The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Are History & the Self
of Everyone Going For?

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 3 of the great lecture Eli Siegel gave on November 15, 1974. Beginning with a book by two sociologists, Mr. Siegel is speaking about the idea central to Aesthetic Realism: The human self is an aesthetic matter. We have in us the structure of reality itself, the opposites, and it is our constant need to make them one. “All beauty,” he is the philosopher to show, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In this part of the lecture Mr. Siegel looks, for example, at those mysterious opposites, body and mind. They are inseparable in us, as the ever so tangible granite of a cliff is inseparable from the shape of that cliff—the shape which, like thought, weighs nothing, is not matter, has never of itself been touched.

He speaks here too, greatly, about the meaning of that large historic thing, revolution. And as he does, he speaks about the biggest opposites in everyone’s life: self and world. We want to take care of ourselves; we treasure ourselves; even when we berate ourselves, we see ourselves as mattering to us in a way nothing else does. Yet we also want to see meaning, unending meaning, in what’s not ourselves; feel close to it; know it; be fair to it; add to its goodness. All the agony in history and in individual lives has come because people have made those opposites fight—don’t feel they can go together.

Going On Now

You will soon read Mr. Siegel’s statement that “the greatest revolution is going on now.” And he explains what he means. It is very much connected with what he first described in 1970: economics based on using people contemptuously, for profit, no longer works. He wrote:

There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.

Now, decades later, the profit system has not recovered. Various proponents of it have, though, arranged for it to stagger on, by impoverishing Americans more and more.

Mr. Siegel, describing the great revolution we’re in the midst of, says it is about the desire of people to stop dividing the two aspects of themselves: the self that wants to be fair to other things, care about what other people deserve, the self that is large; and the self that is particular, wants to care for itself. Profit economics is based on a severing of those opposites, those selves in everyone. It’s based on seeing the world and people in terms of: how much money can I get out of this—how much can I squeeze from him, her, them?

In a recent New York Times article, writer Dan Lyons points out that employers’ approach to workers in today’s chic technology firms is pretty much what it was in 19th-century factories. It consists, he says, of “treating workers as if they are widgets to be used up and discarded.” What he’s illustrating is the fact that the profit system is ill will, period. It is based on contempt, making oneself more by lessening someone else. That is so, whether the employer runs a tech company now or ran a textile mill in Massachusetts around 1890. However—the objection to this way of being seen and used, is clearer, more widespread and comprehensive than it ever was. And this growing objection is part of the greatest revolution.

Lyons’s article is titled “Congratulations! You’ve Been Fired,” and begins this way:

At HubSpot, the software company where I worked for almost two years, when you got fired, it was called “graduation.” We all would get a cheery email from the boss saying, “Team, just letting you know that X has graduated and we’re all excited to see how she uses her superpowers in her next big adventure.”...It was surreal, and cruel.

In its weirdness and cruelty, the approach described stands for something important. It’s an attempt to fool people into thinking the profit way is somehow kind. And this attempt to fool is a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that 1) the profit motive as itself is not kind; 2) that presented truly it would look like the horrible unkindness it is; 3) that what people want, more clearly than ever, is to be treated with good will, not seen as instruments for someone’s financial self-aggrandizement. The profit system has tried to pretend it was kind for many years, but it is less and less able to pull the wool over people’s eyes. That fact is revolutionary.

What People Want

What people want to feel is: “Trying to be fair to persons not myself is the same as taking care of me, makes me glorious.” They don’t want to feel that the way to be glorious is to misuse or defeat someone. No political movement has ever fully made those opposites of care for self, glory for self, and justice to others, one for people. As Mr. Siegel has shown, it is art that puts those opposites together. Beethoven, fair to notes, chords, the world as delicacy and crash, was fair to himself too, made himself glorious. Today, in order to succeed, economics has to be based on that justice-as-glory which is art. That’s what our individual lives need to be based on too. And so, for the well-being of our nation and our own ever so particular lives, Aesthetic Realism is the beautiful knowledge we need.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Opposites, History, Revolution

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel has been looking at sentences from Social Disorganization, by Mabel Elliott and Francis E. Merrill.

The relation of body and mind is in another sentence in the chapter I’ve been discussing, “The Mentally Deranged.” Again: as Aesthetic Realism sees it, the body and mind, as they’re called, of a human being are in an aesthetic relation.

