The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Fellow-Feeling, & What’s Against It

Dear Unknown Friends:

We’re honored to publish here portions of a lecture Eli Siegel gave in 1948: the magnificent Mind and People. As with two other 1948 lectures by him that we printed recently, no audio recording or transcript of Mind and People exists, and I am again using notes to reconstruct some of what Mr. Siegel said so many decades ago. The notes are those of Martha Baird and my mother, Irene Reiss. Mind and People will appear in two parts—with the final section in our next issue, TRO 1909.

This lecture is a classic: it is true for all times and places. And it has what we need to know right now.

The biggest matter in the life of everyone is how we see other people. And how people see people is the biggest, most urgent matter affecting the world itself: it determines the decisions of nations, including whether there will be war or peace; it determines how wealth is distributed; what laws are made; how persons of different ethnicities and religions treat each other. In Mind and People Mr. Siegel explains what it is that has human beings see each other hurtfully. He also explains what can enable us to see other persons in a way that’s resplendently just—both to them and to our own ever so particular treasured self.

Coldness—& What Can Change It

To introduce this lecture, I’ll comment a little on an article of our own time. It’s about a question asked in various ways for thousands of years: Why is a certain unfeelingness so extensive in humanity? Why are persons so cold to what others feel and endure?

On July 12 the New York Times printed an opinion piece titled “Empathy Is Actually a Choice.” Empathy can be described as feeling for the feelings of another. The writers are three professors of psychology: Daryl Cameron, Michael Inzlicht, and William A. Cunningham. They note that “empathy seem[s] to fail when it is needed most.” And they say there’s a current view, put forth by “a growing chorus of critics,” that empathy is not so valuable and may even be hurtful. It’s a view with which these authors rightly disagree. Meanwhile, what empathy (or, to use an old-fashioned term, fellow-feeling) truly is, and what in oneself stops one from having it, is not to be found in this article. It is to be found in Aesthetic Realism. So I’ll mention four things that need to be known and studied for empathy, fellow-feeling, to exist with real power among people.

1) Eli Siegel explained that there is a fight going on in every person: “the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151). Contempt is the feeling that we’ll take care of ourselves by lessening things and people, looking down on them, using them to aggrandize ourselves, seeing them as less real than we are. It is gigantic, subtle, has thousands of forms. And our contempt is in a fight all the time with the deepest desire we have: to see meaning in things and people. Unless we’re studying this fight as Aesthetic Realism describes it, “empathy” will not prevail in us and humanity. That’s so whether it’s a matter of having large, effective feeling for people suffering in a war; or for a person requesting money on the street; or for a relative whom we may hug but not want to understand.

For example, the authors of the article say: “Some kinds of people seem generally less likely to feel empathy for others—for instance, powerful people.” Well, first of all, we have to see what “powerful” means. Power can be exceedingly kind: Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln were powerful and had much feeling for people. But if many “powerful” individuals are also unfeeling, the reason is that their notion of power is contempt. That is: when one operates on the basis that power for oneself is to make a lot of money, own the world rather than know it, beat out others, be in a position to push them around—one has a state of mind that’s incompatible with seeing people as having feelings like one’s own.

2) We come to another principle of Aesthetic Realism that people need to study in order to be kind: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Let’s look at a statement at the end of the article I’m discussing. The authors write: “Empathy is only as limited as we choose it to be.” That has a pleasing sound; yet there’s a reason people have not “chosen” empathy much these centuries. The reason has to do with the opposites: people don’t think having feeling for others takes care of themselves. In order for us to “choose” empathy—to have large, steady fellow-feeling—we need to see that caring about what’s not us is also selfish. We need to see that being just to someone else is the real selfishness, makes us more.

Aesthetic Realism shows that this is an aesthetic matter. Every instance of true art is impelled by a person’s feeling: “The way to be Me, take care of Me, is to be just to this object not myself, these words, sounds, shapes, lines. I express myself as I try to bring out their meaning and power.” We need to learn from art how justice to the outside world and self-affirmation are the same.

3) For empathy to prevail, humanity also needs to know the following: Empathy is an aspect of ethics, and Aesthetic Realism explains that ethics is a force, no matter how unjust and unfeeling we choose to be. That is, there’s an insistence in us to be ourselves by feeling justly what other things are, and if we don’t go after that justice, we inevitably dislike ourselves, feel agitated, low, empty, depressed. This fact is a tribute to the ethics in humanity.

