|NUMBER 1769.—April 28, 2010|
Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish here the first half of The Necessity of Aesthetics. This 1947 lecture by Eli Siegel is one in a series he gave at Steinway Hall, early in the history of Aesthetic Realism. Here too is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Steven Weiner, from a public seminar presented this month on the subject “How Much Should Other People Mean to Us?”
We do not have complete transcripts of the Steinway Hall talks. As with the others, what we publish of The Necessity of Aesthetics is based on notes taken at the time. Yet through them we see Mr. Siegel illustrating with grace and clarity the central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We see him describing what the human self truly is. And he describes what in us interferes with our own minds and happiness.
That interfering thing is contempt: the lessening of what’s not oneself as a means of “false importance or glory.” Our contempt takes the biggest opposites in our lives, our self and the outside world, and severs them. It is, then, completely unaesthetic—counter to what makes for art. In his teaching and writing, Mr. Siegel showed with rich documentation that contempt is the cause within a person of anxiety, nervousness, the multifarious and debilitating difficulties of mind and feeling.
For example, at the end of the lecture’s first half, he refers to insomnia—the cause of which he spoke of in an earlier talk. So as a means of placing what Mr. Siegel says here, I’ll describe swiftly the Aesthetic Realism explanation of sleeplessness. It’s an explanation I’ve seen to be exact, greatly practical, and thrillingly beautiful.
Why People Can’t Sleep
Millions of people, going to bed at night, feel, with various degrees of consciousness, “Now at last I can get rid of the world that gave me so much trouble during the day. As I enter my bed, I subtly yet comprehensively sneer at the people and events I had to give my attention to, which are really so unworthy of me. As I go under the covers and close my eyes, I kick them all out. Finally I have just me: I’m in worthy company at last.”
Sleep is a wonderful thing. Its purpose is to enable us to be in a good, authentic, friendly, accurate, even joyful relation to the world. The purpose of our very lives is to be ourselves through being fair to what’s not us. And so we punish ourselves—unknowingly yet definitely, even fiercely—for having contempt for the world. An instance of that punishment is insomnia: we may literally not permit ourselves to rest if we’ve been trying to rest by dismissing reality.
A Disaster in West Virginia
’ll comment now on something that is so different from a person’s inability to sleep. Yet it too involves— in an immensely ugly and a deadly way—that rift between the elevating of self and what the outside world deserves. It is the massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia on April 5. Because of that explosion—and because of what made for it—29 miners are now dead.
It’s clear that what is being called the worst US mining disaster in 40 years was a result of contempt: the contempt that is fundamental in profit economics. Contempt in an individual person hurts that person’s mind, makes him or her feel agitated, unsure, empty. But contempt is also the cause of every injustice. That includes the injustice which is the profit motive: the seeing of people, like those who were extinguished under the West Virginia earth, in terms of how much money you can get from them.
The Massey Energy Company is the owner of the mine. And according to the New York Times (April 9), the company has a history of “serious and significant” safety violations. Further:
Newly released federal inspection records show that the mine had recently been given warnings for accumulation of flammable coal dust and ventilation problems.
Since the start of 2009, the records show, the mine had at least 50 notices of problems that Massey knew existed but failed to correct. At least four of those concerned violations of a rule that requires the mine operator to follow an approved ventilation plan.
The company “failed to correct” those problems for only one reason: it would have had to spend money to do so. Every cent a company spends on behalf of workers’ safety is a cent that can’t go into the pockets of the stockholders. In the April 11th New York Times a miner is quoted commenting on why owners ignore safety laws: “If you take 30 minutes out of the day doing it right, that takes a lot out of the tonnage of the mine.” The profit system, then, is based on and encourages the feeling that oneself will be less if one sees another person as real. The profit system encourages the desire to let people work in conditions that could sicken them and kill them, because that way oneself will have more money.
The relation between how a self sees itself and how it sees the outside world is central to aesthetics, and it’s also the very basis of ethics. In American history and now, there have been two big curbs on the horrible unethics of profit economics. One is government regulations. They have forced companies to be a little fairer to the people who work for them: government regulations have mandated certain measures so that people’s hands don’t get cut off in machinery—or so that gases won’t accumulate and explode, sending people to horrific untimely deaths.
