NUMBER 1632 —January 26, 2005
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
Should WeCan WeCriticize Our Feelings?
Dear Unknown Friends: 

n this issue we begin to serialize the lecture Eli Siegel gave on May 6, 1966. It is the third of a group of lectures in which he discussed terms from an American Psychiatric Association glossary. He took up that alphabetical list, commenting informally yet deeply, critically, sometimes humorously—and he presented in the process what the human mind truly is and does. The title of the present lecture is Beginning with Psychiatric Terms: An Aesthetic Realism Consideration.

     In the first section, we meet something that is central to Aesthetic Realism and very different from what people are hearing from psychiatrists and counselors: the fact that there is a tremendous, urgent, and (as Mr. Siegel says here) beautiful need in every person to be a critic of his or her own feelings.

The Unspoken Assumption

t's the easiest thing in the world to have feelings: to be alive is to feel. But for our feelings to be accurate, just, good for us, is something else. There is a huge unspoken assumption in people, “I feel this, and therefore it's right.” If we're angry, pleased, disgusted, bored, we take these responses to be unquestionable, because they're ours. Aesthetic Realism explains that there is nothing more dangerous. For example, every racist has a feeling—and because he has it, he assumes it's right and unchangeable, and he may assume he can act on it.

      The psychology people meet today largely fortifies this un-self-critical way of being. It deals with feelings as things to be either expressed or soothed in some fashion (often through drugs), or perhaps managed (as in “anger management”)—but not criticized. Besides, psychologists do not know on what basis a feeling should be criticized.

     Meanwhile, we are inevitable critics of our feelings without knowing it. And there is an ethical basis within us that this criticism goes on, though we don't know that. Aesthetic Realism makes the basis conscious: Is our feeling fair to the object it's about? Is it fair to the world? Is its purpose to respect the world, or to have contempt for the world? (We can be angry at, even scornful of, someone, as a means of respecting the world that this person is unfair to. We can also be angry or scornful as a means of reveling in disgust and feeling how superior we are.)

     Our nervousness, our “low self-esteem,” our emptiness, often our fearfulness, are criticism we give ourselves for having feelings that aren't just. These things are sloppy self-criticism, by which we punish ourselves for our contempt. We need to learn to be accurate, happy, conscious, articulate self-critics, rather than murky ones who pain ourselves, make ourselves suffer, even as we don't change. Aesthetic Realism is the education in how to look accurately at our feelings.

What Criticism Is

ere are two definitions of criticism by Mr. Siegel; one formal and one informal. I love both of them. And I love the dignity, happiness, intelligence, cultural width, and pride which the Aesthetic Realism criticism of self makes possible in people's lives.

     In a very early essay, “The Scientific Criticism,” published in the Modern Quarterly in March 1923, when he was 20, Mr. Siegel writes:

Criticism is that action of mind, whose aim is to get the value of anything; and by value I mean size of power; and this power may be good or bad.

     Some decades later, he gave this more playful version:

A critic makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling.

     Though people have avoided being conscious critics of their own feelings—and though counselors tell them they should “accept” themselves and be accepted as they are—it happens that we can't see anyone honestly trying to criticize his or her feelings without our respecting that person. That's why, for example, Hamlet is one of the most treasured characters in world literature.

What Can We Ask?

hat can we ask as a beginning means of criticizing our feelings, seeing them rightly as just or unjust, good or bad? Here are three examples.

     1. Self-criticism by a man in Chicago: “I have a feeling of disgust. The weather is lousy; the sandwich I just ate wasn't so good; I didn't like a co-worker's tone as he answered me. So I ask myself, Is this disgusted feeling I have accurate? Am I using things that perhaps can be objected to, to have a general displeasure—to dislike the world itself? Do I even feel a triumph (a miserable triumph) because I can dislike—find things unworthy of me? Do I feel more important being disgusted by what's not myself, or respecting it? Do I have a hope to be disgusted as a means of feeling superior?

     “Is there anything I could like about this weather—is sleet an interesting relation of hardness and softness, wet and dry? Though the tuna sandwich I ate left something to be desired, did a person work to make it, and was her work valuable? Is the coming to be of sandwiches part of the history of civilization? Are there people in this world who would be very grateful to have that tuna fish sandwich? And as to my co-worker, was his bad tone just directed at me, or was the rest of his life in it in some way?—maybe he had a fight with his wife this morning; and I'm sure he doesn't like how the boss treats him or how much money he makes.