We’re Related to Everything

4) In point 2, I commented on the opposites of justice and selfishness, what’s not us and ourselves. For people really to like the idea of empathy, we also need to learn about two other opposites, central to the aesthetic structure of the world: sameness and difference. We need to see that while each of us is ever so particular, there’s not a thing or person we’re not also like. We cannot have feeling for a person unless we see that we have things deeply in common with him or her. That is something our contempt has not wanted us to see.

Aesthetic Realism is the beautiful, necessary study of what all things have in common: how each object and person is at once individual and related to everything.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Mind and People

By Eli Siegel

There is a difference between people and persons. At election time, one says “the choice of the People of America,” not “the Persons of America.” People is persons where they have to do with each other. We say “crowds of people at Coney Island,” not “crowds of persons.” Though people are made up of individuals, we don’t think of them as individuals right away. But we should see that in thinking of people we are really thinking of two things: 1) the very unique and lonely self (no one has completely expressed himself) and 2) this self as having to do with everybody.

To show what I mean, I’ll read from an essay by Sanger Brown II, “The Herd Instinct” (1921). In it, mind is dealt with in two ways: There is the idea that everybody wants to do what everybody else is doing, be in the swim, follow fashions. That is instinctive in us; it’s the “people” instinct. Likewise, we want to assert our individualities. We want to wear what’s in fashion; we also want to wear something distinctive. In the ’20s there was a lot of talk about “the herd instinct,” “mass psychology,” and “mob psychology.” Brown writes:

Man does not live...in isolation. He is gregarious, and his life is inseparable from the lives of others.

...On the one hand, we...have herd influence,...on the other, we have this strong individualistic tendency. The existence of the two makes for conflicting purposes.

A person wants to be nothing but himself; yet he wants to belong and have to do with others. The difference between what is said by Brown and by Aesthetic Realism is that Aesthetic Realism says this problem of how to be unique and also with people is aesthetic. And it can only be solved aesthetically—as it has been solved in art—because to solve it means to be personal as anything and impersonal as anything at the same time.

The Deepest Fight

There are two things people can succumb to: just following what others are doing, being one of the “herd”; and kicking against everything. I haven’t met anyone who has not done both. We hate so much to be one of the crowd, and want so much to be. It is a tremendous fight; it is the deepest fight: how to be one person and at the same time many persons and all things.

A statement of Aesthetic Realism is that every person wants to see the 130 million people of America as so many interferences with what he is. Every person who is alive is an interference with oneself: that is the view of the contemptuous unconscious. But another aspect of the unconscious (harder to get at) says: “Here are 130 million ways to be more myself.” The most dangerous indoor stunt, done every night in America, is getting under the covers and feeling you can annul the whole world. It is the chief cause of insomnia.* Any person who thinks he is going to become an individual by annulling the existence of people is harming himself. People exist not to lessen us but to give us more of an opportunity to find out who we are.

Every person should stand for our freedom. But there is something in everyone which, when he agrees with someone, feels he is the slave of that person. It is very hard to feel another person can stand for our freedom more than we ourselves do. Yet there are many examples of this happening. For instance, a person is in the dumps, then he gets a telephone call and is excited: the caller has been an agent for his freedom.

Freedom is the ability to do exactly what you want. But to think you’re doing something you want without its being what you really want, is slavery. A person can unknowingly consent to feel bad because he feels that in being depressed he’s freer. He thinks: “I’d rather be miserable and have my way than be happy and give in to all those people.”

Mechanical versus Human

In the field of mental therapy, there are two ways of trying to have people feel better: the action of mind on people, and of not-mind on people. By the second I mean that, just as a person might try to feel better through things other than thought—say, drink or drugs—psychotherapy has used shock treatment. That is a mechanical way of having people feel better, and is being questioned more and more. Three or four years ago, when I said the way to get people out of schizophrenia was not shock treatment, persons thought, “He’s just interested in aesthetics; shock treatment is really wonderful.” Now these mechanical means are being questioned more.

A New York Times article quotes Dr. Joseph Miller of Hillside Hospital in Queens talking about the inadequacy of shock treatment. He says it doesn’t get to the roots:

Shock therapy is only a physical procedure—like dashing a pail of water on a hysteric....The state hospitals don’t trace the origin and development of the symptom.

I’m reading this because it has to do with people and things. A person can prefer to be affected by inanimate things rather than by other people, because that way it seems he doesn’t have to acknowledge anything. This is why people have wanted shock, injections, etc.: people are not really working on you.

