Aesthetic Realism Is Nothing Else
By Eli Siegel
One thing psychiatrists don’t have a sufficient awareness of is the conflict that goes on in a person just because he’s alive—not because he’s sick, but just because he’s alive.
If we look at ourselves we shall see that something like conflict is going on all the time. The fact, for instance, that we have memories and also toes, points to a contrariety in the human self.
A person, by being alive, has a conflict between being an individual and yielding to other people. He has a job—an ordinary job—of maintaining his uniqueness and being just to all that seems to attack it. This is nothing less than an aesthetic job. It’s not a psychiatric job or a morbid job. It’s a job arising from life itself. Aesthetic Realism sees putting together conflicting things as a problem in aesthetic engineering. If one knew what the problem was, the word aesthetics would not seem the strange or delicate word that it can seem.
The biggest problem of all people in all ages is to be oneself. Unless psychiatry has an adequate notion of what the self is, psychiatry is unequipped.
The problem confronting everyone is to maintain one’s individuality while liking and being fair to outside things. The schizophrenic mishaps are distortions of the problem one has by being alive. In being hostile to things that something else in him wants to like, the schizophrenic person has a great deal of pain. But any person who says he doesn’t have the problem the schizophrenic has is deceiving himself. For example, the schizophrenic hates the outside world. And we can at times hate the outside world. One can’t understand the abnormal unless one understands the normal.
The Central Matter
What is central to the self is that it’s made up of opposites. For example, the fact that the self is made up of body and mind is a mysterious fact that has been contemplated for a long time. How is it a person who can think of cube roots can weigh many pounds? The problem of body and mind is basic to reality. It’s a question of how two opposites become one. No one can say where body ends and mind begins; they have somehow become at one. These opposites are made one insofar as every person here is alive, because to be alive is to have form and substance. Reality itself is aesthetic. If aesthetics is seen very carefully, we shall think of it as being as staple as oatmeal.
Understanding how opposites become one is essential for understanding mental mishaps. After body and mind, the next pair of opposites is individuality/externality. These opposites, which a schizophrenic can’t put together, are the opposites that tantalize us every moment. If we continue to look at ourselves, every one of us can grow lonely. We seem to be alone with our feelings. The self is a uniqueness impossible to describe, surrounded by things battering at it—things going on in Paraguay; in Ankara, Turkey; mothers-in-law; bus drivers. Most people, as they see their individuality being kicked around by what is not it, make a separate, undercover individuality for themselves. Every one of us is afraid of the outside world—it is just too much. The only way to protect our uniqueness seems to be to declare war on all that surrounds it. This has been done all through history.
But all through history, also, there has been art. And every instance of art says, “That isn’t the way!” Wherever art occurs, that tremendous problem of uniqueness and relation has been solved. Every instance of art has the solution psychiatrists are looking for.
The place where people have been unique and also related is where art has been successful. The biggest matter in art is how to be original and yet fair to what is not oneself; how to be an individual by welcoming what is not your individuality. The artist says, “As I give myself to what is not myself, I become more myself.”
Aesthetics Is Always There
I assume many people in America, including Mr. Truman, feel pretty bad. We can’t enjoy the world unless we see deeply that every time we desire something, we want something not ourselves to become ourselves.
If the problem of every jumpy person is related to the beautiful problem of how a thing can be itself by welcoming what is not itself, there can’t be a morbid, clinical seeing of mental trouble. Further, if this is the problem every person faces—how to be himself and be fair to what’s not himself—then everyone has an aesthetic problem.
In aesthetics there’s a certain relation of the concrete and the abstract. What is a self? It’s not blood cells; it’s not heart, or brain. It’s a oneness that seems to take in, at one time, everything about us. It includes our eyebrows, our family, our feet, our bones, our memories. It’s an instantaneous form taking in every one of them at once. It’s a tremendous thing; it’s like the world as such: a oneness through diversity. Yet most people feel that the self—whatever it is—can only maintain itself by being at war with the outside world.
Being True to Oneself
By Joseph Spetly
Though I didn’t say it in so many words, I had a pretty big sense I wasn’t true to myself. While I got the approval of relatives, teachers, and others, and seemed to have a bright future, inwardly I had the feeling that Ellen Reiss writes of in issue 1772 of TRO: “the nagging, often quiet, sometimes fierce feeling that what I’m doing doesn’t fully represent me and I don’t know what would, but there’s something false and empty in my life.”
In Eli Siegel’s 7-point description “On Being True to Yourself” (TRO 1223), the first point is: “You try to find out what you most want and stick to that.” But for the first 21 years of my life I was more concerned with how I looked to people, often flattering them to get their approval. I also changed my opinions depending on whom I was talking to and was never wholly sure about what I felt myself. I didn’t take a stand either for or against America’s unjust war in Vietnam, because I was afraid that one way or the other I wouldn’t be liked.
