The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

We’re Related to Everything

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing The Self Is, a great lecture of 1970 given by Eli Siegel. What is the self; what is its nature?—that seems to be a philosophic question, and of course it is. But it is also an immediate question, inseparable from the daily life and most intimate feelings of everyone. The rightness or wrongness of every choice we make depends on whether the choice is true to what the human self as such is, the self which has become so particularly our own. Just as we’ll sabotage our own body by eating something incompatible with how the human body is made, so we sabotage our own life by going after things that are not in keeping with the purpose and structure of our self.

Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy to explain that the human self is an aesthetic matter. That is, with all our diversity, the following principle is true about every one of us: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Fundamentally, inexorably, our self is a oneness of two opposites: individuality and relation. There is no one just like us—and yet we have to do with everything. And it is through all the other opposites in reality that we are related to every person and every thing. In Aesthetic Realism: Some Central Notions, Mr. Siegel explains:

A card is flexible and firm. We are flexible and firm, and we mean to do a better job as to the relation of these two adjectives....The structure of what thing cannot illuminate our own structure? Does not a sheet of paper in its wideness and narrowness bring some essential likeness to us, to ourselves? Is not a twig, on or off a branch, in its simplicity and complexity, continuity and discontinuity, an abstract and tangible presentation of what we are?... Separation and junction look to be one in ourselves. Separation and junction are likewise to be seen in the ridges of the walnut shell.

...Every thing, let alone every person, says something about us, explains ourselves....Education, principally, is the pleasant finding out of how things can help us know who we are as we see them.

I love that description. And Aesthetic Realism is great in showing that the terrible and everyday mistake of everyone, the ongoing falsification of ourselves, is our trying to use our particularity against our relatedness. This falsification is contempt, the going after an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

In The Self Is Mr. Siegel discusses passages from essays by David Riesman. The large subject of Riesman is the individual and the group. And that is one form of those central opposites, individuality and relation. Mr. Siegel valued Riesman, even as Riesman did not see the scope of the opposites in us. He didn’t see that the question, inescapable and beautiful, of every human being, is this, stated by Eli Siegel: “How is he to be entirely himself, and yet be fair to that world which he does not see as himself?” (Self and World, p. 91).

Why Are We Interested?

To illustrate what the self is, I’ll look at something that seems to be very different from what Riesman writes about.

On April 17, the New York Times printed an article with the headline “Under English Garden, ‘Unparalleled’ Remains of Roman Villa.” Reporter Steven Erlanger tells about a discovery made recently in a person’s garden in Wiltshire, England, as workers were digging to lay down electrical cables:

They uncovered an intricate mosaic floor of red, blue and white tiles only 18 inches down....[In less than 24 hours,] experts from Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire and Historic England, a government body, carefully began excavating the site and understood that the mosaic was part of the floor of a large building, which they believe to be one of the largest Roman villas discovered in England.

I am quoting from this article because the question Why are people so taken by such a discovery? has fundamentally to do with what the self, the self of everyone, is. Why does archeology affect people so much? Is it because we want to feel we are related: related to things and persons outside ourselves, far off in time; related to what seems apart from our immediate lives; related to what’s different from us, of the distant past? Archeology is one of the things people have used to feel they’re not locked up in themselves. And when one sees, for instance, a drinking vessel of 2,000 years ago, or a floor that people walked on then, one can feel, People so apart from me are like me too! One can have an emotion of closeness amid a wide separation in time: a feeling that one is thrillingly related over the years, even as one is just oneself.

Contempt & Compromise

The desire for relation is inextricable from what we are, what our self is. At the same time, the contempt in us hates relation: its message is, “To be yourself, victoriously yourself, you must look down on, feel separate from, get rid of, and maybe manipulate what’s different from you!” So there come to be all kinds of tricks and compromises about relation: “I’ll feel related to this—but not to that and that and them.” These compromises can use any field of interest, however fine, from sports to music to physics. To be interested in something is to feel related to it; and a person can use the fact that she’s interested in the structure of the atom to feel she doesn’t have to care for much else—including human beings, who are composed of atoms.

These compromises are not in keeping with what the self is, so they make us ashamed. What the self wants is to make opposites one: to feel that which is true—“The more I see what I have to do with all things and people, the more I am individual, original, my irreplaceable self!”

