The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Self, Shelley, & What People Deserve

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the 1966 lecture Psychiatric Terms and Shelley, Byron, Keats, by Eli Siegel. In it he discusses an American Psychiatric Association glossary of terms. And as he does, we see illustrated this landmark principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The basis for understanding mind—both mind troubled and mind eminently, grandly sane—is in that principle.

Opposites, Fighting and at One

Every mental difficulty represented by the psychiatric terms has at its basis a severing of opposites—the very opposites that are one in all art and in beauty as such. For example, there are the most fundamental opposites in our lives, self and world. These are obviously at odds in a term Mr. Siegel refers to in the present section: egomania. But in all mental disorder a person is using self to be inaccurate about the outside world.

We see the opposites of motion and rest—which are beautifully one in dance, and ocean, and the flight of a bird—disjoined in a term like manic-depressive.

Pride and humility are definitely severed in another term mentioned here: megalomania. In megalomania there seems to be pride without humility. Meanwhile, every good artist puts these opposites together. To be an artist is to feel humble before one’s subject, trying to be fair to it, yet simultaneously feeling one can bring something to it never brought before.

Freedom and order are agonizingly apart in an obsession or compulsion. You feel you have to do something—you have to put your toes on every crack in the pavement or something awful will happen: there is terrific order. Yet you got to this behavior on your own—no one forced you into it; you’ve departed from what the facts really demand; you’ve taken big liberties with truth, with what’s so, what’s needed. That’s terrific freedom. Those very same opposites, freedom and order, as one, are what we hear, feel, love, in every movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

All of us have trouble about the opposites. There are rifts between them, and disproportions, even in the best people. Mr. Siegel speaks about one of those best people in the section of the lecture printed here: the poet Shelley. However, while opposites may fight in anyone, there is something which makes for that thorough severing of them present in mental illness; and Aesthetic Realism explains it. A person who is insane has had contempt for the world with a certain fulness and decisiveness. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” and he showed that the desire for it is the most hurtful desire of everyone. “Both nervousness and insanity,” he showed, “are caused by the common human inclination for contempt....Contempt is the great failure of man” (Self and World, pp. 8, 15).

Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England”

Since Shelley is present in the part of the lecture printed here, I'm going to comment on some stanzas of his, because they’re a means of looking both at the opposites and at a big way contempt is affecting people now.

Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England,” of 1819, begins this way:

Men of England, wherefore plough

For the lords who lay ye low?

Wherefore weave with toil and care

The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Though some of the language of Shelley here (the use of wherefore for why and ye for you) is not of the present moment, the stanza is about the biggest social and economic question today. That question is: To whom should the world and its wealth belong? Shelley was passionate on the subject: the earth, he felt, should belong to everyone living on it. The idea that some few people owned the land of England, and that other people who should rightly own it too had to work for those few persons and provide wealth for them, Shelley despised. That idea is, in fact, contempt, and has the disproportion which, in another field, is insanity.

It is hard to see how disproportionate something is when one lives with it day after day and it has been around for hundreds of years. But the notion behind the profit system is that some people are entitled to much more of the world than others, and it’s all right that at birth one child should have ever so little and be poor while another is born into wealth. This notion has in it a deeply insane rift between a self and what’s other than the self, between arrogance and humility.

Meanwhile, that first stanza, as poetry, is a oneness of opposites. It is clearly intense; in fact, it is furious without bounds. But it is also definite, orderly, strict.

Shelley Comments on the Profit Motive

In the second stanza, Shelley says this to the people of England:

Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save,

From the cradle to the grave,

Those ungrateful drones who would

Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?

A drone is a parasite. And Shelley is writing about the famous profit motive: the desire to get as much out of another person as possible, while giving that person as little as possible. In the 1940s, in the tenth chapter of his Self and World, “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics,” Mr. Siegel asked whether this motive encourages mental health or mental ill health in the person having it. To hope others are weak so you can use them to aggrandize yourself; to harden yourself so that you don’t have to think about what they endure as you use their labor to enrich yourself—this is not in behalf of glowing sanity.

Here is the fourth stanza of “Song to the Men of England”:

Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,

Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?

Or what is it ye buy so dear

With your pain and with your fear?

