The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Two Kinds of Pleasure—& Tiger Woods

Dear Unknown Friends:

To begin this new decade we publish the lecture Pleasure and Self-Conflict, by Eli Siegel. He gave it 63 years ago, and it explains what people now—in living rooms and at worksites, in schools and kitchens, at social gatherings and in halls of government and in bedrooms—most need to know. It is one of the lectures in his Steinway Hall series (1946-7). And what we print is based on notes that were taken at the time.

The “current psychologies,” to which Mr. Siegel refers critically, are of course those of the 1940s. But today’s dealers with mind are just as unknowing about the grand, compelling, intricate, inescapable subject of pleasure as the two people he mentions, Sigmund Freud and Karen Horney, were.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy that explains that there are two kinds of pleasure: the pleasure of contempt for the world, and the pleasure of respect. The first, contempt, is the feeling we’re more because we can see what’s not ourselves as less; and it is the most hurtful thing in the human self. This pleasure can be quietly ordinary. It can be a certain relish, a smug satisfaction, in telling ourselves someone “is an idiot.” But the pleasure of contempt is also the pleasure a white woman of Alabama had in 1860 ordering a black woman around—and feeling she was far superior to this slave and had the right to own her.

A fight between the two kinds of pleasure goes on within every one of us. It is the central matter in our lives. In issue 162 of this journal, Eli Siegel writes eloquently on the subject:

One thing that is clear in the history of man is that he has had pleasure of two kinds. Man has had pleasure from seeing a sunset; from Handel’s Messiah; from seeing courage in someone; from a great rhythm in words. He has also had pleasure from making everything he can meaningless; from changing architecture into broken eggshells; from making the mighty malodorous; from trivializing.... Seeing meaning, then, has given pleasure; taking it away has also given pleasure....

There is a feeling that if we couldn’t make things less, despise them, we should be nobody in a large, intricate, and dark world. Contempt, it seems to us, is the foundation we need for our desire to be somebody; to matter.

This passage, and the lecture published here, contain the basis on which to understand a person much in the news lately. The revelations about Tiger Woods—presented usually with ill will by the media—have puzzled, disappointed, and, unfortunately, titillated people. But what impelled this athlete, so revered and apparently upstanding, to have multitudinous extramarital affairs?

Sports & the Pleasure of Respect

There can be a true, mighty pleasure of respect from about every sport, and golf is no exception. Tiger Woods has been called the most famous athlete in the world. Along with his unmistakable ability, the fact that he seems ethnically to have the whole world in him has also affected people very much. (His background is Asian, African American, Caucasian, and Native American.)

Whenever we are pleased truly, beauty is present. And all beauty, Aesthetic Realism shows, “is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality.” As athlete, Tiger Woods has that oneness of opposites. He has been described as thrilling and also cautious, very careful. He has flare and precision. He has a fine freedom through control. The pleasure people have gotten seeing Tiger play is the pleasure of respect. It’s the pleasure of seeing reality’s opposites made one.

And there is the game itself—that sport which seems to have begun in Holland, and came, perhaps early in the 15th century, to Scotland, where it became loved. What is the particular way the world pleases and is respected in golf—and has pleased Tiger Woods and been respected by him? We find some indication in a text now a hundred years old, the famous 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Take this sentence:

The game of golf may be briefly defined as consisting in hitting the ball over a great extent of country,...and finally hitting or “putting” it into a little hole of some 4 in. diameter cut in the turf.

It’s quite clear that golf is a oneness of expansion (“a great extent of country”) and contraction or concentration (“a little hole”). And there are concentration and expansion, point and width, in making that neat little ball soar through space.

The Britannica article continues:

For the various strokes required to achieve the hitting of the ball over the great hills, and finally putting it into the small hole, a number of different “clubs” has been devised to suit the different positions in which the ball may be found and the different directions in which it is wished to propel it....It is this variety that gives the game its charm.

So the pleasure, the “charm,” of golf comes, too, from a sense of manyness in oneness: from a “variety” of strokes and clubs used in behalf of a single goal.

And there is that immense pleasure that comes when a ball goes into a hole. That pleasure is present in other sports too, including pool and basketball. And it has to do with the tremendous opposites of sameness and difference, matter and space. How different a solid ball and the space of an empty hole are; how thrilling when they join!

