The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Knowing Ourselves—& America

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are publishing, from notes taken at the time, the series of lectures Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall early in the history of Aesthetic Realism. And with this issue we have the third lecture, which he titled The Unconscious Is Next Door. He gave it on August 15, 1946. Here, and in Aesthetic Realism itself, is an explanation of the unconscious so different from what Freud and others described, and from what the unconscious is still largely taken to be—something fearsome, illogical, even lurid, in a world apart from the thoughts we know. Mr. Siegel shows that our unconscious is a philosophic matter, an aesthetic matter, also an everyday matter—that it’s in keeping with this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

The central fight in the unconscious of everyone, Aesthetic Realism explains, is between the desire to respect the world outside oneself, and the desire to have contempt for it; between the feeling “The more I see value in what’s not me, the more I’m myself” and the feeling “I’m more through looking down on things and people, manipulating them, and making a world in my mind away from them.” The second, contempt, is the ugly, hurtful thing in the unconscious of everyone. Out of it comes every meanness, coldness, and cruelty. The more we understand those two ways of seeing, the more the first—respect for the world—can win, and with it true pride and self-expression. That is what happens through the study of Aesthetic Realism.

The Unconscious of a Nation

In an essay written some months after the lecture we’re publishing, Mr. Siegel explained, “The unconscious in a person is all that in him which, though it affects him, he hasn’t seen” (TRO 913). Since a nation is composed of persons, there is such a thing as the unconscious of a nation. And we can see something about the existence of the unconscious of America through looking at the last seven years or so.

It was not so many years ago that the majority of Americans presented themselves as adamantly in favor of the Iraq war—the attack on, and occupation of, that land. To question the war was seen as tantamount to treason. Millions and millions of Americans consciously saw themselves as for the then-President. He made America strong, they told themselves; he made you feel proud; he was the kind of guy you could have a beer with. Liberal was a term that people across the land sneered at, so much so that most liberals refrained from using it of themselves. We can see something about the American unconscious through asking how we got from that atmosphere—of, say, 2005—to the election of November 2008.

External things happened, to be sure: the war did not fare well, and the economy became dire. But there would not have been such a reversal of opinion—such a turning against the war and such massive disgust with the 43rd President—had there not been all along within millions of Americans an unconscious feeling different from the one they vigorously put forth. What recent years show is that millions of people can act oh-so-fervently convinced, think they are, yet not be. They can have deep within them a mighty demur, and even an unconscious revulsion against what they’re showing.

Two Forces in America’s Unconscious

So the last years, like any group of years, are a study in the consciousness and unconsciousness of a nation. After September 11, 2001, Americans were lied to about the Iraqi “threat,” and people—in kitchens and factories and newspaper offices and halls of government—used that lie to agree there was a need for war. Well, part of the unconscious of a person is the willingness to believe a lie that makes one important and comfortable. This willingness is an aspect of contempt, and was operating in Americans, as it has operated in others. The desire not to question yourself, not to question what you hear from people who tell you how wonderful and hurt you are, the desire not to think but to show your supremacy, to crush someone as a means of showing what a hero you are: all this is part of the contempt unconscious. It made Americans ready to believe what they were told, and to have bombs fall on people who didn’t hurt us.

Yet all along, the other aspect of the American unconscious was there too. It corresponds to something present always in the private life of each individual. Because a person comes from the whole world, the deepest thing in us dislikes ourselves for being unjust to what’s not us, and objects to our own injustice. We may not be aware of our objection to our own unfairness and contempt; we may never verbally express it. Our unconscious ethical objection may show in our being nervous, irritable, angry. It may take the form of a sense of emptiness and lowness.

The American feeling that would show itself on Election Day 2008, the American opinion that would go into voting booths across the land and make Barack Obama President, was present somewhere unconsciously in ever so many people during the preceding years. It was an unseen objection to views oneself expressed and thought one had. An America that had been swept with war fever, some months later elected a person who stood out for having opposed the war.

During the campaign, the Republican candidate made statements that were supposed to capture the feeling of Americans: he tried to horrify the citizenry by calling Mr. Obama a man who wanted to “redistribute the wealth.” But Americans were not horrified. The candidate didn’t see that though Americans may have seemed for many years to be against something—the nation’s wealth being owned more equitably—deeply they were for it; and this unconscious opinion had, by autumn 2008, become more conscious.

