture The Self Is. And he is the person in the history of thought who has described truly what the self is, that self which is everyone’s own. In the talk he uses a collection of essays by a writer he respects: David Riesman. Yet Riesman did not see what Aesthetic Realism explains: the self is an aesthetic situation, a oneness of the opposites individuality and relation. Each of us is a point, particular, specific—and at the same time we are related to the whole world, from words to food to history to people on our block and on other continents. The way we come to be increasingly individual, who we are, is through welcoming our relation to what seems different. That is what education is about. It’s what love is about.

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who saw and described this. And he identified the thing in every person which weakens that person and is also the source of all cruelty. It is contempt, the making less of other things and people as a means of aggrandizing oneself. Though in having contempt we feel we’re making ourselves important, we’re actually stunting ourselves, making ourselves smaller, duller, emptier, unintelligent—because the way to be ourselves is through finding meaning in all that to which we’re related: the outside world.

In this issue we include part of a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis presented last month at a public seminar. The topic was “A Man Wants to Be Comfortable, but Also Respect Himself: What’s the Solution?” As you’ll see, he’s speaking about the self, and the mistake we make about it.

What Is the Attraction?

Any moment in history can be used to study that false notion of self which is contempt. Our present moment can. And as I comment on something that has affected people intensely in the election campaigning these months, I’m not doing so “politically,” to advocate for or against a particular candidate. I’m doing so as a means of illustrating the self.

Why have large numbers of Americans been attracted by statements that are monumentally insulting of millions of one’s fellow human beings: statements that have huge contempt for people on the basis, for instance, of religion and nationality, and that express an intention to put this contempt into resounding action?

There is a big anger in America today. And a central reason was described by Eli Siegel in the 1970s. He showed that a way of economics based on contempt had failed after hundreds of years. That economic way is the profit system, the seeing of a person in terms of: how much profit can I squeeze from his labor?; how much money can I make from him while paying him as little as possible? In his lectures on the subject, Mr. Siegel explained why profit economics could no longer hum along as it once had. Today, the only way it can go on at all is by making most Americans poorer and poorer so a few individuals can enrich themselves.

This effort to keep the profit system going by sacrificing the lives and income and dignity of the American people is a massive source of fury across America. People aren’t as clear as they could be about the cause of their anger, though many are getting clearer. Meanwhile, people of every political persuasion hate the way they’re seen on the job, how they’re paid, not paid, how they’re made to work, and not work. They feel insulted, worried, humiliated. What will they do?

Well, the individual people of America will either use their anger to go for more justice, to see more their relation to others, to see that all Americans should own this land—or they’ll try to get to a sense of distinction through contempt: through making oneself big by looking down on others, degrading them and kicking them around.

The Encouraging of Contempt

In issue 165 of this journal, Mr. Siegel explained that Hitler was “perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history.” The German people had been humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles, and Hitler made them feel big through evoking their contempt for other people. We are not, of course, in 1930s Germany. But the situation now with us is this: The American people have been humiliated by the profit system—what should they now go for? How should they see?

To understand the appeal of certain campaign statements, we have to know what Eli Siegel has explained: “We are looking for contempt at any moment of our lives. Contempt is our soothing revenge for a world not sufficiently interested, as we see it, in what we are hoping for.”

There is a desire in a person to let go utterly with one’s contempt, be untrammeled in one’s expression of scorn and despising. To see a seemingly powerful person glibly and sloppily pour forth contempt encourages the ugliest thing in a person: Why should I have to think?! I’ll deal with my suffering by looking down but good—by putting them in their place! People whose lives have been horribly damaged by profit economics can still like the contempt at its basis—the idea that certain persons are vastly superior to others. One’s contemptuous sense of self can be furious at the idea that all people deserve to own this world.

The other aspect of people, showing itself more than ever in America now, is the aesthetic desire, good will: I want to see my relation to other people. I’ll take care of my individuality by valuing what’s not me. The fight in America is like the fight in every person: between contempt and aesthetics, ill will and justice. Aesthetic Realism is the means to understand that fight—and have aesthetics and justice win.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


A Form of Contempt

By Eli Siegel

The next essay in Individualism Reconsidered is perhaps the most important in the book, though it’s about something not too well known. It is Riesman’s review of the 1946 novel by Helen Howe, We Happy Few. The novel, as I remember, did have some effect, but apparently it wasn’t written either by a Stendhal or a Dumas or, for that matter, a Mickey Spillane: it didn’t have the narrative liveliness that a novel is supposed to have. It didn’t have what Forever Amber had, and Gone with the Wind.

