|NUMBER 1876.—June 4, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we publish a poem by Eli Siegel, likely of around 1927, and also his magnificent, vivid, down-to-earth, beautifully written essay “Alcoholism; or, You Got to Find the World Interesting.” The essay appeared originally in 1962 in the journal Definition. And (to be very clear), we’re reprinting it now not to present Aesthetic Realism as some means of treatment—it’s certainly not that—but because Aesthetic Realism is that which understands the human mind in all its turmoil and grandeur. The essay contains this understanding—and some of the best writing of the century.
There is a tendency in today’s psychology to say that any trouble of mind has a biological source, arises from one’s genes; and to say, too, that much mental trouble is not really trouble at all but simply something that makes one “special.” The chief reason for this tendency is: the psychological practitioners don’t understand the human self and they go by the unspoken logic that “Since we cannot find a mental cause for something, there must not be one!—the cause must be physical.”
The Human Question
At the basis of Aesthetic Realism’s great understanding of humanity is this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The chief opposites in our lives, every moment, are self and world, and in 1946 Mr. Siegel wrote that the constant question of a person is—
How is he to be entirely himself, and yet be fair to that world which he does not see as himself?...
We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it. We have to be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves. [Self and World, p. 91]
Aesthetic Realism explains that dislike of the world, contempt for what’s not oneself, is the underlying cause of all mental difficulty, including the various drives that people don’t respect themselves for having. Each particular difficulty, or troubling way of self, is different. But the source in every instance is a dislike of the world. Reality, of course, is not easy to like. However, Aesthetic Realism shows: we have an actual, unarticulated hope to dislike it, a miserable relish in disliking it, because in finding what’s not us unsatisfactory we can feel superior. This desire to look down on what is other than ourselves is huge, frequent, and the most hurtful thing in everyone. It’s contempt. And Mr. Siegel described it as “the greatest danger or temptation of man.”
The essay published here is, eloquently and kindly, about a particular difficulty persons may have. I’ll comment swiftly on four others, very common, and on the dislike of the world behind them.
Food Is Used—& Cigarettes
There is the very popular problem of eating too much. A person—Olivia—feels the world she meets every day does not give her what she hopes for (even though she does not entirely know what she hopes for). Reality seems withholding; it seems to put her through a lot. But when she eats that big piece of chocolate cake she feels not only soothed but victorious: though she doesn’t put this in words, she feels that the world, in the form of a lovely confection, has come to her obediently at last, is yielding to her unstintingly, is praising her, is finally giving her its treasures. Olivia does not see the cake as an instance of a world to be respected, a world that may have more friendliness than she had realized. She would respect herself for seeing that way. Instead, she goes at the cake conqueringly (though her manners seem delicate); she goes at the cake with the deeply contemptuous feeling, “Through this food’s coming to my lips, tongue, mouth, I have the world on my own terms at last.”
Another activity that people feel driven to and ashamed of—however they may pretend about it—is smoking. I remember Mr. Siegel saying that smoking a cigarette provides a rhythm of in and out that seems to oppose a person’s restlessness. He said that while people feel restless, smoking will be attractive. And the restlessness has dislike of the world in it: the feeling that the world confuses you, insists on confusing you, and does not provide the composition you desire.
There is only one way of getting to real composition: that way is to have the respect for things which is the desire to know them, understand them, think deeply about them. Because such a desire to know is not large enough in a person, he may feel driven to a fake, shortlived, health-wrecking substitute for composition: for example, a cigarette, with its smoke taken into one’s lungs and exhaled through one’s nostrils.
A Child, a Wife
Dislike of the world can be in people very early: children can have a desire to get away from the world and find a superior world in just oneself. This dislike of reality is within a drive children always feel ashamed of: the drive to suck one’s thumb. As Luke’s little arm curves up toward his face, as he places his own thumb in his mouth, there is the sense that what good is to be found in things will come from himself. The unconscious, impelling “logic” of thumb-sucking is: “If I have to be in this dissatisfying world, I’ll soothe myself by feeling that it doesn’t fully have me—that as I take part in it I’m really in my own world, in which what affects me is myself, what I give myself to is myself.” Again, the soothing is false; it comes from dislike of reality, not from the desire—which children also have—to know and like the world. And that is why children cannot feel proud of sucking their thumbs, even if society and mama tell them it’s all right.
