NUMBER 1635 —March 9, 2005
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
The Personal and National Hope
Dear Unknown Friends: 

eginning with Psychiatric Terms: An Aesthetic Realism Consideration is the 1966 lecture by Eli Siegel that we're in the midst of serializing. We've reached the letter h in the American Psychiatric Association glossary he is discussing; and here he comments on one term and through it illustrates the central, groundbreaking idea of Aesthetic Realism. It is the idea that the self is an aesthetic situation, described in the following principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

     I love this section, and the lecture as a whole. As Mr. Siegel, with his clarity (also humor), describes the aesthetics of the human self—how the opposites present in art are in our own turmoils and hopes—we see the true dignity of humanity, including ours.

The Conservative & Radical As One

wo of the opposites Mr. Siegel speaks of here are change and remaining, or being, or sameness. He shows how much we need to make them one in ourselves. It happens too that there is an urgent need for America to see those opposites aesthetically and put them together. Being and change in a nation can take the form of conservative and liberal or radical. And when I say America has to put these together—indeed, see them as one—I am not talking about anything in the field of compromise.

      We have to see what those words I just used mean. Conservative comes from the Latin servare, “to keep,” plus cum, “with.” It represents “keeping with,” remaining. Liberal comes from the Latin liber, or “free,” and has to do therefore with change—because when a person is free, he or she is not stuck or fixed. Radical comes from radix, “root.” To be truly radical is to want to get to the roots of things, to what things fundamentally are and are asking of us, and not have humanity weakened by arrangements which may make certain persons comfortable but which aren't fair to what reality and human beings are at their root.

     All three terms are subject to terrific falsification. And though Americans may not know it, they are longing for an authentic version of all three. That would come down, as I said, to a conservatism and liberalism or radicalism that are beautifully the same.

     What does that mean?

     Conservatism stands for the remain aspect of the opposites of changing and remaining; but as Mr. Siegel points out, we are always changing in some way. And we are also always remaining: we're ourselves even as we go from reading a book to riding a ferris wheel to perhaps traveling to India. We keep our blood cells and our confusions with us—we conserve them. The big question about being and changing, and therefore about conservatism, liberalism, radicalism, is: In behalf of what will our changing occur; and what would we like to have remain?

Opposites in William Lloyd Garrison

et's take something crucial in the history of America: the abolition movement, the movement of various people in the 1830s, '40s, '50s to end slavery. The abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, for example, was called a radical, and truly he was. But his radicalism was very different from his being some kind of careless and un-American fanatic—which is how ever so many persons, both North and South, wanted to present him. (Quite a few of them wanted to kill him.) His radicalism consisted in his saying that the root of the matter must be honored: one human being should not own another, and every moment that slavery continued, America was in a state of massive crime.

     Many people now would say Garrison was right, and I am most certainly among them. But my point at the moment is this: William Lloyd Garrison was really conservative too, because he was trying to have America keep to what stood truly for her at her beginnings. If we see America as based centrally on the great statement in our Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—Garrison was trying to have America change in order to be in keeping with what she really was, in order to conserve what she was.

Is It for Contempt or Respect?

esthetic Realism explains that in every person there are two fighting desires: the desire to respect the world, and the desire to have contempt for the world. At any moment, in everything we do, any change we go through, we are trying to maintain, conserve, fortify either our respect for things, our desire to value them—or our contempt, our desire to look down on things and people and use them to aggrandize ourselves. The radical Garrison was trying to be true to what was respectful and honest in America. The slaveholders and their cohorts in Congress were trying to conserve that in America which was contemptuous—the horrible fact that slavery was an “institution.” In doing so, they were violating every hour the deepest principle of America: that all persons “are created equal.”

     Yet they were called “conservatives” and Garrison a “radical.” Because Garrison wanted to have an America true to the best in her, fair to what a human being, black or white, really is—he was both radical and conservative, and the radicalism and conservatism were the same.

     One of the things to be seen in history is that false conservatives also go after change in a big way: change that is based on contempt. Slaveholders, who wanted to conserve what they called their “tradition,” attempted the huge change of seceding from the Union. Then they found themselves up against another person they called a radical: Lincoln, who did so much to conserve the Union , keep it whole.