Archeology too has been used for compromise. Many persons, excited feeling related to an inhabitant of a Roman villa, nevertheless see themselves as quite apart from people they pass today on the street. They’re agog thinking of how someone lived, perhaps in their very neighborhood, nearly 2,000 years ago; but they’re quite uninterested in the lives of people now. They’re aloof to the feelings of millions of their contemporaries. —Erlanger writes:

Dating from between A.D. 175 and 220, the home is thought to have been three stories high, and survived the collapse of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Saxons.... Archaeologists also found coins, jewelry, pottery, a well, under-floor heating pipes, and the shells of hundreds of oysters and whelks, which had apparently been farmed, harvested and then carried 45 miles into the countryside in barrels of salt water, indicating that the Roman owners were people of some standing and wealth.

So one can have again, as those ancient objects are mentioned, that joy which has relation in it: “Someone so many years ago was like me, even as he or she was different. These people, long ago, wanted to be warm, as I want to be warm when cold weather comes. They had pleasure from food, as I do—they enjoyed oysters.”

There is nothing bigger in self, Aesthetic Realism shows, than the drive to see oneself as having to do with everything. And if we don’t see that drive as central to and constant in the self, we’re not seeing what the self is.

Meanwhile, within the passage I just quoted is a horrible form of making oneself unrelated to other people. That form is profit economics, present in 175 A.D. and now. It is economics based on the idea that it’s somehow right for certain people to be very rich and others to be poor. The profit system is an attempt to expunge relation: behind the profit motive is the feeling, “This person is not like me, does not have the feelings I have, the depth I have; I can use him to aggrandize myself any way I please; I don’t have to think about what he deserves.” And so, we can be sure the men who carried the oysters “45 miles...in barrels of salt water” lived with much difficulty, poverty, and misery—very differently from the rich Roman owners.

Today, there is more widespread objection than ever before in history to that division of people into rich and poor. And the objection is a saying, We are related and should be treated as such, including financially!

The Biggest Mistake

This TRO concludes with an immensely musical poem by Eli Siegel. “A Lady, Sun and Rain” deals with the biggest mistake we make about relation: the feeling that most of the things of this world do not matter to us, do not have to do with us; in fact, are in our way. Mr. Siegel wrote it in 1925, and we reprint it, and part of his note to it, from his collection Hail, American Development. Though the woman in the poem has spurned her relation to so much, the poem itself is at once fervent and logical as it tells of this lady and the world she has to do with. It throbs with its factual love of reality.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


And What Is Individuality?

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing David Riesman’s review of the 1946 novel We Happy Few, by Helen Howe. The “happy few” are a snobbish group around Harvard, of which the main character, Dorothea Natwick, is a part.

Riesman says:

The individuality of the members of the Little Group was factitious—a put-up job with differentness cultivated for its ability to create status....True individuality goes together with pride, while a want of individuality frequently appears in our culture as selfishness.

Selfishness can be a want of individuality: you like your self even while it’s dull and flat. A premature like of self is one of the many forms of selfishness.

Dorothea Natwick’s husband dies. And Dorothea now thinks that this being of the “happy few,” this way of not having any feeling, not caring for people, is wrong. She wants to be a nurse. And she wants to be like other people. She goes to a place in Idaho, Coeur d’Alene. Riesman says:

The townsfolk of Coeur d’Alene are another “experience”; they, too, are fine and dull. At the end, Dorothea returns to Cambridge a sadder and wiser woman: her pride is gone, and she has learned humbly to admire the great open spaces and the open sentiments usually associated with them in song and story.

So, as Mencken might say, Dorothea works very hard to enjoy the company of her inferiors, and take part in the diversions of Coeur d’Alene and other wild and woolly hick towns. Well, it is a kind of humility, and it has a relation to what the Vicar of Wakefield does in the Goldsmith novel, when he talks to the persons of Newgate. It has a relation to things in other novels, and to stories in which a king talks with a peasant. We have to ask what it means. It is all evidence that the self wants to be ordinary and humble, and also wants to be of a peak, unique, as Fujiyama is, or Pike’s Peak, or any other mountain that hasn’t joined the rabble of high places.

