Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the lecture Philosophy Begins with That, which Eli Siegel gave in 1970. It is about something no philosophy but Aesthetic Realism has shown: that every object, every thing, every aspect of every thing, is fundamentally and completely philosophic, because the structure of reality itself is in it. That structure is the oneness of opposites. The objects that surround us, an incident, our own feelings, a kiss, a sneeze, a running dog, a cloud, a grammatical error, a map (online or off), the eyes of a loved one, a memory—all are composed (in different ways) of reality’s motion and rest, awryness and symmetry, particularity and relation, definiteness and nuance, perfection and imperfection. That means every thing, every person, is related centrally and richly to every other thing and person, however apart these seem. Put personally it means, in Mr. Siegel’s beautiful words: the world and every item in it is the other half of yourself.
In this lecture Mr. Siegel uses as text the 1929 journal of novelist Arnold Bennett. And as he comments on Bennett’s descriptions of daily happenings, Mr. Siegel’s manner mingles casualness, scholarship, humor, depth, exactitude.
We print here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Ernest DeFilippis. It’s from a recent public seminar, titled “Acquisition vs. Understanding: The Big Debate in Every Man.” Everyone, Aesthetic Realism explains, is in a constant fight about the things and persons outside us—because we’re in a fight about reality itself. The fight in all its fierceness is philosophic, and goes on mainly unstated in people, but our opinion of ourselves depends on how it fares. It’s the fight between respect and contempt: between Should I try to understand and be just to what’s not me?, or Should I see reality in terms of what and whom I can own, manage, impress, look down on?
The assumption that we don’t need to see, as Matthew Arnold put it, “the object as in itself it really is,” but can see anyone and anything any way we please, is immeasurably frequent. Mr. Siegel writes of it in Self and World:
The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form. [P. 3]
For example, all racism begins with the feeling, “I don’t have to try to see exactly this person, who looks different from me. I don’t have to see that he’s as real as I am, with emotions as subtle and vivid. I don’t have to see that he’s a full individual who yet has to do with innumerable things not himself. Instead, if I can see this person different from me as inferior—I’m Important, Somebody, a Big Shot.”
Mr. DeFilippis gives examples of how that preference to see a person in a way that makes oneself important goes on as to love. I’ll give an instance from literature about how it can be present in the family.
Central to Anthony Trollope’s 1862 novel Orley Farm, is the way 23-year-old Lucius Mason sees his mother. A widow, very attractive, she is in a deep and mainly admirable turmoil of worry and hope, self-questioning, and thought about others. But Lucius sees her in terms of himself. And he preens himself on being a wonderfully devoted son. He is completely uninterested in what goes on inside her—indeed, doesn’t see it as existing. Trollope describes his thoughts:
He loved to see her smile, and often told her so....Why should she be sad, seeing that she had everything that a woman could desire? Her mind was burdened with no heavy thoughts....His purpose was to work hard during the hours of the day,...and it was becoming that his mother should greet him softly during his few intervals of idleness. He told her so...; and she...strove valiantly to obey him.
Later, when she writes to him that she has accepted an offer of marriage from a kind elderly aristocrat in the neighborhood, Lucius is furious. Trollope writes, with humor and keenness:
The idea that their fathers and mothers should marry and enjoy themselves is always a thing horrible to be thought of in the minds of the rising generation. Lucius Mason... walked rapidly about the room, as though some great injury had been threatened to him.
And so it had, in his estimation. Was it not her position in life to be his mother?...“I would have sacrificed everything for her....It is all up between me and her,” he said.... And then he lashed himself into anger at the idea that his mother should have looked for other solace than that which he could have given.
Yes, contempt can be described with humor and style. It is ordinary, and it is terrible. We need to understand it. Through Aesthetic Realism we can.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Up, Down, & Diagonal
By Eli Siegel
Note. Mr. Siegel is commenting on passages early in Arnold Bennett’s Journal 1929.
One of the things that can sometimes be seen in Bennett’s photographs is, he has a sort of bold cowlick in his hair. It rises, the way people try to have happen these days: there is something that stands out and has a kind of diagonal effect which seems to be of oneself. We come, then, to the philosophy of the diagonal.
Now, the vertical line seems to be too lonely and to insist—not good company. The horizontal line can seem to be rather stupid: I mean, it’s good, it’s wonderful, but anything that’s only horizon just changes into stupidity and mysticism. But the diagonal—that’s real stuff. For instance, there can be the phrase He wore his cocked hat at a jaunty angle. We don’t see things being cocked in medieval times. We don’t find, for instance, the ladies’ headdress of the 12th century at a jaunty angle. That came in with the Renaissance. Maybe there was something like it in ancient times. We can assume that Alcibiades had a few ingratiating manners. All the dandies of Rome and Athens did, but we’re not told enough about them. We can assume it from the writing, because there are slants.
