|NUMBER 1804.—August 31, 2011||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we conclude our serialization of the 1970 lecture You Can Gossip Philosophically about Psychology, by Eli Siegel. As its title implies, the discussion is casual, informal, sometimes humorous. Yet it is hugely important. It is definite about what matters most to us: the human self, the self which is so intimately our own. Mr. Siegel has been commenting on passages in a psychology textbook. Now he goes to a very different work: Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.
Aesthetic Realism explains that each of us is, all the time, a philosophic situation—because the opposites that constitute reality are in us. They make up our turmoil, our hopes, intelligence, griefs, bodies, everything about us. Further, we are an aesthetic matter, because what we need for ourselves—to make those opposites one—is what happens in all true art.
Not understanding the philosophic nature of our selves, psychiatry has been completely unequipped to understand why people disapprove of themselves and feel profoundly agitated, dull, low. Our deepest desire, Aesthetic Realism explains, is to like and be fair to that world outside us, from which our very beings are inseparable. Yet at war with this desire is another: to have contempt—to look down on, make less of, manipulate, dismiss, be aloof from what’s not us, in order (falsely) to increase ourselves. Contempt is the source of every injustice. And it’s also the cause of a person’s feeling ashamed, nervous, depressed, empty, self-despising. Why? Because “when we are unfair to the world,” Mr. Siegel writes, “it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it” (Self and World, p. 45).
A Loved Poem Is about This
A work very different from both Kant’s Critique and a psychology text is an anonymous poem which has many versions. “The Ballad of Barbara Allan,” or “Barbara Allan’s Cruelty,” began in Scotland, likely in the 16th century. It was set to music, and has sometimes been called the most popular folk song in the English-speaking world, with forms of it sung from Kentucky to Australia. It is a great thing artistically. But I’m using it to illustrate what Mr. Siegel has described: no matter how smooth we act, we can’t be unjust to what’s not us without deeply despising ourselves. In the early Scottish version it begins:
It was in and about the Martinmas time
When the green leaves were a-falling,
That Sir John Graeme, in the West Country,
Fell in love with Barbara Allan.
He becomes mortally ill. She is sent for, arrives—and takes satisfaction in his impending death. The reason is: as she sees it, he didn’t praise her sufficiently; he didn’t make enough of her in public.
Mostly, people treat the world the way Barbara Allan treats this man. We see it, with its human beings and its facts, not as something we need to know and value truly—but as something that should make us important and comfortable. We judge people on the basis, not of who they are, but: do they give us enough glory; do they do what we want? If they don’t, we feel we have the right to resent and punish them. This way of seeing is fundamental contempt. Further, there is in people the feeling that any fact which isn’t in keeping with what they want, they have the right to hate, twist, annul—as Barbara Allan wanted to annul Sir John Graeme.
She comes to see him, and this is the dialogue between them. “Hooly” means slowly. “Dinna ye mind” means don’t you remember? She says he deserves to die because he didn’t toast her when other men were around:
O hooly, hooly rose she up,
To the place where he was lying,
And when she drew the curtain by:
“Young man, I think you’re dying.”
“O it’s I’m sick, and very, very sick,
And ’tis all for Barbara Allan.”
“O the better for me ye shall never be,
Though your heart’s blood were a-spilling.
“O dinna ye mind, young man,” said she,
When ye was in the tavern a-drinking,
That ye made the healths go round and round
And slighted Barbara Allan?”
Across 500 years has come this lady’s clipped, supercilious, scornful remark, “Young man, I think you’re dying.” He does die—and she cannot stand herself. When she hears his death bell, she feels it’s condemning her: “And every stroke the dead-bell gave, / It cried, ‘Woe to Barbara Allan.’” This bell represents what Mr. Siegel called “something in us which is the world itself.” The poem ends with the lady saying that her injustice to another is a lessening of herself—because of it she feels she doesn’t deserve to live:
“O mother, mother, make my bed!
O make it soft and narrow!
Since my love died for me to-day,
I’ll die for him to-morrow.”
The Art Way of Mind
What makes this poem beautiful is a way of mind different from Barbara Allan’s. Whoever wrote it wanted so much to be fair to a subject, to words, to reality, that the opposites of the world are made one in the lines. We hear this as music. We hear, as a story is told, something very definite at one with nuance, rustling. We feel and hear both simplicity and richness; the ordinary and the strange; fixity and that which goes wide, spreads, is free. This is the world, which, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the other half of ourselves, and so the one way to like ourselves is to be fair to it.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
The World in One’s Mind
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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