The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

There Are Self, Reality, and Freud

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Everyday Life and Aesthetics Look at Psychiatric Terms, one of the lectures Mr. Siegel gave in 1966 based on an American Psychiatric Association glossary. These lectures are at once casual and definitive. I love the mingling of good nature and critical exactitude, humor and cultural scope, with which Mr. Siegel looks at those psychiatric terms, describing in the process what the human self truly is.

As we come to the term ego in this glossary of 1966, we are in the very midst of the Freudian psychological apparatus. Recent psychology has gone away from Freud. But it has not said what Mr. Siegel stated courageously and showed clearly as early as the 1940s, the height of the Freudian heyday: that Freud was wrong; that he did not understand the human mind; that the Freudianism which for decades was presented as unquestionable science about human emotions, was untrue to what people are and was (as Mr. Siegel says in the present lecture) “an invention.”

How Should We See the World?

“The large difference,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “between Aesthetic Realism and other ways of seeing an individual is that Aesthetic Realism makes the attitude of an individual to the whole world the most critical thing in his life.”¹ The crucial matter as to mental health—the crucial matter in the life of everyone—is: how should we see the world?, because the way we see any instance of reality depends on how we see the world of which it is part. Behind that question is the philosophic yet immediate, pressing question: what is the relation of the human self to the world as such? Present-day psychology is neglectful and unknowing about these all-important questions, and so was Freud.

Though Freud doesn’t look at the subject directly, throughout his work there is a presumption that the world is at odds with the self, our self—out to stifle it or deprive it. We see this in the American Psychiatric Association’s description of ego , on which Mr. Siegel comments. That description, based on Freud, presents “reality” and “external demands” as “contending” against what the self at its “deepest level” is after—with a “mental agent” having to “mediat[e].”

It’s Ordinary

Freud is portentously elaborate; but that way of seeing the world is really the way of seeing with which people every day hurt their lives. It’s ordinary and harmful. Take, for example, a boy of 6 in Boston. For various reasons, Tommy has come to feel the world he’s in is an enemy to him. This makes him very suspicious of his 1st grade teacher and of the instances of the inimical world she’s trying to make him take into himself. He has an unconscious determination: he won’t let the alphabet in: he won’t give a home in his mind to letters, for they’re part of that unfriendly external reality.

And there is a wife in San Diego: Doreen. She, like Freud, has felt for a long time that the world is no friend. In fact, she married Mike to have a haven against the world with its “external demands.” She wanted to make a separate reality where she would be adored. But Mike, like every person, is part of the world itself, and therefore Doreen’s fight with the world would inevitably include him too. Now she constantly feels irritated by him. She doesn’t know it’s because he has the nerve to show he’s different from her and she feels—in fact, gets importance from feeling—that reality different from her is a foe. Also, she’s unknowingly angry that she needs a person from that outside world; she punishes Mike every day because she does.

Certainly we can meet things we object to, but is the world as such something that is essentially against us; or is it essentially for us—indeed, is it that which enables us to be ourselves?

It is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the latter.

Through the World, We Are Ourselves

Aesthetic Realism explains that our deepest desire is to like the world honestly. That includes being a good critic of it, but always with a hope to find meaning. The purpose of education, Mr. Siegel showed, is to like the world that every subject in the curriculum is about. The purpose of loving a person is to like the world, which that person comes from and has to do with. The words we speak and think with come from the world. The food we eat and air we breathe to live, are the outside world. The more of the outside world we know and take into ourselves and value—music, books, facts of science, skies, rain, ocean, petals of a flower, the whiskers and upward look of a kitten, the point of view of someone different from us—the more we are ourselves.

And Aesthetic Realism explains that there is a hope in every person to dislike the world. There is a triumph in looking down on things and people and feeling apart from them. This is the triumph of contempt. And contempt is the ugliest thing in the human self. It is the cause of mental ailment. Yet Freudian psychiatry, and much other psychiatry, presents the world deeply as an enemy—which is the way of seeing that made a person mentally distressed to begin with.

In 1930 Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents. In it we see, as elsewhere in his work, a presentation of reality—here in the form of civilization—as out to subjugate our dear self, to thwart our desires or instincts. Freud writes:

Most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts.²

And translator James Strachey notes that the book’s “main theme” is “the irremediable antagonism between the demands of instinct and the restrictions of civilization” (p. 6).