America’s unconscious objection to its own contemptuous choices was encouraged powerfully, as I said, by happenings—trouble in both Iraq and the US economy. But it is described truly and charmingly in this statement from Eli Siegel’s great, musical essay “36 Things about America ”: “Americans don’t believe some of the bad things they seem to believe.”

That fact includes the matter of prejudice. It has been pointed out that people are more racist than they know, and that’s certainly so. But what we’ve seen in the last year is that people are also more against racism than they know. There are people who once would not have believed they'd vote for a person of color, who found themselves doing so.

We Can Know Ourselves

I think that the way Aesthetic Realism sees the unconscious is not only true but beautiful. And it’s not only beautiful, but urgently needed—because there’s nothing we need more than to understand our desire for contempt and our desire for respect.

The history of Aesthetic Realism itself is magnificent evidence that there’s no limit to how much the unconscious can become conscious—there’s no limit to how much we can know ourselves and what impels us. I think Aesthetic Realism is that in world thought which most fully enables people to know ourselves. And for this grand, kind fact I thank Mr. Siegel, and love him.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Unconscious Is Next Door

By Eli Siegel

In talking about the unconscious, I shall read first, as I did last week, a little news item. This is from the New York Times:

Springlake, N.J., Aug. 14—Justice John H. McCooey Jr. of the New York Supreme Court was granted today a further postponement until Sept. 4 on a police court hearing of charges of disorderly conduct preferred against him two weeks ago after an early morning rumpus at the Monmouth Hotel here....

That seems to show that Supreme Court Justice McCooey had one part of himself he didn’t know too much about. Everyone has. A general definition I’ll give of the unconscious is that which is of us and affects us but which we don’t know is of us and affects us . Just as McCooey had a phase of him that wanted to be disorderly, so there is in every person much that he or she doesn’t know about.

Can a person be considered to be living successfully if there’s a large part of himself he doesn’t know? I should say no. It’s necessary, in knowing oneself, to feel that knowledge about oneself is like knowledge about anything else. It isn’t an easy job to know about oneself, but you can’t really like yourself unless you know yourself.

Can you know yourself if you don’t know what isn’t yourself ? What you don’t know, just as what you know, comes from a large cause. We can’t know a thing without knowing its cause. We can’t know ourselves unless we know what made us: the universe, which is also what we are meeting all the time. Therefore, it would be hypocritical to say we’re interested in ourselves and not in the universe.

The cause of ourselves is our unconscious. The unconscious shouldn’t be looked on as a weird thing. It is on 57th Street . It is with us in the afternoon. It is everything.

Two Aspects: Security & Adventure

The unconscious is in two parts. One is the desire to be secure—and often this doesn’t work well with the desire to know. So we haven’t wanted to know everything about ourselves.

Everyone wants to be secure. Even adventure is desired as a means of bringing repose to oneself. The desire for security and the desire for adventure are at the very basis of the unconscious: the unconscious, like a tree, is both firm and spreading.

Since the human being is after security, it is in relation to the inanimate; what a stone has, we have. At the same time, the human being wants to move about in all ways. He has to conquer the problem of unity and stability and at the same time not cut short his desire to move about. This is the biggest desire of the unconscious: to be a definite individual and at the same time experience all kinds of new things. When this greatest unconscious desire is interfered with, a person can grow nervous.

There are desires that are unconscious in every human being, but we can see them consciously.

In The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict I write about a young woman, Hilda Rawlins. She represents those two aspects of the unconscious: a desire to be nothing but oneself, indefinitely secure, and a longing for all experience. Because the two desires aren’t working simultaneously in Hilda, her unconscious can be called disorderly. Her deepest unconscious would be the desire to unify the two.

The Unconscious, Misapprehended

There have been misapprehensions of the unconscious. It has been made too small. The unconscious is good and bad. It is beautiful at bottom. A person not able to “be himself” is unable to reach the depths of himself in everyday experience.

The unconscious has had various meanings. Years ago, it was allied to hypnotism, also to inspiration. Later the unconscious came to be the villain, or the great ragbag. The unconscious can be very bad. But there is also unconscious opposition to the badness. That is important.

There are big differences between the Aesthetic Realism approach to the subject and other approaches. The unconscious of a human being is like the way the world is, in essence: it is going after unity and diversity, the being one thing and many things at once. This abstract aesthetic drive is the deepest thing in the unconscious.

