NUMBER 1629 — December 15, 2004
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
Everyday Life, Aesthetics, & Psychiatric Terms
Dear Unknown Friends: 

e continue to serialize Everyday Life and Aesthetics Look at Psychiatric Terms, by Eli Siegel. This lecture of 1966 is one of several in which he discusses a glossary of terms compiled by the American Psychiatric Association. The lecture is informal; often it has humor; and Mr. Siegel comments on some terms swiftly, others more lengthily. Yet throughout, he is presenting the Aesthetic Realism explanation of self: the explanation of that tremendous, intricate, so uncomprehended subject—our own mind and what in us hurts it.

     “The greatest danger or temptation of man,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself, which lessening is Contempt.” He showed that contempt is the decisive factor in every instance of mental mishap. He showed too that this desire to build ourselves up by lessening something else is the thing in people that has given rise to every cruelty, from mean sarcasm at the breakfast table to international brutality. I see Mr. Siegel's explanation of contempt and its effects as an accomplishment unsurpassed in importance. And equally great is his showing that the human self is an aesthetic matter: we are trying to put together in our lives the opposites that are made one in every instance of art.

     This issue of TRO also includes an essay by Barbara Buehler. It's part of a paper she presented in October at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Every Woman's Biggest Fight: Do I Want to Run People or Understand Them?” Ms. Buehler is a city planner for the city of New York.

A Psychiatric Term, 2004

ast month an article appeared in the New York Times that is closely related to the lecture we're serializing. It's about a psychiatric term and a list issued by the American Psychiatric Association. The term is passive-aggressive. And the article of November 16 is about the fact that “the American Psychiatric Association dropped the behavior pattern from the list of personality disorders.”

     The reporter, Benedict Carey, gives this example of activity labeled “passive-aggressive”: a husband, as soon as a disagreement began between him and his wife, “would say simply, 'O.K., you're right' ” and read the newspaper.

They Don't Understand It

ccording to the Times, the reason the association dropped the term is that “passive-aggressive” behavior “is hard to study precisely because it is so covert, common and widely variable.” Well, that's an impressive way of saying that the psychiatrists don't understand something. In this instance, they don't understand why a person can act as though he's giving in when he really isn't, and they don't know what makes being “passive-aggressive” hurtful or not hurtful. In fact, the mix-up about it is evidence that people won't understand the human mind until they study Aesthetic Realism.

     For example: however imprecise the term “passive-aggressive” may be, what matters most is that psychiatry lacks fundamental knowledge—here, of what the factor is that distinguishes a good use of passivity for aggressive purposes, from a bad use. As the Times article describes it, psychiatrists saw “passive-aggressive” activity as arising from a “personality disorder,” but “new research suggests that in many cases it stems from a positive, socially protective instinct.” The article quotes Dr. E. Tory Higgins of Columbia as saying, “Some of the people being demeaned as passive-aggressive are in fact being extremely careful not to commit mistakes, a strategy that has been successful for them.” It sounds pretty murky, and in this case, the murkiness led the American Psychiatric Association to say, Let's just omit the term.

     Nowhere in the article is there an indication that being something like “passive-aggressive” can have grandeur and real kindness. If so, what would give it that kindness? What would make it ugly and mean?

     It happens that while so-called “passive-aggressive” behavior can make domestic life miserable, in another form it has been important in recent history. No person was more mightily “passive-aggressive” than Mahatma Gandhi. The phrase associated with him is passive resistance, but it's quite clear he was forceful, assertive, acting, combating, through nonviolence or passivity. The passivity of Gandhi and those who joined him was so aggressive that it was central in making India free, in forcing the British to leave.

     When black people in the 1960s sat at a “for whites only” lunch counter in the South and would not move when the police came at them, they were being courageously “passive-aggressive.” A labor strike is “passive-aggressive”: We will do no work, as a means of forcing you to pay us more justly!

The Determining Factor: Respect or Contempt

he criterion is this: Are you being passive out of respect for the world, as a means of having there be more justice to reality and people—or out of contempt, in order to look down on someone and thereby aggrandize yourself? This, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the chief distinguishing factor as to every choice we make: is it in behalf of respect for the world or contempt for it? Outside of the scope and the material, the big thing differentiating a husband's punishing his wife by not speaking to her and the passivity of Gandhi, is that the husband was after contempt, and Gandhi, to a very large degree, was after respect for reality and human beings.

