Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we publish part 5 of The Known and Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel. This 1972 lecture is definitive, has his scholarship, and his ease too, his everydayness, and humor. As a preliminary, I’ll comment a little on something he speaks of in it: sincerity. This is a matter that people are uncomfortable thinking about and can try to put aside. Nevertheless, we all judge ourselves, whether consciously or not, on how sincere we are.
In the lecture Mr. Siegel has been discussing a passage he sees as important: by philosopher R.G. Collingwood, about what Collingwood calls “corruption of consciousness.” That phrase means the lack of desire to see truly what we feel. And it has everything to do with sincerity, because to be sincere is not (as is often thought) to blurt out something unpleasant. In his Outline of Aesthetic Realism, under the heading “Sincerity Is Oneself as Real,” Mr. Siegel explains:
When one sees that it is best to be exact about oneself, for oneself is as real as anything in the world, sincerity is liked and followed.
The chief reason people do not want to be exact about themselves is that doing so would hinder their ability to use themselves adroitly—to put forth something other than what’s so.
The Fight & the Tribute
The fight in everyone between sincerity and insincerity is not much talked about. For one thing, it’s not understood except by Aesthetic Realism. Yet it is the largest ethical matter in everyone’s life. As Mr. Siegel describes eloquently here, there is a feeling in people that they have to be insincere, beginning with being insincere to themselves, deceiving themselves. People can pride themselves on their ability to ingratiate themselves, be in a way that will have someone praise them or yield to their wishes. Yet every person, no matter how big a “success,” is ashamed of being insincere—whether at a dinner party or the office, in the halls of government or an embrace.
The fact that one always despises oneself and others for insincerity—even as one may continue in it—shows that the deepest thing in everyone is ethical. While we may evade being honest for a hundred years, we never stop demanding honesty from ourselves—that is why we detest ourselves for not having it. This fact is a grand tribute to the nature of humanity.
Love is a territory in which men and women have felt they needed to be insincere. Matthew Arnold, in his poem “The Buried Life,” has these important lines on the subject: “Alas, is even love too weak / To unlock the heart, and let it speak? / Are even lovers powerless to reveal / To one another what indeed they feel?” Arnold is musical, deep, honest in this poem, about something that tormented him. But he didn’t see that there is something in everyone, “even lovers,” that doesn’t want to show—or, in fact, know—“what indeed they feel.” That something is an aspect of contempt. When you feel that the world is to be managed and conquered by you, and that you should be able to look down on things and people, your strategy (however unconscious) will be, not to understand and show yourself truly, but hide and protect yourself in the shadows. And if you see the world that way, you will not be able to change your approach with a loved one.
But There Is Art
A big reason we need to see what art is, is that art shows sincerity pays. True art is always sincere. Beethoven was sincere when he wrote the Fifth Symphony—sincerity is in every phrase, every note. Shakespeare was sincere when he wrote Hamlet. Rembrandt was sincere when he painted “The Night Watch.” Art shows what every person thirsts to see: that sincerity is beautiful, powerful, the height of intelligence and strength.
In this issue there also appears an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Margot Carpenter: part of a paper she presented last month at the public seminar titled “Can a Woman Be Both Kind & Powerful?” I agree with what she writes in it about Eli Siegel himself. And in keeping with the present subject, I add: week after week, decade after decade, I saw that Mr. Siegel was always sincere. His sincerity was grandeur, art, and kindness.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
The Need to See Our Feelings
By Eli Siegel
Note. Mr. Siegel continues his discussion of a passage from philosopher R.G. Collingwood’s The Principles of Art.
Collingwood says: “Art is not a luxury, and bad art not a thing we can afford to tolerate.”
That is so, but it’s tolerated anyway, because there’s a feeling that unless people in society are insincere, society won’t get along. Insincerity is as much present now as ever. Just because sex is talked about boldly, there is no lessening of the feeling that the phony is abroad in the land.
To know ourselves is the foundation of all life that develops beyond the merely psychical level of experience.
Collingwood uses words like “psychical level of experience” I think rather carelessly. However, he is saying that man can at least try to see himself as he is, know himself. What does it mean for a person to know himself?
There is Homer. The subject of Troy was known to others. That has to do with why the Iliad was popular: people felt that Homer was not telling them anything new; they knew about Achilles and Agamemnon; they knew even about Helen, Menelaus, Diomedes; but Homer placed these people in a certain way. And he did that because he saw his feelings about Ajax, Achilles, Paris, Hector, Priam, and so on. Homer had feelings about Hector and Priam which others had; he simply saw them better.