In more practical terms, the unconscious can be described as desires a person can’t readily see. For example, why do persons get sulky when something good happens, when consciously they think they’re pleased? There are some desires people haven’t wanted to know—and not just the ones Freud talked about, not just incestuous desires.

All the body is unconscious: blood, seeing, digestion, etc. Thoughts go on and are just as existent as physiology, though not accessible. The unconscious is related to atoms: no one has “experienced” an atom, but without atoms we couldn’t experience pocketbooks.

Clearly, the unconscious preceded the conscious. A baby when just born doesn’t know how to speak. The desire to know how was unconscious.

Many people have lived without knowing their blood circulated, including Caesar and Moses. We don’t know our own bodies, the names of all our bones, so isn’t it possible we have many thoughts we don’t know? People don’t want to admit this because we think our selves are our own. They aren’t—unless we know ourselves.

Everything Can Tell Us about Ourselves

The chief misapprehension of Freud and Horney is that they don’t see the unconscious as philosophic. Ourselves begin where the world begins. Whenever we consciously know something, we’re bringing our unconscious nearer. If we really understand anything we find out something about ourselves. That is what the title of this talk is about: the unconscious is what we don’t know about ourselves, but it’s next door.

The Unconscious: Ugly & Beautiful

A question in looking at the unconscious is: how are we going to relate the hidden cesspool to what makes Beethoven’s music? That is like how to see the earth: the earth can be very cruel—it has poisons, earthquakes—and it can also be sweet. So the unconscious is both too.

I must object to people who look on the unconscious as weird. Take evolution: is it unconscious? Apparently. But there’s order in it, and symmetry, and selection. Then the unconscious is not against order. So why can’t the unconscious be reasonable in man? Most deeply, it is.

However, there is also something disorderly in the unconscious, and something terrible. The animal world does present the lamb and the shark. One phase of the unconscious is awful. That phase is contempt, and there’s nothing uglier. It’s what makes for Nazism.

What our selves are is difficult to know. But I think that any school which lessens the self is unjust to the human race. This includes narrow spiritualism, narrow materialism, attempts to explain the self in terms of just sex or hostility. The question should be: how deep and precise is the self, and how wide is it? This is the same as: what is the unconscious?

Trauma & Unconscious Procedures

The trauma idea of the unconscious is the most popular one in Manhattan today. It has usefulness; but only if a trauma is seen as part of the fight we have, trauma or no trauma.

A trauma can be said to exist: something happens, and we can’t relate it to ordinary life. [The notes indicate that Mr. Siegel gives examples of trauma but don’t record what these are. We can gather from what follows that one example involves an uncle’s doing something mean to a child, after which the child retreats profoundly into himself.]

The action of the uncle helps along a desire to feel the world is against one, but it isn’t the whole cause. It couldn’t have a complete effect unless it were joined to something already existing. Before that bad event, unconsciously something in little Joey wanted a justification for being snug within himself.

I’ll mention a few unconscious procedures.

There is the counting ritual: a person feels compelled to count cars, steps, etc. This compulsion is a punishment he gives himself. He hasn’t wanted to be precise. He doesn’t know he doesn’t want things to meet him—then he finds he has to count, because in counting, he makes himself acknowledge their existence. This is allied to the great problem of feeling we’re not less if we see something one hundred hundredths. Our desire to feel that and our fear of it exist simultaneously. It is in art that the desire has most successfully and truly been met. Aesthetics is the healthiest thing going. Sanity is art.

Let’s take a person who’s afraid of cats. Every animal represents a phase of the unconscious; that is one reason they’re in fables. Cats seem hidden. A person who has hidden from friends and been plannedly sweet can see herself in a cat and become sick. Sometimes we can see symbolically what we can’t see otherwise.

There can be a fear of crossing streets. The street represents a junction of here and there. A person can want to feel that the here part of her (the self she has for herself) has nothing to do with the there part (the self that has to do with other people). The street shows that here has to do with there. She gets afraid of the street because she’s afraid of joining two aspects of herself.

 There is fear of closed spaces. If the self has wanted to shut itself in, feel separate from things, when the self is in a small room it can feel this is what it has wanted to do. The fear has in it an unconscious criticism of what the closed space symbolizes.

The unconscious in ourselves represents the world. The deepest desire we have is to be a point and to meet everything. The deepest unconscious is the aesthetic unconscious. It says, You can be an individual by including.