The Other Pleasure

Tiger Woods, playing golf, has had the big, respectful pleasure of using himself to be fair to the world. He has used his body and thought to deal justly with reality’s opposites—those I described and more. And he has had the joy of trying to meet respectfully those representatives of the world which are earth, air, water, the metal of a club, a flexible and firm ball. But athletes have also had another kind of pleasure from a sport, and they haven’t distinguished it from the beautiful pleasure. That other pleasure is the pleasure of contempt. It’s the feeling they’ve beaten out the world through beating an opponent. It’s the feeling that Shakespeare had Pistol express: “Why, then the world’s mine oyster, / Which I with sword will open.” It’s the joy in seeing someone else flop so oneself can be supreme. It’s the feeling, not clearly articulated but powerfully real, “I don’t have to be fair to anyone or anything, because I’m a WINNER!”

The feeling that the world exists to be conquered, beaten, looked down on, owned, is entirely different from—and opposed to—the feeling that the world exists to be known, honored, respected. I’m sure Tiger Woods has felt both, and not been clear about either, or about the difference between them. Tiger Woods has likely received as much praise, adulation, and money as any athlete in history. Meanwhile, the only way we can like ourselves, no matter how famous we are, is through wanting to know and be just to the outside world—and not just on a golf course. People think they’ll like themselves through getting a lot of glory and money. But no matter how much of these they get, they’ll never feel satisfied, and so they’ll want more and more.

That, I believe, is what happened to Tiger Woods, as it has happened to others. He tried to think well of himself through conquering the world, beating it. Yet he didn’t like himself, because his deepest desire was to see reality and people justly. And so, with all his victories on the golf course, and all his millions of dollars from product endorsements and the luxurious items those dollars could buy, Woods, inevitably dissatisfied, felt driven to have more power and victories—from women.

To the desire for power, having an attractive woman do what you want her to is like conquering an opponent. Having a woman give you that praise which sex is felt to be, is like having crowds cheer you. When the sex, too, arises from a desire to manage the world, not understand it, your carnal victories leave you deeply ashamed and unsure. And you try to think much of yourself by going after more and more.

Tiger Woods, then, stands for the fight—between contempt and respect—that all people long to make sense of. In the lecture published here, given 28 years before he was born, Aesthetic Realism understands him.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Pleasure and Self-Conflict

By Eli Siegel

The word pleasure is decidedly important, because in that word are also ethics and logic. One of the things Aesthetic Realism has against the current psychologies is that a great word like pleasure is on the one hand made equivalent to a dull, superficial thing like “adjustment,” and on the other made to exclude profundity and ethics.

What is the purpose of ethics anyway? And why should a person “adjust”? In these things there is an idea of a self being at one with what isn’t itself. Being at one isn’t a dull matter. Adjustment has to be given another dimension. If someone “adjusts” and feels unconsciously he’s been a sucker, he is maladjusted to his adjustment. Adjustment has to be changed into pleasure. It has to be fun, because if it isn’t fun it will be rebelled against.

Pleasure is the affirmation that one is getting along with what is not oneself. If a person says, “I’m pleased to meet you,” “I’m pleased with the orchestral intricacy of Brahms,” “I have pleasure holding her hand,” what is there in common among these states, and hundreds of others that could be called pleasurable? What is in common is that in each case a self is at one with something it sees as not itself.

Psychoanalysis, for all its talk of releasing inhibitions, is puritanical in this sense: pleasure is associated with the unethical—a person just wants to have fun being sexual, and society has to be against pleasure. Freud has made for a feeling that pleasure itself is unethical and must be against society. In the works of Karen Horney, there’s a feeling that pleasure is something like hospital cotton—it hasn’t anything to do with seeing Babe Ruth hit a homerun. Pleasure is not a very live quality in the works of Dr. Freud or Dr. Horney.

We have to see the difference between the kind of pleasure that will make for a conflict in self and the kind that won’t. There is a kind of pleasure one can have and be proud one has. But you don’t see that kind of pleasure written about by Dr. Freud or Dr. Horney, or the writers on psychology generally. Pleasure can be beautiful. Such pleasure is also a certain accuracy. One can have pleasure from ice cream and pleasure from reading a fine paragraph of Hegel, and if both are accurate, why can’t one be proud of both?

Every person wants 1) enough pleasure, and 2) to be able to have pleasure in looking at the pleasure. If pleasure has a kickback, an unconscious hangover, it is not real pleasure.

Restraint & Expression

Aesthetic Realism sees pleasure philosophically. That means seeing that every pleasure has something in common with every other. There is no essential difference between the pleasure of restraint and the pleasure of expression. There’s a pleasure in not yielding to the blandishments of a Delilah, as there is a pleasure in yielding to a non-Delilah.

