The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Our Self—& What Explains It

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are honored to publish here the first part of a 1946 lecture by Eli Siegel, What Aesthetic Realism Is & Is Not, from his Steinway Hall series. He is describing how Aesthetic Realism differs from other approaches to mind then current. And as he does, we can see too that it differs vitally from the approaches current now.

Commenting on such persons as Freud, Horney, Adler, and Jung, Mr. Siegel points out that he is not, in this talk, discussing texts. He certainly did so, closely and richly, on other occasions. Here, speaking somewhat casually but exactly, he is giving an overview.

Eli Siegel respected the work of other philosophers and writers on mind—he loved, for instance, Kant, Descartes, Hegel, Locke—and saw Aesthetic Realism as coherent with good thought anywhere. But he did not want it to be made falsely akin to things it differed from hugely. And in those early years of its existence, it was necessary to make clear that there is something Aesthetic Realism has which the various psychotherapies do not have. That great something is a true understanding of the human self—the self which is everyone’s own—and a true understanding of the world. As Mr. Siegel speaks about Aesthetic Realism and other ways of seeing, his description of six decades ago is alive now—vivid, graceful, passionate, tremendously important. It has Aesthetic Realism’s grandeur—factual, practical grandeur.

Aesthetics, Contempt, & the Internet

The principle Mr. Siegel is chiefly commenting on in this 1946 talk is “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” I’ll comment a little here on another principle, in relation to something that didn’t exist in 1946: the Internet. That second principle is “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself; which lessening is Contempt.”

An August 10th New York Times article, “Internet Use Tied to Depression in Youths,” begins: “A large Chinese study suggests that otherwise healthy teenagers are much more vulnerable to depression if they spend too much time on the Internet.” Six months earlier there was a similar British study: according to a Yorkshire Evening Post article that I found on the Huffington Post website, psychologists saw “a strong link between time spent surfing the web and depression.”

I have written about the Internet and the fact that it is aesthetic. It does what Aesthetic Realism describes beauty of any time or place as doing: it makes opposites one. For instance, it brings together near and far. You can find out about something that happened thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away, through your fingertips and a screen in the intimacy of your home or in your hand as you walk down a street. And the Internet is surely what Mr. Siegel describes all organization as being: a oneness of one and many. The Internet is one thing, bringing together an almost inconceivable multitude of people, places, happenings, ideas.

Meanwhile, the Internet, like ever so many other things, can be used to have either respect for the world or contempt for it. Aesthetic Realism explains that the fight between the desire to respect and the desire to have contempt is the big, continuous fight in the life of everyone. And Eli Siegel is the scholar who identified contempt as that in every person which weakens our mind and life, and as the source of all the cruelty of the centuries. This explanation is Aesthetic Realism’s alone. The psychologists conducting the Chinese and British studies do not understand contempt.

For example, the relation of depression and the Internet is not essentially a matter of “spend[ing] too much time” online. It is a matter of: are you using the Internet to see more meaning in reality and people, including the people you may meet during the day; or are you using the Internet to feel that you have the world at your command, under your thumb, serving you, and that you’ve gotten away from and annulled the world of sidewalks, conversations, unforeseen happenings, and people you don’t understand and can’t control? The first way is respect. The second is contempt. People use the Internet for contempt in essentially two ways: to make the world around them meaningless and beneath them; to make the world online something that they can manipulate and rule. In both ways there is a deep sneer, and there is the result of that sneer: a feeling low, agitated, empty, and, even, depressed.

Let’s take the Yorkshire Times’s headline (with its pun): “Internet surfers caught in a web of depression.” Surfing the web can be in behalf of respectful interest and knowledge. But it’s so often a means of grabbing and dismissing. You take a look, skim, and, with a click, get rid of what you looked at and go to something else—again and again. This stands for how the contemptuous self wants to deal with reality: you are a monarch, summoning and dismissing, and you don’t have to give your attention steadily to anything.

How Do We See People?

There are the social networking sites. They can be very valuable and pleasurable, a means of relation to other people. But a person can also use them in behalf of one of the most frequent forms of contempt: you have to do with people without really giving yourself—while having yourself hidden, aloof, apart. You “interact” without really wanting to know and be affected by anyone. You manage how you’re affected, which means you manage people and reality.

Then, of course, there is the availability of pornography, noted in the British study. The big thing not seen about it by the psychologists is this: however popular it is, and however much people want to say it’s just fine, every person is ashamed of going for pornography; and that’s because it is contempt. Pornography is a means of wiping out the mind, the feelings, the humanity, the depth of a person, who stands for the world, and turning the person into someone who exists for the sole purpose of pleasing you while you look down on her or him and on the world she or he represents.