No person is free until he can undergo the effect of other people on him. Most marriage contracts are entered into not in order to be affected as much as possible, but to be soothed and needed. There is love where there is the knowing of a self by a self. And a purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to show that the more one is affected truly, the freer one is. If a person is afraid of being affected, he or she is a slave.

In shock treatment there wasn’t the effect of person on person. The doctors felt they didn’t really give themselves to the patients, and the patients felt they hadn’t had anything deep done to them either. Now this absence of effect of people on people is questioned.

Statements From & About People

Proverbs have come from the people and been accepted by people as being about them. So have folk tales, ballads, folk songs. The proverbs represent a good deal of wisdom, and can also be very contradictory. I’m reading from English Proverbs, edited by W. Carew Hazlitt.

“An ill father desireth not an ill son.” Many fathers have wanted to live their lives through their sons. This business of saying that your own difficulties and what you weren’t able to do will be made up in your son, is a way of owning him. And it makes for resentment.

“An old man in a house is a good sign.” There is a tendency on the part of persons older than others to think they are not being cared for. The same feeling can be found in children. I think older people and younger people are not seen rightly for the same reason. When there is respect for personality in a very young person and in a very old person, there is respect for personality as such. To have this respect is hard: it is so easy to take people for granted.

“Anything for a quiet life.” This is a very famous saying, but it can easily be misused. One of the things people want to do is just be quiet, undisturbed. The era we are in is probably the busiest of all time: it is the era of wire-tapping and the era in which, if you don’t want to listen to your own radio you have to hear other people’s. If there is activity without quiet, it’s going to be fluttering activity. If there is quiet without activity, the quiet will change into dullness and stagnation. We need both. However, the rhythm of this proverb is lovely. So we have this saying, and we also have “Quiet pools stagnate.” Both are true.

“It is a world to see.” Our first duty to the world is to see it. But people think their first job is to protect themselves, acquire things, fool people. In that way people don’t come into their heritage of thinking other people exist for them, not against them.

“Never too old to learn.” This is a very common saying. But there is also “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Both can be true. The idea of being old is something a person can have at age three. Children have been cynics at three, have felt there is nothing in life for them, and in doing that they have accepted age. Age is an accepted lack of organic interest in oneself and in the things about one. The “old dog” in the saying thinks it’s too good to learn new tricks.

Petrifaction, stoniness, dullness is the big sin of that period. And the chief reason people don’t want to learn is that learning means giving oneself. As soon as you don’t want to give yourself you’re old, no matter how sprightly you are otherwise. If one is old in years and sees that every possible situation in life can make for new knowledge, then one can say one is “never too old to learn.”

“Teaching others teacheth yourself.” Just as we can see things about ourselves in a mirror that we can’t see without one, so we can see things in ourselves through other people. To teach somebody something is a way of making it clear to ourselves: to affect others can be a way of having ourselves more. If you see anything as true, tell it as you see it to another. That way, the truth will become more your own.

“Truth will sometimes break out unlooked for.” This often happens. A person without knowing it will say things he didn’t think he wanted to say. The unconscious will peer forth like a sudden daffodil in spring. Every person deeply wants to tell the truth. If he doesn’t tell it, it’s because he is afraid, or has consented to be less than himself. The desire for truth comes from the proud desire to see things as they are.

People of the Past

“He that died half a year ago is as dead as Adam.” The people who lived in the past are important. We should feel that in understanding the people who have gone, there is something in it for ourselves: that we can also hope to be understood. If there is that interest, death will not seem to be the cold and unthinkable thing it often is felt to be. The dead are the greatest democracy in the world.

“He that does not speak truth to me does not believe me when I speak truth.” This has to do with the suspiciousness of people. Persons who are suspicious of others are also suspicious of themselves: they can never be happy.

Enemies, & More

“An enemy may chance to give good counsel.” This is true. An enemy may be against us but, in the process, say things that are very valuable. For one thing, he doesn’t have the reason for buttering us that persons close to us have.

“If we be enemies to ourselves, whither shall we fly?” This is perhaps the deepest of the proverbs I’ve read. Many persons don’t know they’re enemies to themselves, so they take it out in being grouchy, sleepy—all sorts of things.

“Live and let live.” Through letting other things be, you are really taking care of yourself in a fine fashion. This proverb does not mean be indifferent to things; it means respect the existence of things.

These sayings represent the wisdom of the people. It is sometimes very practical, sometimes tremendously generous.

*Our ethical unconscious objects to our using sleep to put aside the world, and makes us unable to sleep with such a purpose.