|NUMBER 1874.—May 7, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
It is an honor to publish the essay “Conflict as Possibility,” by Eli Siegel. He wrote it quite early in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism—the late 1940s, I estimate, or the beginning of the ’50s. That word, conflict, is not used as much now as once to characterize the turmoil in people, but the thing itself certainly exists just as much. In the 21st century, as in others, battles are going on within everyone, battles that put people in a whirl, and can make them feel bogged down, angry, disgusted. Aesthetic Realism is that in the history of thought which shows that these conflicts are aesthetic: they are answered in the technique of art. “All beauty,” Aesthetic Realism shows, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
There is a fight going on in every person—sometimes a fierce fight—about how to care for another human being and yet be free; between our desire to be proud, and our desire to be modest; between anger and guilt; between our like of someone and our dislike of the same person. There is a fight in us between the desire to be in motion, energetic, active, and the desire to be very still—and we can go from feeling agitated to feeling immobile and stuck. And, of course, there is a fight between those tremendous opposites logic and emotion. But logic and feeling, rest and motion, self-assertion and humility, freedom and justice, and other opposites, are always one in every work of true art.
The Underlying Fight
Writing in 1946, Mr. Siegel described the underlying conflict, on which all the conflicts I’ve mentioned depend. He wrote, in Self and World:
The basic conflict in the human mind—present, I believe, in all particular conflicts—is that between a person warmly existing to his finger tips, and that person as related to indefinite outsideness....In every person there is a drive towards the caring for and pleasing of self; in every person there is a drive towards other things, a desire to meet and know these. Often this drive towards self as an exclusive thing collides painfully with the drive to widen the self. [P. 93]
Aesthetic Realism describes too the huge interfering purpose in everyone—the thing which makes all the opposites in us battle, because it pits our sense of our particular self against what’s outside us. That interference is contempt: the “disposition...to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Contempt, which people use to elevate themselves and be falsely confident, is that which really makes for deep unsureness, agitation, dullness, even self-loathing. Further, Aesthetic Realism shows: contempt is the source of every cruelty, including racism and war.
In the essay printed here, Mr. Siegel speaks of what psychiatry needs to know in order to succeed. Because, these decades, practitioners have not learned from Aesthetic Realism, psychiatry has failed to understand the human mind and exists principally as a prescriber of drugs.
Matthew Arnold Tells of Conflict
Mr. Siegel’s essay is philosophically mighty and vividly down to earth. As a prelude to it, I’ll comment on a poem—one of the most popular in English—which is about self-conflict, though it has not been seen that way. The last lines of Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” (1867) contain a famous simile:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
These lines are musical; they are beautiful. Yet they are, I believe, about something very ordinary. The “ignorant armies” are two aspects of every self, which battle in us and which we don’t understand.
“Dover Beach,” despite ever so many academic analyses of it, is not a literary exercise. It is Matthew Arnold writing honestly, fervently, about something in him that tormented him, and that he longed to comprehend. It is about the conflict between being for the world and being against it, seeing great meaning in reality and feeling it is empty. His desire to be fully honest makes his lines graceful as they musically thrust, throb, and reach. The poem begins:
The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
As Arnold looks, through a window, across the Strait of Dover toward France, he sees a world he cares for richly. That world happens to be a oneness of opposites. The lines just quoted describe the simultaneous quietude and aliveness of things. And there are the verticality of cliffs and the horizontal spread of water. And those cliffs are massive yet they glimmer, have delicate light. He says a person he is close to should “come to the window,” see this likable reality too. —Then, trouble begins. The trouble is Arnold’s feeling that there is inescapable sadness for us in the world, present simultaneously with what we like:
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
Arnold, or the speaker in the poem, says Sophocles felt something like this, in the 5th century BC: “Sophocles long ago / Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought / Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow / Of human misery.”
The Conflict in “Dover Beach”
Shall I love the world, or shall I hate it—see it as a friend, or enemy? This is the conflict in “Dover Beach,” and it is a huge, ongoing conflict in humanity. Arnold had it; he could feel, as others have felt, that the fight between liking the world and disliking it was too much for him, and that he should try to make himself cool, impervious to things. He wrote in a letter of 1853: “I am past thirty, and three parts iced over.” Meanwhile the desire to see, be affected, be honest, to feel that being against and for could somehow make sense, went on. As “Dover Beach” approaches its conclusion, Arnold says, with a fullness: this is not a world one should be for! Yet he says this with grandeur, with a verbal music that has the sound of treasuring in it, the sound of wonder and even ardor about things in it:
Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help from pain.