For the Wrong Purpose
Unless consciousness does its work successfully, the facts which it offers to intellect...are false from the beginning.
This is dangerous—the presenting of consciousness as something else than intellect. But the large matter is that intellect can be used for the ego badly, as a detective or spy can use his keenness, his acumen, for the wrong purpose. We have intellect, or at least intelligence, in the name Central Intelligence Agency. And in every person there is something that could call itself “The Central Intellectual Agency for the Wrong Purpose.” That is what Collingwood means: that our keenness can be used for a bad purpose, but there’s less chance of that if we know and can give the true value to what we feel. He says:
A truthful consciousness gives intellect a firm foundation upon which to build; a corrupt consciousness forces intellect to build on a quicksand. The falsehoods which an untruthful consciousness imposes on the intellect are falsehoods which intellect can never correct for itself.
This means that if you see wrongly and don’t want to see accurately, it is like an ailment being diagnosed wrongly: no matter what you do you’ll likely make a mistake. Incorrect diagnosis interferes with all future skill.
“In so far as consciousness is corrupted, the very wells of truth are poisoned.” That goes on a great deal, and Collingwood must have been greatly perturbed by it: that people felt the feelings they had were not worth seeing.
If “consciousness is corrupted,” he says, what happens is: “Intellect can build nothing firm”—because intellect would be in behalf of the self that wants to be comfortable and impress. Also: “Moral ideals are castles in the air”—because people have “moral ideals” yet don’t want to see fully what is in their minds. Further: “Political and economic systems are mere cobwebs”—since these have come from feelings not wholly seen, they’re cobwebs. “Even common sanity and bodily health are no longer secure”—he says that since people don’t want to be exact about what they could be conscious of, sanity and health are in danger.
Deceiving Ourselves & Honesty
The effort towards expression of emotions, the effort to overcome corruption of consciousness, is an effort that has to be made...by everyone who uses language, whenever he uses it....It is important to each one of us that ...he should not deceive himself.
But people feel if we can’t deceive ourselves, what is life for anyway? They feel if we can’t deceive ourselves, we have no protections whatsoever; if we can’t deceive ourselves, it’s like walking among the brambles of the forests of the world naked.
If he deceives himself in this matter, he has sown in himself a seed which, unless he roots it up again, may grow into any kind of wickedness, any kind of mental disease, any kind of stupidity and folly and insanity.
Collingwood is saying, Please see your feelings exactly or all this can be.
“Bad art, the corrupt consciousness, is the true radix malorum [root of evils].” Meanwhile, it has a relation to good consciousness, which is a big thing in art—honest consciousness. Imagination is consciousness on the move. There are two aspects of consciousness: one, what it is; the other, how it can move, how it can change. Imagination can be defined as how consciousness can change honestly.
Power & Kindness
By Margot Carpenter
“Have you used charming to have power over men?” we asked 22-year-old Kim Ryan.* “Isn’t that,” she answered, “how you attract them?” We asked, “Would you also like to feel you are kind?” “Oh, yes,” she replied.
Aesthetic Realism explains that we have two notions of power. One comes from our deepest desire, to like the world honestly, and it is kind. Eli Siegel has defined kindness as “that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased.” And he said in a lecture: “The being able to be kind is the highest power.” A woman is both powerful and kind when she hopes that through her, other people are stronger, more integrated, happier, and the world itself is more beautiful.
But we have another idea of power, which comes from the most hurtful, ugly thing in every person: the hope to have contempt. When a woman is after this power, she doesn’t care whether other people are “rightly pleased.” In fact, she hopes a person is weaker, so she can feel supreme. But even when apparently successful, this power always makes for suffering and self-loathing. Aesthetic Realism can teach a woman how to know if the power she is after is kind, good for another, for herself, and the world generally, or really is a form of contempt.
As We Affect People, What Is Our Purpose?
The two notions of power begin operating in us early. As a child, I wanted to like things. I liked reading, and climbing the big mango trees in our yard. I’d run to see the beautiful Florida sunsets. And whenever I heard music, I wanted to dance. I liked setting the table to help my mother, and I remember feeling warm towards her then and proud. But I was also like a child Mr. Siegel describes in James and the Children:
Have you ever seen a child go into a confectionary store and prove to the man who has the store that because he’s so nice he should get three candies without paying...? Is it possible for children to go after power?
