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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 
A  PERIODICAL OF HOPE AND INFORMATION
 NUMBER 1672. — August 9, 2006
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

The Great Barbarity—& What Can Oppose It

Dear Unknown Friends: 

he great barbarity of human beings, in history and now, is not to want to see the feelings of people other than oneself. This lack of desire to see others as having feelings as real as one's own is fundamental contempt. That is, it's central to the way of mind Eli Siegel described as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else."

     The great barbarity is ordinary. It goes on in families. A brother is usually not interested in the feelings of a sister, her inner tumult, her hopes, her self-questionings, nor is she interested in his, though they'll defend each other from strangers.

     The great barbarity is the thing that interferes with love. A woman may think lengthily and intensely about how much a man is affected by her, yet be quite uninterested in how he sees a whole world of happenings, objects, work, and people outside of herself. The man is not fervently interested in how she sees the world either. So while there's passion for a while, there come to be resentment, dullness, and a sense of shame between them.

      This same lack of desire to see another's feelings is, Aesthetic Realism explains, the cause of all the cruelty that has ever been.

Feelings in the Middle East

s I write, Israel is bombing southern Beirut, leveling whole neighborhoods, making them rubble, destroying Lebanon 's infrastructure, killing hundreds of innocent people, leaving thousands homeless. I am a person who cares deeply for Israel, yet I say that this would not be happening if people in Israel, leaders there, saw the feelings of a Lebanese mother, a terrified schoolchild, a despairing father, a boy whose legs were bombed off, as real—real as feelings in Tel Aviv.

     And certainly, certainly, persons in Hezbollah would not be rocketing Haifa and killing and wounding people there, if the Hezbollah individuals saw Israelis as having feelings like their own.

     All this would not be happening if in previous weeks and years Jew had looked at Arab, Arab at Jew, and thought, "This is a human being as real as I am, who has emotions as deep. What are his worries? What are his hopes? Is he confused, the way I can be confused? And about what?"

     In issue 165 of this journal, Eli Siegel wrote:

It is necessary to see that while the contempt which is in every one of us may make ordinary life more painful than it should be, this contempt is also the main cause of wars....Contempt must be had for contempt before squabbles grow less, terror diminishes.

     Not wanting to see the feelings of someone different from us, can readily become the following: "What I am is much more important than what another person is. I can make up for all my hurts, confusions, unsurenesses by showing I'm utterly superior to this person, those people—by having them succumb to me, by making them squirm, grovel, and more." That, as I described in a previous TRO, was the way of mind in the American soldiers who committed atrocities in Iraq.

     Contempt makes for war. But within every person, contempt is itself at war with something else. We're all in a fight between contempt and good will, the desire to see and honor meaning in what's not ourselves. An article about that most important fight in everyone appears in this issue of TRO. It's from a paper that New York City high school teacher Christopher Balchin presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "Men's Imagination: What Kind Is Good?"

Ernest Hemingway & Feeling

An early work of Ernest Hemingway is a means of looking at what I've called here the great barbarity. Mr. Siegel considered Hemingway's 1924 collection of short stories, In Our Time, his best writing. And I think those stories are, in different ways, about the fact that people don't want to see another person's feelings.

     The In Our Time stories are written in the Hemingway style. It's the style which, two years later, with his novel The Sun Also Rises, would make people feel a new prose had come to American and English literature. The sentences, short, undecorated, made for a sense that one could be deeper with an honest simplicity than with certain intricacies; that there could be more emotion through sentences that didn't contain a certain overt emotionalism. (Meanwhile, when Hemingway's prose is good, it's not just the succinctness and toughness that make it so. There is a rhythm, even a music, in his sentences, as there is in the good sentences, ever so much longer, of Henry James.)

     The following passage is about an occurrence in the First World War. The narrator tells of shooting an enemy soldier, and then others, as they climb over a garden wall:

We waited till he got one leg over and then potted him. He had so much equipment on and looked awfully surprised and fell down into the garden. Then three more came over further down the wall. We shot them. They all came just like that.

     So we have a garden, and killing. The writing is tough. But as Hemingway notes that the enemy soldier looked surprised, swiftly that soldier's humanity comes forth. The passage makes a one of the sense that those enemies are people with feelings, and the non-seeing of them that way. Surprise and flatness join in the very sound of the sentences. Hemingway wants a reader to ask, How can a person kill another person?! With World War I, that question came sharply to him and other thoughtful people. It is with us now. And I have seen that Aesthetic Realism answers it.

