The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Impels Us?

Dear Unknown Friends:

What is it that impels us? From what in us comes any kindness that we have, and real intelligence? And what in us has us be mean to other persons, and hurtful to ourselves? There is nothing that people need more to know—for our individual lives, and for the world to be civilized. And the answer is in Aesthetic Realism!

I begin this way because: 1) In the great 1949 lecture that we are serializing, Poetry and Words, Eli Siegel shows what words, language, the happenings of grammar come from; they are impelled by the best and deepest thing in the human mind. 2) I was struck recently by seeing two articles on the same page of the New York Times—one about bigotry, the other about rape. The first told of a debate among psychiatrists as to whether bigotry is a mental illness. The second was about a controversial new book which contends that rape is the result of evolution. The placement of these two articles together on the same page makes something vivid—though it is evaded, not said straight: neither the press nor its psychiatric “experts” know what bigotry and rape come from in a person. They do not know that the two, the being bigoted and the awful misuse of another’s body, are impelled deeply by the same thing.

Eli Siegel’s preface to his book Self and World begins with questions which describe the two primary desires impelling every person. From the first of these desires arises everything fine in civilization and our own minds; from the second, everything unjust and cruel:

Is it true, as Aesthetic Realism said years ago, that man’s deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis? And is it true, as Aesthetic Realism said later, that the desire to have contempt for the outside world and for people and other objects as standing for the outside world, is a continuous, unseen desire making for mental insufficiency?

In Poetry and Words, Mr. Siegel is showing that language came out of that first desire. Grammar, with all its structure, was not imposed on us by some academy, but arose from the desire of people “to see the world truly and flexibly.” I think his showing this is great in the history of linguistics and the understanding of the human self. And when we really see what he explained—that the desire to be just to the world is in all people and has made for every language-we have a respect for humanity which makes bigotry impossible.

A Certain Cruelty Is Talked Of

The article on rape, on page B9 of the January 15 Times, begins:

Rape is primarily a crime of violence and power, not sex. Or so a generation of social scientists and feminist scholars have argued. But in a forthcoming book, two evolutionary scientists say...that the practice may have evolved because it confers an evolutionary advantage.

Certainly rape has violence in it, and power. But neither of these is the thing that makes rape wrong or impels it. Power as such, after all, can be beautiful. We say, “This novel has power"; “He was a powerful speaker”; “Abraham Lincoln had a powerful effect on America.” Even violence is sometimes right. A mother may violently snatch her child’s hand away from a flame. The American Revolution was violent; had it not been, we still would be a British colony. The thing wrong with rape—the gigantic thing—is that it is the enjoyed lessening of another human being.

The crucial impetus in both bigotry and rape—the central cause—is the desire for contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” And contempt, this self-increase through lessening what’s not oneself, is also the thing making both bigotry and rape evil. Further, the contempt involves not only persons one may be bigoted against, or women whom one may go after, but the world itself.

What Is Mental Unhealth?

In the Times article on whether bigotry is a “mental illness,” a psychiatrist is quoted as saying, “If psychiatry were to define racism as a mental disorder,...almost everyone would be ill.” It happens there is a great deal of unhealth in the way “almost everyone” sees the world—because, Mr. Siegel showed, contempt is the unhealthy, as well as the ethically ugly, thing in mind. And while contempt may reach various intensities and take various forms, it is something every person dangerously cherishes. Psychiatry has not seen what Aesthetic Realism makes clear: the continuum between the contempt that “normal” people have—the lessening of reality, the making themselves deeply apart from things—and what gets a person into a mental institution. Mr. Siegel fulfilled with might and meticulousness the intention he stated in the 134th issue of this periodical: “forthrightly to show that contempt causes insanity and….interferes with mind in a less disastrous way. Contempt is the great failure of man.”

The various practitioners will not understand illness or health of mind until they study Aesthetic Realism and learn about contempt and respect for the world. And so the terminology in this article on bigotry—"mental illness,” “disorder"—is not useful, and is really a cover for the fact that the practitioners do not understand the human mind. What’s much more important than whether bigotry is “mental illness” (it’s certainly not mental health!), is what it comes from in the human self.

What It Comes From

All of us want to think well of ourselves. Aesthetic Realism explains that the only way we will ever successfully like ourselves is through wanting to be just to, value, the world of things and people other than ourselves. We will try to think much of ourselves either through going after this respect for reality (which is work, takes thought, and also means we have to see something besides ourselves as important); or we will try to see ourselves as big by seeing other things as inferior, worthless, despicable.

A bigoted person feels he’s important because he can look down on people different from him. To feel superior to a whole race seems to make one Somebody! This bigotry may be present quietly. It may simply be the assumption that your skin color or ethnic background is better than someone else’s, and so you quietly look down on someone. Meanwhile, because people quietly had this assumption, they went along, perhaps quietly, with slavery in 19th-century America; or Nazism in 20th-century Germany; or apartheid in 20th-century South Africa.

And the contempt in bigotry can become ever so assertive and forceful. A person can want to punish a world that confuses him, that makes him unsure. And he can do it by humiliating another human being. He can simultaneously get revenge on the world, get a quick sense of sureness, and think much of himself, by showing how low he can make another person appear: how he can degrade that person through some racial expletive or taunt or bodily injury.