Another ordinary way of mind that troubles the person having it, is in motion right now in homes all over the world. A wife feels driven to utter a sarcastic remark to her husband: driven to make him feel unsure through a swift, belittling comment. Certainly, husbands can do this too—but let’s take a woman we’ll call Darlene. She has told herself many times, “I’m going to be sweeter, more patient. I’m turning into such a nasty wife. I don’t even know why I spoke to Ben that way—just because he left his socks under the sofa.” But she can’t stop herself.
The reason is: Darlene has found the world very displeasing. She married Ben because he seemed so much nicer, more praising of her, than the rest of reality, and she felt they could make a world of their own together. Yet reality itself is in Ben. It made him; he has to do with it at every moment; he stands for it—as Darlene herself does. She cannot see Ben—in all his fineness and imperfection, knownness and unknownness—any better than she sees the world. Her desire to punish reality, show her superiority over it, is present inevitably with that instance of reality closest to her: her husband. She will stop being sarcastic with him only when her purpose is to use Ben as a beginning point for knowing the world in its fullness, liking the world in its fullness. That purpose, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the purpose of love itself.
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that in art is the answer to the biggest matter in our lives—because in art, those opposites of care for self and justice to the world are one. In all art, a person has taken care of, expressed, been his or her individual self through being resplendently just to the world.
The following poem by Eli Siegel is definitely art. In “Sad Bobolink” we feel the liveliness and droopingness of a bird—and ourselves—and reality. Because the poem’s music is delicately bright and poignant at once, because it has us feel neatness and bewilderingness as one—what we feel, hear, see is beauty, and also a world that is big and interesting and our friend.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
By Eli Siegel
’Twas a sad bobolink,
That that spring morning,
Hopped from bough to bough,
Under a morning, dark rather, sun,
So prettily, prettily.
Bobolinks may be sad,
’Twas a sad bobolink,
That now was hopping,
From bough to bough,
From tree to tree.
Alcoholism; or, You Got to Find the World Interesting
By Eli Siegel
Come, thou monarch of the vine,
Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne!
In thy fats our cares be drown’d,
With thy grapes our hairs be crown’d:
Cup us, till the world go round,
Cup us, till the world go round!
—Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra
An alcoholic is a person who hasn’t found the world interesting enough, and is doing something about it in his own way. And who of us, it may be asked, has found the world interesting enough? The best way, in the long run, to conquer alcoholism is to show people they can find the world interesting enough, likable enough, without the indispensable aid of magic and regrettable beverages.
There is Alfred Vance. His desire is to be happy, to feel good. That was the desire of David and Solomon and Edgar Allan Poe and Francis Thompson and Ulysses S. Grant and the Empress Catherine and of about everyone. Mr.Vance, like many others, needs assistance in finding the world to his liking. He often feels grumpy, dull, listless, not very important. Alcohol makes for a big change. Alfred Vance feels kinder, surer, more interested; and definitely somebody. He, himself, doesn’t like the means he uses to transform himself. Like many others, he wishes there were another way. But he doesn’t know of it, and there, somewhat available, is transmuting liquor. So Alfred Vance, like a bored Norse chieftain, or a vacuous, splenetic Parisian writer of verse, or a dejected baseball player between games, thinks of a means to find the universe interesting, and himself bearable, and gets it.
The problem of alcoholism, then, won’t be solved until people can see in the ordinary universe a zip, a tingle, a blandishment, a satisfaction they don’t find now. We all of us wake in the morning with this request of the world: Please, O world, be interesting. Other ways of putting this prayer are: Please, O world, be exciting; and, Please, O world, make me feel good. There are more ways still.
There have been two great battles between man and the world. The first was to have the world give man enough in the way of food, warmth, clothing, housing. That battle has, essentially, been won. The other battle has been to have the world pleasing enough, meaningful enough, interesting enough—suitable for the mind of man. The second battle is going on furiously, exquisitely, agonizingly, constantly—and it hasn’t been won at all.
Alfred Vance is fairly well off. He likes his job. He doesn’t mind his wife too much. As far as he knows, he cares for his two boys and a girl. But he misses something. There is a kind of film over things most of the time for him. He doesn’t feel like talking. He feels stuck. He doesn’t know what it’s all about. He can’t call the pavement his friend. The walls of his home don’t look amiably at him. Comes to him a wide, intangible, ungettable-at emptiness, and it is hard for Alfred Vance to stand it. Only through what old writers called “the flowing bowl” can Alfred Vance feel sweet and lively, discerning and bland; really sure of himself, encomiastic of life and the universe.