Either Contempt & Self-Dislike or Aesthetics

When we make less of the world, we deeply despise ourselves. The reason is: we come from the world and were born to see it truly. Our having contempt makes us feel temporarily set up, mighty, superior, but it brings us unsureness, nervousness, dullness, disorganization, self-dislike, and, if we have enough of it, depression.

As big a misuse of the Internet as any is what is called cyberbullying. People have used the Internet to feel they can put forth anything mean and dishonest that they please. It is worrying parents and school districts enormously, and I’ll say more about it in the future. But this can be said now: the only way for cyberbullying to end is for people to learn from Aesthetic Realism about the fight in all of us between contempt and respect—and about the aesthetic fact that we are more through valuing truly what is not ourselves.

I want to comment on the last two paragraphs published here of Mr. Siegel’s talk. The love of knowledge that he describes—inclusive, wide knowledge—is what I saw in him all the time. And yes, Aesthetic Realism certainly is a magnificent, effective encourager of people’s desire to know. Also: the oneness of science and art that he says is in its seeing of a person is what he had, always. It was beautiful; it was steady. I saw it as he spoke to others and, I am immensely grateful to say, as he spoke to me.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


What Aesthetic Realism Is & Is Not

By Eli Siegel

Aesthetic Realism tries to be fair to a very great thing which is the world and a very great thing which is a human self. It has to do with such things as chemistry, economics, poetry, aesthetics, nonsense, childishness, metallurgy, the building of bridges, and cosmetics. A very big order; but I can only say I am very sincere about it. When Aesthetic Realism says its purpose is to make for a real and deep friendliness between self and world, it doesn’t mean the self only from one aspect, the world only from one aspect. It means the world in as many aspects as possible, because specialization is, in its bad form, equivalent to insanity. Insanity is the functioning of part of a self as the whole, and specialization in its bad form is akin to that.

The chief thing Aesthetic Realism would have against other current ways of dealing with the self is their narrowness and, strangely enough, the fact that because they are narrow they do not become specific enough. Because they don’t deal with a self that, while aiming at unity, is aiming at the greatest comprehensiveness, I can’t say that those ways of mind deal with the self accurately.

Aesthetic Realism is different from psychoanalysis because the notion of the unconscious in psychoanalysis is much too incomplete. Its notion of dreams just isn’t true. Its notion of the self as something bent on “gratification” is very incomplete, very narrow, and it is a notion that frightens, does not really show.

Psychoanalysis is not interested in knowledge generally. There isn’t really a feeling that a machine, a time clock, a dish, a work of art, a smile, in its best sense, has something to do with the unconscious. When one reads the books of psychoanalysis, one feels that a hothouse, incomplete world is presented.

I am also against psychoanalysis because there isn’t humor in it. Furthermore, its approach is not like that of Aesthetic Realism in that it is not interested in ethics.

Horney, Adler, & Style

One difference between Aesthetic Realism and the ideas of a person like Karen Horney is that Karen Horney in her various books is in a muddle as to whether there is such a thing as ethics at all. In her first books there is the feeling that ethics is something which culture imposes on one. Aesthetic Realism believes that there is such a thing as ethics in reality and the self as such, and if society imposes ethics on a person it is because society is representing that which is in every person.

In Alfred Adler there is a dealing with the problem of compensation and inferiority and superiority. There are some keen statements made. But the self as both inferior and superior, as something which is interested in everything, which is interested in being kind at the same time that it is interested in being aggressive, the self that is interested in seeing a color or appreciating a sound, the self that is interested in the Roman Empire and the shape of a leaf—that self is not shown in Adler’s work.

Aesthetic Realism is a democratic way of mind and prefers a word like change to develop. Style is highly important. Any person studying Aesthetic Realism, therefore, must be interested in style. I have pointed out that if instead of saying, as Keats did, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” one says, “An article of pulchritude is a perpetual source of gratification,” one isn’t saying the same thing and the effect is not the same. I try to talk in English that is as simple and unsuperfluous as possible. If a person talks in another kind of English, the thought of the speaker will come to you through a blanket. There is no reason why people cannot talk about the things that are deep in their minds with the same matter-of-factness with which they talk about groceries.

Misconceptions, & the Oneness of Opposites

The misconceptions about Aesthetic Realism can be summed up very briefly: it has been taken for less than it is; it has been taken for something else, for something that it isn’t.