The statement of Freud sounds impressive, but it’s not true. And I remember the intellectual thrill I felt when I first heard Mr. Siegel explain the fallacy behind it. He said that, far from civilization’s being against instinct, everything in civilization has arisen from instinct. The instinct to invent the wheel is as much instinct as the instinct to eat. A baby has an instinct to learn, to know. The instinct to arrange materials so that something beautiful and useful arise is a primal thing; the building of a cathedral, with all the knowledge required, begins with instinct. There is a drive to hear music, and make music. Civilization does not depend on the “renunciation” and “non-satisfaction” of instinct, but the true honoring of it.

In the 1940s, commenting on Freud, Mr. Siegel wrote:

Nature wanted man, if one wishes, to...express libido, desire body fiercely; but it is just as apparent that nature wanted man to get to the multiplication table, to find an alphabet, to get to grammar, to write history, to get joy from logic. Was neolithic man, when he approached the alphabet, running away from the fact that he wanted to lie with a woman in a cave? Is it not possible that the reality which made a man of fifty thousand years ago bear a child on a woman also of fifty thousand years ago, was just as courageous when it made that man come to a notion of form, utter words, love primitive wisdom, see meaning in the sun? [Self and World, p. 201]

Mr. Siegel not only shows that the world and our most primal self are not against each other; he shows that other opposites which torment us because we see them as so apart—intellect and body—are really akin! Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of both intellect and sex is to like the world. And we suffer because we have used them (or anything else) to have contempt, to look down on reality and people. My learning this is a cause of tremendous personal gratitude.

Freud Recommends Contempt

Neither Freud nor the psychiatry of today has seen that the big weakener of mind is the desire for contempt. This desire is also the source of all injustice. In Civilization and Its Discontents there is a passage in which Freud, speaking about aggression, is really recommending a form of contempt: the being against and “ridiculing” persons different from those of one’s own group. He writes:

The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct [aggression] an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness....It is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier. [P. 61]

This writing, for all its posture of authority, is untrue and very confused. There is also a terrible poignancy to it when one realizes that soon Freud would flee Austria because Hitler had made himself powerful through the very means that Freud here calls “relatively harmless”: having Germans “bind together” through being against others. “Hitler,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history” (TRO 165).

Thomas Wolfe vs. Sigmund Freud

I am going to quote from an American novelist who died the year before Freud did: Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). Wolfe was unsure how friendly the outside world is to an individual. But early in Look Homeward, Angel, as he is telling about the childhood of Eugene Gant, Wolfe describes for paragraphs the many smells that affected his young protagonist. It’s part of a description of the world with its pleasingness and displeasingness meeting a self—the boy Eugene—getting into him, enabling him to become who he is. This passage, about perhaps a hundred-fifty smells—smells of both nature and civilization—is some of the best writing of Wolfe. It’s a contradiction of Freud, and an illustration of the Aesthetic Realism statement that the world is the other half of ourselves, which we were born to value. Wolfe writes in chapter 8:

...He had felt now the nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent,...the pungent breakfast smells...; the smell of cellars, cobwebs...; of the smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horse-hair rent....

Yes, and the exciting smell of chalk and varnished desks;...of honey and of unground coffee; of barreled sweet-pickles and cheese....

Yes, and of the rank slow river, and of tomatoes rotten on the vine;...and of foul weeds rotting in green marsh scum;...the winter smell of horse-warm stables and smoking dung; of old oak and walnut; and the butcher’s smell of meat;...of carbolic and nitric acids; the coarse true smell of a dog;...of seed-time, bloom, and mellow dropping harvest.

There are more. And they are the world, not our suppressor but partner. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to like oneself through being just to the outside world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Life & Psychiatric Terms

By Eli Siegel

Next there is “Dementia praecox: Obsolescent term for schizophrenia.” So the word is obsolescent but the situation itself is very popular. The tendency to get away from everything and go to something you really like is quite strong. The matter is so important that for now I’ll just mention that there is this term.—Then:

Depression: Psychiatrically, a morbid sadness, dejection, or melancholy; to be differentiated from grief which is realistic and proportionate to what has been lost.