Alfred Vance is nice enough and smart enough to know that he ought to feel bland and discerning, sweet and lively, without the absorption of alcohol. But he can’t. He has tried. He has tried to make alcohol seem loathsome. He has taken hold of himself pretty often. He has described his hangovers in detail, so that he could remember them and their discomfort and unattractiveness the next time the desire for charming and inebriating liquor seizes him. But as he fights liquor, he does not find the fight interesting. Keeping away from the cup, after the first glow of lovely self-approval, is rather wearing, and tensely dull. The liquor conquers; alcohol achieves; Vance is a victim.
Alfred Vance will go on this way, despite his own disapproval and the disapproval of others, unless the interest he has in the world at an ordinary time is so big, he can look at himself without dislike. It happens that for a long time Alfred Vance was not interested enough in the world as such, nor himself as in it. He found his mother and father not interesting enough; nor his two sisters. His studies he did well, but he was not interested enough in them, either. For a while, he was in a profound glow about Nora, his wife; and the coming of the first child meant something pretty keen and deep. However, all the time Alfred Vance felt that he couldn’t protect himself and be interested in other things at the same time. Like many other people, he was trying to enjoy the world while bent on keeping himself from getting hurt, or involved. When he drinks, the hesitations, immunities, enclosures, drawbridges, locks, walls, hindrances, fears, and jams of Alfred Vance are felt to be unnecessary—that unnecessary, anyway, as to enable him to see the world as friendly and engaging.
Of course, it isn’t a thorough job. At least the castellated Mr. Vance loses some of his fortifications, enough to make him feel different.
What Alfred Vance needs is a course in liking the world, finding it interesting. He has to see that the more he likes the world the more he likes himself. Alfred Vance isn’t so mean, but there is something in him which says, if he finds other things interesting he will be less interesting to himself, have himself less. Boredom is very often a profound way of protecting oneself.
Some people can really be uninterested in the world, yet can find a spurious, conquering interest in it, by having their way, by beating other people, by having victories for the narrow self. It cannot be said that Alfred Vance is exempt from this; however, he can’t have so much pleasure in doubtful financial and social victories as others can. He just wants to see things as pleasing. He smiles much more when he drinks. He is jovial. You can take him to be a nice guy. Maybe he is.
It is true, though, that the grouchiness which comes after drinking has a way now of appearing, a little, even during drinking. There is that in Alfred Vance telling him he should find the world interesting without martinis and such. He is getting to be more and more displeased with himself. It is showing.
If Alfred Vance doesn’t find the universe charming and appealing and satisfying even in ordinary times, the good nature, the sweetness which are in him will have a harder and harder time coming out. As social history tells us, the jolly toper has a way of becoming less jolly.
A Few Questions
So there are a few questions that really face Mr. Vance. Is the world, as such, interesting? Can it fill and satisfy our perceptions?; can it tease, charm, engage our thoughts?; has it enough to meet the subtlest, deepest desires of our unconscious, our soul, and the desires of our naked state of mind at conscious noon? Alfred Vance doesn’t know. Consciously, he hasn’t been sold on the world that much. If the world of itself can’t be pleasing, enchanting, a hit, then Alfred Vance has been justified, is justified. Certainly, if a world is inevitably dreary, as such, we are not so amiss in finding that which adorns it, gives it hedonistic significance, makes it acceptable.
Like What Happens in Art
Yet we know that the world has honestly been seen as interesting. Art shows this. Statements of people at beautiful, high times in their lives show this. There have been grand mergings of the universe and persons, so that both seem sweeter and more glorious. Somewhere, there is a way of mingling accurately the very depths of Alfred Vance and the nature of this world. When an individual in all his individuality becomes one with the universe in all its universality and its sharp immediacy, a good thing happens. It is like what happens in art.
Should the individuality of Alfred Vance aesthetically become one with the world before him and the world as such, he will be interested. He will feel beautiful. In all true interest, there is something of art. When Mr. Vance can have the world himself, and himself the world, a situation will take place making the liquor that charms not abhorrent but not desperately indispensable either. Alfred Vance will then like the world, see it as interesting. At that time, aesthetics will have beaten alcohol.
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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