The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Keenness and Self-Esteem

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue to serialize the magnificent 1949 lecture Poetry and Keenness, by Eli Siegel. This principle, stated by him, is its basis—and the basis of Aesthetic Realism: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." There is no statement about beauty and the human self keener than that: in it Mr. Siegel has cut through, as no person before him was able to, to what beauty truly is and what we, with all our tumult and bewilderment, are. And there is no statement kinder: it is fair to every nuance of art and our own lives.

Beauty, Mr. Siegel showed—whether in a Brahms symphony, a rose, or the expression on a person’s face—is always a oneness of the keen and the richly gentle, of sharpness and subtlety. I am going to comment on a subject about which it is terrifically necessary for people to meet true keenness, but about which they have been meeting year after year, from media and the psychiatric spokespersons, a hideous non-keenness, messiness of thought, gobbledygook, masquerading as acuity. The subject is: How can I like this self which is mine? or, to use that much used word, How can I have self-esteem? I look at an article that appeared in the New York Times on May 5, because it represents the cruel mess that has been palmed off on people—so different from the kind, thirsted-for clarity of Aesthetic Realism.

Under the headline "Self-Image Is Suffering from Lack of Esteem," Kirk Johnson writes about the self-esteem vogue of the last two decades: the idea that "high self-esteem would foster success"; that in order for people to do better they should have their self-esteem "bolstered," get "self-esteem training." This idea is, he says, now being questioned. Well, it was objected to from the beginning in the present periodical, because Aesthetic Realism shows it is simply not so. Meanwhile, something false can be questioned and the nature of the questioning be false too—so I offer the following from the Times article as containing illogic and murk disguised as the latest keenness:

By 1986, when California created a commission to bolster self-image as a statewide goal, the concept had become a pop-culture phenomenon. Celebrated in the media, in politics and in schools, self-esteem had become an end in itself....But now self-esteem is having image problems of its own....Research is indicating that self-esteem is not in and of itself a strong predictor of success....Studies of gang members and criminals found their self-esteem—reinforced by peers or lawlessness—to be as high as that of any over-achiever. 

How Can We Like Ourselves?

The thing amiss with the Esteem-Yourself movement is not the seeing self-esteem as "an end in itself." To think well of ourselves is an ineluctable goal, purpose, aim of every person. It is a beautiful fact that we are critics of ourselves, and we want to think well of that self we walk around with, use to look at things with, are alone with in the privacy of our minds. Along with the question of how can I afford food, clothing, shelter, there is no fiercer, more unquenchable question in people than How can I like myself—and why don’t I?

The Thing Evaded

What the article evades and the psychologists evade is the plain fact that the so-called experts don’t know the answer to that question. They don’t know what self-esteem is—and on what basis one can get it. Further, they have been flops at enabling people to esteem themselves. What has been put forth as the "bolstering" of self-esteem has been essentially flattery—inaccurate, and deeply mean and dangerous.

Aesthetic Realism shows there is only one basis on which we can ever esteem ourselves. That basis is: how just are we to the outside world—to that which, in Eli Siegel’s kind words, "begins where our finger tips end." This is the inescapable criterion for judgment within the self of everyone; and the extensive efforts these years to "boost" people’s "self-image" have been, really, an attempt to circumvent that criterion. They have consisted essentially of telling people how good and special they are. And they have flopped because "the ethical unconscious," Mr. Siegel writes, "cannot be bribed" (Self and World, p. 339). Not knowing this fundamental and great fact, not wanting to learn from Aesthetic Realism, and having failed at enabling people to do well in their lives through "self-esteem training," the various mental health practitioners are now saying that liking yourself isn’t important anyway!

The following statement presents as keen science and sharp reportage something that is actually murk and senselessness: "Studies of gang members and criminals found their self-esteem...to be as high as that of any over-achiever." It is impossible for a gang member or criminal to esteem himself, because he cannot feel he has met the world with accuracy and fairness. Conceit or belligerent cockiness is not the same as self-esteem. And an "over-achiever" (and I’m not sure there is such a thing) may not esteem himself either. The sentence shows that the persons doing those "studies" are crucially muddled: they don’t know the difference between something ugly and very common—conceit—and that longed-for feeling, As I look at myself I am sincerely proud.

What every human being needs and aches to know is what Eli Siegel explained: The thing that stops us from liking ourselves is contempt—the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." Contempt, Mr. Siegel showed so greatly, is the beginning of every injustice ever committed. It is the feeling that what goes on within us is more real and valuable than what goes on within other people; that people and things exist essentially to make us important and comfortable, not to be comprehended by us; it is the feeling we are more if we can look down on others. Contempt is the spurious "self-esteem" that makes us unable to esteem ourselves. "It is," Mr. Siegel writes, "that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker" (Self and World, p. 362).

The following New York Times sentence is supposed to represent the keen exactitude of science; but it happens to have the unclarity of a swamp: "Research is indicating that self-esteem is not in and of itself a strong predictor of success." The huge false assumption here is the notion that the researchers know not only what self-esteem is but what success is, and therefore are equipped to determine the relation between them. They don’t. That word, success, is being used with sloppiness and superficiality—because we can succeed at a job or at getting degrees (the kind of "success" the sentence likely refers to), while failing in what matters most to our lives.