At five, I often went to the storekeeper across the street and with a big smile said, “Hi.” He would give me a free Tootsie Pop or Mary Jane. I thought he was nice but didn’t respect him—I felt I’d tricked him. I was after power, using, as Mr. Siegel writes, “various cunning, conquering ways.”
The desire to affect people, especially men, became a central thing in my life. Yet despite my ability to have this power, when I was 22 a man called me “jaded.” I was unable to make sense of my hope to love, be generous and kind, and my awareness that I was colder each year. People praised me, but I couldn’t stand myself and didn’t know why. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson Eli Siegel understood this torment, and with depth and humor enabled me to see why the power I sought hurt me. He asked, “How many persons have you wanted to cause a deep impression in?”
MC. I guess everyone I meet.
ES. You have a right to cause a deep impression, but the point is: on what basis do you judge yourself?
I didn’t know. Mr. Siegel explained, using a word I had used about myself, “The reason you felt ‘hopeless’ is, you felt you wouldn’t be true to yourself even though you caused an impression....The only way you’ll be happy is if you feel that when you caused an impression that was deep, it was good for the person. The final touch of charm is good will.”
As my study continued, Mr. Siegel asked me questions about how I saw men, a subject women learn about in consultations. For instance:
ES. Do you feel you are a friend to the male race?
MC. I don’t know why but I feel I’m not. I see them as enemies.
ES. The reason is that you’re not sure through yourself you want to have them stronger.
I recognized this. Like many women, I wanted to put men in their place. Then I’d cry, feeling unloved, not seeing that the unkind way I wanted power was the greatest cause of my unhappiness. “It happens,” said Mr. Siegel, “that we want to be strong and we want to be kind, and the two don’t seem to be about the same thing.”
As I studied the explanation I was hearing, I saw it was true. One day, speaking to a man, I saw he was nervous, wanting to impress me. Once, I had seen that as a tribute to my power. This time I didn’t like it. I told him I wanted a man to be more composed and at ease, not less, through me. I began to see that being kind was strong and the power I wanted.
In a later lesson, Mr. Siegel said: “The way that you have changed, and others have, is that you have a better heart.” I said: “I’m surprised how much I think about people.”
ES. Those feelings have to be related to the feelings of victory, achievement, and dazzle. When people begin thinking of good will as brilliant and a kind heart as dazzling, we’ll get to something. A kind heart is as witty as all get out.
As one can see in just the short excerpts I’ve presented, in Eli Siegel himself I witnessed the oneness of kindness and strength. Whatever the subject, his vast knowledge and desire to know were magnificently kind—flexible, humorous, critical, “brilliant,” and always with the whole of a person’s life in mind.
When Robert Murphy and I began seeing each other, I didn’t want the power I’d gone for in the past. I wanted to know him, and wanted, not to “dazzle” falsely, but to speak honestly with him about myself, including about where I needed to be better. Robert was deep and serious—and sometimes funny—and he wanted to have good will for me. Now, in our marriage, I passionately want Robert to like the whole world—not only me—and I love him for wanting that for me. The study of Aesthetic Realism makes real love possible and so alive.
The Power Women Want Most
In a consultation, Renee Henderson spoke about a man she’d begun seeing, who had just separated from his wife. She said tearfully, “Jack is really getting serious and talking about the future.” “Why,” we asked this young accountant, “don’t you feel good? Do you respect his need for you?” “No,” she answered.
Consultants. But is there any time in your life you’ve felt as important as when Jack is making love to you?
RH. No, I don’t think there is.
Consultants. Then there’s his wife—are you interested? Do you think he’s proud or ashamed of how he sees her?
RH. Not proud. She left him; I don’t know why.
We asked Ms. Henderson, “Do you see Mr. Duncan as someone to know, to understand?”
RH. I haven’t. He acts as if he has to have me.
Consultants. Do you think Jack Duncan’s greatest hope is about you? A man’s big hope, just like yours, is to see the world and every person he knows in a way he can respect himself for.
RH. I see what you’re saying. I think that’s true.
Consultants. The reason you’re in pain about Jack is because you don’t have good will; you have a power you don’t respect yourself for.... Whatever else might be or not for you and him, do you want to be interested in his whole life and his liking how he sees all the people in it? Or only in his passion for you?
RH. I want to find out how to be interested in his whole life. I haven’t even thought about that.
Consultants. That would be having good will.
RH. That’s what I want. I really thank you.
It’s a remarkable fact that Aesthetic Realism enables people to have the power we want most: to know and feel the world with accuracy and depth; to affect and be affected so that every person concerned is keener, wider, stronger.