|NUMBER 1455.—February, 21, 2001||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 8 of the great 1973 lecture Educational Method Is Poetic, by Eli Siegel. And with it is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Karen Van Outryve, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this month on "The Drama in Women about Tenderness and Severity."
At the basis of the lecture we are serializing is Mr. Siegel's historic, definitive explanation of the purpose of education: it is to like the world through knowing it. I comment a little on that explanation, in relation to a matter closely connected with education, around which there has been much agony: the subject of attention.
In the New York Times of February 8, there is an article about a new attempt to "improve [children's] ability to pay attention." For $899, parents can purchase a "computer game system" based on "teaching a user to modify brain waves." Playing it, the child wears a "helmet equipped with sensors that monitor brain wave activity." The article tells us that "at least 800,000 school-age children have attention disorders." And in the last two decades, drugs, particularly Ritalin, have been massively poured into thousands upon thousands of children to make their minds not so restless.
But the reason there is trouble about attention is not a chemical reason, nor does it begin with brain waves. Aesthetic Realism explains that the chief thing having a person not give attention steadily to something, is that this person doesn't like the world.
There is a feeling in millions of people, millions of children, that this world is a mess, that it's not good enough for them, that it's deeply their enemy. To give attention is to give ourselves. And we do not want to give ourselves to an enemy, or to something we see as unworthy of us. So most people do not give attention fully. They will give a little attention and then mentally run away. Their minds wander as someone speaks to them; or a book will hold them only so long—then TV seems more attractive.
It is a beautiful fact that a page of a book is an ambassador of the world; an algebraic equation is; a happening of history is; a teacher's words as she speaks, or a mother's, are also representatives of reality. But ever so many children have used what they have met to be against reality. They have used the hypocrisy of adults. They have used the fact that the nation is owned in an unjust, ugly way, with some people rich and others very poor. They have used the anger they see, and the selfishness.
Then, Aesthetic Realism explains, there is also a triumph in disliking the world. Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that this triumph is the big weakener of mind, and is also the cause of all unkindness. It is contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Every time we do not give attention to what deserves it, something within us smirks and struts; for it says, "This thing, this paragraph, this person, isn't good enough for me! The only things really worth my attention are in myself."
The Deepest Desire
Meanwhile, the deepest desire of every person, Mr. Siegel showed, is to like the world. That is why, while part of us is murkily triumphant, another part—the part standing for who we truly are—is ashamed and pained that we cannot be attentive. Every child thirsts to use his or her mind lovingly on the facts, words, items, subjects of reality. The fight about giving or not giving attention is a form of what Mr. Siegel showed to be the biggest fight within every person: between respect for reality and contempt for reality. It is raging in America's schoolchildren, and it won't be taken care of by putting pills into a child or an electronic helmet on the child's head.
The basis on which a child can honestly feel, "I want to give attention to the things of this world," is the following Aesthetic Realism principle: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." That is the basis of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, with its grand and solid success. Writes Mr. Siegel:
Every thing, let alone every person, says something about us, explains ourselves. The structure of what thing cannot illuminate our own structure? Does not a sheet of paper in its wideness and narrowness bring some essential likeness to us, to ourselves?...Education, principally, is the pleasant finding out of how things can help us know who we are as we see them.
We Are All Wide and Narrow
Yes, we and every child are wide and narrow: we have to do with ever so much and want to meet new things, have adventures; yet also we are just our very particular selves, cozily distinct and confined under our own skin. And we have pain because we don't know how to put these two aspects of ourselves together: we sally forth, then hide within ourselves; and children do. But every subject in the curriculum, like that sheet of paper Mr. Siegel writes of, puts wideness and narrowness together.
Take arithmetic. There is the number 9: it is just that number, confined, no more, no less—yet it can join with other numbers, be added to them, multiplied with them, divided by them, subtracted from them, infinitely.
Then, in the study of language, there are words. Take the word boat: it too is confined—it means a specific object. But that word can meet ever so many other words, and be more meaningful, more itself, by joining with them. Look, for instance, at Lear's "The owl and the pussycat went to sea / In a beautiful pea-green boat."