Those lines are fierce in their anger at economic contempt, but with the fierceness there is a great tenderness, which can be heard in the music of the words. There is the couplet “Or what is it ye buy so dear / With your pain and with your fear?”: it trembles, and seems, with its long ee and r sounds, to penetrate within the people Shelley is writing of.

That stanza is about the question Mr. Siegel presented as the most important question for people now to ask: What does a person deserve by being a person? Shelley is mentioning some of the things every person, simply by being alive, should have: for example, “shelter,” “food,” “leisure,” “comfort.” And “comfort,” in our time, includes not having to worry about affording healthcare. More than ever in America there is an awareness in people that they deserve those things and that they’re being hugely rooked because they either lack them or have to get them with such difficulty.

Then there’s “love’s gentle balm.” Shelley saw that when one has to wear out oneself working, and worry about money, it is hard to have love fare well. His contemporary, Keats, saw this too, and described it in a famous couplet:

Love in a hut, with water and a crust,

Is—Love, forgive us!—cinders, ashes, dust.

That Keats couplet, which begins part 2 of his Lamia, is anguish and melody; twisting and clarity; outburst and stillness.

Economic Insanity

The fifth stanza of “Song to the Men of England” describes what Shelley saw as an ongoing, cruel economic insanity:

The seed ye sow, another reaps;

The wealth ye find, another keeps;

The robes ye weave, another wears;

The arms ye forge, another bears.

The stanza brings up the question: On what basis should people work?—to be useful to others and oneself, or to enrich someone who doesn’t do the work? Which is just? Which is sane?

Percy Bysshe Shelley was the son of a baronet, but he wanted to feel what other people felt, including those not born as fortunately as he. This desire is both sanity and aesthetics. It is the oneness of self and world. It is the saying, Who I am is not separate from what other people are; as I am fair to them, I become truly I.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Life, Psychiatry, Aesthetics

By Eli Siegel

The purpose of the second part of this discussion is to relate something larger to those psychiatric terms. In 1824, two years after Shelley died, Mrs. Shelley brought together as Posthumous Poems work that he himself hadn’t published. Reviewing these poems, the Edinburgh Review said some things about Shelley—and if the Edinburgh Review knew how the literature about Shelley was going to increase for the rest of the century, I think it wouldn’t have gone at him in just this way. I’ll read from the review.

  [Editor’s note. I have seen this review attributed to William Hazlitt, whom Mr. Siegel considered one of the greatest of critics. If Hazlitt did write it, the passages quoted here show how difficult it is, even for the best critic, to see a contemporary accurately. — ER]

There are things said that concern the psychiatric terms. For instance, Shelley was seen as a megalomaniac. One of his early writings is Project for the Reform of the State of Ireland—he met Ireland and started to reform it! And he wrote Prospectus for the Happiness of the Human Race. There are his notes to Queen Mab, and also The Revolt of Islam. And there was a feeling that Shelley, as a boy born in Sussex, ought to take his time and not make everything better so quickly. We have this review two years after Shelley died; similar things had been said while he was alive:

The success of his writings is therefore in general in the inverse ratio of the extent of his undertakings; inasmuch as his desire to teach, his ambition to excel, as soon as it was brought into play, encroached upon, and outstripped his powers of execution.

Elsewhere in the review there’s a saying: If Mr. Shelley had confined himself to writing rather small lyrics—oh, he could perhaps do a great deal with a flower, or if he wanted to write about a skylark and not get too far afield, that would have been all right. But as to his poems that tended to uproot civilization as it has been—he should have been more careful!

So it is said that in proportion as Shelley’s purpose is little, his poetry is better, but as soon as he had a desire to teach or to excel, he didn’t know what to do. This concerns egomania and megalomania, and also the manic. If a person feels he can make a land better very soon, he may be manic. George Washington had no such thing. He thought that George III didn’t know everything and that a few people in Virginia also knew some things, and therefore the American Revolution succeeded. But if he had gone at it like Shelley, we’d be like Canada now.

One’s Own Opinions

Another sentence about Shelley—and here he is like some person who is too bumptious and cares only for his own opinions:

His fault was that he had no deference for the opinions of others, too little sympathy with their feelings, which he thought he had a right to sacrifice, as well as his own, to a grand ethical experiment, and trusted too implicitly to the light of his own mind and to the warmth of his own impulses.