The word depression was used before it came to be a term in psychiatry. In fact, some of the observers of Washington would say he was depressed after the battle of Long Island and Hamilton had to cheer him on; or maybe when Hamilton was through cheering him on, Tom Paine would visit. But Washington could get low. And it was said even Lincoln would get low. Depression is something which is in man, has been in man; and the large question is: is there motive in it? Depression, grief, sadness are related.

“In Psychiatric Theory”

The next term is ego:

In psychiatric theory, one of the three major divisions of human personality, the others being the id and superego. The ego, commonly identified with consciousness of self, is the mental agent mediating among three contending forces: the external demands of social pressure or reality; the primitive instinctual demands arising from the id imbedded as it is in the deepest level of the unconscious; and the claims of the superego, born of parental and social prohibitions and functioning as an internal censor or “conscience.”

This description can soberly be described as silly. The only job given to the ego here is mediating. Doesn’t the ego ever get original? Doesn’t it want some-thing for itself? Besides, anything in a group of four can mediate. If we have a group of numbers like 3, 7, 12, 18, each can be seen as checking the others, as an element in a painting can be seen as organizing the others. So the id and superego—and, of course, those terms don’t have to be used—can do some mediating too.

But this whole description is really untrue, and is not the person. It’s an invention which has impressed in many quiet rooms and sounds awfully good on the couch, but has a tendency not to sound so good when other people are talking.

“The ego...is the mental agent mediating among three contending forces: the external demands of social pressure...” The writer of this shows his English to be failing, because we have “the external demands of social pressure.” “External social pressure” would be enough, or “external social demands.” But “demands of social pressure”—the ego should have mediated there and stopped it: it’s bad English.

And I deny the statement. The social pressure itself arises from selves or egos, and most of that social pressure we like—as a child asks, “Mama, have you got something for me to do?” People like to be assigned things. A boy who is assigned to count the children coming up the steps of a high school just loves it. So the ego doesn’t mediate as to social pressure; most of the social pressure of this world, people have liked.

“Social Pressure”: Some Examples

Let’s say there’s a custom in the community. Being able to fulfil it is a way of thinking you’re pretty good. A man sees a sign saying traffic slows up here, doesn’t go more than 30 miles an hour: he gets a certain satisfaction—“I know I’m a heel, but I can obey this signal.” The social pressure is really quite welcome.

Or let’s say social pressure consists of fashions. About fall, there will be something new in fashions. There’s been this year—not anything tremendous. But each year the social pressures that come from Paris, and now from New York, and could come from anywhere, from London—the social pressures are welcomed. The ego wouldn’t know what to do if it weren’t able to follow social pressures.

People had a wonderful time showing they were following social pressures last Easter in the Easter parade. And they’re going to have a wonderful time seeing shows that have been praised by the critics. Artistic opinion, in a sense, is part of social opinion. It’s social opinion, artistic mode.

We like to have demands put on us, and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be affected so much by the advertisements. It happens that persons are footloose, and if they couldn’t go after the latest thing, they wouldn’t know what to do. Also, the ego in its fullest sense loves to meet social demands because in meeting social demands it gets permission to have a wonderful time in itself. That is, it fulfills its social functions and so can raise unheard hell in itself.

The way the ego is described in this glossary is simply untrue.

A Drama of Like & Dislike

That there is some social pressure which isn’t welcome is quite clear. The fact is that we have a way of liking and disliking things which can change, and we can be obedient for a long while and then want to do something else.

I don’t know whether I made up this story or James Stephens did—I have a notion I made it up: There was a person living in a town in Cork, and there was a clock in one of the churches, and every time he passed it he thought, “Things are well.” He adjusted his own big watch by it, and as he heard it chime he would think, “The Lord is with Ireland.” But after about fifty years of this—he didn’t know why—he suddenly took a brick and threw it at that clock. From 1860 to 1910 everything was going well; but in 1910 the social pressure was too much and he threw a big brick at the clock. This is called “The Cork Explosion.”

I think the writers of the glossary forget the tremendous diversity of response that every human being has.

¹ Self and World (NY: Definition Press, 1981), p. 1.

² Trans. James Strachey (NY: W.W. Norton, 1962), p. 44.