The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Pretense, Love, & an Oil Spill

Dear Unknown Friends:

In this issue we publish, based on notes taken at the time, the second half of the 1947 lecture Pretense and Self-Conflict, by Eli Siegel. What he explains in this section is the means to understand so much of the daily pain of people: the nagging, often quiet, sometimes fierce feeling that what I’m doing doesn’t fully represent me and I don’t know what would, but there’s something false and empty in my life.

The basis of what Mr. Siegel explains is this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” If we don’t see that both opposites— for example, logic and emotion—stand for us, and if we’re not trying to make them one, we’ll inevitably be pretending. That’s because we’ll sometimes act as though one opposite represents us, and sometimes another—while neither in itself does.

The opposites Mr. Siegel speaks of here are the biggest in our lives: self and world, the desire to care for what’s not us and the desire to care for just ourselves. Unless we feel we’re taking care of ourselves by being fair to the outside world, we’ll feel (and so will others) that there’s something phony in the way we’re “kind.” Meanwhile (this is very good news) our selfishness is false too—because however much we think we take care of ourselves through it, our being selfish is a lying about the fact that our deepest desire is to be just. That’s why, unless our self-love includes love for the world, it inevitably makes us ashamed, lonely, unsure.

Published here too is something very much in keeping with Mr. Siegel’s lecture: part of a paper presented recently by Aesthetic Realism consultant Bennett Cooperman at a seminar titled “How Can a Man Be Confident about Love?”

Pretense, Profit, & Disaster

At this time, America is much affected by the explosion of and massive spill from a BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The explosion immediately killed 11 people. The resulting spill is in process of ruining the livelihoods of thousands and ending the lives of other creatures that depend on the habitat into which oil is now pouring. The matter of pretense is in this catastrophe importantly—and not just the overt pretense of the company’s dissembling about what it did and didn’t do, and about how much oil is actually gushing into the gulf waters every day.

The enormous pretense this occurrence points to is the lie, foisted on Americans for years, that economics based on profit is “American” and good for people.

Let’s look at a passage in Newsweek, May 17, about the 2006 investigation of two other huge oil spills. Those occurred in Alaska and were “caused by corroded pipelines.” Newsweek quotes EPA special agent Scott West about the fact that the company “had ignored repeated warnings about corrosion.” West noted:

“There was a corporate philosophy that it was cheaper to operate to failure and then deal with the problem later rather than do preventive maintenance.”

What we see in this statement is: production based on the profit motive is antithetical to one’s being fair to other people. Any pretense that the two are not antithetical is simply pretense. The statement points to the fact that a pipeline’s “failure,” with all the horrific damage this can do to human lives and earth, is more profitable for a company than making sure (for example) people don’t die; therefore, vast, deadly damage is preferred to the preventing of it.

A for-profit company can take out all the ads it pleases and pretend to be beneficent, but it’s like the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood” pretending to be a kindly grandmother. The profit motive—however spirited and daring it’s made to look—is, by definition, the motive to use people and earth for one’s personal profit. And if that’s your motive, you cannot be finicky about such matters as people’s well-being, life, death. As BP and other companies know, trying to be fair to people will cut terrifically into your profits.

The big question raised by the present disaster and related happenings is: Should something that all people need—or something the getting and manufacture of which affect ever so many lives—be produced for the profit of a few individuals? To evade this question is, in itself, cruel pretense.

In his Goodbye Profit System lectures of the 1970s, Eli Siegel explained that the profit system is based on contempt, and that its success years are over. He showed that for an economy now to be successful, it has to be based on that aesthetic oneness of opposites which I described earlier and which is also ethics. It has to be based on: I take care of myself through being fair to you—not through hoping you’re weak, needy, and stupid so I can get the better of you.

Americans Are Less Taken In

The American people are less and less taken in by the pretense that profit economics is good for them. They’re much less ready to believe the following fairy tale, so often stated or implied: that horrors like the present BP oil spill arise, not from the very basis of profit economics, but merely from an abuse of it.

A May 10th article on Salon.com quotes reports by various media outlets. There is Bloomberg Businessweek, about the apparently faulty cement seal which permitted the bursting through of methane gas: after a basic pressure test, BP “didn’t perform a second and more expensive test to ensure that [the] well was properly plugged, said [engineering authority] Robert Bea.” Also quoted is the New York Times: a worker “on the oil rig at the time of the explosion...said the rig had been drilling deeper than 22,000 feet, even though the company’s federal permit allowed it to go only 18,000 to 20,000 feet deep.” The impetus behind those choices by the company was the very basis of the profit system. The impetus was the profit motive. It’s the same motive that welcomed child labor, sweatshops, and that utter form of using people for profit—slavery.

