The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Mind, Violence, & Movies

Dear Unknown Friends:

We publish here, from notes taken at the time, a lecture Eli Siegel gave on December 12, 1946, at Steinway Hall. He speaks about the popularity of films that present mind gone awry, and films that contain violence. And he explains, as no one else has, why people want to see such films.

The terror film of 1946 can seem tame compared to what we have today. But in this lecture, with its feeling of a particular time—America a year after the end of World War II—we also meet the understanding of ourselves right now, of what people are looking for, including from the films and television programs we watch.

Mr. Siegel shows that people were interested in the psychiatric film and the terror film because they wanted to understand themselves. He shows that people had an increased sense in 1946—it’s even larger now—that there’s something in everyone related to humanity at its worst and most troubled. We want to understand that thing. Meanwhile, the people of 1946 and all the years since haven’t found, in psychology and the media, the comprehension of mind they’ve been looking for. That long sought after comprehension has been in Aesthetic Realism all these decades.

A recent New York Times article (7-19-09) refers to the psychiatric films we see Mr. Siegel speaking of in 1946. The writer, Terrence Rafferty, comments particularly on “Hitchcock’s 1946 ‘Spellbound.’” He says—and this is the point of the article—that in the movies of “that bygone era psychotherapists...were accorded a certain respect....Not any more.” Instead, in the last decades, psychiatrists have “been portrayed almost exclusively as either ridiculous, or sinister, or both.” Yes, the movies of our time express what people feel: that psychiatry is a mean and ludicrous flop.

Everyone’s Mind & the Popularity of Violence

What men and women have wanted most to understand about mind is outlined in this statement by Mr. Siegel:

The large fight...in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now, is between...respect for reality and contempt for reality. [TRO 151]

The desire to have contempt—to lessen what’s outside us as a means of heightening ourselves—is the thing that relates every person, no matter how well-behaved, to a vicious, violent brute. Contempt is that in us which interferes with our lives, but it’s also the cause of every cruelty.

Let’s take a boy of five, based on someone I saw recently. Craig felt it was his right to manage his little brother, Sam, age three, and that included literally pushing Sam around when he was insufficiently obedient to Craig. He also gave himself the right to lie to his parents as to who pushed whom first. And I observed Craig, with a glint in his eye, throw water on an adult who seemed interested in something other than him and whose happiness and composure Craig resented. Well, Craig is a pretty representative boy; he has good qualities; he likely will not grow up to be a gangster. But he was going after contempt.

The desire, which Craig showed, to have power and supremacy, to make someone who’s composed or strong seem ridiculous or weak—this is certainly in adults too. It can even, in social life, mask as “romance”— as two persons try to make each other become meltingly, palpitatingly foolish over oneself.

All this is related to violence. One can be attracted to violence, in film, television, video games, essentially for three reasons, all of which have to do with contempt:

1) As Mr. Siegel mentions, there can be a feeling of release through violence—and what’s released is contempt. Seeing a violent act, one can feel, “The world’s a cold, confusing place—but look at how it can be smashed and punished, put in its place and made weak and worthless, for my pleasure!”

2) As one sees violence, there’s also a reinforcement of one’s contemptuous feeling that “the world isn’t good enough for me: look at how brutal, ugly, and mean it is! Look at what people (not sensitive like me) can do!”

3) Then—and this is the reason Mr. Siegel emphasizes in the present lecture—there is a feeling, “There’s something in me like this, something that’s unkind, and I want to see it externalized as a means of understanding it.”

“The Contempt Which Crosses the Fence”

Aesthetic Realism explains that while contempt is the source of every unkindness, it is—in all its hurtful everydayness—also the cause of mental trouble. How that is so, Mr. Siegel described and documented extensively in his writing and teaching. But I’ll quote one passage. This is what people impelled toward the psychiatric films of 1946, and people now, have wanted to know:

We all of us employ contempt as a means of dissolving or defeating questions with which we are not at ease. Contempt is a quick way of settling matters in life. Yet...it is seldom we use that consummate, successful contempt which is insanity: the contempt which crosses the fence.

When this consummate, uncompromising contempt takes place...the purpose of mind...is to conserve its owner and to annul other things. [TRO 141]

Let’s take, for instance, the posture so often associated with insanity. A person sits, her head down toward her chest, her knees drawn up close to her body, her arms encircling her knees. This is a way of hugging oneself, making oneself the whole world, enclosed, tight, with the outside world rejected. It’s the posture of mind “conserv[ing] its owner” and “annul[ling] other things.”

