The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Everyday Worry & an Earthquake

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish here, from notes taken at the time, the first half of the 1947 lecture Aesthetics and Worry, by Eli Siegel. It is one in a series that he gave at Steinway Hall early in the history of Aesthetic Realism. And it explains definitively a tormenting yet everyday matter: the inaccurate worrying that people find themselves driven to engage in.

Meanwhile, this issue of TRO is being prepared days after the earthquake in Haiti—at a time when so much true worry is taking place, along with human anguish and agony on a gigantic scale. We are reprinting here, from Eli Siegel’s book Hail, American Development, his translation titled “Some Lines from Voltaire’s Poem on the Disaster at Lisbon.” The poem is about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.

In the Life of Everyone

In Aesthetics and Worry of 1947, during the heyday of Freudian psychology, Mr. Siegel is explaining what neither Freud nor the therapists of now have understood: what the human self really is. He is defining the big continuous fight in the life of everyone. Three decades later he would put it this way:

The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now. [TRO 151]

In the 1947 lecture he shows that this fight is at the basis of all inaccurate worry.

Aesthetic Realism explains too that every human-made cruelty in history—including racism, economic exploitation, and war—has come from contempt: from the feeling we’ll be more through making less of what’s different from us. For humanity to stop being mean, and also for individual men and women to like ourselves and feel animatedly at ease in our lives, we have to want to criticize contempt in ourselves.

An Earthquake & Our Two Desires

Whether we know it or not, we are using whatever we meet to fortify either our desire to care for reality or our desire to despise it. What does it mean to use an earthquake in behalf of respect for the world, which definitely includes respect for people, rather than contempt? This is an urgent question.

I remember a class in which Mr. Siegel spoke about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake. He quoted, and was very critical of, certain commentators of the time who advised smoothly that the disaster was somehow in God’s plan and we must have faith that it was justified. He also quoted Voltaire, who is saying with tremendous anger: I cannot see this earthquake, with its deaths and its screaming, bleeding children, as in any way justifiable and I refuse to bow my head about it and stop questioning! And Mr. Siegel said that Voltaire was more sincere. It’s much more respectful and deeply more reverent to say with honesty, intensity, and a real desire to know, “I don’t see how a world, a universe, a creator can be liked for permitting this”—than to “accept” in some glib way.

To be glib, not to want to see as burningly real the feelings of people who suffer, is contempt. The other aspect of contempt is to feel, without wholly articulating it but with a hidden triumph: “Look at this world which makes for something as horrible as an earthquake—this clinches my case that the world is disgusting and that I have a right to look down on it, to feel superior to what’s not me. This proves that the world inside me is better than what’s around me!” There is a huge tendency to use a terrible happening that way. And accompanying such a state of mind is the conclusion, also mainly unarticulated, “I don’t have to be fair to anything!”

Five years ago, in writing about the tsunami disaster, I described the thoughts of an imaginary woman of Trenton who was trying to see rightly:

“Yes, the world has shown it can be terribly brutal. And I don’t understand how to see that brutality, and I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t exist. But I’m also not going to say that this ugliness negates whatever good and beauty and kindness exist; they are the world too. And I’m not going to get a sleazy feeling of victorious superiority deciding reality is a mess. I’m going to say I don’t understand and I hope to understand, without making myself important by despising everything.” [TRO 1632]

What People Deserve

Central to using the Haiti earthquake in behalf of respect is to feel the following: “As I see what men, women, and children in Haiti are enduring, I am using it to see people as more real, as having much more value than I have given them. I am using this disaster to criticize my coldness. I am using it to see, and to keep seeing, that other people are like me, that their feelings are like my own.”

Part of this greater justice to people is the seeing clearly that before the earthquake, people in Haiti were forced to live in a way that arose from massive contempt. The poverty in Haiti is huge. And it is huge because the economy of Haiti is based on the ugly, immoral idea that it is right for whatever resources exist in Haiti to be owned by some few persons, for whom other persons are a means of profit. It is my opinion that the Haiti earthquake should be used by everyone 1) to have more respect for people, and 2) as part of that respect, to see vividly that the economy of a nation should be based, not on using human beings for profit, but on making sure every person gets what he or she needs and deserves.