What Should Government Be For?

The last pretense I’ll mention concerns what President Obama denounced as the “cozy relationship” between the oil industry and our government. If a government wants to seem kind to people, even be kind to people, yet also wants to protect the profit system, ensure the making of big profits for some individuals—there will have to be pretense, because the two cannot go together. Various agencies will have to pretend to be for regulations, while not really being for them, and not enforcing them. Regulators and inspectors will let companies behave harmfully—because protecting earth and people would mean lessening by far the companies’ profits.

There is, then, that beautiful thing, the American land, including its waters. For its well-being and ours, it should, as Mr. Siegel wrote years ago, belong truly to the American people.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Pretense and Self-Conflict, II

By Eli Siegel

The deepest kind of pretense is that in a person which doesn’t want to admit it wants to get away from the world. There is the desire not to have any continuity, any real junction, with what is not oneself. A schizophrenic is a person who has put into full action the desire everyone has to get away from the world. The schizophrenic is the master at it; from one point of view he is, in his weird way, sincere.

The desire to be an individual can most easily be had unconsciously by acting as if the outside world didn’t exist. When people are depressed, they pretend they don’t care for the outside world. (When I say they pretend, I don’t mean they consciously plan.) We have to go ahead as if we liked ourselves and the universe, and we’re not sure of either.

Pretense goes on a very great deal. I shall give some instances.

Conquest Can Be False

There was a man who was very surprised at how much he wanted sex. He’d wake up at 2:30 in the morning with tremendous longings for sexual felicity. What should he do about his virility? He was worried, but he was also very proud of it, seeing himself as a Hercules of the carnal territory. He had been buffeted about a good deal before his marriage, and he wanted to think his wife was his utterly. He also had resentments toward her. Every time he had sex, he felt that he was conquering this woman in all her snootiness. Sex is a conquering, but it is also a yielding. He hadn’t really conquered the woman because he hadn’t given himself to her. So he had this constant desire for sex.

Take a man who has ejaculatio precox (premature ejaculation). The orgasm is a losing of oneself, a giving oneself externality. Having oneself and losing oneself at the same time makes for a very great pleasure. However, this man wants the woman he is with, but also resents her. There is pretense. A good many inabilities are really pretense.

Pretense is of so many kinds. If a person has a conflict between his inward and outward selves, there’s no end to the fields for pretense.

Another example: There was a woman whose daughter married. The mother secretly hoped the couple wouldn’t get along, but she pretended to like her son-in-law very much. She prepared special dishes for him, and so on. It’s no wonder she had all kinds of nervous trouble, including some that was physiological. Pretense is a forlorn business, a deep business, and a terrifying business.

A Philosophic Problem

Among the things commonly told people are “Be yourself” and “Get out of yourself.” How is a person to be himself and get out of himself at the same time? This is a philosophic problem of the very deepest kind. The psychiatries, not being interested in philosophy, can’t answer it. The self is interested in something within and in something without. This is the question Nietzsche tried to answer, Fichte tried to answer, Hegel, Pascal, Whitman: how are we going to be ourselves and get out of ourselves at the same time? It’s a wonderful, beautiful, human question, and it is answered by aesthetics, in the art of the world.

In The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict* I describe a girl, Hilda Rawlins, who at times wants to stay in bed and not talk to anyone. At other times, she’s greedy for social activity, wants to know everything about everyone. Both the “manic” and the “depressive” times are pretendings.

There is the pretense of what is called “fantasy.” If we related fantasy to everyday life, it wouldn’t be bad. A nervous person has to pretend the world is too awful to him and too nice to him, both. He can have visions that are too nice and visions that are too horrible.

We want to be perfect; everyone does. And every person can pretend he’s perfect and appear conceited. Then, since he can’t put perfection and imperfection together, he has to pretend sometimes he’s the most loathsome creature in the world. It’s easier to be perfect in a barrel going over Niagara than to bump around Times Square.

Once we can’t put together the inward self and the outward self, we have to pretend we’re the most wretched creature in the world or a whole company of angels. We need to see that perfection and imperfection can exist simultaneously. Process and situation go on at the same time—as in the fact that “The door is closed” is a perfect sentence, yet it doesn’t say everything. When we see this, we are being aesthetic. People can study “precipitating stresses” and “infantile regressions” for the next fifty years and they won’t understand the self. The only way we can criticize ourselves and praise ourselves without being contradictory is through aesthetics.

