|NUMBER 1692. — May 16, 2007||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
The Opposites Theory, which we are serializing, is a work Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s. In it, with his wide scholarship, his ease through the centuries of culture, he illustrates this Aesthetic Realism principle: all art, of every genre, time, place, "is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual." Not only is Mr. Siegel the critic who has shown what all instances of art have in common, he is the philosopher who has explained that the human self is an aesthetic situation: at every moment in our lives, our need is to put opposites together—for example, freedom and accuracy, pride and humility, our individual self and the world outside us.
With this issue, we come to the second half of chapter 6, "Ugliness and Beauty in Oneness."
Two Choices as to the Ugly
he world, certainly, has ugliness in abundance. It has injustice, disorder, pain. Aesthetic Realism explains that we have two choices as to the ugly: 1) We will try to see accurately something that's awry and wrong—and accurately means deeply, widely, and in relation to what's not ugly. If the ugliness we're looking at is injustice to people, to be accurate about it also means to oppose it so that justice can be. As Mr. Siegel describes in chapter 6—the history of art shows that the ugly, seen truly, makes for beauty! He is the critic to see and state that fact as a principle. And it is a fact of tremendous hopefulness for the world.
2) The other choice about the ugly is the one people usually make: to use it to have contempt for the world. Mr. Siegel identified contempt as the chief weakener of mind and the beginning of all cruelty. It's the desire, huge in everyone, to get an "addition to self through the lessening of something else." There is an actual thirst in a person to see things as ugly—so that we can feel superior. We can prefer to despise rather than respect, be disappointed rather than grateful—because if things are unworthy of us, our "own ego is glorified." "To see the world itself as an impossible mess," Mr. Siegel wrote, "...gives a certain triumph to the individual."1
To Understand Contempt: An Emergency
here is nothing more important for humanity than to understand contempt and learn how to criticize it, including in ourselves. Let us take an occurrence that has affected America very much: the terrible shooting of 32 people and himself by a student at Virginia Tech. It has been called "unexplainable" again and again in the press. Yet the cause of such an act has been explained by Aesthetic Realism: contempt for the world and people.
In a recent class for Aesthetic Realism consultants and associates, I discussed in some detail a New York Times article about the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho, and pointed to how contempt was salient in the instances of his life the article described. For now, it can be said that, beginning early, he used what was ugly and unlikable—including the money trouble of his family and the fact that people can be insincere—as a chance to despise triumphantly. He also arranged to see people as inimical who weren't, and things as loathsome which weren't, so that he could feel victoriously superior. This triumphant finding of the world loathsome was in the plays he submitted for writing classes. Professors and classmates were disturbed by his writing, but they didn't know they were looking at contempt: a treasured, wallowed-in contempt.
There has been frequent mention of the fact that from childhood Cho was determinedly silent, "bashful." But the meaning of that fact has not been seen: that he decided very early the world was not good enough to hear from him, people were not good enough for him to be engaged with them. His accumulated contempt, and the building up of the feeling that he was entitled to revenge, made for a massacre in an American college: Cho's killing of 32 people who represented a world he despised.
In this journal in 1975, Eli Siegel wrote:
The alternative to contempt is the good will which is in art. What that is, and how to have it, is also an urgent study. It is the study of Aesthetic Realism.
To Be Seen with Honesty
his TRO is being published near the 29th anniversary of the operation which led to the death of Eli Siegel. That operation is an instance of huge ugliness, and Mr. Siegel wanted even it seen so honestly that something good could come to be. What honesty about it can make for is: people's seeing that to find enormous authentic value in something, to respect truly something outside ourselves, is a victory, not a defeat; and our seeing that contempt is sleazy and brutal, not the precious thing everyone somewhere takes it to be.
The operation Mr. Siegel underwent on May 25, 1978 was supposed to be "simple," to remedy an enlargement of the prostate. It is clear, however, that something took place which made the surgery, in Mr. Siegel's words, "so disastrous to me." "I have lost," he wrote afterwards, "the use of my feet." The doctor, Joseph De Filippi, chose a general anesthetic—unusual for such a procedure. Some months later, when questioned by me and others about his state of mind before the surgery, De Filippi admitted that he had been angry at the large respect he had for Mr. Siegel.
Whenever something has existed which demands or causes more respect for the world, it has made many people angry. New ways in art have often incensed persons, because they've interfered with one's smugness, made one feel one didn't know enough, that there was more for one to see. Take the writer whom Mr. Siegel quotes in the section of The Opposites Theory printed here: Victor Hugo. His play Hernani outraged narrow individuals in 1830, and there was a riot on opening night. His earlier play, Marion de Lorme, had been suppressed by the government because it presented a king as weak and objectionable.
In all aspects of life, people who feel entitled to have contempt, to lessen other people and things, are furious when their contempt is opposed. For example: unions, demanding justice for workers, have infuriated persons who want to continue exploiting their fellow humans, and there has been and is now a terrific effort to kill unions. In the American South, persons who felt they were entitled to have contempt forever—that to be unable to look down on black people was to lose one's sense of self—fought against the civil rights movement with fire hoses, dogs, guns, lynchings.
