The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

There Is an Ethical Unconscious

Dear Unknown Friends:

We have reached the 5th section of the great 1950 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature, by Eli Siegel. And at the end of it is his unforgettable description of a ship as standing for the relation of nature and the human self. We print here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this month: "Sureness & Unsureness in a Woman’s Life—Can They Ever Make Sense?"

A matter in the world of sports that has been affecting people very much is close to the subject of Ms. Driscoll’s article. That matter is the repeated inability of award-winning Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to make simple throws successfully. The June 17 New York Times quotes a sports psychologist, Rick Wolff, who says such troubles occur when a player starts to think consciously about an action that should be spontaneous. But even if Wolff is correct (I’m not sure he is), he doesn’t know why such a change in thought and feeling happens: "There’s no rhyme or reason," he says. Well, there is a reason for the tumult of an eminent ballplayer, as there is for all people’s. Aesthetic Realism is the means of knowing it, because Eli Siegel is the person of thought who understood the human self. 

Aesthetic Realism explains that the deepest purpose of everyone is to like the world, to see it with justice. But there is also something tremendous in everyone against our being just. It is contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt includes the desire to look down on things; the feeling that much of the world is not worth our thinking about; the seeing of people not in terms of what they deserve but in terms of how important they make us. Mr. Siegel showed—and there is nothing humanity needs more urgently to know—that contempt is the thing in self from which all cruelty comes. Yet it is also terrifically everyday. It is the thing in us that makes us uneasy, nervous, self-disliking. This is because we have what Mr. Siegel called an "ethical unconscious": "When we are unfair to the world," he writes, "it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it" (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 45). 

So we come to a top-notch second baseman who now cannot control his throws. It has happened in various fields that a person was able to do something beautifully, yet felt deeply that the way he saw people and reality, the way he thought about them, was not beautiful. Mishaps can take place when we feel something we can do, something we can show, is better than who we, as a person, are. The mishap can be a big confusion; it can be an anger one doesn’t understand. And sometimes it can be a big unconscious feeling that one doesn’t deserve to accomplish what one has accomplished so well; and therefore somewhere in the self, one arranges not to accomplish it. We want whatever we do well or beautifully to stand for all of us; and if it doesn’t, we can feel like a fraud.

Does Chuck Knoblauch feel somewhere that he doesn’t deserve to throw with accurate might, because the way he sees, the way he thinks about people, is not accurate, not kind and respectful enough? Is the source of this feeling something he should be proud of—though the form it is taking (trouble on the ball field) is not the best? 

Aesthetic Realism explains not only that there is ethics in our unconscious, but that it is aesthetic ethics, described by this principle: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." The activity Mr. Knoblauch is so involved with, catching and throwing, is a deep reciprocity of the two biggest opposites in our lives: self and world. The world comes to us all the time; and we need to meet it, take it to ourselves rightly—as in a good catch. Then, we want to express what we have, what is of us; give it forth to the world with accuracy—as in a good throw. I would ask Chuck Knoblauch: "Do you think somewhere you feel you have no right to throw a ball with ease, because what a throw stands for— the relating of yourself to the world—you’re not at ease about, not proud of?" Were he to have Aesthetic Realism consultations (and I hope he does), he would learn to use the meaning of a good throw as an encouragement to have what is within him go forth fairly toward other things, be just to them. Then his criticism of himself would not have to take the form of wild throws on a baseball field he once saw as a friend.

In Aesthetic Realism and Nature, Mr. Siegel has been speaking about one way persons are unjust to the world and therefore to themselves: it is by using nature not to be more interested in people, but less. Eli Siegel himself used his life to be just to reality in its fullness. That reality included literature, history, baseball, and much more. It included people—to whom he was fair with unprecedented scope, particularity, comprehension, feeling, and magnificence.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


With & Against Nature

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing passages from Two Years before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana.

Dana also sees albatrosses, and he looks at them. If any person thinks about albatrosses, he should say, "I want to know what they are to understand the world better and to know myself better; not because I want to have an expedition in the private life of albatrosses." And Aesthetic Realism, just so, is very much for albatrosses. 

Their long flapping wings, long legs, and large staring eyes, give them a very peculiar appearance. They look well on the wing; but one of the finest sights that I have ever seen was an albatross asleep upon the water, during a calm, off Cape Horn, when a heavy sea was running. There being no breeze, the surface of the water was unbroken, but a long, heavy swell was rolling, and we saw the fellow, all white, directly ahead of us, asleep upon the waves, with his head under his wing....He was undisturbed for some time, until the noise of our bows, gradually approaching, roused him, when, lifting his head, he stared upon us for a moment, and then spread his wide wings and took his flight.

So what have we to do with this animal who flies gracefully and yet looks so awkward otherwise, and who can sleep on the water? And what have we to do with this ocean?—not, how can we get away from something through the ocean? What have we to do with the blue sky? How did the same thing that made us also make the blue sky? Let us not be humiliated, because if the world took the trouble to make the blue sky and took the trouble to make us, it must have had a similar purpose somewhere. What is that purpose? 

A very famous passage is about a thunderstorm off Cuba. Aesthetic Realism salutes thunderstorms off Cuba. It says if you know thunderstorms off Cuba, you’ll know yourself better. 

[Note. Dana’s description (pp. 291-3 in the Everyman’s Library edition), all of which Mr. Siegel read, is too long to be included here, nor can its quality be conveyed if the passage is much abbreviated. Here is one sentence, about thunder and lightning: "Peal after peal rattled over our heads, with a sound which seemed actually to stop the breath in the body, and the ‘speedy gleams’ kept the whole ocean in a glare of light."]