Under the heading “The Types of Psychoses,” the writers have been saying that there is psychosis based on what happens to the body. For instance, if there is a traumatic injury, if a person eats or drinks a good deal, is affected by drugs, if there’s a softening of the brain, this could make for a psychosis. Then, they say, there’s another kind of psychosis, which can occur otherwise. There are “organic” and “functional” psychoses: the “organic” are based on what, roughly, body is, and the “functional” on how we see. They write:

We must keep in mind, however, that there is no complete separation into the organic and functional psychoses, since worry and emotional tension affect the organic condition and a disturbed organic condition in turn affects the emotional life of the individual.

The history of the body and mind problem is one of the most interesting. There was an attempt to solve the problem by saying that they were impelled by two different forces, only there was a coincidence of time about it. But the way body and mind can interact can be seen in getting a good kick and then knowing that you’re not as proud as you were before you got the kick. That is, what happens to one’s body does immediately affect one. A person can’t be given a little chuck on the cheek without losing a little of his pomposity. Do that to any senator and the senator remembers his boyhood. The relation of the two, mind and body, and that wonderful thing, their interaction, can be seen. The fact that we can look at an abstract painting and get a thrill, is a sign that the two interact.

The relation of emotion to intellect, how we feel and what we know, is another form of those opposites. It used to be felt that a person could be intellectually sound but morally ever so defective. We have a phrase like, He was a brilliant psychotic, or a brilliant psychopath. Vincent Price made that idea popular. Earlier, Lon Chaney had done a little in that field. The writers say:

This difficulty is due not to defective intellectual ability, in the sense of capacity to do abstract reasoning, but rather to difficulties involved in the educational, economic, sexual, emotional, domestic, or social life of the individual.

What is the relation of how we reason to how we feel? That too Aesthetic Realism sees as an aesthetic relation.

There’s a very helpful and plain sentence:

There is no easy road to effective adjustment, other than acting as intelligently and as considerately as possible.

That means with keen reasoning and with kindness. The two good opposites in the sentence are intelligently and considerately.

How Do We See What We Don’t Know?

That chapter is sensible. It’s arranged well, though I don’t think it tells the whole story. Then we get to a mystery: as I mentioned, the other chapter I’ll read from, on revolution, is very different. I see it as arising from an insufficient knowledge, on the part of these two writers on sociology, as to what knowledge they had. We don’t know how much we know. We don’t know what it is we don’t know. The phrase of Pope, which is still quoted, says something that affects every one of us: “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”

In the earlier chapter, “The Mentally Deranged,” the writers are at ease on the subject—you can feel that they’re not invading a strange town or a strange language—they’ve been thinking about it. But chapter 32, about revolution—that is surprising. It’s somebody deciding in a few hours to speak Rumanian. It’s a little like a composer who hates plumbing trying to describe what good plumbing is, or a plumber trying to describe counterpoint when he hates counterpoint. That happens a great deal: persons have been keen, and then they get on another subject and flounder. We can go from apex to abyss.

So I’ll look at the chapter on revolution. There is a stylistic question, but, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, anything that doesn’t have good style has some mental inefficacy about it, some mental lack. The question of what is good style is the question also of what is a good life, or what is a good mind. The last part of this book is “International Disorganization,” with three chapters: “Revolution,” “Totalitarianism,” “War.” We are away from the troubled individual, seemingly:

Charles I of England slowly ascends the steps of the scaffold, with an expression of cool contempt on his aristocratic face for the crowd below him.

I have to say the writers are careless about that first sentence. We don’t know fully how Charles I felt that January day of 1649 when he was beheaded. He did seem to be calm; when something like that occurs one is forced to be calm somewhat, particularly if one is a king. However, the phrase “an expression of cool contempt” is, I think, a little careless.

Marie Antoinette jolts over the Paris cobblestones on her way to the guillotine while the rabble scream imprecations at “the Austrian woman.”

It’s true the French people were against Marie Antoinette and likely Louis XVI. But there’s a kind of historical writing here which, while it’s vivid, is insufficient. It happens that Charles I and Marie Antoinette were individuals with all the endowments of individuals in South Boston or the South Side of Chicago, or any part of New York. One of the things that can be wrong in thought is the relation between the large historical and the intimate individual. These writers don’t seem to be very good about it.