Owners have resented such regulations and also, as with the Massey Company, have found means to evade them. The Times notes that “Don Blankenship, Massey’s chief executive,...a major Republican fund-raiser,... has been a staunch critic of increased regulation of the mining industry” (April 9). Further, “former regulators, inspectors and miners say” that the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was lax in enforcing the safety laws—in part, because of “the [mining] industry’s political clout” (NY Times, April 11).
The Necessity for Unions
The other curb on the profit system’s unaesthetic, unethical way of dealing with humanity has been unions. (To a large degree it’s because of unions that those government regulations exist.) Unions, composed of the people who do the work, and representing those people, have forced owners to pay employees much more than the owners would like—so that workers could live with some dignity.
The very basis of the profit motive is to pay a person as little as possible so you can get as much profit from him or her as possible. And the history of industry shows that owners left to themselves have paid workers in a way that made for agonizing poverty. Unions changed that; and also insisted, to the owners’ intense opposition and chagrin, that safety measures be instituted. The United Mine Workers of America is eminent in the history of unions. American men and women in West Virginia and elsewhere fought hard and long and bravely, even gave their lives, so that mines could be unionized—so miners would not be impoverished and hungry; so there would be measures preventing mine collapses and explosions, and measures lessening the extent to which miners took into their lungs the coal dust that had sickened and killed so many.
The Upper Big Branch mine, where the deadly explosion occurred, was a non-union mine. And that disaster in itself should be enough to have America see how needed and deeply beautiful unions are.
Why Our Economy Is Ailing
Aesthetic Realism explains that a self unjust to the world cannot fare well, cannot be at ease, because we’re constructed aesthetically: designed to be ourselves through being fair to what’s other than us. That is true about an individual self, and it is also true about an economic system. Insomnia comes because we don’t like ourselves for dismissing the world. And the state of economics today is like a person whose very being is ill-at-ease and inefficient.
Eli Siegel, in 1970, showed that profit economics had reached the point at which it no longer could work successfully. The reason took in all of human history, but the essential cause was the bad ethics at the profit system’s basis. He gave many particulars in his Goodbye Profit System lectures of the 1970s and in this periodical, and I have given many in recent years.
So we have the first half of an early Aesthetic Realism presentation. And we have men and women today, trying to understand themselves; and we have anguish in West Virginia. The title of Mr. Siegel’s talk is true—urgently true—for America now: The Necessity of Aesthetics. What he explains in that lecture is what the American people are most hoping to learn.
—Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Aesthetic Realism
The Necessity of Aesthetics
When we think of persons who are troubled, we think of the word conflict. What is this conflict about? How is it going to change into something else? And what is it going to change into? Aesthetic Realism says psychiatrists and others haven’t seen as deeply as they might what this conflict is about. This conflict can be described as a situation which, if it were changed to something happier, would be aesthetic.
To make this clearer—take Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, which the Drama Critics have just decided was the best play of the year. If it is a good play, it is aesthetic. It has Arthur Miller in it, and it has meaning for all people: it has personality and universality. That is what is in “adjustment,” which psychiatrists and social workers talk about. To be “adjusted” is to be a single personality at home in the universe. Whenever you have personality and universality at once, you have aesthetics. Aesthetics means a oneness of a unique person and the outside world, without any diminishing of either. It means a heightening of the personality through the outside world, and a heightening of the outside world through the personality. Aesthetics is not just watercolors of dandelions.
In previous lectures, I thought it fitting to say that psychoanalysis, with all its many deviations, has made for a hurtful rift in making a self seem necessarily at war with a society which is not itself. “Adjustment” in most cases is a kind of resigned cowering, a saying, “Now I must be good.” But suppose when the self “behaves itself” it is, as Freud described, unconsciously irked. It becomes a repressed delinquent. The only way to avoid this is to have a person feel he is really more himself as he is fair to the outside world.
Freedom & Accuracy
Aesthetic Realism says the self is its own restrainer, and along with a desire for gratification it has another desire, not against gratification: for accuracy.
Freedom is the ability to do what you want, without unnecessary impediments arising from yourself. How can you do what you want with a bicycle if you don’t know what the bicycle is? How can you know what you want unless you give your mind accurately to the object of what you want? So freedom is accuracy. A person who doesn’t know can’t be free, and you can’t know unless you’re accurate. This is just plain talk, not logical card tricks.
