The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Children as Selves

By Eli Siegel

The general criticism of most attitudes to children is that they are incomplete, or superficial. I don't desire to be controversial, but sometimes criticism is necessary.

There's a whole welter of opinion about being nice to the child, being harsh, being too nice, being too harsh, etc. There are still those who say parents shouldn't restrict the child. But in a coming book, Dr. Strecker1 is going to talk about the harm which is done by doting mothers.

Something that means both kindness and severity must be found. Compromise between the two is really wavering and uncertainty, and the way that is kind and severe will be aesthetic. There needs to be some organization in being sweet and severe with a child, in the same way that a pianist can play gently and can bear down on the piano in the same composition.

Books on children every year have something good in them, but they all leave out what I see as the main problem: what the child is really about.

When a child is born, the whole world has come to a point in a 6- or 7-pound, perhaps, crying being. Studying charts of behavior patterns won't make you understand a child (it may help). To understand a child, you have to be philosophic and aesthetic.

Mistakes a Parent Can Make

The greatest purpose of a child, as of everyone here, is to know and be known. And I don't mean superficial knowing. Children most often feel that the persons closest to them aren't interested in knowing them.

Suppose we take a child I have written of, Joe Johnson, and his mother, Helen. On the one hand, he seems very close to her, of her. On the other hand, he seems very strange. It's more comfortable for her to think the child is hers entirely than to think that he is of the world. And so, perhaps without her being aware of it, possessiveness can come in, even though she may have read books telling her not to pamper the child.

Helen is disappointed in Robert, her husband, and she makes an oasis of Joe, who needs her utterly. After a while, Joe comes to have the feeling she's interested in him only because he's her son, and he doesn't like it. The purpose of a mother is to have a child like the world, not just her.

The first drive that a child has when born is to know who he is. Others say a child's first drive is a sexual one. That doesn't happen to be true. The child wants to know who he is, and he has to come to this through knowing other things. To become aware of oneself and say “I,” you have to be aware of what isn't oneself. To know is to have reality as it is, in mind; and that is always the fundamental, unremitting drive of all persons. People who think knowledge is only in courses and not of the very earth of life, won't believe this.

If parents collaborate with a child in being against the world, they are limiting the child. The child may feel this yet go after it, as a person can go after drink even though he knows it's bad for him.

A mother is a self too, and she can sometimes act as if the child doesn't exist. A common scene I have described is this: Helen is with Joe; she is giving Joe all of her attention, as if Joe were the most important thing in the world to her. Then Helen's friend Ada comes, and Helen very abruptly is not at all interested in Joe anymore. The reason is that she can't put together her relation to Joe and her relation to other people.

This situation occurs very often. The child doesn't like it, for it causes him to make two mothers in his mind: one mother whom he owns, and one whom he doesn't have to do with. In addition, a child may have two fathers too.

Sometimes Helen thinks of leaving Robert, but then she thinks she can't because of the child. Here the child seems to be on the husband's side: opposed to her.

When a child doesn't want to eat, a reason is that he doesn't want to take food if people don't want to know him. The not eating is retaliation. However there doesn't have to be the thing called “negativism,” no matter what the child psychologists say.

We Can't Love without Knowing

The greatest insult one can pay a person is not to want to know him. How can you love something you don't know? You must be loving something else. We can't like a person who doesn't want to know us truly. Of course, there's also a fear of being known.

I talked once to a young woman who had left home quite early in life. She said that while her parents gave her food, clothes, sent her to college, they were interested in her only as their daughter. She resented that, yet at the same time she wasn't fair in her mind to them. This difficulty went so deep in her that when a surgeon at the hospital where she worked in New York was unusually kind to her, she didn't want to talk to him. The reason was that she associated this kindness with what she had felt was the imperialistic domestic kindness of her parents.

A mother can't know her child if she doesn't accept the child as strange to her. Every mother should ask, “What am I a mother for?” You don't bring a child to the world to stop at the to. The world doesn't stop with a block or a house or a room.

This Happens in a Tantrum

A tantrum represents intense confusion. Suppose that in the morning Joe doesn't want to eat. He refuses to eat, and dawdles around about it until 10 o'clock. Then hunger gets the best of him, and he does eat. But he resents it. And at 2 o'clock he has a tantrum. He feels his mother is nice and not nice. He can't eat the oatmeal and he has to eat the oatmeal. What do people do when they're confused? They whirl around.

There Is Thumb-sucking

Joe may suck his thumb. Psychoanalysis treats thumb-sucking as a prelude to sex. But thumb-sucking occurs because, when a child is unsure of himself, he tries to do what snakes on Egyptian coins did when they put their tails in their mouths: become complete and perfect, subject and object at once. Nail-biting is thumb-sucking in another form.

Sometimes a child will bed-wet. There's a kind of defiance and a release in it. It's related to desires in adults sometimes to urinate often.

Aesthetic Realism tries to see a child as deep; very deep. A child's deepest purpose is to know who he is and become as much himself as possible. The definition of a self is the greatest unity and uniqueness in the greatest diversity.

A Child Is Mysterious

A child isn't something to be weighed only; to get the blood count of; to get behavior patterns for. A child is a self, a person. Children are mysterious. And because they're mysterious, that doesn't mean you don't have to think about them or that you can say, “This is getting mystical, and I won't go that far.” You have to go that far, or the child won't like it.

Another aspect of current thought as to children is that of just letting the child skip rope (for instance) if she's not good at arithmetic but is good at skipping rope. It's part of what I call the psychological gadget program.

There's a feeling that somehow an adjusted child is going to come out of it all, but that isn't so. A good many of the children brought up this way in the learned homes of the 1920s are the delinquents of today. If children aren't known and encouraged to know, so much will America be hindered.

About Discipline

[The following is in response to a question after the lecture, “How do you feel about discipline?”]

The meaning of discipline has to be seen. The child wants both order and freedom. The trouble with discipline usually is that it doesn't go along with kindness. The child feels the mother is a different person when she punishes him than when she praises him. A child should be praised and punished for the same reason—as poems should be praised and condemned for the same reason. Discipline that isn't kindness too, is bad.

1Edward A. Strecker, author of Their Mothers' Sons