The reason I’m using Riesman is that he’s a prolific example of what the self is about. He states the problems.

Riesman says, This finding yourself through cutting yourself down to size and healing the sores of the lower middle class—this will not work: “Suffering and physical discomfort, however, do not always succeed in submerging one’s individuality.” There are stories about that: if you’ve gone to Eton and then you get into a factory, your Eton style will still come through. Blood will tell.

So Dorothea, following the penances set out for her by Miss Howe, must further submerge her own self by the device of self-belittlement: in order to build up the common man, she must learn to run herself down.

Women will say, I’m just one of the girls—just one of the persons who work here.

An Unusual Funeral Is Questioned

This lesson of submersion begins, rather mildly, when Dorothea discusses with her mother, Mrs. Natwick, the “original” arrangement for burying Mr. Natwick at the cheery barn funeral already described.

Dorothea says: Wouldn’t it have been better to go along with the custom of the land and do just as other people do? Wouldn’t it have been better not to show that you are above convention? First, Helen Howe is quoted:

“Dorothea,” Miss Howe writes, “found herself wondering if it might not have been ‘simpler’ to accept the common lot, and to take death with all the other trappings and the suits of woe decreed by the organized morticians, along with millions of other anonymous human beings.”

But Riesman disagrees with that idea, and writes:

Is there any greater virtue in bowing to the pressure of the organized morticians than in bowing to the private need to be “original”? At least the Natwick style of life was an attempt at individuality, even if it failed.

Here, what Riesman is saying is: You can be insincere and not yourself in doing as the custom is. You can be insincere in doing in Rome as the Romans do—but also in doing in Rome as the Florentines do, or as yourself does.

I have to say, too, that as far as I know, Riesman leaves the question just where it is. There are two things a person is after. But Riesman is right in saying that one will not solve the problems a human being has by submerging oneself in a group.

Contempt Is Everyone’s

And Riesman is valuable as he points out that the proletariat and the lower middle class, the petit bourgeois, and the great bourgeois have all the deficiencies of the sniffing intellectual. The sniffing intellectual has deficiencies interestingly like those of the non-sniffing non-intellectuals. He says: “The notion that sensitive and educated people are more conceited or more vicious than the average is a romantic fiction.”

We find from such an authority as the Daily News that ever so many persons with jobs not too lofty can exercise a tyranny, a mental tyrannical immunity or unseeingness, which is a little bit like that of the Bourbons at their worst, or of any intellectual who has decided that he doesn’t want to see something. But it’s good that Riesman says this. Being poor as such doesn’t help your ethics a bit.

He writes:

We Happy Few ends with the wide American panorama presenting itself as little more than a series of small-spirited, harassed, and unhappy people who in their uneducated fashion are just as egotistical as the well-educated Dorothea.

You don’t need to be educated to have an ego.

There is this sentence, the like of which we find elsewhere in Riesman’s writings:

The ethical convictions that they lack are the belief in their own values, and the belief that only in their differences from others will they find their identity with them.

“They lack...belief in their own values.” But is there some belief in a value better than another belief? And can our values be better arranged? Riesman implies that what happens is: you’re going after ethical values; you’re false to them—nothing happens in between. “Only in their differences from others will they find their identity with them.” But that is something: that difference makes for identity.


A Lady, Sun and Rain

By Eli Siegel

In the world, of that year,

A lady living in a quiet street of a city rather large,

Looked at the sun after rain,

And then thought of conditions in her home.

She was pretty,

And she hadn’t liked the rain.

And now a wind came,

And blew wet green leaves, and twigs, and other things along the wet street.

O lady, thinking of conditions in the home,

Who didn’t like the rain,

Though you are pretty,

O lady, O lady,

Rain is in the world,

And the sun is in the world,

Along with conditions in the home;

And rain is beautiful, and the sun is beautiful,

And more.

From the Author’s Note

...This lady’s self was exclusive; the lady’s self was inclined to diminish most things. There were many things to which she didn’t give the meaning they required.... Though this lady’s life was in reality, she saw reality too much as an interference, not enough as material for self-increase, self-evoking. She did not see—though beautiful herself—what was beautiful as a means for the very freedom and fullness of herself.