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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 
A PERIODICAL OF HOPE AND INFORMATION
 NUMBER 1801.—July 20, 2011

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Mother Goose, the Nervous System, & Our Lives

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the 1970 lecture You Can Gossip Philosophically about Psychology, by Eli Siegel. Using passages from a psychology textbook, he illustrates the great, definitive explanation of the human self which is in Aesthetic Realism. Casually, often humorously, always with scholarship and exactitude, he is showing: 1) The deepest desire of every human being is to like the world honestly. 2) The self of everyone is a philosophic, aesthetic situation, because we are composed of the opposites central to reality itself, and we are trying to do what art does—make those opposites one.

The Self of a Child

In that folk compendium called Mother Goose, there are hundreds of nursery rhymes, passed along over centuries. They vary in quality, and the ones that have been most popular are generally the best. Many are art, in the full meaning of the word. I’ll comment on four, because the poems children have loved say something important about what the human self is and hopes for. There is, for instance—

Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea,

With silver buckles on his knee.

He’ll come back and marry me,

Pretty Bobby Shafto!

This poem is about the expansive and the intimate, the mysterious and the familiar. Every person wants to feel that the wide world in all its strangeness is for us—and can somehow be cozy and familiar too. In the first two lines, a girl thinks about someone who has gone out to that wide, mysterious, un-cozy thing, the sea. And in his silver buckles there are wonder and glow. Then, in the third line, that same Bobby Shafto who has been part of the mystery and expansiveness of things will be very close to her, of her: “He’ll come back and marry me.”

As poetry, this is a very fine quatrain. There is a width, an opening out, in the sound of the first line—“Bobby Shafto’s gone to sea.” This is very different from the confined sound, even the small sound, of the fourth: “Pretty Bobby Shafto.” Yet the first line is definite too, and the fourth has space too: they both put opposites together. A child can fear the unknown and want what’s familiar. Then she can be bored by the familiar and want mystery and surprise. People of every age have felt tormented because the close and the unknown have fought in them. We love “Bobby Shafto” because it makes those opposites one.

Low & Magnificent

A beautiful poem about lowliness and magnificence is—

Hark, hark! The dogs do bark,

The beggars are coming to town;

Some in rags and some in tags,

And some in velvet gown.

Children have been bewildered and rightly angered by the ugly, completely unnecessary fact that there is poverty in the world. They’ve also looked down on people with less money than their own family has. In this poem, though, we hear a proud march, a rhythmic pomp, in the line “The beggars are coming to town.” And people who are dressed poorly are given a grand announcement: “Hark, hark!” All this and the strange fourth line make us feel there is grandeur in these people which perhaps we haven’t wanted to see. That, I think, is the meaning of “And some in velvet gown.”

Every child has been mixed up by his own feelings of inferiority and superiority. On the one hand, he has felt he was inwardly a mess—that his thoughts were not clear, were in rags and tags—and that he didn’t like himself. On the other, he has felt he should be seen as a little prince, better than everyone. People don’t know that much of their feeling low and messy comes because they’ve made themselves falsely superior to other people and the world—because they’ve had contempt. But this poem has delighted children because it stands for the fact that there’s an answer, with beauty, to the question of lowliness and magnificence in them.

“Georgie Porgie”: Assertion & Retreat

What does it mean to assert ourselves truly? Wrong self-assertion is in—

Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie,

Kissed the girls and made them cry.

When the boys came out to play,

Georgie Porgie ran away.

Most people, young and older, are deeply like Georgie Porgie. They feel they should have a big effect, make themselves important, without thinking about what other people and things deserve. Then, as a result of their contempt—at a time when they can’t manage reality (“When the boys came out to play”), they get very unsure and fearful.

Not only does Georgie have trouble about assertion and fearfulness or retreat, he has trouble about softness and hardness. The phrase “pudding and pie,” along with the sound of his name, tells us that Georgie Porgie could make himself seem very soft, sweet, and pleasing while having a purpose that was hard and mean. Here, he is like many people. The message of this poem is: Your sense of self, your putting forth of self, had better be the same as justice to what’s not you. Otherwise you’ll be both mean and scared.

Energy & Being Stuck

This is not the time to comment at length about the sublime poem (I’m not joking) “Peas Porridge Hot”:

Peas porridge hot,

Peas porridge cold,

Peas porridge in the pot

Nine days old.

