Every Child & the World
Dear Unknown Friends:
Just What Happens in Childhood? is a lecture that Eli Siegel gave early in the history of Aesthetic Realism: in January 1947. It is one in his Steinway Hall series of talks, and what we publish here is based on notes taken at the time.
In 1947, and earlier and later, the prevalent way of seeing children was the Freudian way: just about everything a child did—from sucking one’s thumb, to going to the bathroom, to enjoying a fairy tale, to doing a drawing—had some sexual implication. This immensely ugly and ignorant approach to children was thrust on people by the psychiatric establishment, which has never expressed regret for misleading and hurting them with it for decades.
In Just What Happens in Childhood? we see Mr. Siegel, in the very midst of that Freudian era, speaking with courage and clarity. He presents what is true about children. And this knowledge is as thirsted for now as it was 63 years ago. The psychiatric practitioners of now are not Freudians, but they do not understand any more than their predecessors the inner tumult of a little girl in Nashville, the thoughts to himself of a boy in Detroit, the confusion of another girl in Seattle, and why a boy in Boston can be very sweet one moment and start hitting people soon after.
Aesthetic Realism explains that what goes on in those children and all children is a philosophic matter, and an ethical one. It is about How should I see the world—the wide, unlimited, and also immediate world—that is not myself? A child has the same fight a senator has, a teacher has, his or her own parents have. “The large fight,” Eli Siegel writes, “...in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now,...is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151). It is that fight which Mr. Siegel speaks about in the lecture we’re publishing.
Aesthetic Realism explains too that the agitations and hopes of a person of any age are about reality’s opposites—opposites that are also in oneself. They’re in a child under 3 feet tall as much as they are in a man over 6’2”. A child, all the time, is trying to make a one of such opposites as rest and motion, freedom and order, affecting and being affected, continuity and change, self and world.
It is my opinion that nothing respects children more than does Aesthetic Realism—which sees a child in this large way, even as she may be whirling on the floor in a tantrum. It shows that a child’s deepest desire is to be fair to the world, to know it, to see and feel it justly—though a child, like an adult, has a terrific tendency to be untrue to that desire and to get importance by having contempt.
As a prelude to Mr. Siegel’s lecture, I’m going to quote him speaking directly to a father and mother about their child. It moves me very much to say that I was that child. My parents, Irene and Daniel Reiss, began their study of Aesthetic Realism when I was a little girl.
Reality’s Opposites in a Child
I am looking at a loose-leaf book with notes, in my mother’s handwriting, of Aesthetic Realism lessons. And I quote, first, Eli Siegel speaking to my father when I was 4. He was showing Dan Reiss something parents haven’t wanted to see: that their children’s questions and confusions are the same as their own. —Mr. Siegel is talking about the tremendous opposites of anger and pleasure, for and against, which were causing turmoil in a little girl in Queens. He told my father:
Ellen is unsure, just as you are. She doesn’t know if it’s good to be nice to other people or just to assert herself. A father owes it to a child to do everything he can to make her less confused about the way she fights with people and the way she is pleased with people. They should be made one. Do you think it can confuse her that at times she likes a child and at other times can want to be mad at that child? If Ellen could get the idea that when she is against somebody it’s for the same reason she is for her, it would be easier for her.
You have to learn what Ellen has to learn, how to put together these opposites—your good nature and your bitterness. I would like you to teach Ellen how she can be angry and pleased for essentially the same reason: that she should feel in being angry she is fair to something and in being pleased she is fair to something; that there should be justice in both instances.
A Child Wants to Do What Art Does
The next sentences are from a lesson some months later. I had just begun kindergarten, which I loved, but I would feel nauseous in the morning before going to school. Mr. Siegel, speaking to my mother, explained the cause and the solution. These had to do with what art is: a making of unity from things that are different:
A child wants to make a transition from one kind of experience to another. Ellen, in going from home to school, doesn’t feel there is enough integration. She is looking for you to integrate her experience. She should use home to like school. Can you ask her, “Do you think that having a good time with me can go along with how you feel at school?”?
He suggested Irene Reiss ask her daughter, “How many things do you do?” And they should mention things Ellen does—with friends, with her mother; eating things; sleeping; visiting; going to the store. Irene can ask, “Do you feel all these things flow together?”
Then he explained, “Ellen’s largest problem is to place together one’s experience with what one is in oneself.” And in the next sentences, spoken to my mother, is the central principle he presents in the lecture we’re publishing:
You owe it to Ellen to put together herself and the outside world. And you owe it to her to encourage her to like the world and herself as much as possible. The purpose of parenthood is to have a child like the world.
A Child, a Dance, a Drawing
Aesthetic Realism explains that when a child likes something, it is because a deep hope about herself and the world is being met. And through Aesthetic Realism, children and parents can understand at last what these hopes are. They always involve the opposites. For example, in another lesson, Mr. Siegel spoke about why I liked seeing people dance together. He explained: “In a dance, the two people are together, but they don’t get in each other’s way and they use each other for freedom. They are close and distant. Ellen wants to feel that two people can be close and not in each other’s way.” He said to me, about motions I liked in dancing, “You want to feel that you are the same person bending down and standing up. When you bend down, you often feel you are giving in to something.”
Some time later, in another class, Mr. Siegel commented on a drawing I had done, of a little girl holding and smelling a flower, while other flowers were in a vase. He said:
When a child is working in a lively fashion, certain philosophic matters are being dealt with. This drawing puts together in such a clear way the two kinds of seeing: There is a flower that the girl is smelling, which is immediate for the girl; this has something possessive. But at the same time, she is looking further ahead to flowers that belong to the world, which are on the table. The drawing is saying: “I can be aware of myself and still be aware of something which is outside of myself. I can feel myself and still look very intently on those flowers.”
These are instances of something I consider great, longed-for, and magnificently practical: how Aesthetic Realism sees children. Both for my own life and in behalf of humanity, I thank Mr. Siegel for his understanding of people of any age, and his understanding of reality.
I’ll quote one more sentence from those early lessons, because it represents the beautiful, kind purpose he had with everyone. He told my parents, “I am trying to have Ellen be able to like the world she is in.” And, I say with immense happiness, he succeeded—as Aesthetic Realism can with everyone.