Freud wrote about inhibition, but he didn’t see what inhibition meant. He did not see that we can have pleasure in not yielding to something we wouldn’t be proud of yielding to. Also, a lady can lose her virginity in Sheepshead Bay without truly expressing herself in the slightest. Expression and restraint both represent the self, just as music is made up of both notes and pauses.

As soon as you have a pleasure and you can’t look on it with pleasure, it means it was an incomplete pleasure. A complete pleasure would mean one you had pleasure in honestly remembering. And a complete pleasure is also good.

Tranquility & Excitement

Every person wants from the world a situation in which he can feel secure and also excited. There must be some arrangement of both: tranquility and abandon, stillness and adventure. We want this from a specific thing, and from everything. If a person says he doesn’t want that combination, it means he feels he can’t get it; it doesn’t mean he doesn’t want it. Even “the peace which passeth all understanding” has excitement—in the “passeth all understanding.” So this phrase from the Bible, about God, has excitement and order—after all, you don’t come to God just to remain there and not feel anything; you come to have a good time.

Everyone in New York wants the utmost excitement and the utmost tranquility. That means everyone in New York, though he or she doesn’t know it, is looking for aesthetics. Pleasure can be described as a specific instance of time having in it a oneness of tranquility and excitement.

Ethics & Pleasure

Ethics is a way of being fair to oneself while at the same time being fair to what is not oneself. Therefore, real pleasure is ethics, and ethics is pleasure. Freud, in fostering a disjunction between pleasure and ethics, is encouraging neuroticism in America. If what we ought to do is deeply against what we want to do, we might as well resign ourselves to nervousness: there can’t be anything but a hypocritical adjustment. In the deepest sense, the unhappy person is the unethical person.

The Two Kinds of Pleasure

There’s a kind of pleasure we approve of ourselves for having, and a kind we don’t approve of ourselves for having. For example: John Rabinowitz can go to a concert and hear Harold Weinbaum play the violin. He can think that Harold Weinbaum may break one of his violin strings while playing Mendelssohn, and he can get pleasure from thinking about this. But it is not a pleasure he will like himself for having. This kind of pleasure is the pleasure of contempt. At the same time, John can have a pleasure from hearing the Mendelssohn which he can remember with pleasure. This is the pleasure of respect. And he can have both pleasures at the same time.

In contemptuous pleasure, you don’t respect the object. You get pleasure from seeing the thing as inferior, from conquering it. We have to be critical of our pleasures, because what makes for nervousness is that, on the one hand, we go after pleasure, and on the other, we don’t like ourselves for having it.

No one ever liked himself without liking the world. One can’t like oneself without liking the cause of what pleases one. In contempt, a person wants to get pleasure—from ice cream, for instance—but feel superior to the cause of it all.

Sex is used very often by both men and women to have contempt for the sexual object, and for the world. If we have a pleasure and our whole self doesn’t go for it, it follows that we will have pain from it. This is called conscience, kickback, etc. No one feels ashamed because he’s pleased, but because he’s not wholly pleased.

All true pleasure in a certain sense is religious, because all true pleasure is an affirmation of the cause of pleasure.

No pleasure should cause repentance. Pleasure should make us proud. Guilt comes because we have pleasure in the wrong way, not because of pleasure as such.

Pleasure from love or fleshly conduct, if it’s a true pleasure, is akin to the pleasure of intellect.

Why should a true pleasure from a strawberry soda interfere with pleasure from Tolstoy? Freud seems to think that there must be an interference. The pleasure of a hot time and pleasure from Fichte can easily be taken to be against each other—that I grant—but they don’t have to be.

One of the big things Aesthetic Realism is after is to associate pleasure with the greatest accuracy and logic.

For & Against Pleasure

If we feel we deserve pleasure from the world, we can like ourselves for having it. But suppose a person feels unconsciously that he doesn’t deserve pleasure from the world—and also that he’s too good to have pleasure from something outside himself. People want to have pleasure, and yet they don’t want to be affected. They want to be affected only where they are managing or possessing something.

If you get pleasure from something you control, you don’t respect it. Pleasure that is true is associated with something of the remote, in the finest sense—that which is to be respected.

All pleasure that doesn’t make for nervousness is philosophic, and that includes sexual pleasure. Pleasure in its fullest sense is a justice to oneself and justice to the world that one is meeting.

In summary: where there’s self-conflict, it’s because as we have pleasure, we have pain—conscious or unconscious—about the pleasure. The pleasure of sensation must be at one with the pleasure of criticism, of our looking at what occurred. That’s what Aesthetic Realism goes for. To be really “adjusted” is to have pleasure without hindrance in yourself, in such a way that you can say, “I like the way myself and the world look, and I like the way they go together.”