And there is history. Every event is just itself. Yet it arises from so much and can affect so much. Take the Battle of Concord: how confined it was—it took place on one day, April 19, 1775, in Massachusetts. Yet in "Concord Hymn," Emerson shows in a famous line that this confined thing was so far-reaching: "Here once the embattled farmers stood/And fired the shot heard round the world."
When a child sees that numbers, words, historical happenings have the same opposites she does, and that they also show these opposites can be one—the numbers, words, historical events not only make for attention in her, but pleasure, even love. This is a great fact, and in Aesthetic Realism public seminars, New York City teachers have given abundant evidence for it from their own classrooms.
In the section from Educational Method Is Poetic that follows, Mr. Siegel uses a poem to ask what education does not take in—what can we not learn from? Aesthetic Realism exists because he himself wanted to learn infinitely. He gave reality in its wholeness his brave, exact, passionate attention.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Can We Learn from This?
Woman: Tender and Severe
A large reason we can dislike ourselves, I learned, is that we use tenderness and severity against each other. We're soft and hard for different purposes. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Eli Siegel explained to me: "Every person, in thinking to himself or herself, is tough with other people, but we put on a kind of shy performance for the purpose of making ourselves popular."
This described me! I could be polite, sympathetic; but I could also have thoughts that were bitter, sarcastic, and feel very hard inside. This was particularly troubling in relation to men. Even as a teenager, I sometimes felt blank, unaffected, as I pretended to be stirred by a young man.
I love Aesthetic Realism for showing me that what I thought was a sordid, personal problem was really a cultural, aesthetic problem. Mr. Siegel asked me in a class, "Did you ever get fierce?" "Yes," I answered.
ES. Did you ever get tender?
ES. Are you the same person? Has there been a fight between being active and being more gentle?
KVO. There has been.
ES. How can they be in a better relation?
"I don't know," I replied; and Mr. Siegel explained: "The first thing is to see that fierceness and gentleness can serve one thing. Do you think your fingernails are fiercer than your fingertips?"
ES. Are they the same finger?
ES. The fist of a prizefighter who knocked out his opponent was later the same hand that caressed his girlfriend. Which would you like to do, knock people out or caress them?
I had wanted to knock people out, and had seen early that while I couldn't do it physically, I could do it verbally. My father was so hurt by the sarcastic way I spoke to him and my three brothers that he stopped having dinner with us and took his meals upstairs in his room by himself.
The Feelings of People
Though I could have thoughts about people which made me surprised at my coldness, the largest way I had contempt was that I simply did not see their feelings as real, worth knowing, good enough to get mixed up with mine. In my first Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel spoke to me about the feelings of my father and brothers. And he said, "You feel you have the right to make a person more like nothing than God intended." He read the speech from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice in which Shylock complains that Christians don't see Jews the way they see themselves: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?..." Then Mr. Siegel asked, "Do you think your father could complain to you as Shylock does? Has he not feelings?"
"He has feelings," I answered. And Mr. Siegel asked, "Have you wanted to see them?" "No," I replied. Then he said: "This is where the debate is between you and me, because I feel you want to have feelings, but you're sure afraid of them." Mr. Siegel was describing, with such kindness, the thing I had most against myself. He was showing too that we can't have feelings we're proud of unless we want to see the feelings of another.
As I studied Aesthetic Realism, hardness and softness in me began to change. I thought about how other people saw the world. I asked what opposites they were trying to put together. I saw that the persons in my family, most of whom I had seen or talked to nearly every day of my life, were unknown, mysterious, worth trying to understand. I stopped being afraid of having feeling, and, in Aesthetic Realism classes I had emotions I'd longed for—about art, about people.
Love: Passion and Integrity
My gratitude is infinite because the study of Aesthetic Realism enabled me to love, to have emotions about a man—my husband, architect Anthony Romeo—that are both tender and strong, and that make me proud.
One of the things that stirred me deeply and made me trust Anthony Romeo was that when my body was affected by his, he was impelled to ask if I felt I was the same person who was critical. Because of what he had learned from Aesthetic Realism, Anthony wanted me to be an integrity; and it moved me so much to feel that the man who wanted to be close to my body was also trying to be within my mind. Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that can bring together, in love, passion and integrity!
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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