I am glad and proud that the United States wants to assist the earthquake victims of Haiti. Meanwhile, we need to see that over the years the United States backed Haitian governments that kept their people impoverished. The idea was that any government favoring profit-based economics was one we should support, and any government questioning profit-based economics was one we should oppose—even if it could have people live less poorly, less hungrily, and with more dignity. We should use the Haiti earthquake to abjure this fake, awful equation.

Voltaire’s Poem

Voltaire wrote his “Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne” in 1756. It consists of 234 lines, in rhymed 12-syllable couplets. In 1967, Eli Siegel chose several passages from the poem and gave them subtitles. He translated them in free verse—immensely musical free verse, which, amazingly, conveys the quality, the feeling, of Voltaire’s couplets. In his note to the translation, he writes:

Voltaire argues. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 is not something to be resigned to, unquestioning about, says one of the most alert men of all history. Voltaire, though, is poetic too....Grace, music, largeness, surprise, wit—and, again, auditory loveliness are in the Lisbon lines.

Voltaire’s mighty respect for reality, his reverence for reality, shows in the “auditory loveliness” of his lines. There are grandeur and tenderness along with indignation in, for example, these lines: “But I live; but I feel; but my heart, deeply hurt, /Asks for help from the God who made it exist.”

Here, then, are two important works, both of them crucially and kindly about us now: lines of Voltaire in a magnificent translation; and the first part of a lecture in which Eli Siegel understands the worrying that goes on in people’s thoughts, in streets, in kitchens, in beds at night.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Some Lines from Voltaire’s Poem

on the Disaster at Lisbon

Translated by Eli Siegel

1. Will You Say This?

Will you say, “It is the effect of everlasting laws

Which necessitates this choice by a free and good God?”

Will you say, seeing this heap of victims:

“God is avenged, their death is the payment of their crimes”?

What crimes, what bad things have been committed by these children,

Lying on the breasts of their mothers, flattened and bloody?

Lisbon, which is a city no longer, had it more vices

Than London, than Paris, given to doubtful delights?

2. We Are Not Oaks

If the eternal law which moves elemental things

Makes rocks fall, by the efforts of great winds,

If thickly growing oaks are burned by lightning—

They do not feel the blows which bring them down,

But I live; but I feel; but my heart, deeply hurt,

Asks for help from the God who made it exist.

3. God Is Asked About

What eye may see into his deep designs?

From a Being all perfect, evil cannot come to be.

It does not come from another, since God alone is master.

Yet, evil exists. O sad truths!

O astonishing mingling of contrarieties!

A God came to console our afflicted race;

He visited the earth, and has not changed it.

4. Why Cannot This Be?

Whatever opinion one has, one should shudder, no doubt.

There is nothing one knows, and nothing one does not question.

Nature is mute, she is questioned in vain.

There is need of a God who talks to humanity.

It is for him only to explain his work,

To console the weak, make the wise person clear.

5. What Can Man Do?

What can then do, the mind of largest range?

Nothing. The book of fate closes itself before our eyes.

Man, a stranger to himself, by man is not known.

What am I, where am I, where do I go, and from what do I come?

Atoms tormented on this mass of mud,

Whom death engulfs and with whom fate plays—

But thinking atoms, atoms whose eyes,

Guided by thought, have measured the skies.

From the very midst of the infinite, our lives go forth,

Without our being able, one moment, to see ourselves or know ourselves.

6. Voltaire Tells of a Caliph

A caliph once, at his last hour,

To the God whom he adored, said, for all prayer:

“I carry to you, O Only King, Only Unlimited Being,

All that which you don’t have in your immensity—

Deficiencies, regrets, evils and ignorance.”

But he might, also, have added: Hope.

7. This Was Earlier in the Poem

What is needed, O mortals? Mortals, it is needed that we suffer,

Submit ourselves silently, adore, and die.

8. This Is in a Note

O God, give us a Revelation that we should be humane and tolerant.


Aesthetics and Worry

By Eli Siegel

We know that doctors and others have been telling people for years, “Don’t worry. It’ll all be the same a hundred years from now,” but still the human animal goes on worrying. The word worry is from the Anglo-Saxon, wyrgan, meaning strangle. It’s interesting that one of the manifestations of worry is a choking feeling. And the word anxiety has to do with the Latin angere, to choke. There’s an interference with the function of the self in worry.

To understand a specific worry, we have to see what worry itself comes from.