"Indian Camp"

emingway's story "Indian Camp" is chapter 1 of In Our Time. The wiping out of another's feelings is central to it. Here Hemingway's recurrent character Nick Adams is a boy, living near Lake Superior, and his father is a doctor, as Hemingway's father was. Dr. Adams visits a Native American woman who has been in labor for two days, and he brings Nick with him. The woman is screaming in agony. There is this dialogue:

     "Oh, Daddy, can't you give her something to make her stop screaming?" asked Nick.
     "No. I haven't any anaesthetic," his father said. "But her screams are not important. I don't hear them because they are not important."

     We have a man making the terrific feeling of another person "not important." Everybody has gone on the idea, usually not articulated, that: if I have to think about someone else deeply, see that person's feelings, it will lessen my comfort; interfere with my sense of supremacy; keep me from having my way. The woman is an Indian, and in the history of America there was so much making of the feelings of Native Americans unimportant. If you didn't grant them the humanity you had, you could do anything with them you pleased.

     Though Nick's father knew he might have to operate on the woman, he did not bring an anesthetic. He does operate, and then Hemingway writes:

He bent over the Indian woman. She was quiet now and her eyes were closed. She looked very pale. She did not know what had become of the baby or anything....
     He was feeling exalted and talkative as football players are in the dressing room after a game. 
     "That's one for the medical journal...," he said. "Doing a Caesarian with a jack-knife and sewing it up with nine-foot, tapered gut leaders."

     Hemingway's short sentences about the woman are warm. They have a sound of sympathy and wonder. But the doctor is smug and self-congratulatory. I think Hemingway wanted people to feel there is too much smugness in everyone: we stroke ourselves and are cold to others, and it is ugly. The source of that ugliness—contempt—and what can truly oppose it, Aesthetic Realism makes clear.

     The opposition to the great barbarity is the respect which is in art. In all art, Aesthetic Realism shows, a person has looked at something, trying to see it with fulness, and has seen in it the structure of the world: the oneness of opposites. That is true of Hemingway when he is an artist: his sentences are so straightforward and plain, yet they simultaneously have richness; they are casual, yet exact. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to see the world and people the way art sees.

     The two poems by Eli Siegel printed here were written in 1961 and 1957. "Making Nothing" is a sonnet. And in the strictness of that form, it tells how, when we want to make less of things, we lessen ourselves and cause our own pain. "The Mighty Act Something Put On" is a comment on the world we should see as a friend. Both poems, with their musical factuality and grandeur, represent Aesthetic Realism.

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

                  Two Poems by Eli Siegel

                        Making Nothing

Make nothing of the thing of yesterday,
And it will come an enemy to you.
The things we see are not for ego's play—
Diminishing in dark is not the ego's due.
The things that are protest when mind makes less
Their meaning; they will punish muting I;
Reality's the agent of distress;
Will change a flattening to a gravelled sigh.
We must be bold in honoring the seen,
Courageous in our judgment of the heard,
Or ours will be the spurious serene,
The unsubstantiated jolly word.
Once we've a possible effect annulled,
The sly within is slain; our selves are dulled.

   The Mighty Act Something Put On

There's no getting away from the fact
That something has put on a mighty act,
Including all that we see, all that we are,
Everything at all, and certainly, the farthest star.

Imagination: What Kind Is Good?

By Christopher Balchin

prided myself on having a vivid imagination. I liked to write and was interested in ideas, studying philosophy and politics at Oxford . But I had no notion of the crucial distinction that is implied in the title of our seminar: "Men's Imagination: What Kind Is Good?" Aesthetic Realism explains that we are making choices all the time about how to use our minds, including as we imagine. A good imagination, I learned, is based on the desire to respect the world and people as much as possible.

     But we also have a desire for contempt: to find the world and people ugly as a means of building ourselves up. I have seen that whether a man uses his imagination for respect or contempt makes the difference between success and failure in love; between whether or not he feels he's kind; between whether or not he likes himself.

     As a high school social studies teacher, I've seen that contempt versus respect is behind the difference between an imagination like that of Nazi Heinrich Himmler, who pictured various non-Aryan peoples as subhuman, and the imagination of Nelson Mandela, who, in spite of the brutal discrimination and imprisonment he endured, had a vision of a society in which blacks, whites, Asians—all people—would live together as equals.