The Big Question

he big question of America now can be put in many ways, but one is: How can we be truly conservative? This means too, How can we change rightly? There is much pain in this country, including economic pain, because we have reached the point when there must be full seriousness about, justice to, something America began with: that statement that all people “are created equal,” and the saying in the Preamble to the Constitution that America is “We the People.”

     America, her land, her wealth, her ability to produce, must belong truly to the people of America. What America is looking for is in this statement from Eli Siegel's Self and World:

The world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs. [P. 270]

There is no statement more authentically conservative—fairer to what human beings and our nation deeply are. And no statement describes a more necessary change.

The Self: An Aesthetic Structure
By Eli Siegel   

hat is in the next description could be discussed for a very long time:

Hysterical personality: A personality type characterized by shifting emotional feelings, susceptibility to suggestion, impulsive behavior, attention-seeking, immaturity, and self-absorption; not necessarily disabling.

Well, that's a comfort.

     Persons go through life without relating the details, or radii, of themselves to a center. The basis and the manifestation are not at one. And here we come to the problem of whether the self is an aesthetic structure at the beginning. The ailments that have been given to the self are indications that the self is an aesthetic structure.

Oneness and Details

“A personality type characterized by shifting emotional feelings.” In a work which has aesthetics in it, there is one purpose which is heightened by the details of the work. That is the same as composition. There's an idea which is made more vivid as the idea goes on in time. The best example is a play. There's an idea in the play. And acts, scenes, dialogue, speeches, comings into a room, leavings of a room, stayings in a room, darkness, light, doors opening, doors closing—all of this, or all of these, is and are supposed to make the idea more itself and more alive.

     The self is like the main idea of a play, and everything that the self does should be like every bit of business in a play, every bit of dialogue, every walking across a room, or every stillness.

     What is amiss in the description I read is that it is really about something that occurs with everybody. A person who hasn't been at loose ends, who doesn't feel he wants to do this and also that—wants to open a window, feed the cat, telephone, and also write himself a memorandum in the same five minutes—that person has not lived. We are at cross purposes; we are at sixes and sevens—that is a phrase which I think was first used in the 16th century, and it means that what we want to do doesn't seem to be friendly to the basis of ourselves.

     When we're undecided, when too many things are happening at once, when we could do this and also that, it is shown in the question “What shall I do first?” “I'm overjoyed! What shall I do first? I'm completely surprised! Where shall I begin? How can I tell you what I felt as you just came off the boat?” This is a staple of life. It is important to see that there is a phase of the matter which is not bad at all—in the same way that a playwright would have the job of “How can I make this idea clear and also alive in three long acts, and maybe with thirteen or fourteen characters?” He wouldn't see himself as undergoing something in the field of ailment.

     Without knowing it, we have that problem every day: how can we be faithful to the idea of ourselves in the various things that we're going to do today? We don't see ourselves as an idea, but it can be said that the self is an idea. Every self is a particular way of taking the world accompanied by a possibility, and what we do should be a means of making what we begin with, which is the idea, more itself. That is shown in the phrases “I have come into my own” and “At last I know who I am. I am myself now.”

Simply Personality

ysterical personality, from one point of view, is simply personality, because a personality is looking for its depth in unity and for its manyness. If you can smile and frown with all kinds of nuances in a half hour, you have a personality. Quite a few actresses have cultivated personalities, and the reason Tallulah Bankhead was seen as having one was that she could go from a low guttural to something high-pitched and get many moods and put out both hands to quite a few people, in the same twenty minutes. Personality is associated with a master of ceremonies who can go through many gestures in one show. It is related to manyness. The self is various; if it could not “shift...emotional feelings” there'd be something wrong. Still, what is it various about?

     The language here is pretty bad: “emotional feelings” is tautologous —a vile phrase, as Polonius would say.

Why Do We Change?

hat's the difference between shifting and changing? There is an important difference. We come again to the idea of art. Art is change, but with a reason that is pleasurably acceptable. If a person can go from one mood to another, or one expression to another, and there's a feeling that the change comes from somewhere that is good, then it's just change. But shifting is near to nervousness: that is, the only reason your “emotional feeling” changes is, not that you yourself are for the change, but that you feel you've been giving attention to A and you heard somewhere you also have B, so it's about time to give a little to B.