Meanwhile, people every day make themselves contemptuously important by annulling the meaning of persons and things—perhaps by not listening to someone; or by uttering a dismissive expletive; or by feeling one doesn’t have to see a person as he deserves, but can see him any way oneself chooses; or by simply seeing others’ feelings as less real than one’s own.

Mind & Economics

In the lecture, Mr. Siegel says the question of economics is the same as the question of mind itself. Here again Aesthetic Realism is new—and great. It explains that both an individual mind and the economy of a nation need to make a one of self and world. Our minds won’t fare well unless we feel being just to the world is the same as taking care of ourselves. And economics won’t fare well until it’s based on an accurate, just joining of individual selves and the whole world. This accurate joining is described in the following clear, beautiful sentences from Eli Siegel’s Self and World; they were first published the same year as the lecture we’re printing:

It follows that the world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Public & Mental Conflict

By Eli Siegel

The two matters that the unconscious of the public is most interested in are: labor, economics; and their own minds. And these have a very deep connection. A person trying to get as much pleasure and importance as he can is, in the field of economics, up against other persons wanting the same thing. That is true of mind as such. What needs to happen is that the labor question and the mental question be seen more and more as one. The CIO in various states has been interested in “mental hygiene.” This is mighty important. Only by the two meeting can the problem of economics and the problem of the human mind be truly dealt with.

What we’re seeing today is a certain tendency for inner things to become outer in a more desperate fashion than ever before. People have said the present interest in psychiatry in the press, radio, and movies is a fad. That is not so. The interest has always been around; but because of what 1946 is, it is coming more and more to awareness. The awareness is taking the form of scripts on the radio; of novels; and with every other movie, some kind of psychiatrist comes into it. People are more concerned with what’s in their minds and the world generally than ever before. It is in keeping with Aesthetic Realism principles that when people talk about the world as if they were familiar with it—when they are reading about what happens in Outer Mongolia, and feel that the fate of South Africa concerns them—there is likewise an interest in what goes on under the skin. The whole purpose of the human mind is to find out what that mind is through finding out what everything else is.

Ten years ago when something in the field of mental trouble happened to a family, there was great concern, but it was kept quiet. They’d say the person had business in another state. The present interest by the public in what is called psychiatry was never before. Schizophrenia is getting to be a term like Babe Ruth. That is as it should be.

What Explanation Will Satisfy?

The question is, how is the interest of the public in psychiatric matters being met? It’s to be expected that the newspapers go along with the current superficiality of approach, which presents a person as having a paralyzed arm because he had lustful desires for his sister and she hit him once when she repelled his advances. This is the sort of approach we find in the film Spellbound. It’s something the public has to get rid of. The public doesn’t want it. It’s too easy.

We see the same kind of thing on the radio, even on the serious programs: that what happened to a person is the result of a trauma. It won’t satisfy the public, though it may be partly true. The instinct of the public knows that it isn’t the whole story. Everyone knows there’s a certain conflict going on all the time, and that there’s a duality of self that can be frightening.

The reason people are interested in psychiatric films is: they feel that whatever someone does, no matter how horrible, has a relation to themselves.

What is called psychiatry has to become part of ordinary conversation, conversation that is serious, but deep and subtle. For example, if a man in the 1929 depression jumped out of a window, people might feel, “I wouldn’t do just that, but I can understand it.” This, though, isn’t the feeling that’s being maintained and sustained by the psychiatrists and the press that follows them. What the fight in people is, is not shown either. So there’s a feeling, hardly expressed, had by many people, “This isn’t what it’s really about.”

Cruelty & Everyone

I read now a short article from today’s PM 1

At Bryan, Ohio, James R. Engle, 21, on trial for murder, told a jury he had long toyed with the idea of abducting and killing a former teacher whom he liked....A quiet, well-mannered small-town youth, Engle told in detail how he waylaid Emily Abernathy, a librarian, in the basement of the Bryan Public Library and slashed her to death with a pocket knife.

One of the best known statements in English anecdotes when someone is hanged is, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” If this kind of story is to be in the public press, there are going to be two feelings in people: 1) a feeling of disgust, tremor, fear; 2) a feeling that what it’s about is not so far away from home as it seems. This young man seems to have been hardly distinguished in an Ohio town, and yet he had these thoughts. If the press is going to deal with such incidents only as unusual, the public will feel dissatisfied.