Two Kinds of Imagination in England

s a boy growing up in the village of Westwell in England, I had the two kinds of imagination. For example, when the huge oil tanker Torrey Canyon sank off the English coast in 1967 and thousands of birds got caught in the oil slick, I was very distressed, and I made a display at my primary school warning of the dangers and effects of oil spills. Here, I was using my imagination to try to have a good effect. Yet around that same time I also made up disgusting words to a popular song, which my friends and I sang outside the home of the lady who served us lunch in that primary school. I thought it was clever to make fun of someone whom I saw as low class and who hadn't given me the praise I thought I was due. I was cruel to someone to whom I owed gratitude.

     With teachers who were strict, and other adults, I was well-behaved. I got praise for being considerate and sensitive, but inwardly I found some reason to look down on everyone. I pictured myself as a hero, a noble genius, but I didn't feel kind. And as I grew older I felt nervous much of the time and was increasingly afraid of new situations and people, imagining them more unfriendly than they were. Years later, my Aesthetic Realism consultants would ask me, "Do you feel you've been fair to people? Have you seen the meaning of people enough; the meaning of things?" I hadn't.

     Consultants. Could a person feel he's surrounded by enemies because of his contemptuous attitude?
     CB.
Yes.

     That is why, when I wasn't seeing myself as undiscovered royalty, I felt so ill-at-ease and scared of people. We can have contempt through making people seem mean and ourselves sensitive. Also, if we've been scornful of people, we have to be uncomfortable with them, because deeply we know we've been unjust to them.

Bad Imagination Makes Love Impossible

uch of the time, I was in a war with other people in my thoughts, and that affected how I saw women. One of the books I cared for most in secondary school was Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. The character Sydney Carton is cynical and prides himself on caring for no one. But toward the end of the novel, he uses his imagination to come to a decision that has great nobility: he gives up his life in behalf of the happiness of the woman he has come to love, Lucie Manette. "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done," he says to himself as he's about to be executed, and those words moved me tremendously, as they have people all over the world. Sydney Carton was a criticism of me, and represented the real kindness to a woman that I was hoping for so much.

     But usually, my imagination worked very differently. This can be seen in a diary entry I wrote about a young woman who wouldn't submit to my advances:

20th December: Plan C is going into operation as of today: policy of indifference (feigned of course) following plan A—loving her—and plan B—ultimatum.

     I didn't give a damn about what this young woman was hoping for; I was strategically planning how to conquer her and get my way no matter what she felt. To my mind the one thing that could make this dull, cold world lively and warm was the right woman, one who would adore me and be at my disposal at all times. And when a woman didn't give in, as frequently happened, I got furious. Often when I was dating a woman I would become intensely jealous and would try to control her every move.

     For instance, one evening, when the fair came to our town, Jenny Howard, whom I'd been seeing for over a year, had the audacity to go and ride the Ferris wheel without me. I was livid, picturing her with another man—which she wasn't. And I punished her for weeks through being grimly silent and rude. When I spoke about this years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me: "What do you see the jealousy as coming from?" I didn't know. She continued: "Do you believe before you met Jenny you disliked the world? Then you were taken by her, and you gave her a certain job?"

     CB. Yes, the job of making me happy.
     ER. Do you think as well as making you happy, she was supposed to justify your existence? "If this person can show she prefers me above everything, I will like myself"? Jenny-Put-on-Earth-to-Have-Christopher-Balchin-Like-Himself: was that her secret name? It was a spurious means, because she was a substitute for the one way you could honestly like yourself.

     I had thought that if Jenny loved me I would feel good. But however much affection she showed, it was never enough. Aesthetic Realism taught me that the one way I would like myself in relation to a woman was to have good will for her. I began to ask: "Am I using my thought, my imagination, to try to understand who a woman is and what she is hoping for? Or is my imagination about her mainly for my own self-importance?"

The Beginning

sking these questions was the beginning of my being able to learn, through principles, how to use my imagination to make other people stronger, not weaker—and that included women.

     In Self and World Eli Siegel writes, describing love:

A self can say to another being, "Through what you do and what you are and what you can do, I can come to be more I, more me, more myself; and I can see the immeasurable being of things more wonderfully of me, for me, and therefore sharply and magnificently kind and akin."

     Aesthetic Realism teaches people how to see each other this way. 

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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Racism & Its Solution

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The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

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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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