The passage is about a great commotion, and a great calm. It is also about a ship, which is a wonderful rhythm between nature and man’s work, particularly the sailing ship. When we think of man watching, running the ship, trying to have the ship fight nature and also go along with it, we have the idea of what a human being is up against: that he fights nature on nature’s side, that he is for nature by fighting it sometimes, that he fights it out of a deep love, just as a ship needs nature and yet has to fight it. It needs the winds, yet it must fight the storm which has wind in it. The fact that man has been able to come to a ship, which goes along with nature so well that a ship seems beautiful to everyone as it sails with the wind and sort of dances or glides on the waves—when we see that propriety, we see how man is with nature and also against it, because after all, some of these ships are lost. 


Woman: Sure and Unsure

By Carol Driscoll

Before studying Aesthetic Realism, I felt sureness and unsureness were miles apart in me. I could go, swiftly, from being able to meet difficult situations with seeming self-assurance and aplomb, to being in such a state of agitated uncertainty that I looked ridiculous to myself and felt angry with what I saw as an unkind, messy world. 

Aesthetic Realism taught me that the one way a woman will ever feel truly confident is by liking the way she sees the world, which means, also, hoping to respect and have a good effect on other people. I learned that the desire to have contempt, to lessen and be scornful of other people, always makes a woman doubt herself. And to be honestly sure, a woman needs to see her own uneasiness not as something instigated by inconsiderate people wanting to tear her down, but as an inevitable, ethical showing that she has been unfair to a world she was born to like. I learned, as women are learning now in Aesthetic Realism consultations, that to question ourselves proudly, to want to know where we haven’t seen people and things in a way they deserve, enables us to change—and to be sure of ourselves. 

An Attitude to the World & People

Growing up in Boston, I loved pajama parties with friends on hot summer evenings, replete with popcorn, pillow fights, and dancing to rock and roll. But also, I used occurrences in my family, including my parents’ arguments about money and my mother’s frequent depressions, to feel I had a right to be in a world of my own, separate from everyone. I would spend hours in a crawl space in my parents’ closet, indulging in angry diatribes in my mind against nearly everyone—my family, teachers, friends—going over the ways people had been "mean" to me. I was coming to an attitude to the world and people based on contempt, on being wrongly "sure" other people were unjust to me so I could feel superior and give myself the right to despise and be angry with everything.

At age 11, while playing at a construction site, I cut my hand very severely, and two men working nearby brought me to the hospital. Their doing so kept me from bleeding to death. But in the years that followed, I never gave a thought to these men, and instead dwelt repeatedly on the way the young, unsure doctor who examined me lost his temper and was abrupt with me. Meanwhile, he saved my hand, a fact which I utterly dismissed as I added this experience to my growing case against the world. I would later learn that to have the sureness we want, it is necessary to hope to relate accurately what we see as for us and against us, and not try to obliterate reasons we have to be grateful. 

In my early 20s I got a new job. I was "sure" I had made a very good impression and they couldn’t wait for me to start. However, when I arrived for work, my heart sank as I saw that my desk was in a corner and as my employer greeted me without the fanfare I had imagined, but like anyone else coming to work. I inwardly grumbled, trying to convince myself there was nothing about the job I could like, and by lunchtime was in a tearful rage. A co-worker, seeing my distress, called me into his office and tried to encourage me. However, I stuck to my story that I had been humiliated by my boss, and then got angry with the co-worker.

This was representative of my attitude, as again and again I would boost myself up by going at people in my mind, including manufacturing slights which had little or no basis in fact. I didn’t know it, but this inaccurate, ugly way of seeing people was the very thing making me an unhappy, unkind woman, frantically unsure of herself and ashamed. I’m more grateful than I can express for the criticism I heard from Aesthetic Realism, first in consultations and later in classes taught by Eli Siegel.

In an early class, at a time when I was very unsure of myself as to a man, Mr. Siegel asked me, "Were you maltreated these days?" When I said in a sad tone, "I don’t think so," he asked: "Are you sure? You don’t think you’ve made up your mind in any way?" And he asked: "What is the most unfortunate thing a person can do?" When I said, "I don’t know," Mr. Siegel explained: 

The most unfortunate thing is when one puts a limit on how much one can like and what one can like. Contempt is the achievement of limiting what one can like .... Somewhere in life the conclusion is reached that to be for yourself is to be against other things, instead of seeing that what is different from oneself can bring out what oneself is.

And with humor he said: "You haven’t yet taken an inventory of yourself, and you’re in the midst of it now. Make a list of your assets and liabilities and see if the corporation can make some money this year." I did the assignment, writing, for instance, under liabilities: "I’m not yet a good enough critic of myself, and can change my sense of guilt into other people’s being against me." And under assets I wrote: "I see men as having a depth and reality I once only gave to myself. I see that men want to be kind." As I looked at what I could respect myself for, and what I was critical of, I felt both honestly more sure of myself and prouder of where I was unsure. 

A New Purpose

Studying Aesthetic Realism, I came to see new meaning in the whole world, to care for things I once never imagined I could, including history, economics, science, poetry. And I learned to have a new and respectful purpose with people: to really ask, What does a person deserve from me?; How should I see a person, who comes from and represents the world? One result of this purpose was that I was able truly to love a man: Harvey Spears, now my husband. I’m very proud to have seen that wanting to know people and have a strengthening effect brings depth, dimension, and pride to one’s whole life.