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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1836.—November 21, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Instinct & the Understanding of Ourselves

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the 4th section of Eli Siegel’s great 1965 lecture Instinct: Beginning with Shelley. And we print too an article by sociologist and Aesthetic Realism consultant Devorah Tarrow—part of a paper she gave at a recent public seminar titled “A Woman’s Dissatisfaction: What Makes It Wise or Foolish, Right or Wrong?”

In the portion of his lecture included here, Mr. Siegel speaks about something that affects everyone mightily. That something is our feeling that what’s within us—our emotions, confusions, hopes, worries, torments, yearnings—is not understood, not known, by other people, even those closest to us; and that, furthermore, we don’t understand ourselves. Matthew Arnold put the feeling succinctly, in two lines: “And what heart knows another? / Ah! who knows his own?” And the landmark, rich, kind, clear description of it is in Eli Siegel’s essay “The Ordinary Doom,” where, for example, he writes:

There have been many, many persons who have lived rather long lives,...who yet did not show what was in their minds, what feelings they truly had....

We live not only in our minds, but in other minds; our minds depend for their full existence, on being apprehended by other minds justly, beautifully. If this does not happen, there is misfortune.

Aesthetic Realism not only describes, as nothing else has, this “ordinary doom,” and the causes of it—Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that can end it. Take the article by Devorah Tarrow. It is an illustration of the fact that through Aesthetic Realism people have felt deeply understood at last, and have been able increasingly to understand themselves. This comprehension has come not in some hit-or-miss way, but through principles that are logical and transmissible. While true about all people, they are also a means of seeing and being fair to the subtleties, the nuances of every person’s own particular self. Two central principles are: 1) “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves”; 2) “The large every the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality.”

In the not-so-many paragraphs of Ms. Tarrow, we see an instance of Eli Siegel understanding her, an ever so individual human being. Then we see an instance of that new, magnificent education which is Aesthetic Realism consultations: we see Ms. Tarrow and two other consultants understanding a woman of now and teaching that woman to know herself.

It was my happiness to see, week after week for decades, Eli Siegel “justly, beautifully” comprehending people, people very different from each other. As he spoke to a person, there was always compassion. There was clearness. Sometimes there was humor. Always, there was a basis in principles. Always he enabled a person to feel that what went on in oneself was not in some murky, narrow territory, but was related to the whole world, and art. And it was my great happiness to be understood by him, to the depths of myself—year after year.

As Ms. Tarrow shows, this comprehension of self is alive in Aesthetic Realism consultations. They are the education people have hungered for always, and now.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

What’s Within Us, & the Outside World
By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing Shelley’s “On Love” as a means of looking at instinct, including the instinct to love.

With this statement of Shelley—“I see that in some external attributes they resemble me”—we have the word external. Man’s fate depends on how he sees the external world and what the external world sees in him. If the external world sees in him only a bubble, a little interruption to the sanctity and quiet of things, well, many people wouldn’t like it. The individual is either seen with some importance by the external world or is simply disregarded, as we disregard some minor insect passing a plate glass window.

Does the External Have an Attitude to Us?

When Longfellow said in Hiawatha, “Oh the cold and cruel winter!” he was giving a quality of cruelty to winter. And when Charles Kingsley called the sea “cruel,” and Nicholas Monsarrat, in a title, said The Cruel Sea, they were giving that attribute to the sea.

The external can be said to have some attitude to us. For example, the reason people like bread is that bread somehow has conformed itself to what man is looking for. Wheat became popular very early in human history. Whether the external world, personally or otherwise, has an attitude to us: that has been a question. Does something in this world have an instinct to judge us? Does something punish us? Why do we get guilt? The whole idea of religion is that the external world has an attitude to the individual. When a person says, “God help me if I am not telling the truth,” that is implied.

In this matter, too, there can be love and hate. The French Encylopedists’ favorite expression was, “Dieu doesn’t interest me. I don’t need him. I can do my equations just as well without him.” God has been very uninteresting for some people. Let us compare two writers, Tolstoy and Stendhal. Stendhal—I won’t say he was not interested in God at all, but he sure gave a good appearance of it. Balzac occasionally felt he should be interested in God for the purpose of the novel, as in Louis Lambert and Seraphita; Stendhal, however, is irredeemable as a person expected to be interested in God. But Tolstoy is something else. As his life went on, Tolstoy became more and more interested in God. Dostoevsky, too. One of the characteristics of our time is, you can use the word God and still be an intellectual. It was impossible thirty years ago.

With God, the external is also internal, because God has been said to be outside and also within. Tolstoy was always saying that God is within and should be found there. The Eastern religions are given to that too. He is also, as the French would say, “là-haut”—over there, high.

