Children, Parents, & the World
Dear Unknown Friends:
Children as Selves is one of the lectures that Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall early in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism. We have been serializing them, using notes that were taken at the time, and the record we have of some talks is fuller than that of others. The notes for this lecture, of September 12, 1946, are quite fragmentary. Yet they convey something of the great, kind, true way of seeing children which is in Aesthetic Realism.
That understanding of children is to be found in Mr. Siegel's Self and World, and in the 1946 talk he refers to one of the children written about in chapter 9, “The Child.” The boy Joe Johnson is imaginary, but he's based on real children. And he stands for real children today—who are thirsty to be understood and to like themselves for how they meet the world. In Self and World, Mr. Siegel has brought to the children he calls Joe Johnson and Luella Hargreaves and Michael Halleran and Daniel Dorman not only that longed-for comprehension but, in my opinion, some of the finest prose in English.
I am a beneficiary of the way of seeing children presented in the 1946 talk and in Self and World. In various issues of this journal I've quoted from Aesthetic Realism lessons I had as a young child, in which Mr. Siegel spoke to me. I saw that he was honest, and I felt what people of all ages felt in Aesthetic Realism lessons: that I was understood, deeply and truly; that someone really saw what I felt to myself and was making sense of it.
In this issue, as a prelude to Children as Selves, I'm going to quote some things Mr. Siegel said to my father, Daniel Reiss, in Aesthetic Realism lessons when I was 2½ and 3. Mr. Siegel had not yet met me. The statements are from my mother's notes, where Dan Reiss's replies are not recorded.
Everyone's Deepest Desire
Aesthetic Realism explains that the deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest basis. And so it is our ethical obligation to another person—the obligation of parent to child, husband and wife to each other, friend to friend—to encourage that person to like the world. Meanwhile, there's a huge desire in everyone to dislike the world, to have contempt for it as a means of making ourselves important. And one of the results is, we can want someone close to us to join us in getting away from the world. People haven't known that their desire to look down on the world is that in themselves which most interferes with their lives; it makes them dislike themselves and makes them unknowingly unkind.
Here is an instance of Mr. Siegel speaking to my father about the importance of caring for the world and encouraging his child to do so. My parents had just begun their study of Aesthetic Realism:
Something in you wants to live your life through Ellen. She'll never be happy that way....When she sees you, does she get the notion that the things she is going to meet are on her side? You and Ellen should try to appreciate the world together....She wants to feel that you are just to everyone.
On Knowing and Being Known
In the 1946 lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about a child's need to know and to be known. “And,” he says, “I don't mean superficial knowing.” I'm moved and very grateful to quote him speaking to Daniel Reiss on this subject, about that particular child who was myself:
Do you think you really see within Ellen? There is something in her that wants very much for another person to see her.
Do you want her to know what you feel—do you want some people to see you from within? I would like her, when she thinks about you, to have a feeling about what goes on in you. In order to understand a person, you have to be less afraid of being understood yourself.
What do you think Ellen thinks about the dark, and space, and life?
About the Opposites
The central principle of Aesthetic Realism is true about children and about their parents: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Opposites Mr. Siegel spoke of as large in the life of my father are hardness and softness: there was a terrific antipathy in Daniel Reiss to feelings he saw as “soft.” Mr. Siegel saw that this rift between fierceness and gentleness, hard and soft, pained Dan, but also mixed me up. My mother's notes have Mr. Siegel saying to him: “Do children expect their fathers to be strong and soft?” And he suggested to my father: “Write about a flower, smoke.”
The notes have Mr. Siegel commenting on a dream my father had, in which a dog turned into a lion: “If you saw the gentle Dan as also the one who wants to be fierce, and took it seriously, you would make some sort of composition.”
And a parent needs to make a composition in his mind of the opposites in his child. Mr. Siegel told my father: “You make two people of Ellen. You have to see a mingling in her of goodness and badness, weakness and strength.”
There is this, to my father, about the opposites and why I liked seeing people dance together: “Ellen wants to feel two people can be close and not in each other's way.”
The World & a Daughter
I'll quote a little more from those lessons in which Mr. Siegel spoke to a man about his young daughter. In the following statements, he was teaching Dan Reiss what parents everywhere now want to learn: that a child needs to see her parents caring for the world itself—the world that takes in more than her. Mr. Siegel said, when I was 3 and 4 years old:
A person can't be interested in a daughter completely unless he is interested in outside things completely. Ellen needs to see you as representing a beautiful attitude to reality—otherwise she won't respect you. She wants a father who has a richly responsive attitude to life. Ellen is learning things, and she wants to feel her mother and father are learning things.
Daniel Reiss, who died in 2007, said that the way Mr. Siegel spoke to him in Aesthetic Realism lessons was the greatest kindness he had ever met.
A Mother Is Wonderful
Since, as I mentioned, the notes we have of Children as Selves are fragmentary, I'm going to quote from another lecture to provide a fuller picture of how Mr. Siegel talked on the subject. The lecture Motherhood in Motion is of six years later, 1952. And in it he spoke about the beautiful desire of a mother to be interested in all children and have the world they're in be as good as possible. He said that the ethical force which mothers working for justice together can embody was becoming larger and would grow in coming years. And that has certainly happened. He commented:
It is always good to see those stories about mothers going out in the middle of the street and telling the cars: “...This is a dangerous corner, and there aren't enough traffic cops—and unless this is changed, no cars pass here! We must save our children.”...Whenever there is an accident,...all the mothers in the neighborhood get into a state of really handsome maternal fury. And so usually something is done to make that corner less dangerous.
Once a mother has a good cause, she is wonderful....If she has a good cause and feels her cause is the cause of other mothers, I think she can take on anything. The mothers of the world are going to be asking: What kind of world do we want the children to grow up in?
...There is a war on between the persons who want to use American resources for their own purposes and the persons who have instinctively the feeling that money should be given to the people of America and to the people to be....[Mothers are] interested. Out of that some big things can come. [TRO 806, 808]
What Parents & Children Want
The parents and children of America want to be kinder to each other, deeper about each other. They want what's best in their care for each other to be stronger, go farther. Through the study of Aesthetic Realism, this can be. Through Aesthetic Realism it's taking place in families right now.
As we present Children as Selves, I thank Eli Siegel for how beautifully he saw that self which is mine, and which stands for the selves of people everywhere.