|NUMBER 1447.—December 27, 2000||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Let us not fool ourselves: as this year ends and a new year begins, what people want most—what we are thirsty for, panting for—is Criticism. That is not what the various psychologists, and advisors, and talk show counselors say. And men and women themselves can think approval is what they want—to be assured they’re wonderful just as they are. Certainly, we should be praised for what in us deserves it. But we need criticism so that we can be the persons we hope to be. We need to know what in us is interfering with our own lives. We need to know how we are untrue to ourselves—and how to be true to ourselves.
Aesthetic Realism, with its tremendous respect for the self of a person, is the philosophy that makes this clear: the desire in us for criticism is as inevitable as our desire for air, and is also the most honorable and practical desire we have. Aesthetic Realism, too, provides the kind, clear, deep, exact criticism that people for centuries have thirsted to receive.
In Aesthetic Realism consultations men and women are learning what Eli Siegel was the philosopher to show: that our largest desire is to like the world honestly, to be just to what is not ourselves. This means that the biggest thing about us is much better than we have seen! Meanwhile, Aesthetic Realism explains what interferes with that big fundamental purpose we have.
The interfering thing is contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt, Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, "is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker" (p. 362). Contempt is what ruins love, interferes with learning, makes a person lonely, and causes all the cruelty in the world. Contempt is what makes us nervous and displeased with ourselves—because it is against the very purpose of our lives! We want criticism of our contempt, criticism that enables us to understand it so we can choose not to have it!
Aesthetic Realism is the aesthetic criticism of self. It is based on this principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." We were born to try to make a one of the opposites self and world—to be fair to ourselves and to what’s different from us at the same time. And Mr. Siegel explains that the "beginning criticism" is: "persons have been so inclined to cherish themselves or favor themselves, they have not been just to the meaning of what is not themselves" (TRO 84).
Criticism and an Election
There is today, because of the nature of the 2000 election, a new critical feeling in America. Millions of Americans have seen that some of the most highly placed persons in our land were "so inclined to ... favor themselves" and what they connected with their importance, that they were not "just to the meaning of what is not themselves." In this instance "not themselves" was the right of every American to have one’s vote matter.
Because of the election the critical question, How much democracy do we have? is more alive in America. To use a term now frequently heard—some persons have known for years that many citizens, particularly black citizens, were disenfranchised. Now millions of Americans know disenfranchisement exists, and may happen even to oneself. This larger critical awareness is patriotic and lovely. And through it people may also see more that they want to hear the criticism of themselves which will enable them to be just and proud.
Mr. Siegel has described a critic as someone who "makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling." And that is what he himself did, with kindness, clarity, grace, might, and often with beautiful humor—whether the subject was an artwork, a matter of national ethics, or a person’s purposes. He was, I say carefully, the greatest of all critics.
The Ache for Honesty
While men and women maneuver for flattery and lap it up, they also despise the person who gives it. That is because a friend is someone who cares enough for our life so that he doesn’t butter us or collaborate with us, but really wants what is hurtful in us to be less. When we see someone not care about that—however close he is to us, we feel he is our enemy. We may not say so; we may flatter him while he flatters us; but our suspicion, emptiness, and sense of pretense will go on. And so will the ache for honesty.
We can want something fervently, desperately, and not know it. For many centuries, most people were unaware how desperately they wanted to learn to read; they spent their lives illiterate, and few thought they hungered for knowledge of the written word. Yet the absence of that knowledge made them stifled selves. So it is with criticism. We are stifled without it. To stand for the true ardor of our desire for criticism, I quote some sentences of Emily Dickinson. She is writing to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and the criticism she asks for is criticism of her poetry; but we want, at least as much, criticism of our very selves. She writes in her particular Emily Dickinson manner, intense and musical. But she is talking straight:
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive? The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask... Will you tell me my fault, frankly as to yourself, for I had rather wince, than die. Men do not call the surgeon, to commend—the Bone, but to set it, Sir, and fracture within, is more critical. And for this, Preceptor, I shall bring you...every gratitude I know. [April, July 1862]
The passion, the throbbing, the center-of-self yearning in these sentences, have one feel that the criticism Emily Dickinson asks for is not just "literary," but is deeply criticism of herself—of how she sees the world. Let us place beside it what people get in advice columns today. I quote sentences I read in Newsday, December 11, in John Gray’s syndicated "Mars & Venus" column.