Arnold is not having contempt. He doesn’t understand the relation of his care and his dislike, but he doesn’t do what people usually do: he doesn’t make himself superior by dismissing things or being disgusted. He, as artist, wants to see justly, fully. And so, in the music of these lines, we find, as one—as beautiful one—the glow and sinkingness, the for and against, of the world. He says that if he and another person can have good will for each other, “be true,” maybe one’s for and against can be made sense of—maybe there is an answer to the self-conflict told of symbolically in the final lines: “And we are here as on a darkling plain / Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night.”
Matthew Arnold’s confusion, and humanity’s, has been understood by Aesthetic Realism. Like every artist, Arnold was, without knowing it, giving the aesthetic solution to the turmoil of self: he was being so just to reality that in his lines we hear the world’s opposites—and his, and ours—made one.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Conflict as Possibility
By Eli Siegel
Is conflict always about difference and sameness as they may be seen anywhere? The answer is Yes.
Wherever two things are different and these things are seen as part of the same whole, there is conflict. Conflict may be regarded as two things making up the same whole or thing seen as two, as different, and as in opposition. The notion of conflict cannot be understood apart from the notion of rhythm. Rhythm, in fact, can be seen as conflict completed.
We look at a circle. The circle has a center and circumference. Together they make up the whole which is the circle; together they can be seen as making the area of the circle, for the center of a circle is part of the area. Certainly center seems different from circumference. However, we don’t see the conflict because when we think of the circle as a whole, we don’t see center and circumference as fighting. If we saw, in any situation, center and circumference as fighting, there would be conflict. In the same way, there may be no inevitable or completely necessary conflict in the human mind.
Difference there certainly is; contrast there certainly is. But contrast need not mean conflict. The human mind is like a circle. A circle, we have seen, has two things which quite plainly seem different: center and circumference. We do not see them as at war. But where this is seen, war can follow.
Back, now, to the human mind. Everyone can feel in himself something like center. We feel surrounded by an existence the bounds of which we cannot state. We are always a center. We have a right to be. Everything in the universe can be seen as center. The human mind feels a center and a circumference or area. Once a person comes to feel that himself as center is in some way better than himself as area or circumference, there may come conflict. For as soon as one talks of something’s being better than something else near it, conflict is being invited. We can feel ourselves as center, or as area and circumference, or as both. The circle, I am sure, has no conflict as to itself as center and circumference, but the circle does not feel, does not undergo the historical world. It therefore has no temptation to make conflict out of difference.
A Sense of Importance
As humans go, it is easier to get a sense of importance out of oneself as center than out of oneself as area and circumference. For our bodies, our intimate comfortable selves, seem to be center. If, for example, we had two aunts and one was constantly around giving us chocolate bars and pats on the shoulder, and smiles, and occasionally picking up things for us, we would, most likely, prefer this aunt to the other who wasn’t around so much, seemed indefinite, sometimes bumped into us, and sometimes took chocolate bars from us. Both aunts might be of the same age, equally important, equally virtuous, and equally well-intentioned; and both might be our aunts. But in time, if all the differentiation I have described went on, we should come to feel that one aunt was ours, while the other had something to do with us, and that something wasn’t all good, either.
Where Conflict Begins
We have two basic aspects of the self. One can be called center and the other area-and-circumference. They are different, though they make up the same thing: ourselves. Still, we can and do play favorites. We don’t see them as equally ourselves. We don’t see them both as being what we are. This is where conflict begins. It was inherent as possibility in difference. The world as it has been and is, brings out that possibility in all its subtlety and ingloriousness.
Therefore, we have a snug self which seems to be intimately, purringly, unmistakably ourselves, and a remote, critical, interfering, puzzling, other, uncontrollable self which we can often choose not to see as being ourselves. We are not able to see, as the great artist does, that the remote and near are simultaneous aspects of the same entity, or the same instance of existence. If our lives were like art, this situation of difference between center and circumference would not change into conflict. The center would not fight area-and-circumference. We could be snug and away at the same time. We could be by the hearth and on the waves or in the skies, at once.