Difference & Sameness Are Always in Instinct

I see that in some external attributes [others] resemble me, but when, misled by that appearance...

We come to instinct as something always concerned with difference and sameness. The fact that an animal sometimes doesn’t know what it’s doing is shown in the history of traps and decoys. The fact that a duck can take a decoy for a duck makes it a hunter’s pushover. Difference and sameness is in why a flock of geese should be going that way instead of this. The reason is hard to see.

Meanwhile, if geese home, it means they love something. Home is never so loved as when you’re going there; it’s only when you’re there for a while that you might change. So the geese reach home—then keep on thinking. Then they migrate, which is the hate form of homing.

“When, misled by that appearance.” The tendency to make an appearance real, and reality an appearance, is very strong. The artist makes that which is incompletely real to many people, more real. But when we’re terrified, we can make the real seem unreal. The artist can do that too, because he too can be terrified. But as artist, the tendency is to make the not completely real into something more real.

The word appearance is important here. The story told of Zeuxis—outside of the fact that it’s incredible—is a wonderful story. Zeuxis was an early non-abstract painter. He painted grapes so well that the birds came to peck at them. What made these birds mistake the similitude of a grape for a grape? Instinct—because instinct doesn’t know everything. We find, for example, birds dashing themselves against tall hotels.

When, misled by that appearance, I have thought to appeal to something in common, and unburthen my inmost soul to them, I have found my language misunderstood, like one in a distant and savage land.

Shelley’s poetry is a study in how Shelley wants to say he’s all mankind, and also how he’s an individual. It is one of the greatest examples of the existence of the individualizing instinct, and also the likening instinct, the saying, “I am like everything.”

Do We Understand Another—& Ourselves?

“I have found my language misunderstood.” Shelley says in his poems very often, “I wanted to say something and found I wasn’t understood.” One can get that feeling even as to his wife. One can get that feeling as to the ladies he thought would see more than his wife—say the woman he writes about in “Epipsychidion.” In that long poem there’s a feeling that somebody understands; there is the Platonic perception; but it happens that Emilia Viviani disappointed. The desire to be understood was a thirst in Shelley. He writes about it in this essay, but we can find it elsewhere. In fact, it’s in most of his poems.

“When I have thought to...unburthen my inmost soul to them.” Everyone would like to say as part of love, “Here am I, all of me.” It doesn’t occur, because, while we want to show all of us, we also hate it. We have the same attitude to ourselves that we have to others. There are things in ourselves that we don’t know and also are afraid of and hate. If we’re right, that’s the way it should go on. But we can wrongly hate things in ourselves because they encumber the things we prefer.

We are to ourselves as a mother is. A mother has, say, eight children. She says she loves them all the same, but we know she’s lying, because she likes the third and the eighth more. So with ourselves: there are things in ourselves we like better than other things, and why shouldn’t we choose among them and neglect the things we don’t like? We make some choice, but very often to put one’s best foot forward is to put one’s foot in it. We can hate some things in ourselves. Love and hate, for and against, are for ourselves as they are for everything else. They often get mixed up. We sometimes are compelled to show that a hurtful thing is popular with us.

“I have found my language misunderstood.” This being misunderstood is something we see in the history of fiction: a boy in American fiction in the 1920s was misunderstood. T.S. Eliot in his poem “Portrait of a Lady” is misunderstood. Very often, in agony, a person says, “I’m trying to understand you, Bill.” “I don’t think you are, Jane.” “But I’m trying to understand; I’m doing my best. I simply can’t.”

We may think we’re trying to understand, but there is fear, which is one representative of hate. Anger is the other. We have these three pairs: love and hate; hope and fear; pleasure and anger. We have to choose in terms of what we love and hate. We’d like to understand, but we can conveniently not understand. We may be afraid to. We may feel that we’d be angry if we did. Comprehension of oneself is also difficult.

Everyone feels somewhat misunderstood. If you feel you’re wholly understood, there’s something wrong with you. But if you’ve given up the idea of being understood, there’s also something wrong with you. To understand others is gone after instinctively because it can be useful. But to understand others in such a way that it submerges our interest in ourselves is, we feel, silly: why should we do it?—too much understanding makes one neglect oneself. So we don’t.

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Dissatisfaction, Right & Wrong
By Devorah Tarrow

A woman’s dissatisfaction—what makes it right or wrong? The distinction is tremendously important, and Aesthetic Realism explains it. Dissatisfaction is wrong and hurtful when it arises from the desire to have contempt, from the feeling “This world and the people in it aren’t good enough to satisfy me, and my dissatisfaction is a sign of my superiority.” Dissatisfaction is right when it arises from the desire to respect the world and people.