A person also goes after evening the score with a disliked world through rape. As to “an evolutionary advantage"—there has been enough trouble in evolution without blaming it for that. Rape is revenge on the world; there is anger in it; and it is intense contempt. A man has the terrific contempt of making a woman not real: he robs her of feelings—as a slave owner annulled the feelings and humanity of the people he bought.

Meanwhile, it also happens that ordinary people, “nice” people, do not see others as having feelings real as their own; every day, we make the humanity of our fellow humans much less vivid, much dimmer than ours. This is ordinary contempt; and all extraordinary contempt began as ordinary contempt. “As soon as you have contempt,” Mr. Siegel wrote in James and the Children, “as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person” (Definition Press, p. 55).

We are looking at the question asked in the Times: “What causes rape?” Whether it was a medieval lord violating a servant girl, or a furious man in Manhattan last week, there was the contemptuous feeling that the world should please him without his having to think about it, without his having to concern himself about what it deserves. He'll put it in its place with pulsating ecstasy. The medieval lord could feel, This is coming to me because I’m simply superior. The man in Manhattan may have felt, I’m sick of the way I don’t get what’s coming to me in this world. He sees reality, and likely women, as cold tormentors: he'll even the score by having this representative of the world do his bidding as he humiliates her. Whether in the year 1300 or 2000, it’s contempt.

Two Kinds of Pleasure

Since evolution is present in this discussion a little—we can think of a very early human being getting pleasure in various ways. We can think of him getting pleasure from the blue of the sky; from bringing some food to a friend so the friend could feel good; from that which Poetry and Words has to do with—from naming some objects he sees. We can think of the same early man getting pleasure from humiliating an enemy, or from grabbing a woman against her will. The first pleasures come from respect for the world; the second come from contempt.

Aesthetic Realism explains that our pleasures are of those two kinds—from respect and from contempt. We need to study the difference between them. And that Aesthetic Realism study is itself a tremendous, thrilling, pride-giving pleasure.

A large part of it is the study of this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." The lecture we are serializing—and Aesthetic Realism itself—is based on Eli Siegel’s showing that art puts together the opposites of Self and World as we thirst to put them together in our lives. An artist—like Thomas Gray, whom Mr. Siegel is discussing—expresses himself, takes care of who he is, through being fervently just to the outside world.

And Aesthetic Realism itself exists because Eli Siegel gave that passionate and comprehensive justice all the time.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Democratically Created

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing words in the following stanza by Thomas Gray, from “Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude":

See the wretch, that long has tost

On the thorny bed of pain,

At length rn’tepair his vigour lost,

And breathe and walk again;

The meanest floweret of the vale,

The simplest note that swells the gale,

The common sun, the air, the skies,

To him are opening paradise.

We have the word meanest. The est is the superlative, and there is a sense of excess about meanest, because superlative is next to excess. Then we have floweret. Et is one of the endings that English uses to show something small—as in executivelet, meaning little executive. Or kitchenette, meaning little kitchen, or pitcherlet, little pitcher. There are other endings meaning small—there is kin. And they can be used sometimes in a natural way, sometimes not. If one wanted to insult Senator Dulles, one could call him senatorlet.

The point is that words undergo transformations, changes. They undergo changes because the mind of man wants them to undergo changes. All these technical things were never planned by any professor. When somebody said for the first time “kitchenette,” the professor wasn’t behind it. When somebody said “pantalet,” the professor wasn’t behind it. When someone said in French “mignonette,” the professor wasn’t behind it. These things come from a desire to see the world truly and flexibly.

When we think of the line “The meanest floweret of the vale,” we have a feeling of pride and also of humility—and of something mighty beautiful. There is a certain relation in the line of est and et; and after having the diminutive, after floweret, we have the widening of vale. It would be good to think of just how the first word of the stanza, see, goes with vale. With see we get to a point; with vale we seem to be spreading out. It is very soft. So what we feel through ourselves is this relation of sharpness and softness. Then we have the wideness in mean coming through the delicacy of floweret. Suppose we had “the meanest little flower"—it would be awful!

“The simplest note that swells the gale": here again we have pride, because this is the superlative; yet it seems to have in it humility. One could say, “He is the modestest person,” or as Carlyle would say, “He is the reluctantest person.” I advise you not to say it unless you know whom you are talking to; but Carlyle would say it: “Parliament went about in the most dishonest and comfortablest manner"—and he would point out the est.

After dealing with these dainty things—one little flower, the simplest note—Gray has “The common sun, the air, the skies, / “To him are opening paradise.” Because we have not seen these things for a while, when we do see them it is like heaven. So the sentiment is true. I could object here and there to a phrase—a word like swells I think is not the best word there. However, the upshot of the whole thing is a collection of words serving a thought, and music honestly and richly had.

Anyone should ask himself which is better, “To him are opening paradise” or “Are opening paradise to him.” The word paradise coming last seems to clinch it.

The words here have a long history. It isn’t to be expected that every person go into the history of every word, or the placing. But I think it can be expected, if a per-son is going to like himself, that he like words, and that he not just take them as things to be used, but think of them as representing the history of man and the true proletarian instinct of man—because language was democratically created. There is nothing more democratic than language, and every time we meet a language we should bow to it and say: Here man worked instinctively and came to something!

We should like every language. There are different effects to be had in every language. And in each instance, words are put together to bring help and to get help.