The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

It Is So Easy

BY ELI SIEGEL

Dear Unknown Friends:

I believe that some day contempt will be seen as man’s greatest temptation. Sex certainly looks more dramatic; but contempt is quieter, deeper, more pervasive. In fact, it can be said that often an unseen purpose of sex is to achieve a quiet contempt for reality. That is why Aesthetic Realism has said the only thing wrong with sex is that it can be used to make the world less. Wherever, otherwise, sex seems evil, it is not the sex which is evil, but some unfairness to another often accompanying the sex.

The deepest and most ordinary ethics is concerned with sex as it is with money, food, politics. As soon as self takes more than is coming to it in the field of sex, the wrong is the disproportion, not the sex. And, dear unknown friends, because sex is such a great vehicle for the victory of contempt, sex can easily make one forget the loveliest question a person has, also the most insistent and most powerful: What is coming from me to what is not myself? The presence of the need for justice is a stronger presence than the presence of sex. How strong is the need for justice in the world and in a person?

Justice is the great opponent of contempt; justice, loved and studied, can in time have a victory over contempt. However, justice now is not seen as sufficiently real except where the law is concerned. Man has so far seen himself as hindered by justice, not expressed by it. This is man’s greatest misfortune: that he has come to see justice as a restriction, not as the largest way of being or becoming himself.

Justice, now vaguely seen, needs attention. You cannot slip into an idea of justice that is clear and strong enough; but all you have to do to achieve contempt is to close your eyes, not listen, and think of whatever you want. Contempt, as the title of this TRO intimates, is so easy.

1. Contempt in Philosophy

There is a philosophy, solipsism, which can be used to justify contempt. A definition of solipsism, gaunt in its mighty inclusiveness, is to be found in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1947. Here it is:

The theory, assumption, or belief: a. That the self knows and can know nothing but its own modifications and states. b. That the self is the only existent thing.

The gaunt part of this definition is: “The self is the only existent thing.” How appealing this is! And if the self is the only existent thing, is it not clear, dear unknown friends, that all other things can, quite easily, be seen with contempt?

The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to study the self as inclusive and exclusive, every moment. The self, in learning, wishes to affirm its own being, its definite existence. At the moment of learning, likewise, it welcomes with respect what is not itself; and if the self is fortunate, incorporates what it learns truly and gracefully.

There is a way the self can look at outside things and find what it hopes for in these. There is a way the self can respectfully see itself giving form to the outside world. This is hinted at in some long-famous lines of George Chapman from his play, Byron’s Conspiracy, 1608:

There is no danger to a man that knows

What life and death is: there's not any law

Exceeds his knowledge; neither is it lawful

That he should stoop to any other law.

He goes before them, and commands them all,

That to himself is a law rational.

These lines can certainly be misused; but the big thing in them is the feeling that in reality is something equivalent to what oneself is and to what one is hoping for. As soon as we feel that what the world wants is antagonistic to our own desires, what else can we do but try to have contempt for a world out of step with our notion of happiness? And the contempt is usually achieved.

2. More about Contempt in Philosophy

The dictionary definition I quoted and the renowned lines of George Chapman are both somewhat in philosophic territory. However, the philosopher most noted for his making ego equivalent to reality is Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814). I quote some passages, combined by myself, from Fichte’s Science of Knowledge (1794):

The truth is, you cannot think any thing at all without adding in your thought your Ego as self-conscious; you cannot abstract from your self-consciousness....Thinking is not the essence, but merely a determination of the Ego; and there are many other determinations of the Ego....Both the Ego and Non-Ego are products of original acts of the Ego, and consciousness itself is such a product of the first original act of the Ego.

Madness, insanity, schizophrenia—each of these has a philosophy. Because madness, insanity, schizophrenia is rather alike, a similar philosophy accompanies these. In all insanity, the ego is in a contemptuous and angry war with the rest of existence. And where there is anger, as I have already said, the solace of contempt is hoped for.

Fichte, to be sure, did not wish his philosophy to be seen as a reasoned justification for the lonely, sundered, and contemptuous ego. Like George Chapman in 1608, Johann Gottlieb Fichte wished most of all that some equivalence be felt between reality and oneself. This equivalence could be felt with the utmost respect for reality as something other than oneself. That is the way it is seen in art. Reality becomes oneself in art; but the greatest love and respect for reality are felt at the moment reality and oneself are aesthetically one. In insanity, reality is contended with, disparaged, pushed aside. The self remains the major reality, triumphant in sadness and dimness.

The self, then, is different from reality and also is the same as reality. Where this is used for respecting reality more, for loving it more, both reality and the ego are victorious. Wherever only the ego wins in its relation with reality, contempt ensues for reality. This contempt, as the present series of TRO implies, is the cause of insanity.