I come now to the implications of the last paragraph. I have said that the life of humans would avoid conflict if they saw their lives as art. I make this statement dogmatically, for to me art, fully accepting conflict in reality, makes that conflict rhythm. This is highly sensible. It is what happens. It is aesthetics, and it is also metaphysics. It is not psychiatry as yet, but it should be. There is not a conflict that a psychiatrist has had to do with which is not basically concerned with aesthetics. All conflict has to do with aesthetics, can be resolved by aesthetics. For aesthetics is that situation in, or form of, reality where the opposition-in-difference in reality itself is, by being seen completely, changed into beauty. Beauty is reality seen with complete accuracy, where reality is given all that it has, which is the same as saying all that is coming to it.
Strange & Ordinary
For example, reality is strange and ordinary; all reality is. If you look at a dish (even a dirty one) long enough, you will see it as strange. All existence is strange; all reality is unreal—for all reality is strange. Everything can astonish. We can find wonder, if we wholly look for it, in all the things to be found in the stores, the kitchens, the cellars, the bodies, the memories, the clothes, and the attitudes of humans. Strangeness is a staple of existence, not an esoteric luxury. We all of us, at times, have wondered at something which mostly we would be taking for granted. We can look at the spelling of a common word or our own name, and become astonished. Yes, reality is strange.
Reality is also ordinary. The planets, at a certain time, can seem friendly. Assyria can seem like a neighbor. A strange bird can be seen as like ourselves. We can find something in Lucretia Borgia like what is in the girl who may bring us coffee at noon in a public place. What we see as out of the way, extraordinary, has an indefinite possibility of being made close, familiar, comfortable. Reality is both the surprising and the soothing; the astonishing and the repetitive.
However, if a song is written, or a dance is danced, or a play is played, or a picture is painted, or a poem composed, or a novel written which, plainly, makes the ordinary wonderful, or the unusual close and familiar—that song, that dance, that play, that picture, that poem, that novel is beautiful. Yet what has this artistic thing done? Has it in any way made reality less? Has it left out, distorted, evaded? Well, if the things I have mentioned have been really art, they have done nothing of the kind. What they have done is present reality in its wholeness, in the togetherness of its basic oppositions.
He Will Have to Know
So art makes conflict sensible. Is this what the psychiatrist tries to do? Certainly it is not hazardous to say, Yes, this is what the psychiatrist tries to do. But if he is an efficient psychiatrist he will have to know the relation of difference or conflict to reality, and what aesthetics does to reality seen as having difference or conflict.
Let us take a specific human being: a certain physiological, psychic, economic, electronic, emotional, purposive compound of center and area-and-circumference. This subtle and rich compound of existence, we can call James Hood.
He Has Reality in Him
Mr. Hood is real. Perhaps he does not know what being real means, but he is real. Insofar as he is real, he has reality in him; in fact, logically, he has all reality in him. Mr. Hood thinks of China and his own fingernails. On the same day he can get gravy on his hands, worry about his blood count, and also read a startling item on disturbances in Thailand. The remote and the intimate are always charging at him, or creeping round him, or swirling in him. They are in him. So Mr. Hood has to do something about all this remote and near, charging, creeping, swirling, and being.
Since Mr. Hood is alive, he does do something. At any moment in our lives we are doing something. Decisions can be avoided but they also can’t be avoided, for every gesture, motion, act of ours, every abstinence even, is a decision. The corporeality and the psychic content of James Hood is an indefinite, constantly active aggregation of opposites. And opposites, we have seen, when not clearly known, make for conflict.
The whole being of Mr. Hood should be an integration. There should be variety, variety, variety and wholeness, wholeness, wholeness. If there were, Mr. Hood would be functioning felicitously, efficiently, realistically, romantically—and as Mr. Hood, in the depths of his being, desires. If he did all this, he would be, even if he didn’t like the word, beautiful; for the reality of him, by being wholly seen, would be all reality. And all reality is a definition of beauty.
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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