It seems that now America is willing to see the Japanese as human beings. During the war, they were inhuman, bestial, sadists. Have they changed so much, these sadists? No. There’s a feeling that what they did didn’t represent a human being, though it was of a human being. And with the marriages of GIs and fräuleins, we can see the same thing happening in regard to Germany.

The things that make a person seem unusual—disgustingly so, frighteningly so—aren’t so far away from the ordinary human being. Cruelty is something that is in a human being. To see how in a person there can be the desire to pour tea and be nice and also a desire to snarl, some notion of the opposites in a human being needs to be had. That notion in its depth has not been presented in the press.

I can’t in this discussion leave out Albert Deutsch, of PM2 He has been useful, but he’s glib, and with his tendency to sum up and simplify, I think he has also done a good deal of harm. He has, perhaps, made people more aware of psychiatry than any other single writer in the country. However, he’s definitely muddled. Of late [9-16-46], he wrote on our subject:

Every movie-goer must be aware of the growing trend toward brutality and terror in our film fare....Terror pictures have long been a staple commodity of Hollywood. Names like Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff are intimately associated with a long line of shockers....But, as Siegfried Kracauer observes in a disquieting essay..., there are several unique features in the current wave of terror-crime-and-violence films....

In the old terror films,...evil acts were committed in out-of-the-world scenes that protected the audiences from self-identification. “The current vogue,” Kracauer notes, “is unique in its predilection for familiar, everyday settings in which crime and violence occur....Sinister conspiracies incubate next door, within the world considered normal—any trusted neighbor may turn into a demon.”...[These films] are contributing to the disbalanced emotions of a people desperately in need of mental clarity.

Everyone knows there was an interest before today in people being killed. Outside of Karloff and Chaney, we can remember William S. Hart, George Raft, George Bancroft, and many more. This interest is very deep. It can take a bad form: an interest in showing one’s superiority to another. Mr. Deutsch, discussing the violence in films of twenty years ago and now, doesn’t see that if there is to be a killer, it’s better that he be shown as a person who has something in himself which is against himself and others. We have to see that when a killer is presented in evening dress and as suave, he is definitely unusual and also usual; that when we have a gangster in Chicago who can be sentimental about his mother and show a tender concern for little birds, we have a terrible thing, but on the usual as well as the unusual side.

The Intense & Everyday Intermingle in Self

Take a picture like The Spiral Staircase. It is false, as nearly all the psychiatric films are: you have the killer, George Brent, being very suave and not bothered by anything for a long while; then suddenly we see how sinister he is. Things don’t happen just that way.

When Deutsch wrote a while ago about Spellbound, it was as if at last the human mind had been shown truly in the films. What did we have? An amnesia victim who, when not having amnesia, was just charming. He’d go along being charming, and then suddenly get angry with Miss Bergman. His amnesia had none of the little ins and outs. Mr. Deutsch could have complained about that. But the last thing he should complain about is killers’ seeming ordinary. Some famous killers have been servant girls, and maiden ladies in New England. Heirens seemed like an ordinary person—until you knew about him.3

What needs to be seen is that when a person comes to think of killing, it’s an intensification, taking on a new quality, of what is in the human mind.

What’s wrong with a picture like Orson Welles’ The Stranger is that it’s too smooth. The in-between things aren’t there. We know that people like Himmler and Hitler had traits like other people’s. That’s not a denial of the fact that Hitler should have been put out of the running long ago.

We find all through history an interest in horror. In Titus Andronicus, a young woman has her hands cut off. In the melodramas of thirty years ago, a girl was about to be cut in two in the saw mill or tied to the railroad tracks. It has taken a certain form today, but it should be seen as a general thing: the desire for release through some violence. The one thing of value here, Deutsch misses: people who do violence aren’t so different from those who don’t.

One great use of the psychiatric movies is that people insist on knowing why they sometimes feel unusual. Hollywood doesn’t give them the answer they want, but the trend is very useful. The psychiatric movie will go on, because people have to want to find out what goes on in their minds.

Labor & Our Minds

Returning to what I began with: there is a relation between the problems of mind and the problem of organized labor. In organized labor, there’s a desire to get what’s coming to one from the outside world. In mental trouble, there’s a saying, “I’m not getting what I want from the outside world, so the hell with it.”

What we’re seeing today is: there is a desire in people to have their private mental swamps become public; and there’s a desire for the world to become public. Those desires meet.

¹ A New York newspaper of the time

² A historian of psychiatry, Deutsch wrote a column for PM

³ In August 1946, William Heirens, age 17, confessed to being a serial murderer.