     The ugly thing, the unhealthy thing, about the “passive-aggressive” behavior discussed in the Times article is the contempt in it. There is a triumph in feeling and conveying, “You're not even worth my quarreling with; I'm too good to be stirred by you. So I'll just seem to go along, and dismiss you utterly. I'll punish you, make you squirm, make you furious, while I don't let you feel you've affected me at all—that's how superior I am.” Aesthetic Realism shows that the trouble about mind, and also the goodness of mind, is fundamentally a matter, not of personality disorders, but of ethics.

And Aesthetics

t is also a matter of aesthetics. For example, the phrase “passive-aggressive” clearly has opposites. They are opposites central in all art, and we will not be happy, proud, at ease unless we are trying to make them one in us as they are in art. Every artist has to be passive. The primal meaning of passive is acted upon—not numb. The artist doesn't want to grab and manhandle things: he wants them to act on him, affect him, get into him, even toss him about. And because the artist has let sounds, sights, happenings, ideas, people do big things to him, without his managing them, he is able to be tremendously expressive, active, aggressive in the best sense: he is able to do things to the world. Beethoven was both more passive and more aggressive as to sound than most people: he let it do more to him, and therefore he could do so much with it.

     There are lines in Walt Whitman's poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” that stand for the way an artist makes these opposites one. Whitman describes himself as a boy, watching two birds near the sea, on Long Island:

And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch'd on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.

     Whitman does not want to manage these birds—he wants to see their meaning. To see the meaning of things, know them, be fair to them, is the oneness of passivity and assertion. It is mental health. It is also the purpose of Aesthetic Realism, and what I saw Eli Siegel go after always.

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

A Self & the World Are There
By Eli Siegel

he next term is criminally insane:

A legal term for patients who have been committed to a mental hospital by the courts after being found not guilty of crime “by reason of insanity.”

     In penology, the tendency has been to show that all crime is insanity, even the kind that doesn't plead the exoneration of insanity. The criminally insane are those whose anger with other people gets to such a point that they not only use their minds but use their physique and occasionally an instrument. We can be angry in such a way that, strictly speaking, it is insane. It simply doesn't have proportion and doesn't have the facts. But most insanity bubbles in the cistern that is oneself and doesn't go out. The kind that takes a walk or slops over can make for criminal insanity.

     The newspapers contain this very often. Only a day or two ago, a man was impelled to stab his wife and four children. That got into the press and also over the radio. The wife and four children were the symbol of defeat for this person, and so, in seeing that they didn't exist, there was a great satisfaction. That society didn't go along with it is quite clear, and this particular person was committed to Kings County Hospital for observation, because it is felt that no sane person would kill his wife and four children.

Delirium: Manyness vs. Oneness

hen there is the term delirium:    

A mental state characterized by disorientation and confusion. Anxiety, fear, illusions, or hallucinations may also be present.

Delirium is a mingling of feelings which don't go for one thing, or don't have form. Ideas follow ideas, and it is a little bit like the old term stream of consciousness: “So I looked at the saucer, the Hudson is dirty at this point, Grant fought no battles in Pennsylvania , my niece has an awful way of talking back.” A good deal of one's thought is like that. We'll get to delirium again.

Delusion: Self vs. Reality

Delusion: A false belief out of keeping with the individual's level of knowledge and his cultural group. The belief results from unconscious needs and is maintained against logical argument and despite contradictory evidence. Common delusions include:
     Delusions of grandeur: exaggerated ideas of one's importance or identity....

Any handling of reality, in one's favor or against oneself, which reality, given a chance, would object to can be called a delusion. Delusions of grandeur—that is, making yourself much more important than you are—and something different can take the form of this bulletin:

“He has a delusion of grandeur: he thinks he's Secretary of Defense McNamara.”
     “I wouldn't call that a delusion of grandeur,” said the other psychiatrist: “that's a guilt complex.”

     You can have a delusion about anything. For example, Victor Hugo implied in his sketch of Balzac, and others did, that Balzac—with all his perspicacity in writing about women in Paris and out of Paris—had a delusion about Mme. Hanska. She was not the person he acted as if he thought she was. A delusion can exist anytime a mistake can. A delusion can be called a mistake in which you persist, which you are ready to defend.

Ours vs. Theirs

efore myths became so important to art, “good Christians” felt that the belief in Jupiter or Venus or Athena was a delusion. And then they talked of the delusion that Mohammed fostered. Buddha was a delusion, and furthermore there were delusions in the Jewish religion. In the past, every religion, if it really liked itself, implied: there's only one religion that isn't a delusion and that's the one that bothers you—all the rest are delusions. Since then, you can care for many religions.