Well, that’s pretty bad. Shelley “had no deference for the opinions of others”—and you can make a case that that’s so. There is the contempt that Percy Bysshe Shelley had for Mackintosh, or for John Wilson Croker, or some of the dignitaries of the time—Lord Eldon. He wrote a letter to Lord Eldon and tried to keep back his contempt. To see Shelley as very confident of himself and see how he showed his confidence, to see how those three Romantic poets, Byron (born 1788), Shelley (1792), Keats (1795), were confident and uncertain, how they encroached on the manic and depressive, how Keats too was very hopeful and also how he retreated, is to see that these things that are part of the psychiatric glossary are everywhere human feet, noses, hands may be.

The review says Shelley was taken up in “a grand ethical experiment.” About this time there was Robert Owen with the New Harmony colony, but Owen had been a businessman. There were persons who were seen as grandiose: Coleridge has been made fun of, and Southey, with their Pantisocracy. But it is necessary to read sentences like these in the review and relate them—what the sentences are getting at, what time they are of, what was in that time—to the psychiatric glossary.

No Middle

Then the reviewer points out that in one of the great figures of English literature there was no middle. That is, the feeling something is wonderful and the feeling something should be opposed were not attended with anything joining them. This is the sentence; it’s not too clear:

The impatience or obstinacy of the human mind takes part with, flies off to, one or other of the two extremes of “affection,” and leaves a horrid gap...in the middle.

This is a way of saying that when a person is depressed and later feels better, what is in between is not wholly present. We have the beginning and culmination of something, but not the middle. There is something to that. A nervous person is one who goes from healthy green to a weird blue too quickly. Shelley was called “Sun-treader” by Browning, and if you’re a Sun-treader, you’re not supposed to have much of a middle.

An earlier sentence about Shelley was this:

The fumes of vanity rolled volumes of smoke, mixed with sparkles of fire, from the cloudy tabernacle of his thought.

I feel that when Francis Jeffrey, as editor of the Edinburgh Review, got this, he wanted to change it a little bit. Maybe he did. And Shelley’s mother could have said, “My dear Percy gives rise to all this?”

Then: “The success of his writings is therefore in general in the inverse ratio of the extent of his undertakings.” This should be related, with the “volumes of smoke” and the “tabernacle” and the rest, to the later sentences. What does the absence of a middle have to do with taking on artistic work which outstrips your powers of execution?

Keats and Byron Too

Later in the review, Keats and Byron are mentioned:

Mr. Shelley died, it seems, with a volume of Mr. Keats’ poetry grasped with one hand in his bosom.... Keats died young, and yet his infelicity had years too many....The shaft was sped, venal, vulgar, venomous, that drove him from his country with sickness and penury for companions, and followed him to his grave. And yet there are those who could trample on the faded flower, men to whom breaking hearts are a subject of merriment, to laugh loud over the silent urn of genius, and play out their game of venality and infamy with the crumbling bones of their victims.*

At this time Shelley and Keats were seen as rather frail, particularly Keats. Shelley put up something of a fight. But the person who knew how to revolt and get the attention of Europe—that is, the noble lord, Byron—had died a short while before. The reviewer describes Byron as

a mightier genius, a haughtier spirit, whose stubborn impatience and Achilles—like pride only death could quell....Greece, Italy, the world have lost their poet-hero....He set like the sun, in his glory.

This presents the idea that Byron’s poetry is greater than that of Shelley and Keats. The discussion of their value is not over. All three of them do seem to be immortal. The writer is correct: he wasn’t claiming immortality for someone who didn’t have it. There was a great deal of discussion, and the worth of Keats and Shelley and Byron has been much debated. Byron has had perhaps more ups and downs after 1880 than Keats and Shelley have. The debate is still going on. But if I were to deal with every phase of their work, every phase of their lives, the other way of showing that aesthetics is present in the psychiatric terms would become clear.

I think we can show the aesthetics by just taking up the terms. But when we see that the matters in them are present if we go closely into the work of a poet who has lived long enough to be called that, with immortality hovering about, then we've gotten another way of making real the notion that life, psychiatry, and aesthetics are about the same thing.

*This refers to the critics who had written so unfairly about Keats.