All human life is bound up with pleasure and pain. The largest pleasure, the true pleasure, is a feeling that what we are doing goes along with what the world wants, a feeling that what we are is at one with what we are not. We all hope for pleasure. But the question is, do we also hope for something that is against pleasure? If there are two kinds of hope, what do they come from?

So far, the chief notion of anxiety that has been generally accepted is the Freudian notion. In Freudian terms, neurotic worry or anxiety is explained by the idea of “repressed libido.” (Libido is a word that has been given various meanings, all having more or less to do with sex.) For example, if a person wants to indulge in perversion and the town won’t let him, there’s a stoppage of libido and a resulting anxiety. There is also the idea that worry is related to a desire not to be born: the baby cries because it does not want to leave the warm security of the womb. Then, the child fears strangers because they interfere with his being close to his mother. Later Freud changed somewhat and accented the notion that people can be anxious because they long for the security of death.

Worries are bad worries because they don’t seem to be objective. There’s no such thing as nervousness without excessive worry. The question is, do these worries arise because there’s been sexual frustration of a hidden kind, or because we were torn away from the uterus, or because we all have a mother image we have to get back to—or what?

Two Attitudes

As Aesthetic Realism sees it, the worries and difficulties about sex, worries about examinations, worries about crossing streets, worries that a letter will never come, worries as such, don’t arise from sexual incompleteness, but from the fact that in our attitude to pleasure, in our attitude to reality, we are double: we have two attitudes to all things not ourselves, two hopes and two fears.

In The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict* I discuss a person called Rosalind Hines. She is listening to Mozart. She is greatly and pleasurably affected by the music. Then she begins to feel, “If Mozart can do so much to me, where am I, just I?” While she wanted to be pleased by Mozart, she also was against being pleased.

It is very hard to understand that we do not want to like the world, that we want to be pained by it, worried by it. But take the example of a lady of 70 who has been prejudiced against Austrians for years. Suppose an Austrian gentleman is very kind to her: if that means she has to give up an idea about Austrians which is associated with her own importance, she won’t like the Austrian gentleman’s being kind to her. The claims of contempt can be stronger than the desire for pleasure.

When one is led, without knowing it, to think that by being pleased by the outside world entirely one is going to lose something, one can be afraid to be happy.

Fears, Useful & Harmful

If worry means fear based on fact, we should worry all we want. We should worry about Mr. Truman, about what landlords are going to do, about what we read. Worry based on fact is very useful: it’s an evaluation of what may pain us. A person who doesn’t worry at all is complacent. But there is, of course, the other kind of worry, the kind that arises we don’t know how. One instance is that of the woman who wakes up in the middle of the night feeling panic-stricken and having heart palpitations. It is also bad to have periods of worry and reassurance that aren’t coordinated. We need to like ourselves for how we worry. If we don’t, we must find out why.

Fear, then, is definitely useful; it's also definitely harmful. Tonight I'm talking chiefly of the harmful kind.

At the Basis of Worry

Our two largest fears are: 1) that we’ll be affected by the outside world so much, we’ll lose a certain private notion of ourselves; 2) that we’ll be so able to evade reality, we’ll leave our hidden ego untouched. Worry is a disorganized attitude to hope and fear, because while we worry, we’re hoping without knowing it. There is a hope in us, corresponding to the first fear, to be an individual island, unaffected by anything. We also fear this, because we don’t want to be isolated and alone. The situation is like that of a person who hopes a telephone will ring and fears that it may. Unless we understand this fundamental matter of hoping for and fearing the same thing, we won’t see what worry is about.

It’s like a woman who decides she’s going to be an individual. She leaves a note for her husband and sets off for Brattleboro, Vermont, to stay with her aunt. Then on the way she becomes very lonely. No matter what she does, part of her wants to be away from John and part of her can’t stand being away from John. This is a replica of that basic thing: the desire of each self to become one with the outside world, and the desire to separate from it. In every instance of worry we find this. It is at the basis of worry.

The traumatic explanation of worry—that the man trembles at the sight of a fork because it reminds him of the fork his brother was looking at when he thought of killing this brother—I regard as fit for the Hollywood gentlemen at a low moment. However, something of this sort is the most common explanation of worry.

Worry is the inability to put together the aspects of ourselves that can fear and desire the very same thing. That has to be understood before specific examples of worry can be understood. If we feel that in being affected we’re going to lose something, we will worry. 

*Published separately in 1946; now chapter 3 of Self and World.