The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Is Mind For: Knowing or Acquisition?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the great 1965 lecture Instinct: Beginning with Shelley, by Eli Siegel. And we print here too an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Jeffrey Carduner. It is part of a paper he presented earlier this year at a public seminar titled “Acquisition vs. Understanding: The Big Debate in Every Man.”

In the lecture, using an essay by Shelley, Mr. Siegel is showing that instincts—our own dear, puzzling, ever so personal instincts—arise from and are like the structure of the world itself. This Aesthetic Realism principle is true of them: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the present section he speaks, for example, about hardness and softness. Those are opposites that trouble people ever so much—because the way we make ourselves implacable and the way we give in don’t make sense to us, don’t seem beautiful. We may not do the best job with these opposites, yet they are ours because the world is in us, and the world is always, in thousands of forms, both hard and soft. It has, at once, the hard rock and the soft moss touching that rock.

I know of no more magnificent, composing, and encouraging idea than that we, in our human individuality, our personal distinctiveness, are illimitably related to the world. We have reality’s make-up. To see that the world is, as Mr. Siegel put it, the other half of ourselves, is the necessary means to settle truly the fight Jeffrey Carduner writes about, which has raged in everyone. The fight about knowing or acquiring is a form of what Aesthetic Realism defines as the central fight in us all: between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it.

The matter of acquisition versus knowing has to do with every aspect of our lives. It has to do with economics, and the economic suffering in America right now. Our economy, in order to succeed, needs to be based on the just seeing of people—on knowing; not on some persons’ using others for profit—to aggrandize themselves.

Acquisition versus knowing certainly has to do with education. And here we have one of the kindest, most important facts of our time and history, documented by teachers who use the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method. When, through that beautiful method, students see that the subjects in the curriculum have the very opposites which are in the students’ own turbulent lives—their desire and ability to learn come forth. And their minds thrive!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Instincts Are about the World

By Eli Siegel

Note. We have reached the 6th sentence of the essay Mr. Siegel is discussing: Shelley’s “On Love.”

“With a spirit ill fitted to sustain such proof...” That is: Shelley, as he said in the previous sentences, would try to be understood, and he found it didn’t work.

...trembling and feeble through its tenderness, I have everywhere sought sympathy, and have found only repulse and disappointment.

There is the word spirit. Phrases have been used often of spirit as if it had instinct. Intuition has been defined as the instinct of the spirit. I’m not presenting that as the whole truth, but it sounds interesting. In other words, if you’re dealing with fairly high material, you’re intuitive; with low material, you’re instinctive.

Whatever else spirit is, it’s thought to be alive. And the best tribute, as I see it, to idealism is the fact that liquor is called spirits, and that a horse is said to be spirited. This takes the word spirit away from something just associated with Hinduism, and I love it.

A Like of the Outside World

We can use the phrase “Show a little spirit!”—which means “Don’t give in.” This way of using the word spirit stands for its best meaning. There are two phrases that are related to the best meaning of spirit. One is that most nervy of all religious statements: “If God did not exist, we’d have to invent him.” That is very nervy. The other is, “We simply have to make the world likable; otherwise we have no spirit.” Spirit and courage—the word courage is related to heart—exist because there is a tendency to think that the facts are on our side.

If a person, for example, wants to dash through an enemy regiment on his horse, he feels that the facts, however forbidding, may be on his side anyway. Or if a person chooses to swim through a torrent or past a waterfall, he has spirit and he has courage: he thinks the facts are more for him than another person would. Spirit is a kind of protuberant belief in the friendliness of the outside fact. At the same time, it can go down. There are depression and dejection.

Liveliness, Weariness, Fear

“Trembling and feeble through its tenderness...” We know there are two motions: towards strength, life, composition; and towards weakness, death, decomposition. This is part of the mechanism of things as love and hate. And it seems that the world loves and hates the same thing. It makes a lively hare that scampers—as William Cowper saw—through a field with such celerity, such winsomeness; and then, the hare can be very tired.

“Trembling and feeble...” The tendency to be trembling and feeble belongs to the fear instinct, which is tremendous. And it can be one of the crazy things. Nearly every animal has a weak point. It is said that if you bring a little notebook to a polar bear, it runs away. Well, whether it’s a notebook or something else, the polar bear has a weak point. Every animal is just terrified by something.

There is a tendency on our part to be afraid of everything, including ourselves, and to shrivel into indiscernibility. The fact that things want to get weaker is to be seen in the word trembling, also in the word feeble. Why does iron corrode, unless it has a bad disposition somewhere?

Softness, Hardness, & Sympathy

Shelley uses the word tenderness. Physical condition is related to instinct. A soft person has a tendency, an instinct, to yield. A hard person has a tendency to stick it out. So chemistry and physics make for instincts. Tenderness is an aspect of softness, and softness, while it happens to be of mind, is also present in objects. Nearly everyone knows that cheese is softer than glass. Everything is a study in softness and hardness.

“I have everywhere sought sympathy...” None of us has gotten complete sympathy. “...and have found only repulse and disappointment.” Here, Shelley is a little careless: he didn’t find repulse and disappointment everywhere; he just didn’t find sympathy enough. There are friends in this very book I’m reading from: he has letters to William Godwin, Thomas Love Peacock, Leigh Hunt, and also to his wife, let alone his publisher, Charles Ollier. A person can say, Everything I’ve gone through in the way of love has failed. And Shelley just loved to say that. He was always comparing himself to the lonely moon: “Art thou.../ Wandering companionless...?” I would say to Shelley, Thou art not “wandering companionless,” but in company that thou dost not wholly rejoice in all the time.