The name is Aesthetic Realism because, as I have tried to point out, the world is essentially aesthetic. Every science presents a problem that is akin to the aesthetic, or art, problem. In biology, you have a relation of a specific organism to the world, and the relation of a specific organism to other specific organisms. This means biology has the problems of interior and exterior, and oneness and manyness, which the self has and art has. Further, if you look at any organism, including an insect, closely, there is oneness and manyness in it. Biology is based on the idea of organization, but the organization of biology is not different essentially from the organization of a painting. And the organization of the unconscious is not different from the organization in biology.

If we look at sociology, we find a desire to see the specific individual in relation to individuals who are akin to him and also different from him. The object in sociology is really to find how one person acts in relation to many persons. When a sociologist deals with the problems of family, crime, dependency, public health, societies, the large matter is always the relation of one human being to other human beings taken together.

The problem of organization in chemistry is deeply the problem of sameness and difference.

Logic itself (which Aesthetic Realism says is also in dreams) is the putting together of specific and general.

As I outline these problems sketchily, we come to the very biggest problem: how to put together what we feel with what we know, how to see them as one; how to put together imagination and logic, or the affective and the cognitive.

While Aesthetic Realism is against those phases of psychology that say this is the whole self when the whole self is not really shown, it is also against “rahrah” psychology: the kind that gets to a bluebird world and great optimism too much in a hurry. Aesthetic Realism isn’t that at all. It says that criticism is also inspiration, that exactness is also mobility, and that the fact is also encouragement. When Aesthetic Realism says, as it must, that the world is good, it doesn’t say one should see the world as good in a hurry. It definitely says that the self should know its own discontent. Aesthetic Realism is as pessimistic as need be, but it does say that the inspiration boys and Dr. Freud are both wrong, because Freud did not see the world as really making sense. Therefore his psychoanalysis doesn’t say that the knowing of the world more and more will make for freedom.

The Biggest Desire

When we come to Dr. Adler we get to a world where people are looking for power—which is so. We get to a world where they are trying to compensate for inferiorities of various sorts. We get to a world where the sex idea is muted but where the desire for power is the big thing. The world that Adler presents is also a world that is not true. The biggest desire that the unconscious of a person has is to know the world. And about the phrase I used, “to know the world,” the various branches of psychoanalysis, including the Adlerian branch, would say, “What kind of talk is this?”

Take a procedure of Aesthetic Realism: when a person has a lesson, he is given the assignment to write three sentences about an object each day. A person very often is surprised that I should ask such a thing. But a principle of Aesthetic Realism that makes it different from the other approaches is this: the oneness of self and world is shown in knowing. Knowing is the having of a thing that is outside of oneself, as it truly is, in one’s mind, with the feeling that the self having that outside thing is larger. That is the deepest purpose a self has: to come to be what it is, not by conquering another, not by deceiving another, not by despising another, but by feeling that its own unique wonder can meet all kinds of wonderful new things and that it can grow by the meeting.

Dr. Jung writes of libido. He extended its meaning from that given to it by Dr. Freud, to include the general energy of the self towards objects external to it and also objects within it. But Dr. Jung feels that there is some kind of opposition between logic and imagination. He also feels that knowing is not akin to the libido, and Aesthetic Realism says that it is. If anybody goes through life and doesn’t know what the world is about, his greatest “libido” will not be satisfied. This means the word knowing has to be looked on as if it were a very big desire. Dr. Jung is not interested in that.

Such a fight between libido and knowing, between subjective and objective, makes for disturbance itself. That is important. I am not at this time quoting from texts, but the world that the psychoanalysts present is not a world that in itself is sensible, is not a world that a person wants to live in, in which he can feel that happiness is somehow respectable and profound. If one cannot have realism and joy together, if joy has to be against realism, and whenever we are critical and exact we have to feel different from when we are happy, the world doesn’t make sense.

Interest in Knowledge

Aesthetic Realism is interested in all knowledge. We may never have a chance to know much about medieval French, or Central European history in the 18th century, but we should have a feeling that no matter how little we know something, it concerns us, because the whole world of space and time concerns us. Aesthetic Realism is interested in mathematics and poetry, chemistry and the ballet, because the world produced the ballet and chemistry, mathematics and poetry, and if we want to know what the world is about we have to know what it includes. Aesthetic Realism is a means of arousing an exact and real, intense interest in what the world is really like. The world presented in the psychoanalytic books is incomplete.

When Aesthetic Realism deals with a person, it tries to put together exactitude with an approach of the sort we see in Ibsen or Shakespeare.