And there is dissatisfaction with oneself, which can be very good. In The Right Of, Ellen Reiss explains:

Without knowing it, people everywhere are dissatisfied with themselves because they are not doing all they can to like the world. It is a person’s welcoming of this beautiful dissatisfaction which is the source of all art; for art comes from this feeling: “I have not been fair enough to the world; I must see it more truly, honoringly.” [TRO 767]

What I Learned about Dissatisfaction

In college, there were some dissatisfactions I had that were wise: I demonstrated for civil rights, and against the Vietnam War. It was clear to me that there were injustices that needed to end. But I also used my dissatisfaction with these injustices to feel superior. Even the people I marched with were subject to my scorn. I’d think, “She’s smart, but not as cute as I am,” or, “She’s pretty, but not as smart as me.”

I had a growing dissatisfaction with myself. I wrote in my journal: “I must relax my tension and jealousy of others.” And: “How can I relate the worst in me with the best in me? My fear is of never finding out. I’m tired and depressed.”

It was in New York as I was attending the New School that I did find out! I learned of Aesthetic Realism and its description of contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Right away, I felt relieved and started to be self-critical. Then, in a document I wrote to Eli Siegel for an Aesthetic Realism lesson, I told him that my friends said I was bossy and acted like a generalissimo. “I’ve found a certain kind of satisfaction,” I wrote, “from ignoring what I please.” In the lesson, Mr. Siegel said:

ES. As you suggest, you feel not so good about the way you’ve seen people. There’s a certain kind of dissatisfaction, or guilt, about oneself.

The questions we have are: Is there anger—that’s dissatisfaction with what’s not oneself—and, Is there contempt? And if we are angry and have contempt in the wrong way, would we have guilt? If a person can in any way see that she has a wrong emotion, would she have a feeling of regret, which is akin to guilt and is guilt?

DT. That’s logical. That’s true.

ES. The deepest dissatisfaction is that we don’t think we’re just to what’s real. We have an obligation to everything to see it as it is.

From a Consultation

A woman I’ll call Susan Adler began her first Aesthetic Realism consultation expressing dissatisfaction with both herself and the world: “I’m too soft, too affected by things. I’m dissatisfied with the news, the environment.” She told us she was a botanist, an art curator, and a wife, and mentioned that she’d grown up in a country which had a repressive government. “Do you think,” we asked, “you came to an attitude to the world? Do you see the world as a friendly place, unfriendly, or indifferent?”

SA. Unfriendly. When I grew up, I was afraid.

Consultants. If we have an attitude to the world of fear, we are either right or wrong. Perhaps in some ways you were correct. But then, we can use certain things we’re afraid of to affect how we see everything.

SA. Oh, I see.

Consultants. That would make us not see where we could like something, because we’re already prejudiced in behalf of protecting ourselves from things. Then, if our deepest hope is to like the world, our unconscious choice against things would make for agitation.

SA. Yes! Very logical.

Consultants. On the other hand, you’ve been interested in knowledge: you’ve felt the world was something to know. That much, you’ve liked it.

Ms. Adler asked us what stopped her from caring more for the world, and we answered: “There’s that in the self which wants to see value in things. But there’s something else that says, ‘I want myself, pure.’ This is the desire to think the world dirties us.” A person, we explained, gets a false triumph through that feeling.

Consultants. You said you were “too affected by things.” Does that mean you feel the world has a bad effect, and the way to take care of yourself is not to be affected?

SA. Yes, that’s me.

Ms. Adler was also dissatisfied with herself in her marriage, and didn’t know why. We told her Aesthetic Realism shows “the purpose of marriage is like the purpose of art: through another person, to care more for everything.” But what a woman does with the world, she’ll also do with her husband: “feel she’s more sensitive than her husband, smarter, deeper.” Ms. Adler said she felt that way, and it “disturbs me a lot.”

Consultants. There is a desire to be superior. Do you think you have that? And is it good for you?

SA. Yes, I have that. And no, it is not.

She commented on an instance of it: “In the car I say, ‘Go this way, go that way, I know better than you.’ Sometimes I’m a boss about that.”

Consultants. Then what happens to your desire to learn?

SA. I think it’s discouraged.

Consultants. Yes, it’s completely opposed. We have these two purposes: I want to like, to value; and I want to be better than. This fight goes on in us. We have to know it, and the more we know it, the more we can make a true choice.

SA. Oh, thank you! That is what I want.

That is knowledge everyone in the world wants, and has a right to have. black diamond

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

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.

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First Thursday of each month, 6:30 PM: Seminars with speakers from Aesthetic Realism faculty

Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1]Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2]Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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