A woman writes: "After my divorce I had three relationships. All failed for the same reason: None of the men would commit to me." And John Gray replies: "Often our relationships fail because we skip one of the five stages of dating: attraction, uncertainty, exclusivity, intimacy and commitment." This woman does not need to hear about "stages." She needs to hear what in her is unjust (even as men, surely, can be wrong too). She and we need to hear criticism of the fact that we can see another person not as someone to be richly fair to, but as someone who exists to make us important. Mr. Gray’s correspondent needs to hear what Aesthetic Realism consultant Nancy Huntting describes in this issue of TRO. It is from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "The Most Popular Mistakes about Love—& How Not to Make Them!"
I am a person who heard, from Aesthetic Realism and Mr. Siegel himself, the criticism Emily Dickinson and all people have longed for: criticism of what in myself hurt my life, and enormous encouragement of what is best in me. And for this I feel, in Miss Dickinson’s words, "every gratitude I know."
As an example, I quote three sentences from an Aesthetic Realism lesson of thirty years ago. In them Mr. Siegel described the one purpose toward people which we can be proud of having. It was not the purpose I had had, and, he taught me, that was why I was in pain. He said: "You’ll either want to learn from people, or want to have contempt for them and be angry with them. If your main purpose in listening to a person isn’t to learn, you’ll [suffer]. We’ll either see the world as something we’re cleverer than, or feel every moment is an informative moment."
I saw Mr. Siegel himself want to learn from every moment and every person. The constancy and fulness with which he had that purpose made him beautiful.
This issue of TRO contains the last section of his great 1948 lecture Poetry and Pleasure. We do not have the final minutes of it; they were not recorded. To place what is here, I mention two things. 1) In the previous section Mr. Siegel discussed a poem of Andrew Marvell and explained that Marvell was saying, The greatest pleasure is to see meaning in the world, and any pleasure which interferes with that pleasure is one I don’t want. 2) Throughout Poetry and Pleasure, Mr. Siegel has been showing this fact: poetry is evidence that any subject, including the most painful, makes for pleasure if it is seen truly. There is no more hopeful fact in the world.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
The Pleasure Marvell Wanted
The Biggest Mistake about Love
By Nancy Huntting
The biggest mistake about love—and I made it—is the seeing love as a haven from a world we don’t like, where we will be glorified. To my surprise, I learned from Aesthetic Realism that love is not in competition with everything else: its purpose is to like the world through another person!
Growing up in Ohio, I loved ballet classes, climbing trees, going to the local library, and school. But when Davey Brown, a boy in my class, kissed me by the swings, I felt a new, thrilling power. And increasingly, I wanted a boyfriend to be a buffer against all the people who weren’t so smitten by me. What I thought was all-consuming love for my high school boyfriend, Terry McGage, included jealousy, suspicion, anger, and tears. I wanted him completely under my spell. Meanwhile, I didn’t like myself: I felt I was clinging and weak. But the mistake of thinking that love was getting a man to adore me continued.
I met Steve Moore in New York shortly after college. He had many friends, showed me the city, introduced me to his field, architecture, which I came to love. When we began living together I felt it was a dream come true, but soon I found myself resenting the very things I had liked—everything that meant something to Steve other than me! I became increasingly ill-natured.
I’m very grateful that in Aesthetic Realism classes Mr. Siegel asked me questions that enabled me to see my mistakes and learn from them. "Where," Mr. Siegel asked, "was [Mr. Moore] suspicious of you? The greatest suspicion of men is that, in some way they don’t understand, a woman is trying to make them weaker. Was your purpose to have him dependent on you?" "I’ve seen him as very independent," I answered. And Mr. Siegel asked, "Did you want to change that, though?" Yes! I began to see how, in wanting Steve to need me more than anything else, I wanted him weaker. Mr. Siegel asked: "Did you feel you would conquer the world by having Mr. Moore need you?" I did.
"Love," he explained, "is defined in two ways by Aesthetic Realism: 1) proud need; 2) ecstasy through good will." Mr. Siegel has described good will as "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). Good will is aesthetic: it is the oneness of criticism and kindness, for and against. We are passionately for what is good in a man, as we are against what is not good in him. This purpose makes for romance that is authentic—emotions that sweep us and make us better! Aesthetic Realism is the education that magnificently explains love—and makes it possible!
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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