     “I have a right to be a critic of the things I meet, to dislike what deserves to be disliked; but I don't have the right to dislike sloppily and triumphantly and to use what's wrong to wipe out what can be valued. What's bigger, my disgust or my desire to know? It was my disgust—and that in itself shows my feeling to be very questionable.

      “Yes, I had a feeling of general disgust, and I'm a critic of it. The feeling was inaccurate and unfair, and I'm proud to see that and say so.”

A Thrill Is Looked At

2. Self-criticism by a woman in Seattle : “Did I get a thrill being praised by Jim and having him look at me that way! He told me I was wonderful, and his lower lip trembled when he said it. I felt a surge of power—like I was on top of the world!

     “Did my thrill come from respecting Jim, men, people, and the world more? Did I feel, when he said what he did and looked as he did, that he was seeing me truly? Did my opinion of his intelligence go up? No. I felt that I had fooled him and that he was sort of stupid; I felt I conquered him. In other words, my thrill had contempt in it—not only for Jim but for the world, because I had the feeling I was running the world when I finally got Jim to act silly about me.

     “This has happened to me before: I've gotten people to make much of me, and I felt set up for a while. But later there was always disappointment, and anger, and more unsureness inside me. I'm learning, and seeing, that the reason is: I was having contempt. Now I want to mean something to a person without having a cheap emotion in the process. I want to respect someone for being affected by me.

     “I've learned from Aesthetic Realism that it's possible to get a compliment, feel happy about it, and have the feeling be respectful of a person and the world. If Jim saw something to value in me and wanted to say so, and was accurate; and if I wanted him to see me truly, with all the good and bad in me (instead of wanting to fool him); and if I felt that in his valuing a good quality in me he was valuing not just me but the world of which I'm a part—then I would respect him. And I would be honestly happy, because I'd feel that the world in the form of Jim wanted to appreciate and encourage me, and was more friendly than I'd seen.”

Criticism Makes a Person Surer

3. Self-criticism by a woman in Trenton: “I had such a feeling of compassion seeing pictures of people in Asia who are homeless and suffering because of the tsunami disaster. I was swept by the feeling; it made me cry. I want to be a critic of this emotion. Is it accurate? Does it have in it respect or contempt for people?

     “I believe my feeling is accurate, and I'm proud of it. It came from seeing other people more fully—as being as real as I am. It had in it a respect for what a human being is, a respect that's not academic, but deep and organic—and I think this respect is in the millions of people around the world who have felt as I have, learning about this disaster.

     “Does my feeling have respect for the world, or contempt? This is difficult. I see a tendency to have—along with my compassion for people—a feeling of terrific contempt for the world. Something in me wants to say the whole world is a mess if this can happen in it. But I'm not going to give way to contempt. Yes, the world has shown it can be terribly brutal. And I don't understand how to see that brutality, and I'm not going to pretend it doesn't exist. But I'm also not going to say that this ugliness negates whatever good and beauty and kindness exist; they are the world too. And I'm not going to get a sleazy feeling of victorious superiority deciding reality is a mess. I'm going to say I don't understand and I hope to understand, without making myself important by despising everything.

     “So as critic I can say that my feeling of compassion looks good to me. And I can say it stands for me, because I've learned from Aesthetic Realism that my deepest desire is to see meaning in the world. As I'm a critic of my feeling—as I want to see my own good feeling with exactitude, not just have it—I am taking care of myself.

     “One way is this: when people feel compassion for others, they have a tendency soon to feel they were in some way sacrificial and noble, were putting aside themselves; and they'll be selfish later to make up for it. But as I'm a critic and see that my compassion has exactitude, not sacrifice, and also that it arises from the very purpose of my life, I don't have to ‘make up for it’ through having colder, more ‘selfish’ feelings later. I see that my best feelings are also my most accurate and truly selfish ones.”

     At the end of Mr. Siegel's early essay “The Scientific Criticism,” there is a section called “Concluding Logical Ecstasy,” and I quote two sentences from that section. These sentences, however ecstatic, are logical. And through Aesthetic Realism, what they describe is possible for people now:

To criticize—to look upon the world and man with all his feelings, as an object. This way we can come to know man—and knowing ourselves—Earth! what great things can we not come to be!

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Beginning with Psychiatric Terms
By Eli Siegel   

go on with the psychiatric lexicon. And one of the things I can say about it is that it's not critical enough. To be critical is an objective that is much more beautiful and necessary than is realized.

     We come to the term euphoria:

An exaggerated feeling of physical and emotional well-being not consonant with reality.