In his great Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World, Eli Siegel defines success as "the coming to be of one’s purpose," and writes, "If we are successful in small purposes, and our largest purpose is not reached, then we have not had the success of self" (TRO 319). The relation between self-esteem and success is this: If we are going after the largest success of self, the purpose we were born for—honest like of the world—we will like ourselves. If we pursue any goal not as a means to see the world justly but as a substitute for that—even if we glowingly succeed, we despise ourselves.

A Beautiful Dissatisfaction

Included in the Times article is "The Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale," an "analytic tool" for measuring self-esteem, used since the 1960s. It is based on 10 statements, and the respondent is asked whether he agrees or disagrees with each one. There is much to say about these statements, but I comment on the particular unintelligence of two.

According to the gauge, an individual who esteems himself would agree with #1, "On the whole, I am satisfied with myself," and disagree with #8, "I wish I could have more respect for myself." But it happens that the greatest people, the people with the most true pride, have not been satisfied with themselves, and have always hoped to respect themselves more. There are the noble, tremendously practical and lovable statements of Robert Browning, "Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?" and "What I aspired to be,/And was not, comforts me." Browning knew more than the press and therapists. He knew that there is a beautiful dissatisfaction with oneself that can have one truly like oneself—in fact, is necessary if one is to like oneself. The more just we want to be, the less satisfied with ourselves we are—yet the more we authentically esteem ourselves. This ridiculous scale equates an obnoxious smugness with self-esteem.

What Is the Self?; or, Many and One

I comment swiftly on one more passage in this article: "In psychology, the idea has gained ground that there is no coherent self at all as people generally think of it, but rather a series of selves, like mirrors that reflect aspects of an individual’s connection to the world."

This idea may "gain ground," but it is not true. There are many facets of our self, but it is still the self as a whole—containing all of them—which wakes up in the morning. In Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes, "A self can be described as the particular way, seen as a whole, which an organism has of meeting the world and feeling its own existence" (p. 319). I think that description is beautiful.

The self, Aesthetic Realism explains, being aesthetic, is a oneness of one and many, and wants that oneness to be greater and greater. In a lecture of 1973, as he spoke of Marcel Proust, Mr. Siegel said, "In meeting people, and reading books, our self is multiplied. The purpose of all experience is to make the self many, and in making the self many, to make its oneness more effective." And that description, of Proust and us, is also a description of how we can esteem ourselves: by meeting the manyness of the world so justly and gladly that we become larger, more organized, unified—more ourselves.

I think this new idea about "no coherent self" comes from the following logic on the part of psychologists: We don’t know what the self is; therefore the self doesn’t exist—or at least we can say it doesn’t.

Nevertheless, in Aesthetic Realism is the means, exact, kind, and immortal, for people to like themselves truly at last.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Keenness and Yeats

By Eli Siegel

Keenness is a fundamental thing in the world, and some aspects of it can be seen even in the poems of Yeats. "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" is all bloom and curves and twilight, and doesn’t have a Celtic angle, nearly. It represents the peachiness of poetry, the mist quality; yet Yeats in his fashion is also keen. [The poem begins, "I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree."]

...And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.... 

When we have a phrase like "and noon a purple glow"—there doesn’t seem to be a point there. —Then: "I will arise and go now, for always night and day/I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore." "Lake water lapping"—what’s that got to do with a pincushion; what’s that got to do with brambles; what kind of universe is this?

That is Yeats when he is not keen. But then, though the technique of the poem may avoid the angle, the sharp effect—still, what the poem, from one point of view, is about, is keen.

There is another well-known poem of Yeats: "Never Give All the Heart." Now, a keen person is often suspicious; and one thing in keenness is to be suspicious of what is worthy of suspicion. However, a keen person also sees beauty and absence of suspicion where another might not. This is a poem seemingly about suspicion. A good suspicion is keenness. A bad suspicion that works very hard is bad keenness. This poem was used by many young men years ago in moments of moodiness:

Never give all the heart, for love

Will hardly seem worth thinking of

To passionate women if it seem

Certain, and they never dream

That it fades out from kiss to kiss;

For everything that’s lovely is

But a brief, dreamy, kind delight.

O never give the heart outright,

For they, for all smooth lips can say,

Have given their hearts up to the play.

And who could play it well enough

If deaf and dumb and blind with love?

On the one hand the poem says, "Look out, be sharp, be keen! Don’t trust those women!" But on the other hand, the technique is a little like a Celtic twilight bagpipe. And that is important, because there is nothing more misty than the universe. So this is keen counsel: it is always true. Women are never to be trusted—unless they deserve to be trusted. Men are never to be trusted—unless they deserve to be trusted. And that goes for panthers, doves, and snakes. Nothing is to be trusted unless it is worthy to be trusted. But then, if something is worthy to be trusted and we don’t trust it, what have we been? We haven’t been keen; we have just been unwise.

Where there is any going beyond the surface there is something like keenness. Sometimes, however, it happens that what seems the surface is true and what seems not the surface is untrue. Sometimes things should be taken at their face value, because the face value happens to be the deepest thing about them. Some people have been so "wise" that an obvious thing has been passed by.

We therefore see that sometimes we have to cut through a specious depth to get to the deep surface; sometimes we have to cut through a specious surface to get to the true depth. The cutting through, the neat cutting through, the necessary cutting through, is a part of keenness.

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Poems by Eli Siegel


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