The rhythm is thrusting, insistent. And to have such a rhythm about porridge is a great thing. Through these lines, which children love to clap to, the feeling people have of being stuck, dull, inert, like thick porridge, is put into terrific motion. The rest-and-motion torment a child can have—feeling impelled to keep tearing about, and feeling immobile—(and which everyone has in some form) is answered in this poem.

Aesthetic Realism shows that the answer to people’s questions is in art. And it makes that answer learnable for everyone’s life.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Are Nerves about Liking the World?
By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing passages from Elements of Psychology, by Krech and Crutchfield (1958).

We come to a passage about stimuli. If you look at yourself at any time, you cannot say that a stimulus is absent. If nothing else, as soon as you concentrate on any part of your body, you provide your own stimulus—because if you think of your kneecap, the kneecap feels stimulated.

An Idea of Known & Unknown

Stimuli are of varying intensities. Before Freud there was discussion about stimuli that were “subthreshold,” that you weren’t aware of. For example, if you’re lying in bed in the morning and there’s a noise outside, you may waste ten minutes by not hearing it, but in the eleventh minute you hear it and say, “Shut up.” This means the stimulus has gone beyond the threshold; it’s no longer “subthreshold.” So there are a good many stimuli that don’t get anywhere you notice. It’s like a bunch of one cent stamps changing into a five dollar gold piece in 1920, which sometimes happened.

The idea of stimulus is an idea of known and unknown. You cannot say that your little toe is unaffected by the Jersey shore, because as soon as you think about your little toe and the Jersey shore, your toe is a little stimulated. To say it’s not is insulting to the Jersey shore.

On the one hand, the problem of stimulus is behaviorism, but on the other, it does get philosophic.

Well, the stimuli take place, and these writers are given to speaking about them in terms of organization and pattern and integration:

Stimuli rarely occur singly..., but mostly in company with a host of other stimuli. Somehow out of this myriad of stimuli a perception results that can best be described as organized or patterned.

Later in the book the writers describe how stimuli are organized. Their description is useful, but I cannot say the whole job is done, because to show how stimuli we have and stimuli we might have are organized is a hard job, as hard as showing why a great work of art is the composition it is. In the meantime, at any one moment we are an organization. What is organized, is hard to say.

Does This Have to Do with Liking?

“Several generalizations describing this patterning have been suggested from laboratory studies.” Later when stimuli are dealt with as getting a pattern, the word good is used. That’s pretty bold. But one can see, in keeping with Gestalt, that there is a configuration, a desire to organize, a desire for form. Then there is the word good used about the word form, which means that this may have to do with liking the world.

There are a few ideas in psychology that are important, and some of them are quite lovely. For instance, there are certain things said about attention and awareness by Germans—Weber, Fechner, Külpa, and Ebbinghaus (he had to do with memory). Then, the Gestalt, which was very popular in the twenties, is still around, with its configuration. The idea was that the self is always trying to complete something, as a complete circle can be felt in three-quarters of a circle. This desire to complete oneself is related to liking the world, because tomorrow we’re going to be interested in things in order to complete what we are today. Configuration is not exactly an aesthetic term, but it’s close to it, as the word figure itself is.

These generalizations help us to describe how the person perceives order in complex stimulus situations so that his perceptions reflect the realities of the external environment and at the same time permit him to attend to and emphasize those aspects of the environment which are biologically important for him.

Now, if a “person perceives order in complex stimulus situations,” there must have been something that enabled him to perceive order. We get to the large matter: that even in perception there is motivation. Even in sensation there is motivation. What we have here is a “person perceives order in complex stimulus situations”: how much is the desire to perceive order, to make sense of something, related to the desire to like a situation, which is the beginning of liking the world—because the world is a situation with an uncounted number of situations and possibilities of situations. The world is the situation from which all other situations come.

We Have Fact & Value

When the “perceptions reflect the realities of the external environment,” it means that perceptions are going after truth. They are trying to find what is so. But then, when a person, through perceptions, “emphasizes those aspects of the environment which are biologically important for him,” he is looking for value. So we have fact and value.

Let’s say a cow, browsing, looks around, seeing what the farm provides for her: that’s getting facts. As soon, however, as she finds some bit of grass that seems fit for her bovine highness, that’s what she takes: that’s value. Looking is fact; choice is value. And the perceptions do that. They get the facts, and they also organize the facts in such a way that value can be got.