*Now chapter 3 of Eli Siegel's Self and World, it was published separately in 1946.


How Can We Be Confident about Love?

By Bennett Cooperman

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that a man will be confident about love when his purpose with a woman—as he thinks about her, or talks with her, or is close to her body—is to know and like the world. In a lecture, Eli Siegel explained:

Love based on respect is the feeling that affecting a particular person and being affected by that person as deeply as possible and in all the ways possible, would be a means of liking the world in general. [TRO 948]

Like many men, I once would have said, to rephrase Tina Turner’s hit song, “What’s the world got to do with it?!” I thought love was a woman’s making a lot of me, seeing my superior quality, and our having a cozy nest together away from the world. But going after this, and getting it, can never make a man confident in love. In fact, the lack of confidence, the arguments, the turbulence, are built in from the beginning when that’s a man’s purpose. The reason is: he’s after contempt; he’s using a woman to get rid of the world and other people, and encouraging that hurtful purpose in her.

Aesthetic Realism is scientific, and romantic as anything, about love, and I could cheer forever because of what it’s taught me. Who ever thought there could be honest logic about love?

What I’ve Seen

I tried frequently to get to know a woman, but my relationships—some were short-lived, others lasted longer—inevitably ended in anger and confusion. Then I’d retreat and lick my wounds for a few months until I mustered up the courage to ask a woman out again. But I kept making the same mistakes.

In an Aesthetic Realism class I learned something central about why I was so unsure. I was seeing a woman whom I was excited about, but sometimes I found myself unexpectedly cold to her and I didn’t understand why. When I spoke about this in the class, Ellen Reiss asked me a question that concerns every person: “Do you think you are for depth of feeling?”

I said I thought so, and she asked if I had a fight between caring for someone other than me and caring for only myself.

ER. Can a man feel, “I’m swept—and it’s not by me! Who needs this!”? Do you think something like that goes on?

BC. Yes, it does.

This feeling, I saw, got in the way every time I was affected by a woman. A man can feel insulted that he needs a woman to be more himself, and so he can be cold to and angry with the very woman he wants to care for. This is a central cause of men’s lack of confidence about love, and Aesthetic Realism is merciful in describing it and teaching a man how to criticize himself so he can have a purpose he’s proud of. In the class Ms. Reiss explained:

This is personal; it is cultural: if one loves truly something not oneself, is one loving oneself? Is it the most selfish thing you can do? The reason you show true care for yourself by caring for what is not yourself is that the main purpose of every human being is to like the world. It’s the same as feathering your nest.

An Education Continues

That discussion was the beginning of a whole new direction in me. Meanwhile, there was more I needed to learn.

For example, when I met a beautiful woman, Meryl Nietsch, who was attending Aesthetic Realism classes and often commented on the value of what she heard, I was swept by the combination of radiance and intellect in her, something sunny and sober. But when I called Meryl to ask her out, I acted very casual and nonchalant, saying in an offhand way, “Well, some friends and I are going to a museum, and I wondered if you’d like to come along.”

Meryl was critical. She said that it was fairly clear I wanted to ask her out on a date but didn’t say it plainly, and that she’d noticed a circuitous way I had with women (I thought it was part of my charm) which she thought was not sincere and hurt me. She said that she too was learning what it means to have good will, that she had made mistakes with men and wanted to be different. Near the end of our conversation, she kindly added that I might want to change “that sad tone.”

I was stunned. The steam was coming out of my ears for the next three days. I would wake up in the middle of the night arguing with her in my mind—“Who the hell does she think she is!!!” But after three days, faint glimmers in my brain began to tell me that Meryl was my friend in saying what she did, because she wanted me to like myself.

When I spoke in a class about what had occurred, Ms. Reiss asked if Meryl’s criticism had done me any good. And she explained something essential about me:

You have a manner that can seem very easy. But at a certain point, what a person wants is passion. Would you find it hard to say passionately to a woman: “I want to know you for the purpose of liking the world—and you can be sure I want that for you too. We may have only one conversation, or we may have them all our lives, but you can count on this!”?

Through this discussion I came to see what I really wanted. Soon after, I called Meryl and told her my purpose with her, and we have spoken every day since. In two weeks, we’ll celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary, and my education about what makes a man confident continues as a husband, an ongoing education that I cherish.