3. Some Literary History

About the time, 1794, of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre, or Science of Knowledge, there appeared an important novel of German romanticism, Ludwig Tieck’s William Lovell. This work of Tieck has as its hero a person who wants to have his own gorgeous way, but uses the philosophy of the time—right in the midst of the French Revolution—to justify his great desire for pleasing hours. Kuno Francke in his A History of German Literature, 1901, says this of William Lovell, who philosophically does as he pleases:

The language in which he formulates this pseudo-Kantianism is the language of Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre (1794), stripped of its moral enthusiasm and perverted into fantastic sophistry.

I may be one of the very few persons interested in Tieck’s William Lovell at this time. Yet the William Lovell of German literature has a host in America emulating him—and elsewhere, too. ls it not the height of bliss to have one's way, with all opposition blown into the distance? When wasn't this the secret aim of all of us? No one has to tell us to mock interference with joy as well as we can.

Professor Francke, quoting from Tieck's novel, presents autonomy of self as encouraging contempt:

Do I not walk through this life as a somnambulist? All that I see is only a phantom of my inner vision. I am the fate which prevents the world from crumbling to pieces. The world is an empty desert in which I meet nothing but myself. All things exist only because I think them; virtue exists only because I think it. Everything submits to my caprice; every phenomenon, every act, I can call what it pleases me. The world, animate and inanimate, is suspended by the chains which my mind controls. My whole life is a dream the manifold figures of which are formed according to my will. I am the one supreme law of all nature. (Tieck’s William Lovell, as quoted in Francke, German Literature, pp. 416-417)

Something of what William Lovell feels is in everyone. Furthermore, the exaltation of self is not bad or ugly where it does not make for contempt of all other things. The deep truth seems to be: “Think as well of yourself as you can; but as soon as this thinking well of yourself carries with it a lessening or contempt of anyone or anything else, for God's sake, stop this spurious, diseased magnifying of yourself. Magnitude of feeling is beautiful; but contempt as a means of getting to it is ugly, cheap, ailing.”

4. Magnifying Self

There is much about magnifying self in the history and literature of the world. How can one stop such an attractive inward activity as the magnifying of self? The only way, as I said, to stop the spurious magnifying of self is to identify true increase of self with justice to all one meets or can think of.

In Denis Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, written in the 1760s, about the time Fichte was born, we have a person comically and deeply seeing the world as the profitable and gratifying extension of himself. Rameau’s nephew sees his uncle, the famed Jean Philippe Rameau, as likewise given to the feeling that self has a right to diminish the surrounding world. I quote from Jacques Barzun’ translation, 1952, of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew. A famous uncle is being spoken of:

He is a philosopher after his own heart: he thinks of no one but himself; the rest of the universe is to him a tinker’s dam.

So we see that, we don’t need the philosopher Fichte or the eminent German romanticist Tieck to have a person see himself as the ruling center of the world. We are, we should remember, in the busy, multitudinous Paris of 1761 or so.

A little later in this work of Diderot—increasing in contemporary esteem—Rameau's nephew talks of himself and counsels Diderot:

The important point is that you and I should exist, and that we should be you and I. Outside of that, let everything carry on as it may. The best order, for me, is that in which I had to exist—and a fig for the most perfect world if I am not of it. I’d rather be—and be even a silly logic-chopper—than not be at all.

Very shortly in Le Neveu de Rameau, we come upon an indication that ego-separation can lead to ill will for others and contempt for them. Rameau’s nephew says:

When I hear something discreditable about their private lives, I listen with pleasure: it brings, me closer to them; makes me bear my mediocrity more easily.

The way Rameau talked disturbed Diderot, who all his life was trying to find some factual basis for ethics, some substance equivalent to reality making justice not just a possibility or whim, but a necessity. In the French 18th century, as in all other times, there was a great but not wholly clear love for ethics. Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire, Montesquieu, all loved ethics a little more than it is loved in European or American high places. Remembering the 18th century can be helpful. Montesquieu and his companions can be comforting.

5. Conclusion

To be an individual, then, with the separation individuality has from all else, makes contempt ever so easy. An individual has three ways of looking at what may exist besides himself. He may see the outside world as tremendously large and fearful, and be angry with it. He may see the outside world as constantly puzzling, variously baffling. Or he may see the world as something he can mock, make less every moment with no one knowing about it or able to stop him. The third possibility has, as one might expect, been the most attractive.

Contempt can be more attractive than Venus, more beckoning than Cleopatra. It is among us all. This TRO, it is hoped, will make it better known.

With love,

Eli Siegel