The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Pretense & Love

Dear Unknown Friends:

One of the early Aesthetic Realism lectures that Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall is Pretense and Self-Conflict, of 1947. From notes, rather fragmentary, we print the first half here—and one can see through them a new, great understanding of a subject that affects everyone mightily. Mr. Siegel speaks not only about the pretending that people consciously choose to engage in, but about pretense that’s unconscious.

Pretense can, on the one hand, be hideously unjust, vicious, and ugly. It is insincerity, lying, perpetrating a fraud, conning people. On the other hand, it can be completely kind and beautiful. For example, pretending is in art. It’s obviously in acting, and it’s in fiction. One can say that such characters as George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Flaubert’s Mme. Bovary, Cervantes’s Don Quijote are immortal because of the exactitude, conviction, scope, delicacy, and richness with which their creators pretended they were real, and used English, Russian, French, Spanish words to do so.

Pretending is central to compassion—the “putting oneself in another’s place.” And the “let’s pretend” impulsion is in the games of children, and can be beautiful there (though sometimes it’s not). So what makes some pretense good, and other pretense bad?

Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that, for the first time, explains the crucial distinction. Pretense is good when its purpose is respect for the world. It is bad when its purpose is contempt, the looking down on reality, truth, and people as a means of making oneself important. The fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it is, Aesthetic Realism explains, the fundamental fight in everyone’s life.

Conquest, Pretense, & Pain

This TRO includes an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll. It’s from a paper she presented at a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Logic & Passion: Do They Have to Fight in a Woman’s Life?”

The field Ms. Driscoll speaks about, love, has been a tremendous territory for pretense. In fact, men and women have felt they have to pretend if they’re to be successful in love. They feel they have to put forth some sort of show that’s not the same as who they are, or a person won’t care for them. There are strategies, flattery, efforts to look as good as possible not as a means of showing oneself truly but as a means of conquering. And there is—and still can be after 60 years of marriage—the quiet assumption that it’s imprudent to show everything one feels.

So men and women go about adroitly trying to impress each other, and get each other. Yet each feels, under it all, 1) ashamed, because we tricked the person; 2) lonely, because we’re not seen and cared for as ourselves (even while we’re not clear who ourselves are); 3) contemptuous of the other for being fooled by the display we put on; 4) angry at the other, for not trying to see us truly.

For a while the thrill of conquest, the exquisite aggrandizement of oneself through another’s adoration, can seem to push aside the shame and anger that pretense makes for. But these are present, and are central to the suspicion and fights the couple will have. However much accompanied by intrigue and embraces, this pretense in “love” is contempt for a person and the world, and so it’s a fundamental cause of the coldness the couple will come to feel toward each other, the emptiness, the sinking feeling of “What happened to us?”

In one of the great prose writings of the 20th century, Eli Siegel explains that taken-for-granted pretense in love, with its triumph and agony. In the Preface to “The Ordinary Doom,” he says:

The large inward catastrophe of today is: We let ourselves be pleased by and do what we can to please a person we still want to hide from, we still do not fully respect. The one way we can fully respect a person is to feel that that person deserves wholly to know us and it would be good for us to know that person.

The rift between sexual achievement and the happily and deeply being known, goes on, as it did in past centuries....Our attitude to the world is still one of fear, one of contempt, and one of aloofness. This means that whomever we know, our attitude to that person will be one of fear, contempt, aloofness. Wrestling in bed does not annul this. Elaborate proximity of sections of body will not annul this.

Yeats Says It Went on in Ireland

There is a poem of Yeats about pretense between two people, a poem that has some of his worry on the subject. “The Mask” is a conversation between two lovers. One (let’s assume it’s the man), says: “Put off that mask of burning gold / With emerald eyes.” He says he wants to see what’s under it—to “find what’s there to find, / Love or deceit.” The woman answers, “O no, my dear,” and,

“It was the mask engaged your mind,

And after set your heart to beat,

Not what’s behind.”

Even as we pretend ourselves, wear a mask ourselves, we haven’t been interested in knowing who the other person is. The woman is saying: You were so ready to be taken, not by me, but by what I put forth and pretended was me!—we have an unspoken agreement not to try to know.