We see in Charlie Chaplin a carefreeness with precision. That is present in every instance of aesthetics: everything that’s beautiful has a combination of accuracy and freedom. In music, we hear the notes as accurate. We feel, too, that they are not hidebound—they are also free. If there is a simultaneous presence of freedom and accuracy, one can say opposites have been made one.
To use a simpler idea: suppose we saw a seagull circling around a tugboat, behaving as a well-adjusted seagull should. It isn’t the highest kind of beauty, but wherever there are freedom and accuracy at the same time, there is beauty.
The Pain of Bad Aesthetics
It can be said that whenever things in conflict are not seen as they are in art, the conflict won’t be solved.
Let us take a common conflict, most often unconscious. A person thinks he can be most truly himself by getting away from other things. He thinks the only way to have his personality is to mute all the things the outside world does to him. He finds himself not listening to people. He’s nice to his children, but feels far away from them. He gets more and more to like sleeping and taking naps. What has happened to this man? Why does he sometimes wake up in the night and feel frightened?
What’s been happening is an unaesthetic situation. He finds in himself a certain perfection he can’t find in the outside world. He’s come to think the outside world is a great interference. He knows, in his way, he is wrong; so he sometimes has insomnia. Insomnia comes from and is bad aesthetics. It is awareness of the conflict only through the pain. I have known people who had insomnia, and when they could feel, when they went to sleep, that they were just as much related to 7th Avenue as in the daytime, the insomnia got better.
How Much Should People Mean to Us?
“People,” said Eli Siegel in a lecture, “are simply reality when most complete; reality when aware of itself. The importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form” (TRO 606). That is why to hope people mean as much to us as they rightly can is an essential part of our deepest desire: to like the world, value it truly. But there is that in us which wants to dislike people, see them as not having much meaning, so that we can feel superior, lofty, intact—disdainful of everything.
This Is How I Saw People
“There is nothing more ordinary and nothing uglier,” writes Ellen Reiss,
than not wanting to see the true meaning of a thing, but instead denying or supplying meaning to suit oneself. You give “good” meaning to...persons because they enhance your comfort or self-importance, because they belong to you or flatter you; and you attribute “bad” meaning to them because they don’t let you have your way or don’t praise or devote themselves to you. [TRO 1046]
That describes what I did as a boy. For example, my mother praised me a lot, and it was pretty easy to get my twin brother, Paul, to do my bidding. Therefore, they were “good.” My father was much more critical of me, and not for a moment was my older brother, Fred, going to let me order him around. So they had “bad” meaning, and I punished them. I was cold to my father and made fun of Fred.
Meanwhile, I liked to read, and there were characters in novels who meant a lot to me. There was Oliver Twist, a poor, hungry boy in London; and Johnny Tremain, a brave youth growing up during the Revolutionary War. I was also very moved by Hamlet’s famous speech in which he describes a human being as “how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving, how express and admirable!”
But I made the mistake of using characters in books to lessen the meaning of flesh and blood people I knew—including my two brothers. After all, I thought, what were they passionate about—sports?! Once in a class, Mr. Siegel said with critical humor that some people think they have a “monopoly” on “culture,” and asked if I was one of them. I was. So you can imagine my shock when I heard my brother Paul speak with much feeling about his care for Michelangelo’s Pietà.
I made no association between my disdain for my fellow human beings and the fact that, by the age of 18, I had a pretty constant feeling of emptiness, thinking that people and the world itself came to very little. I didn’t know that I was having the miserable victory of contempt, and that this was the chief reason I felt my own life had so little meaning.
I Changed about People!
“We see and feel meaning,” writes Ellen Reiss,
...when we honestly see that a distinct thing or person is related to other things, to the whole world. People will at last find real, proud meaning in a relative when they see him not just as a brother, but as related to the world itself in all its width, unknownness, and humanity. [TRO 1037]
That is how Aesthetic Realism encouraged me to think about people.
For instance, I came to see Sam and Lillian Weiner not just as my parents, whose existence centered around me, but as two persons in their own right, who had to do with so much, including so many events, people, places, books, sights, sounds. I thought about the fact that they had lived through much of the 20th century, and had been affected, in ways that were deep and large, by the Depression, by World War II, by the civil rights struggle; that they had their own worries and hopes, as real as mine. As I saw them this way, they—and all people—came to mean so much more to me.
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.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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