However, the diagonal, which is associated with speed, and which different authors have seen in different ways, is a philosophic matter. It means that eternity and the instant can be joined, because the vertical is instancy as deep, and the horizontal is, well, eternity as present. It can be seen as many other things. But when you have the two meeting, you have an affair of jauntiness. And Bennett says something about it.
He wonders about the word cocktail. He says he’s now too old and too ill to be thinking of having many cocktails. He goes to parties and doesn’t have them. He writes:
The cocktail craze will pass. And perhaps by the time it has passed we shall know the origin of the word. A cocktailed horse is, I believe, a horse which has had its tail docked. Hence its tail flounces out gaily. Hence it has an air (quite spurious) of vivacity. Hence a cocktail ought to be so-called because it gives you the jolly feeling of a horse with its tail up. But actually is it so-called for that reason? Nobody can say.
Something that goes up usually seems more spiritual than something that goes down, because the changing from matter into space is seen as spiritual, while changing space into matter has been seen as an act of the devil. If anything goes up, there is supposed to be a loftiness, and that is with the spiritual. There is the phrase lofty ideas. It’s almost the same as deep ideas, but it’s a little different. The relation of lofty and deep is something to look at. Well, Bennett considers why there is the word cocktail, and says maybe it’s because a cocktail has to do with the jaunty. The purpose of a cocktail is to get you away from what happened to you today, so it’s called a cocktail.
Imagination: Wild & Orderly
Then we have: “London, January 4th.” Bennett is going to read some more of Thomas Love Peacock. He knows Peacock isn’t a novelist exactly, but has a sort of story structure, in which lots of things are said. He reads the last work of Peacock, Gryll Grange. And he writes:
The thing is the wildest fantasy. Young hero living in a tower with seven lovely serving maids, sisters, each of whom has a plain, bucolic, ultimately successful swain.
We’re in the field of imagination. But imagination can be very regular, as in “The Walrus and the Carpenter”: “‘If seven maids with seven mops / Swept it for half a year, / Do you suppose,’ the Walrus said, / ‘That they could get it clear?’” In imagination, you can have a great deal of symmetry: Fourteen gorgons shooting their baleful eyes at fourteen terrified people for fourteen minutes. That’s symmetrical.
It Can Be Anything
“The thing is the wildest fantasy.” We come to a philosophic problem: how is a thing that thing, one thing, and how is a thing something else? And how is a thing anything else? Where is the imagination within a specific thing?
The world can be called anything you please. You can call it a pound of lost coal. And reality seems to say, Well, that’s a new way of seeing me. It doesn’t seem to object. You can call it all the food that was lost in the 17th century. A thing can be anything because there is a relation between being and change, and that is used a good deal in imagination.
What is fantasy? How did a reality come to write a fantasy?—because every fantasy was written by a reality. We can say reality came to a fantastic idea—the multiplication table! There have been treatises written on the world as imagination. There is a philosophic work of Hans Vaihinger which affected the late ’20s and ’30s: Die Philosophie des Als Ob, The Philosophy of As If. And there have been some audacious Germans who have described reality as delirium. A case can be made for that.
But I’m beginning now, not so much with the world, but with things. If I were dealing with a poem, I would get from the words to the things. Instead, I’m getting to certain things stated by Arnold Bennett.
Acquisition or Understanding?
By Ernest DeFilippis
It was 4 pm and I was heading back to the hotel. As I walked through the streets on that sunny day, I felt disgusted with myself and ashamed. I had just left the apartment of a lively, attractive young woman named Mary, whom I’d met some days earlier. I had really looked forward to seeing her. But my notion of what it meant to see Mary was governed by a picture I had of her in my mind: falling into my arms on greeting me, unable to restrain herself.
Her actual greeting, while warm—she smiled and said “Hi Ernie”—was far short of what I’d expected. Then, as she started talking about herself, I sank. My time was limited. I began looking at the clock. Yet in spite of my disappointment, I was affected, engaged by her seriousness. But at a certain point I squelched this feeling, grabbed her in my arms, and started kissing her. She resisted, and asked me to leave. I did. Years later, in an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel explained:
ES. Right now, quite a few men are tired of talking to a woman and want to grab her. Would you like to stop thinking about a woman and grab her? Grabbing is the desire to stop intellect from working in a woman because it’s boring. You want her to become like a palpitating bird—isn’t that what you want?