Aesthetic Realism explains—and is great and life-changing in explaining—what love really is. Love is the desire to know and care for the world through knowing a representative of the world, whom we passionately want to strengthen. But since most people dislike the world, “love” becomes a getting away from and belittling of it. Love becomes the having of an impressive someone lavishly confirm that oneself is more important than anyone and anything. This purpose, to conquer and look down, is clearly opposed to knowing. Then, as with the man in the Yeats poem, there comes to be an awful feeling that there’s something very wrong: that there are ill will and fakery amid the kisses; that there’s something about all this that weakens me. —The poem ends:

“But lest you are my enemy,

I must enquire.”

“O no, my dear, let all that be;

What matter, so there is but fire

In you, in me?”

This poem was published in 1910. It is courageous. And one may see in it evidence that in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats, with all his care for Maud Gonne, felt there was something not wholly sincere about the love he gave and got. “Fire” is not the same as showing who we really are. And the lack of sincerity pained him.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that the answers to the questions of our lives—including about love—are in the very basis and technique of art. Art, if it’s the real thing, is always sincere: it comes from the desire to show the depths of oneself, and to see the outside world truly. That is the very purpose love should have. And I’m immensely glad to say that studying this fact is thrilling, romantic, and grandly practical.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Pretense and Self-Conflict

By Eli Siegel

The Shakespeare phrase “One may smile, and smile, and be a villain” gives an idea of what pretense is. If a person acts as if he feels something he doesn’t, or acts as if he doesn’t feel something he does, it’s pretense.

There are two kinds of pretense. There is the pretending that a member of the French underground did, seeming to sympathize with the Vichy government. There’s no harm in this kind of pretense: it’s creative, aesthetic. But there’s another kind, a deep unconscious pretense, which is very harmful.

Many people think they have to lie, and often they don’t know they do it. A certain kind of lying is just as bad for the organism as bad food or bad air is. The personality can get a false glory in lying.

Every person is to a degree an enemy to other people, because everyone to a degree is an enemy to what is not himself and that includes other people. The desire to put something over on people arises out of enmity.

Pretense that may start as a seeming necessity becomes a triumph. A baby will find at a very early age that when it cries, people run to it. Crying can become a means of important protection, or protective importance. So babies can pretend.

Children definitely do pretend. They have to pretend. Suppose Willie is being talked to by his uncle: “Willie, do you love your uncle? How much do you love your uncle? Do you love your uncle enough to give him a great big kiss?” Subjected to conversation like that, of course a child will pretend. As soon as you encourage children to act as they don’t want to act, they will pretend. They’re not understood, and still they have to get along with what doesn’t understand them. Most people feel that the world doesn’t understand them, and that they have to hide from it.

Take Mrs. Jeanette Morrison of East Orange, New Jersey. She has six people to her house in the afternoon. Two of them she definitely doesn’t care for, and the others she doesn’t care for either. But she serves them tea, presses watercress sandwiches on them, smiles, and says how delightful it is to have them there. When they finally leave, she sighs and says, “What a bore.” If she could put together her early solicitousness with her later disgust, and feel that both came from the same person, the pretense wouldn’t be so morbid.

The other kind of pretense is imaginative pretense, aesthetic pretense: the pretense that an actress goes through if she plays Lydia Languish in The Rivals one night, Lady Macbeth the next, Ophelia the next, and then maybe a gun moll.

Smooth Pretense & Inner Objection

I’ve told before of the person who was very social, invited people over every Saturday night, had a hearty manner. He had a dream of being dressed in blue velvet tights, caressing a blue velvet bed; and then in the dream, when people came to the door he ran away. This person was pretending in a desperate way. That is what the dream was about, and was criticizing. He didn’t like people really, but he wanted people to like him. That put him in a desperate sort of shuttle. This kind of pretense is fundamental: when we unconsciously want to be alone and at the same time want to like things and have people like us, we have to pretend.

A neurotic person can be defined as a person who doesn’t like the world and has to act as if he did, or a person who does like the world and has to act as if he didn’t; and both persons are the same person. We can’t put together the importance we get from being alone with the suffering we get because we are lonely. A person can pretend people don’t matter to him. He can also pretend he likes people very much.

Some Ways We Unknowingly Pretend

Unconscious pretense has many forms. Yawning represents a certain kind of dismissal; therefore when something is said that really affects a person, he may yawn as a way of saying it doesn’t matter. That is like what went on with a woman who would shrug her shoulders in the movies, at the exciting moments. When, in other words, we’re afraid of being too much affected, we have to pretend.

An Aesthetic Realism maxim is: Have any emotion you like—if you like yourself for having it, and like the way you have it. Your job is to like yourself for a reason you can like. If a person could say, “I like the way I pretend,” there would be something useful about it, something aesthetic. But people don’t know why they pretend, and they don’t like themselves for it most often.