Revolution Is Also Process

What they’re asking is, What is revolution? According to Aesthetic Realism, the greatest revolution in the world is going on now. It is the greatest; and if it’s not seen—well, what is the nature of revolution? A process can go along for some time. The writers of this book don’t know enough about revolution. That’s not harmful. But they act as if they did. That is harmful.

Revolutions are of many kinds, and they mention a few. The French Revolution; the Russian Revolution; the American Revolution: those are the three principal ones. There have been others that can be called revolutions, and revolutions are in various aspects of man’s life. But it can be shown that an aspect of knowledge, which is history—the way things took place—is not sufficiently respected by these writers.

A band of patriotic young Bostonians paint their faces, dump large quantities of tea into Boston Harbor, and defy the sovereign power of Great Britain.

That’s the Boston Tea Party, which is part of the at least ten years preliminary to Lexington and Concord, and Bunker Hill. The Stamp Act was 1765. In April 1775 were Lexington and Concord, and in June was Bunker Hill. The ten years were made up of all kinds of happenings, including the Boston Tea Party. One can also say that the date of the revolution is July 4, 1776, with the Declaration of Independence, when representatives of the various colonies, now states, signed that document and meant to put it into effect. A certain kind of conscious revolution had taken place.

There are two large aspects of the French Revolution: one is the taking of the Bastille, and the other is the Declaration of the Rights of Man. There are other events, including some battles. But the desire to see the diversity of human happenings is not in the chapter I’m reading from.

The authors deal with the Russian Revolution somewhat differently: they mention 1905 and a few other things. There were a good many, because the Russian Revolution in 1917 had its preliminaries too.

In these and similar dramatic events we have the epitome of popular conceptions of revolution.

The writers are saying, This is the idea people have of revolution, that it consists of dramatic events. But at the same time, the way they’ve described the particular events goes along with that false idea. The sentence seems to take it all back, but doesn’t wholly take it back. Then they say:

When the dread specter of this most violent form of social change stalks across the land, kings and ministers tremble, policemen look to their submachine guns, and shopkeepers shiver before their cash registers.

The meaning of revolution is still what we’re after. And my point is that these writers deal with revolution when they’re unready. They don’t know enough. Thinking about what revolution is, is very valuable—unconscious revolution and the revolution that one knows about. The term revolution is used in English history and American history somewhat in a large fashion in the phrase Industrial Revolution. Then, we have occasionally in the histories of literature the phrase the Romantic revolution, with Coleridge, Blake, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, Keats.

And the word revolution is related to the word rebellion. The kind of revolution that took place in England in 1642 one can see as having its beginning in the Petition of Right in 1628: there was a certain kind of protest in Parliament, and Charles I signed the Petition. This was 21 years before he was executed, beheaded. And it means something. Then there was 1641-42 with the ejection of the Five Members, and the state of war that ensued. Before Cromwell became Protector or head of government (it took some time, but that was a revolution), there was another ruler. How much there was a revolution is a question in another sense, because there was the Restoration, with its different literature and also different government. Still, the fact that 1642 did take place and there was an England run differently from 1642-1649, is a big thing to see. These writers don’t seem to be interested in that. Also, in this book revolution is seen as social disorganization, but the revolutionists of 1642 were more sober, in a way, than those who were not revolutionists. There were never more sober revolutionists than Hampden and some of his religious followers, or Cromwell.

The Revolution Now

I’ll explain a little what I meant when I said the greatest revolution is going on now. The greatest revolution would be of man knowingly deciding that the way he was for hundreds of years did not represent him; that there was something else that he wanted; that instead of having two selves secretly, he could have one self which was the oneness of the present, immediate self and the large self.

The best example of that oneness is the way a piano with its bass notes seems to be resonant, rumbling, have something of the muttering of geology in it, of thunder, and at the same time the piano has the treble, which can be immediate, and the two can combine. There are other examples. All arts give examples.

The seeing of man aesthetically by himself, and that means ethically, will be the great revolution that man has. So far he has consented to lumber along, having one self jolt the other, jostle the other, rub elbows with the other—however you want to put it—sometimes slap the other in the face, sometimes want to kick it out of existence. What’s happening today shows man’s being tired of having one self fight the other.