ES. Is it best? Is it wise?
As I thought about these questions, and others I had the good fortune to be asked by Mr. Siegel, I came to see that, contrary to what I’d thought, it wasn’t my virility or uncontrollable passion for a woman which drove me to do things that made me ashamed. It was my desire for conquest, to capture a person and have my way with her—which is contempt. I saw the thoughts and feelings of a woman not as something to understand, but as an interference with my getting what I wanted.
The Inner Fight
I was to learn that there was a large battle going on in me. It was between my desire to grab things, have them on my terms, and my deepest desire: to see them truly. Not knowing this, I couldn’t value the best thing in me—the thing impelling me when, for example, in high school I tried to understand what the character Sidney Carton felt in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities; or when, after much difficulty, I exclaimed “I got it! It all makes sense!” as I finally understood the logic in a geometric problem; or when I followed that curve ball and drilled it to left field for a hit.
In his lecture Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things: Seeing and Grabbing, Mr. Siegel explains: “To see is to make things part of oneself through knowing them,” while to grab is “to take things and make them part of oneself without having seen them” (TRO 460). Our happiness depends on our being able to distinguish between these two desires.
Do I Have to Think about Them?
It’s clear that to understand a person you have to think about him or her. But very early I felt thinking about people was unnecessary. Why think about them when all I had to do to get that rush of glory was just stand in the kitchen when visitors came and graciously take in words of praise like “He’s so handsome!”
Naturally, upon being introduced to someone I didn’t say, “I want to be adored and I don’t give a damn about what you feel.” I pictured myself as “thoughtful,” “sensitive.” But at the same time, I didn’t see what went on inside a person as interesting. Mr. Siegel said, “Even the seeing of the expression of emotion on a person’s face can become part of the general hope for ownership” (TRO 461). This was true of me. If a person smiled at me, I felt I had them! But right alongside that victory was a feeling of guilt. I felt I was strategic, self-serving, out to use people.
For example, there was the time a friend mentioned a method of business called “absentee ownership.” “You set up a business,” he explained, “hire people to run it, and you get the profits without having to do anything.” I said, “Wow, that sounds great!” When he asked if I wanted to be a partner in a messenger service, I answered, “Sure!” To start, I agreed to use my car to deliver packages. After about two weeks he said, “Okay, you continue the operation. I’ve got other things to take care of.” Suddenly I realized—he was to be the “absentee owner” and I was to be the worker. I was shocked and angry. I felt I was being used. It was unfair! But I didn’t see that I myself wanted to exploit the people we talked about hiring, by paying them very low wages.
This way of seeing people—grabbing from them as much as possible and giving them as little as possible—was running me. It’s contempt, and the basis of our profit-driven economic system. I came to see that the idea of “absentee ownership” was also my approach to women and love. She does the work: that is, she adores me, without my having to do anything. In a class Mr. Siegel said to me: “The value that the bad part of us wants is the value we have when someone cares for us utterly and we can dismiss them anytime we wish. It’s fake love.”
At the time, I was interested in a young woman, Claudia Santos, who, I felt, questioned me too much. I told myself she was playing hard to get. But Mr. Siegel explained: “Ms. Santos feels you want her to be delivered to you without your going through all the critical thought necessary, all the work of your getting her love or esteem. You say, ‘Be mine first; I’ll study later.’ People feel they deserve what they want—‘I don’t have to work; I deserve this.’ You feel life was made to be enjoyed and there should be no trouble. Do you think Ms. Santos should care for you utterly right now? Why? Don’t you want to tell her, ‘Claudia, you’re too intellectual!’?” That’s just what I felt.
He continued: “There are two kinds of love: one, the kind we definitely, deeply work for to make sure we deserve; and two, the kind of ‘love’ about which we think that because we are we should be loved. The second has predominated with you. The love you don’t work for isn’t worth a damn, according to Aesthetic Realism.”
I asked what it would mean to work to deserve love. It would mean, Mr. Siegel explained, to have good will, a large enough “desire to have a woman be as strong as she can be.”
When I had the chance to know Maureen Butler, I really wanted to put into action what I was learning, and it has paid off—big time! Now we are married, and often as we’re having dinner I will look at Maureen with wonder, think “Who is this person?,” and feel excited, grateful I have the chance to find out more. I want Maureen to be stronger. I want to encourage her mind, her critical seeing, which I need and love, to be even keener, deeper, wider. What we want from one another is that we use each other—our conversations, our being close—to see the world truly. This is romance of the highest kind!