This is illustrated by an incident told to me. A man was at a gathering. It was given by a man he didn’t like, and there was something about this person’s wife he also didn’t like. But he was having a pretty good time. Suddenly, he found himself looking at his watch, saying he had to leave. And a few minutes later he was in the street, saying to himself, “Now, what did I do that for?” He pretended he didn’t like the party because he was being affected too much; he didn’t like the idea of having a good time through that other man.

We can definitely pretend to ourselves. A person who is nervous is at war with himself and what isn’t himself, and so he acts in the world as if he were a spy. Unless a person can feel the world he’s in is deeply for him, he’ll act sometimes as if he were a spy. Children, for example, in their hiding their feelings, are discovering the glory of not being seen. Every person who’s nervous has to pretend.


Do Logic & Passion Have to Fight?

By Carol Driscoll

If I were to ask a group of women in a restaurant, an office, a gym, I’m sure each one would say she hopes to see herself—and wants others to see her—as a logical person, given to careful reasoning and good sense. A woman also would likely say that she wants to have passionate feeling for a man she’s close to. We have mainly felt, however, that logic and passion are in different places in our minds, and irreconcilable.

In the late 1960s, I marched in the streets of Boston and Washington protesting America’s war in Vietnam. I also took part in the women’s liberation movement, attended meetings and rallies, and gave my thought to women’s objections to how society and men saw us. My article on the subject was published in the first edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves. I saw myself as a down-to-earth, savvy, independent woman who could figure things out for herself. However, as soon as I met a man, my friends, family, and nearly everything else went on the back burner and my thought was occupied in strategizing about how I could get him to see me as indispensable, to need me more than anything else.

I once told a roommate that my obsessive thoughts about a man I was seeing and my tearful misery when we were apart were signs of passionate love. Her response was, “You’re fooling yourself.” I didn’t like hearing that, but somewhere I knew she was right. When a man did show approval, I was often distressed. I have a vivid memory of being unable to sleep after intimacy. In the Boston Back Bay apartment of the man I thought I loved, as I looked out the big picture window at a sky filled with brilliant stars, I felt the walls were closing in and I wanted to scream, “What’s wrong with me?! There’s got to be something else!”

The Impediment

By my mid-twenties, though there had been passion with men, every relationship had failed, and each time I’d tell myself I’d once again been “unlucky in love.” Then, studying Aesthetic Realism, I learned about the big impediment in me: contempt, my desire to be superior and scornful. The reason I suffered about love was that I saw a man, not as a human being with worries, hopes, and relations to many things, but as existing to praise and make much of me while I looked down on everyone and everything.

In a class early in my study with him, Eli Siegel, whom I had told of my difficulties in love, asked me, “Do you find it hard to look up to a man? Do you want to?” Then he described something I hadn’t known could be—and I began to see that this is what I wanted: “You should hope to look up to everything, to an oyster shell if possible.” And he asked, “Wouldn’t you want a man to see you with some grandeur?” While of course there are things about people that we can’t and shouldn’t like—we should not hope that people be foolish and low so we can feel superior.

The hope to look up to something, see it as having value and meaning, is, I learned, good will. It includes an intense, critical desire to know another person and encourage him to be as good as he can be. Good will is the one purpose that can truly bring together logic and passion in a woman’s life.

For example, in Aesthetic Realism consultations we have asked women: “Have you wanted to know all of who a man is, or have you preferred someone you could make up to suit yourself? A man is all the things he’s related to, past, present, and future. If you aren’t passionately interested in knowing him, can he really feel you’re a friend?”

A Big Change about Men & Love

When I met Harvey Spears, who is now my husband, I met a man who, because of his Aesthetic Realism education, consciously wanted to strengthen my life. And I had a new purpose. I was interested in who Harvey was and asked questions—not as I once had, so that he’d see me as indispensable—but because I really wanted to know about what he hoped and cared for. One of the things Harvey cares for deeply is photography, and I respect very much his own photos of objects, people, and other living beings. They are both tender and probing.

In a birthday card that included a photograph he took at the Minute Man National Park in Concord, Mass., Harvey wrote these sentences, which are about the change in me: “The Revolution of ’76 got better with time. So do you, my dear. The beautiful, revolutionary way of seeing the world and yourself that you’ve learned from Aesthetic Realism flowered and is still flowering today.”