     Shiftingness is next to instability. An unstable person may change no more than another person, because people should change—it is life. But if you change and there isn't enough reason, you're unstable—as let's say a person orders spaghetti in a restaurant and then without any reason whatsoever asks for something quite different, truffles.

     When we change, there ought to be reason enough. There's a change which is based on restlessness, on the idea that you have been what you were for too long and now you should change. There's a good deal of that; that is, if people change, they think they're alive and in motion and otherwise they are turtles and mollusks and they're bogged down.

     The other possibility is rigidity, thinking you have to do something because you said it. You said you're going to be at this corner, 44th Street and Third Avenue. There's no reason for your being there, because the situation has changed, but you said you would be at that corner and in order to show that you're a stable person, you're going to be at that corner.

     Both are redolent of aesthetics: How can you use change to show that there is a you that is changing? And how can you have a you and believe in the change that is present in yourself even while you're not going through so many things? We have, then, two things that are present in all the plays and all the novels.

We Are All Susceptible

“Susceptibility to suggestion.” Let's say a person in 1912 wants to keep up, and Stravinsky is getting to be seen as a composer. The person comes upon something from France about Stravinsky's Petrouchka—a critic saying, “There's a new element in music: this begins where Beethoven and Wagner left off.” The person says, “Hmmm, no matter how much trouble it may be, if Stravinsky is played in New York I'm going to be there.” Then he hears another critic, maybe this time an Englishman: “Stravinsky is affected, pretentious, has a desperate desire for originality, and conceals his pretence under a grave Slavic air.” The person then says, “I don't care whether Stravinsky comes or not! Stravinsky, while saying something, is hardly as important as Rimsky-Korsakov. And there is a depth in Rachmaninoff that Stravinsky, with all his ardent Parisian advocates, could never pretend to.”

     This susceptibility to the last suggestion is part of life. We are all susceptible and Madison Avenue knows it. There's a feeling it's very dangerous to have opinions of our own: it's good to have a self we call our own, but to have opinions is a way of cluttering it up. Get opinions from others; it's much easier. And in the meantime say that you have your opinions—which always sounds good.

     So being susceptible to impressions has been something which everybody has shown in one way or another. The other way is to be susceptible to no impressions at all. If you are susceptible to no impressions at all you can go far in politics. That is, you hear everybody, but you have got an opinion for yourself and you're completely unmoved. The evidence leaves you precisely where you were.

     These matters are aesthetic. We are whirligigs, and at the same time we'd like to be Gibraltar. Susceptibility to suggestion is something of mind, and the war between not changing at all and changing too lightly is of life itself.

Impulsive Behavior

hen there is “impulsive behavior.” If impulsive behavior were the thing to make hysterical personality, I suppose social life would consist of one hysterical personality being introduced to another, because every person is given somewhat to impulsive behavior. It is a sudden feeling that something would be pleasant and is the thing to do. It can happen to anyone, and it does. The self is impulsive and planning.

     “Attention-seeking.” Again, if attention-seeking makes for hysterical personality, I guess hysterical personalities crowd our thoroughfares. Attention-seeking can sometimes be quite good, because getting attention is very often for the purpose of seeing how another person regards oneself.

Anyone Can Be Immature

hen there's “immaturity,” and that is a term that isn't clear. In the self there is the presence of the two r 's: ripeness and rawness. There's something in the self that does say, “Ripeness is all, and I might as well pretend I have it.” But there is likewise the feeling of rawness.

     Everyone is raw. If Henry James were put in certain milieus, he would seem like a gawky country boy, unless all he did was look wise and say nothing. Any situation may hit our rawness. If, let's say, there were some Austrian musicians in the old Philharmonic and they were talking about the finer points of a symphony, the differences among Liszt, Brahms, and Wagner and how they should be played, and they got into points about chords and dominance and really were very excited—I think if Henry James had to listen to this he'd either go to sleep or he'd look out of place. And I can imagine other discussions: if he were among a group of football coaches trying to present what to do in various contingencies—if the quarterback has a quarrel with the left end in the fourth quarter, what should you tell the quarterback? Who cannot be immature?

     I'm trying to be fair: I don't think this glossary description is exceedingly valuable. I think some exactitude is possible, but it's not here.    

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
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
More Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
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

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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