It is about a little group around Harvard, and this group wants to be distinguished. They feel that the first thing in being distinguished is not to take anything seriously, and also to think there’s a kind of subtlety or fineness of taste among the little group, or “the happy few,” which is not to be found elsewhere. This is Riesman on the group “of the Harvard faculty into which Dorothea [the main character] marries”:

Everything is “interesting”; nothing is serious—nothing, that is, except the bitter rivalries for prestige and place.

This goes on a good deal within college faculties. People are competitive. At the same time, “nothing is serious.”

There is a terrible striving always to be avant-garde....There is a standing rule for admission to the happy few, who call themselves “The Little Group”: never to be taken in by any person, idea or emotion.

Which means that as soon as you show any intensity you have been affected by a value, and then you cannot belong to this “happy few.” You’re supposed to maintain a moderate temperature about reality. That is the first requisite.

Dorothea suffers. Her husband dies, and he has a kind of funeral that is as little like the ordinary funeral as possible—it keeps away intensity.

Riesman is constantly talking about how a person sees himself or herself. He implies that Dorothea Natwick did not, in a true sense, love herself:

The self-loving person is confident of his own self-evaluation. He does not need others for psychic security, but is capable of loving them as he loves himself. He has an erotic attitude towards the world, not a greedy one.

That phrase “an erotic attitude towards the world” is, as they used to say, by itself worth the price of admission to the Riesman panorama. What does it mean for a self to love itself? What is “psychic security”? What does it mean to be confident of your “own self-evaluation”?


Men Want Comfort—& Also Self-Respect

By Ernest DeFilippis

Just what I’d hoped for: Jennifer and me alone in the woodlands of Vermont, snuggled up on the rug in front of the fire. Jennifer was at her “best”—happy, adoring, unquestioning, with none of the annoying “moodiness,” which too often ruined our evenings together. But to my dismay, that gnawing, dull discomfort and restlessness, that vague sense of shame, which I thought I’d leave in New York, persisted. Here I was in what I considered the ideal scenario, and I still didn’t feel the deep ease and pleasure I so much wanted.

Some years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel said to me: “Right now a man is with a woman and is going after a purpose and getting somewhere, and still feels uneasy. Do you want to use a woman to see everything fairly, or to have a resting place especially for you?”

EDeF. A resting place.

ES. What’s best?

EDeF. I need comfort, Mr. Siegel.

ES. I agree. But where are you going to get it? Have you been uncomfortable and not known why?

EDeF. Yes, very much.

ES. When we get comfort in the wrong way, we often feel uncomfortable later. You got discomfort from what you thought was comfort. The idea is to get comfort in a way that doesn’t betray the rest of your life. True comfort is where you’re proud of the way you get comfort.

Learning that there are two kinds of comfort, false and true, revolutionized my life. Comfort that has us respect ourselves comes from our deepest desire: to like the world, see meaning in it. Comfort that “betray[s] the rest of [our] life,” that makes us ashamed, comes from contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” And in Self and World Eli Siegel writes: “The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please.”

I thought I’d be comfortable by getting rid of what I saw as a messy, bothersome world and making a separate, calmer world, where people existed to praise and console me and I didn’t have to do anything, including think.

For example, there was the time I was driving home with my girlfriend after an evening with friends. She said I was insensitive to what she felt at the gathering. I disagreed. She had the nerve to continue. I didn’t want to hear it. I yelled, “I don’t need this!,” jammed on the brakes, and got out of the car.

If a woman started talking excitedly about something she was interested in, I’d get uneasy and not know what to say. How could she be so excited by something other than me? I’d try to recover my equilibrium by dazzling her with my charm. But even if I succeeded, I felt small, incapable of having my mind engaged with another person in a sustained way. I was afraid of the depths and mind of a woman, the complexity of her feelings and thoughts. I would learn that this was because I sought comfort not in respecting and being affected by who a woman was, but in conquering her, having a big effect while I remained intact, unaffected by the world she represented. Then, instead of feeling comfortable, I was agitated, dull, very unsure, and lonely.