     When does confidence change into delusions of grandeur? Here we have to get to aesthetics. A person is supposed to be confident. He's also supposed to believe there's no such word as impossible. One of the things a child was asked to write in order to cultivate good handwriting was: “The impossible is only a word.” But later he told a psychiatrist he felt there was nothing impossible for him, and the psychiatrist said he had delusions of grandeur.

     The big thing is, how much confidence can a person have without getting into the field of the delusion of grandeur? Well, a delusion of grandeur has in it a motive. “Exaggerated ideas of one's importance or identity”: this would mean that the delusion of grandeur is sure getting around.

To Run People or Understand Them?
By Barbara Buehler

“Aesthetic Realism believes,” Eli Siegel wrote, “that to understand, which is the same thing as getting truth and organizing it, is the deepest desire” of a person (TRO 450). I learned too that there is also a terrific desire to manage other people in order to feel we are somebody. This desire has us dislike ourselves and makes for cruelty.

     As I was growing up, the two desires fought in me. I loved to read, and in school my favorite subject was American history. But I also got a thrill beating out my classmates with a higher grade. In a diary I kept when I was 12 and 13, there are many entries like “I got 97, Karen got 90, Ha! Ha!” or “I got 93, Karen got 96, how could that be?”

      If something displeased me or didn't go my way, when I got home from school I would go to my room, slam the door, sulk, and think about how I was far too sensitive and deep to be understood by anyone, especially my parents. I would imagine myself as President so I could give the orders and everyone would kowtow. I was a little princess, selecting who was good enough to be my friend, then complaining in my diary that no one called me. I felt regal, dictatorial, in my room, but increasingly lonely and shy with people.

Where the Fight Begins

esthetic Realism explains that a way of seeing the whole world starts with the way we see the first representatives of it we meet. My parents, especially my father, could make a great deal of me and then seem to dismiss me. I would get furious when he would say jokingly, “You're my favorite daughter—because you're my only daughter!” When my brother, Peter, was born, I felt my father preferred him to me. Many years later in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, Mr. Siegel would kindly and humorously say to me, “Well, if your father didn't see his good fortune in having a daughter like you, can you put it down as his misfortune? Can you do that?”

     But I had not forgiven my father, and I had retaliated, hurtfully to my own life and to his. It simply never occurred to me to want to understand my father. He was punctual, and I tormented him by being late for everything I could, whether coming to dinner, doing weekend chores, leaving on a vacation trip. He'd begin by asking me to hurry up, and would end yelling. When he was waiting for me to go somewhere, I could hear him calling from the driveway, but when the car door slammed, and the front door opened and slammed shut, I knew I'd had my victory. I felt awful though, and said I would never do it again. But I did.

     Mr. Siegel asked me questions that enabled me to end this desire to run my father. For example:

      ES. Do you think he was afraid of your sense of satire?...When was the first time you ever made fun of him in your mind?—1904?  
      BB. Oh, yes.
      ES. Did you enjoy making him look ridiculous?
      BB. Yes, I did.
      ES. Now, if you were your father, what would you do if you had a daughter who enjoyed making you look ridiculous?
      BB. I'd want to stay away from her.
      ES. Which is exactly what he did?
      BB. Yes, he did.

     Through what I learned, I became a much kinder daughter, more interested in knowing my parents than in running them. And that made it possible for me to have a real desire to understand people and what they're hoping for.

A Husband: To Be Managed or Known?

y education on the subject has continued, including as to my husband, architect Dale Laurin. Early in our marriage, while I was very happy, I often found myself giving Dale orders and correcting things he did—how he folded a towel, washed the dishes, made the bed. I saw no relation between my desire to run Dale and the way I could inexplicably feel cool to him.

     When I mentioned this coolness in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me, “Do you think you've been afraid in various ways of great emotion, including about Mr. Laurin?” Yes! And I saw that in feeling I should control everything, I was stopping myself from having the emotion I wanted. I began to look at my husband newly, listen to what he was saying, ask questions with a desire to know what he felt—and I began to have new, big feeling about him, which I'm happy to say has grown with each of our 24 years of marriage.

     The victory of understanding over the desire to run, manage, have contempt for other human beings and nations is urgently needed by our country now. Aesthetic Realism makes it possible for every person, and it's the victory America deserves. 

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

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.

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Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
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Lord Byron | Harry Potter  |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns  |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
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Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method

Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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