In another issue of TRO, Ellen Reiss writes about how, when we’re untrue to ourselves, the opposites of manyness and oneness are both awry:
A person is disgusted with himself because he feels scattered in an ugly fashion—feels he does not have an integrity of purpose....He has a deep sense that he is tricky and political.... Yet...this same person is also profoundly displeased with himself because he has gone after a bad, narrow sense of unity. [TRO 1344]
I went after this “narrow sense of unity” intensely. A notion I had of being true to myself was being intact. From as early as age four I insisted on wearing my shirts buttoned up all the way, even in sweltering heat. I also came to feel I should hold on to my money with an iron fist.
Ms. Reiss explains that “the criterion for anything... we do” is: “will we try to get to a snug and mighty sense of self through contempt for the world or respect?” I tried to get to that “snug and mighty sense of self” by looking down on other people, feeling superior to them. In an Aesthetic Realism consultation, my consultants once asked me, “Do you think there’s a self in you that says, ‘Don’t get mixed up with anything out there’?” That was practically my motto! But with all my disdain, I was quietly scared. I felt something good in me was getting lost and I didn’t know what to do.
False Intactness Is Countered
As a teenager, when offered the chance to spend a summer in Europe with high school students from across the country, I panicked. To be among strangers in foreign countries was unthinkable! But when I told my parents I didn’t want to go, they said, “Are you out of your mind? Start packing!” They were so right. From the moment I reached the airport I had a great time. I made friends, studied history, and saw some of the great art of the world.
In Europe something big affected me, and for a while I broke out of the intactness that was strangling me. This also happened as I sang in choruses and took part in high school productions of The Pirates of Penzance and Once upon a Mattress. I felt proud and excited trying to be precise about the songs, dance steps, entrances and exits—all the while letting go and joining with my fellow performers to create something exciting. My father recently recalled how happy I was at those times. He said that I walked around beaming and that it was so different from my usual “me, me, me” attitude—my seeing things in terms of what’s-in-it-for me, and sulking. Meanwhile, though I had glimpses of what it was like really to be myself, those feelings never lasted. There was an ongoing debate in me, which Ellen Reiss describes in TRO 1345:
The question...within every person, is: How should I get to that feeling of myself as one, as intact, as pure me—through (a) excluding other things and persons, feeling I’m apart from them (even when I’m in the same room with them); or through (b) feeling the huge outside world is as real as myself, I’m related to all of it, and the more deeply I am affected by the things and persons in it the more my own personality will be whole and thrive?
What I Learned
My personality began to thrive as I learned in Aesthetic Realism consultations that things and other people are as real as I am and deserve something from me: a desire to know and be affected truly by them. I was asked about my mother, whom I thought I knew like a book, “Do you see her, or do you see your version of her?” “Your mother,” my consultants explained, “like a circle, has 360 degrees of relation. You’ve seen about 20 percent.” And that was a generous approximation.
I was given the assignment to write “The Advantages and Disadvantages of Showing Emotion,” and realized how much I had stunted myself in thinking I was too good to let the outside world affect me. I saw, through the structure of opposites we have in common, that things and people were more like me than I’d ever dreamed. I came to care for photography and I fell in love with such novels as David Copperfield, The Portrait of a Lady, and Middlemarch.
In one Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry class, I said I liked this line from Carl Sandburg’s “Limited”: “Hurtling across the prairie into blue haze and dark air go fifteen all-steel coaches holding a thousand people.” Ms. Reiss asked if I thought that the line stood for a change in me: “Are you hurtling across the prairie and not stuck in a room somewhere labeled ‘For Me Only—Do Not Enter’?” She said she thought I was affected by the musical oneness, in the line’s technique, of letting go and grip—which stood for something I wanted: “letting go, giving up oneself seemingly, but also having more of a grip than ever. Do you think you are truly more careful with yourself as you have wanted to care more for things outside yourself? You’re splashing around, and it’s just beginning.”
Part of the deep, wonderful, accurate splashing around is my relation to my wife, Miriam Weiss. When I met her I was affected by her beautiful dark eyes, her delightful and surprising humor, and her excitement about languages, literature, and poetry. I respected the deep way she thought about other people. Miriam has been a critic, with keenness and charm, of my desire to be stuck in myself, and this has made me happy and proud to need her.
In December of 1992, after we’d spent a weekend together, I knew what I most wanted was to spend the rest of my life with her. I couldn’t contain myself and called the next day from a phone booth to tell her how much she meant to me—that I felt closer to the world through her, needed her to be more myself, and didn’t want it to end. That feeling continues to grow!
Ellen Reiss once asked me: “What do you want to have happen to your emotions? Do you want to see the whole panorama that you can feel? What’s going to happen if you do? What will happen is, you will be yourself.” Aesthetic Realism enables a person to be oneself, be true to oneself; and that is the greatest pleasure and success for a life.