Where I felt most comfortable was in sports, particularly baseball, which I played professionally. In his lecture Mind and Attention Eli Siegel explained: “If we look at something and think that if we succeed in seeing it, it’s good for us, then in the process of being severely attentive, we feel relaxed” (TRO 1339). That’s exactly what I felt—“severely attentive” and “relaxed”—as I stood in the batter’s box waiting for the pitch. I didn’t feel I had “the right to see...pretty much as [I] please[d]”: I knew that in order to hit the ball well I had to see the pitch exactly. But I had no idea that this was a guide to how I wanted to be in the rest of my life: that wanting to know the world and people would have me feel the pride and pleasure I so much desired.

For Example, in Love

In Aesthetic Realism classes I met the knowledge, criticism, and encouragement—the real comfort—I thirsted for. There was the time I was angry with Susan Clark, a woman I was taken by. In a class on the aesthetics of self, Ms. Clark said, “I asked more from Mr. DeFilippis and he didn’t want to give it.” And Mr. Siegel asked me, “What does that mean to you?”

EDeF. There is something in me a woman is hoping for that I can’t give yet.

ES. Do you think you care enough for what’s true?

“No,” I said. I didn’t think truth had anything to do with comfort or love. Mr. Siegel continued: “You feel life was made to be enjoyed and there should be no trouble.” And he asked, about Susan Clark, “Don’t you think she should just see your qualities and go for it without all this hesitation?”

EDeF. Yes.

ES. If you were a woman, would you be entirely in love with yourself?

EDeF. No.

ES. There are two kinds of love: 1) the kind we definitely, deeply work for to make sure we deserve; and 2) [the kind that comes to this—] we think because we are, we should be loved. The second has predominated with you.... The love you don’t work for isn’t worth a damn, according to Aesthetic Realism. I don’t think you believe that.

EDeF. I don’t think so either.

Mr. Siegel asked whether I had a large enough desire “to have Ms. Clark be as strong as she can be?” He was asking about good will, without which, Aesthetic Realism explains, we can never respect ourselves. Good will is “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”

Through what I learned and continue to learn, my life is so different now. I love my wife, Maureen Butler, because she encourages me to see people and the world with more depth and excitement. I like being engaged with her lively mind. To work to deserve her love, to strengthen her, makes for great pleasure and self-respect, a deep ease I thought I’d never feel!

What Does It Mean to Relax?

An energetic young man I’ll call Dan Curtis works in communications and has been interested in social justice. In a recent consultation he told us, “I want to be useful, use my mind in a way that would be good for people. But another part of me wants to have it easy and relax.”

We said, “Certainly you should be able to relax. But what do you think it means to relax?” And he answered, “Not having to deal with outside things coming at me. Being able to do what I want and not have to think so much.”

I love this statement by Eli Siegel on the subject: “The purpose of relaxing is to honor whatever is good in one’s activity and thought, not get away from it.”

In the consultation, Mr. Curtis mentioned a criticism his boss had given him:

DC. She said I could rush through assignments and want to be done with things quickly; that I’m not interested in the “nuts and bolts” of the project, and it’s made for mistakes. Her criticism is completely true. I’m very ashamed of this.

Consultants. Why do you think it happens?

DC. I’m not sure. I don’t like more being asked of me, I think.

Consultants. Do you think it has anything to do with conceit, your feeling you’re too good to give your precious thought to something outside yourself in a full way? Why should Dan Curtis have to worry about the “nuts and bolts”? He’s an idea man, a concept man—let the peons take care of the minor stuff!

DC. Yes, I see what you’re saying.

Dan Curtis’s wanting to get comfort by being superior, dismissing what he saw as beneath him, made him unsure and agitated. We wanted him to see that what happened at work had to do with how he saw the whole world. “Does the world,” we asked, “deserve your thought?” And there was that instance of the world, “the woman you care for, Carol Branson: do you rush over her feelings as you try to impress her?”

DC. Yes. I see people too much in terms of: are they approving of me, praising me?

Consultants. Has she been dissatisfied with your desire to know her?

DC. Yes, she has.

Consultants. Are you looking for more ease?

DC. Yes.

Consultants. To be truly at ease in the world is to want to know and be fair to whatever you meet.

DC. This has been very useful!

Dan Curtis is seeing what I’ve seen: through the study of Aesthetic Realism a person can have a thrilling time learning how to have true comfort and self-respect!