It can be said that value is looked for at the same time that the fact is looked for. What makes a nerve response, or a nerve-end response, the response that it is? Is there some idea of choice? And if there is some idea of choice or adaptation, is there some idea of value? The taste buds, for instance, are as critical as Sainte-Beuve. Sometimes, like all critics, they’re stupid, but they’re critics.

The Self Goes for Composition, Integration

There is the matter of integration, which was begun somewhat by Sherrington in The Integrative Action of the Nervous System. The word integrative is important, because Sherrington showed that both physiologically and otherwise there’s a constant going for composition, or integration. (Integration is another word for composition.) These writers point out that feelings, perceptions, responses are not only in the brain but in the whole nervous system. And since the nervous system can get to anywhere you are, that means your whole self. The nervous system is the self become American railroads: it’s a way of receiving messages and giving them and joining at the local stations and having some expresses.

The receptors are described in the next quotation. The writers say the thing in common among perception, motivation, and adaptation is integration. What is the purpose of integration? Is there any idea of value or like? This is a very important passage:

The receptors themselves are capable of large degrees of integration of stimuli....The nervous system is so constructed...that perception is determined by the integrated pattern of activities going on in large parts of the brain....This integrated activity of the nervous system in perception is a characteristic of the nervous activities involved in motivation and in adaptive behavior as well. Here there is a major generalization to be made about the action of the nervous system.

—Which means that every phase of it, or possibility of it, is looking for integration.

What Impels Them?

So, observing this passage: “The receptors themselves are capable of large degrees of integration of stimuli.” As large as anything in relation to psychology and biology is: what are these living things going after? When the receptors integrate, what’s leading them on? That is the question about life itself. “The receptors themselves are capable”—that’s good: they’re capable. But why should they waste their time? Why should they want to? What is the relation of wanting to to activity? I don’t wish to use words prematurely, but it seems that there is some direction.

“...capable of large degrees of integration of stimuli”: we feel that if someone’s receptors go for disintegration of stimuli, they’re quite worrisome. In fact, if there is enough of that, we call in an expert to re-integrate the receptors, or re-integrate their activity.

“Our receptors and brain are constantly in action.” No person, no psychologist or biologist, has ever said the purpose of the receptors is to dislike reality and carry on a war with it. That doesn’t prove that man wants to like reality or like the world. But it seems the receptors are trying to do the best job they can with the world, the poor things. What is the best job? The thing mentioned in biology, psychology, and sociology is adjustment to the external world. And you don’t adjust to the external world in order to dislike it. That would seem spiteful and unscientific.

“Our receptors and brain are constantly in action...” In other words, at any moment—it may sound staggering and bewildering—at any moment everything in us is up to something. Nothing is really resting. It may look as if it were resting, but it’s planning its next move. “...rather than waiting passively to be thrown into action by outside stimuli.” As I said, the organism can also be a cause of stimuli to itself: a person, for example, slaps his brow and says, “That slap was good.” All exercise is a providing of stimuli to yourself. Sometimes you use something mechanical, like one of those fancy bicycles, but you are providing stimuli to yourself.

“The nervous system is so constructed and so operates that perception is determined by the integrated pattern of activities...” Words like pattern and integrated sound as if they have value. They do. Why should people go for an integrated pattern? If a Navajo Indian goes for an integrated pattern in a rug, we think he’s trying to get to some value.

Perception Is Part & Whole

“...Perception is determined by the integrated pattern of activities going on in large parts of the brain—not solely in that part of the brain which receives the messages from the receptors in the first place.” In other words, it’s not just a local effect. Everything in the nervous system, which means everything in the self, is affected. This structure of part affecting whole is a philosophic matter, because the relation of part to whole—which is present in a flower, in a book, in a tree, in a metal, in a chemical element—is a philosophic matter: it takes in more than any particular instance of part and whole.

“This integrated activity of the nervous system in perception is a characteristic of the nervous activities involved in motivation and in adaptive behavior as well.” Motivation, then, would follow perception and go for integration too. And certainly adaptive behavior would. So if you’re going to be what the authors earlier called “a unique individual,” you’d better be integrated, because being unique without being integrated gets you into trouble. I have to present that bad news. Lots of people think that all they need to do is be unique. Then they bump up against other people’s uniqueness and there’s trouble. So one lesson of psychology is: uniqueness without integration is hazardousblack 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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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
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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 RealismThe 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

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
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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