Persons still would rather have that than a feeling which isn't of physical and emotional well-being. But it brings up a large matter: the fact that a person can feel good and then change, or retract the feeling, or think it was foolish or incorrect or out of place—anything but what really represents one. Then it can be said to have been “not consonant with reality.”

     The implication of this definition is that if a feeling is very good, it perhaps is not consonant with reality. I say an implication—it's not really stated. But there is a tendency to think that if one is feeling very good, reality for a while has been subdued, not that one is in keeping with reality. And this description of a feeling so good that it should make one looked on with suspicion, goes along with that.

     The question, then, remains: what feeling should reality give rise to? Here we come to the meaning of critical. The fact that persons are not really critical, that so far humanity has seen two possibilities—one to complain of and the other exploitable—is one way of expressing the sad aspect of human history. It still goes on, and I cannot say it's going to stop very soon.

     One way of cheapening everything in this world is not to be critical. A person who isn't critical is cheapening, even though the remarks of that person may be of a favorable kind, because the cheapening consists in thinking that one can be favorable without inquiring about the basis. If one is favorable without looking at the basis, there is a kind of cheapening that has pleasant feeling with it, but it is cheapening. It exists a very great deal.

     So the thing wrong with euphoria is that it is a good feeling but the basis is not respectful; that is, it is “not consonant with reality,” as the definition puts it. It is what one can feel despite reality. And as I said, a great deal of that is present, though not as euphoria—as simply a kind of happy feeling that doesn't arise from seeing the facts but because a person can thrust, grasp, collect something.

Looking at Things

he next word is extroversion:

A state in which attention and energies are largely directed outward from the self....

This makes looking at things seem melodramatic. The Jungian approach is here. But to live at any one time is to have energy and attention “directed outward from the self.” To live is to go out. To live is to be in motion, and the motion has to be somewhat out; otherwise there would be nothing but contraction, and life couldn't be at that time. What's important is to have a relation between the awareness of oneself and the being directed outward from the self that is just, or accurate, or beautiful.

     The word largely in the definition makes the matter seem debatable when it really isn't. Life is never only of one motion. If we see any attention whatsoever in a living being, the attention is outward. And even when a living being looks at itself, the attention can be seen as outward from one possibility of self to another possibility of self. That there can be a disjunction between the way one sees oneself and the way one sees outer things, to be sure is not denied. But in this definition, extroversion is made too unusual.

Always of Two Kinds

he definition goes on: “as opposed to interest primarily directed toward the self, as in introversion.”

      The second part of the definition has the implication that when the attention is directed outward from the self, the self is somewhat less interested in itself than when its direction is inward. This is not so. There are two ways of being interested in oneself. One is represented by the Indian who is watching the trail, watching the trees, watching the lake: he's very much interested in himself and therefore he watches the trail, lake, trees, other people if they're around. The fact that interest is always of two kinds is not made enough of in this definition.

     There can be extroversion, attention outside, that is very bad. A certain watchfulness occurs in fear. And when people stare, it is extroversion. There's a tremendous extroversion. People have died staring: there's a desire to take in the outside world; but even as there is, that awful stare, which many people have when they die, makes for a feeling that the extroversion is one of objection, of fear. What matters isn't the extroversion, it's the purpose.

A Large Question of Our Time

Then there is the term forensic psychiatry:

That branch of psychiatry dealing with legal aspects of mental disorders.

That isn't too important for our present purpose. But psychiatry has always been related to law, and the question that hasn't been answered yet is: what is a crime? And if there is such a thing as crime, what should people do about it? The way of seeing that is changing. There was a case just settled in England , a strange case, the moor murders, and it ended in a manner that would have been seen as dull in the 18th century: the offenders were given life imprisonment, with the possibility of appeal. That shows that what crime is, goes through change and is going through change right now.

     The relation of crime to wisdom, to beauty, to ethics, is one of the large matters of our age or time.

The Known and Unknown

ext there is free association :

In psychoanalytic therapy, spontaneous, uncensored verbalization by the patient of whatever comes to mind.

It is useful, for one thing, to have people see that if they try to utter gibberish it won't be gibberish: it will take on a logic that will surprise them. It is harder to talk nonsense, use ungrammatical sentences, sentences that are completely incoherent, than to talk coherently. Free association is valuable because it is a means of showing a relation between what goes on in a person that he doesn't know and what goes on in a person that he does know or can know.    

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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Lord Byron | Harry Potter  |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns  |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution

Aesthetic Realism Resources
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More Biographies of Eli Siegel:
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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

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method

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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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