Aesthetic Realism too has made those who love their contempt exceedingly angry. That is because it is the education which explains contempt, opposes it where it begins in the self of everyone, and presents with logic the world as something to respect. A further reason for their anger is that Mr. Siegel's vast knowledge and his integrity, embodied in the philosophy he founded, evoke inevitable respect. One of these angry people, by his own admission, was the surgeon who had Eli Siegel's life in his control in an operating room.
Cruelty & Grandeur
nother aspect of the ugliness of then needs to be seen with honesty. I have written about it for many years and shall continue to. This ugliness was my own, and that of Mr. Siegel's other students.
In May of 1978, doctors were urging Mr. Siegel to have the surgery. They said he would die otherwise. But Mr. Siegel was intensely against the operation. His wife, Martha Baird, sought the opinion of some of his students, and we all said very rapidly that we thought he should have the procedure. Our lack of thought was horrible, and calamitous.
I shall speak for myself: I did not try to find out what Mr. Siegel saw and felt—the person I respected and loved most in the world. Certainly I was frightened by what the doctors said; I was worried for his life. But I have come to see that I was so hideously speedy because I too resented respecting Mr. Siegel so much. I resented respecting a person not yet acclaimed by the media—respecting him more and more, because each day brought new evidence of his knowledge and kindness. I now see that I was glad for a chance to feel superior to him at last, to feel that he was foolish about something—his own health—and that I and others knew better.
Reluctantly, he agreed to have the operation. And after it Mr. Siegel's life was ruined.
Amid all his anguish in the summer and fall of 1978, his integrity never diminished—nor did his grandeur. He wrote poems, and essays for this journal, and dictated them when he could no longer write with his own hands. He gave definitive lectures, speaking on Coleridge, Macaulay, Jane Austen, the meaning of drama, Dickens, Scott, what makes for great prose, Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, and more. He gave Aesthetic Realism lessons, in which the matters that troubled people most were understood and explained. But as he grew weaker and weaker physically, he was agonized feeling he could not meet the world he loved—with its sidewalks and books and objects—in the way it deserved. Some days before he died on November 8, 1978, I spoke to him: his thought was about what it would mean for him to be fair to reality.
The poem that follows is one he wrote that last year of his life. We see him celebrating the world in its beauty and confusion. To the end, he lived the philosophy he taught.
Ugliness & Beauty in Oneness (cont.)
he ugly in art was in ancient times. Mediaeval people did not keep away from it. The Renaissance—Grünewald, Cranach, Bosch, with their distortions and agonies and leers, exemplify it—honored and worked with the ugly.
It was in 1827, in France, that the ugly in art—called at this time the grotesque—was thumpingly affirmed by Hugo as romantic critic. It was in Victor Hugo's Preface to Cromwell. Hugo goes along with Lamb and Coleridge and Hazlitt, but he is widely excited. He uses history, swiftly, to express his critical passion. There is not much meditativeness in the early critical Hugo—as there is not in the later critical Hugo.
Hugo strangely says that it is Christianity which has led art to a proper notion of the ugly:
The "modern muse" of 1827 is certainly lively.
And Hugo says that he will try to prove—it is necessary—that the new art, the "modern genius," results from the union of the ugly and beautiful.
hough Hugo says that he is writing of the "modern genius," he is writing of art in itself. Art has always looked for the opponents of, the interferences with, the unsettlers of "beauty." The energy of Balzac's Birotteau is related to these words of Hugo; related, too, are the good and evil in Dostoevsky's Sonia and Raskolnikov; the figures of Southern primitive evil in Caldwell and Faulkner. But, strictly speaking, every line of poetry trembling in symmetry and uncertainty; every painting staying within a canvas and trying to get out of it, with shapes in it affirming and fighting each other; every musical composition, plodding, leaping, halting, crisscrossing; every play using conflict to proceed with—is a study in the orderly and disorderly, a study in beauty and ugliness in their beginning in the nature of things, time and space, mind.
So it happens that the hero of Hugo's 1827 Preface is the Grotesque:
Man has for a long time had a tendency to parody himself. He has desired to make himself ridiculous, to torture himself, to put himself out of commission, to nullify himself. Conscience, criticism, sense of ridicule, religion, humor have worked with art to have man show what he can do towards making himself less and existence less.
The Great Difference
nly, the important thing to see is that when man is made less with art, when the world is made less with art, it is good; both man and the world gain. When men and the world are made less, with wretched, pompous vanity as a personal cause, something else, not so good, goes on.
There are the subtleties, the critical details of the relation of the grotesque to the beautiful, of the ugly to the orderly. These are being worked at everywhere in the world today.
Meanwhile, this from Hugo:
All the art of today is concerned with what "contact with the abnormal" exactly, fully means. Do the normal and abnormal in all their forms—one of them is the determinate and indeterminate—have a source in common instantaneity, or do they represent rival domains, like the half of a pair of scissors and one claw of a crab?
Art has said that the normal and abnormal come from one thing. And art is trying to show this discernibly in specific works.
What Is Deserved?
have written about the meaning of Lamb's essay on Hogarth and that of Hugo's Preface to Cromwell—the meaning for any time—in a poem called "History of Art." It seems right to use some relevant lines:
Art and science are both seeking. They are seeking the relation of the abnormal and normal in oneness, the relation of ugliness and beauty in oneness.
1 Self and World (NY: Definition Press, 1981), p. 11.
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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