Acquisition vs. Understanding

By Jeffrey Carduner

It was Saturday and I was in a discount clothing store, when I saw a sign for Versace jeans—marked down from $295 to $95. “Wow,” I thought, “Versace!—what a steal! I have to have those,” and looked around to see if anyone else had their eye on them: I had to move fast. I paid and left, feeling triumphant but uneasy. That evening as I showed them to my wife, Devorah, I noticed that they didn’t quite fit: they were too tight at the waist and two inches too short. She took one look and said, “What is that color?!” They were a bright orange-salmon. “What were you thinking? Take them back.” “I can’t,” I stammered—“they were on sale, a real bargain, but no returns!” For years, try as I might, I could never fit into them, and finally gave them away.

I’m happy to be speaking about the debate in men between acquisition and understanding, because Aesthetic Realism brought out my desire to understand, which would have lain dormant, covered over by the desire to acquire that became stronger with every year.

I’ve learned that in order to like ourselves, our purpose has to be in keeping with our most fundamental desire: to know and like the world. Acquisition, grabbing things without respect, is what a man despises himself for. In Self and World, Eli Siegel writes:

One does not come to terms with the world by owning certain phases of it....The unconscious will never be at ease. We can own the world only by knowing it....All other possession, both in love and economics, is false and hurtful.

I often felt ill-at-ease, though I tried to cover this over with a bravado, a hail-fellow-well-met air.

The Debate Begins Early

As a child, there were things I liked to learn about. I read about frontiersmen Kit Carson, Daniel Boone, and Davy Crockett, men who explored, who weren’t primarily after amassing money. I was thrilled by their courage. And when my family bought a tropical fish tank, I wanted to understand how the charcoal filter worked, the temperature gauge, how to put the fish in the tank carefully. I learned how to feed them and read books about tropical aquariums.

But increasingly my purpose was to acquire things and outsmart people. In grade school, I would bicycle to a candy store several miles away and buy button candies, Pez dispensers, and Nik-L-Nips. Then I’d go to the playground and sell them at a profit, thinking myself very clever. If I wanted something in the way of a toy or gadget, I’d casually mention it to my grandfather and, lo and behold, that thing would appear. I’d never think about what it cost, who made it, or what my grandfather had to do to get money.

Years later, in a class, Mr. Siegel asked me: “What is first in your life and what is second? Should we get things in order to see, or see in order to get things? The largest purpose of man is to see in the best way that can be.” I had felt that the big thing in life was to get things, yet more and more I had felt something was wrong.

There were things I wanted to appreciate that I simply couldn’t. From a young age I’d wanted to play an instrument, first a clarinet, then vibraphones, next a guitar. But I couldn’t concentrate on understanding notes or timings. As a teenager, I was excited to go to Europe, where we visited museums and historical places. But I soon felt bored and restless. In Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, surrounded by works of great beauty, I couldn’t wait to get out.

As time went on, I felt locked in myself, pained, and lonely. Recently, my mother told me she’d been very worried about me because when I came home I just wanted to sleep.

What I needed was the explanation of the debate in me, and I’m grateful I began to study Aesthetic Realism and got it! In one class, Mr. Siegel said to me: “There is something in us, which can be called the owning-the-world self. The whole purpose of life is to place that aspect of self with the seeing of the world as expressing ourselves. You have a self which can be called the owning-the-world-but-quick self. It is the feeling that we should be able to tell the facts what to do.”

Mr. Siegel was describing the central matter in my life. He explained: “The deepest purpose of every person alive is to know more. Mr. Carduner, the way you want to know is not good enough. Am I friendly to you here?”

JC. Yes, definitely you’re friendly.

ES. Your main trouble is that you don’t sufficiently want to like reality through knowledge. Man is a knowing being. If we contaminate our desire to know, we’re already a failure.

I had a tremendous sense of relief hearing this, and I began to ask, What does it mean to know, to understand another person? I was learning that every person is trying to put together opposites in themselves, opposites that make up the very structure of the world and art. People began to take on dimensions I’d never known existed. I thought, Can I learn about myself by understanding someone else? Does another man want to put together the same opposites that I do—like sureness and unsureness, hope and fear, the desire to be powerful and the desire to be kind? Do people have depths of feeling I’ve never seen? Asking these questions made me happy. Once Mr. Siegel said about the desire to know: “The immediate profit is that you think better of yourself.” Yes!

From an Aesthetic Realism Consultation

A 32-year-old investment banker whom I’ll call Fred Randall told his Aesthetic Realism consultants he was on the “fast track” to success. But underneath his confident exterior, he was worried about himself. “I seem to have everything,” he said, “a great job, great apartment. But things are going very badly with my girlfriend, Lisa.” She had told him he was cold and uncaring. “I try to say there’s something wrong with her, but really I feel it’s me, and I don’t know what’s wrong.”

We asked about how he saw people as such: “Do you think they deserve your deepest thought?” He answered, “Probably not. I do tend to sum people up.”

Mr. Randall said he’d agitatedly spend hours at his desk thinking how he could beat out another banking concern. He’d feel elated if he sealed the deal, then feel deflated and have to go out drinking with his buddies. Or he’d reward himself by buying something.

Consultants. Have you seen the world as something you have to get things in so it can’t take advantage of you?

FR. Wow, yes. Why would I do that?

Consultants. Do you think we might feel a bigger thrill in having things in a world we don’t like than in trying to understand it?

FR. Yes. And I haven’t liked the world that much.

Consultants. Do you think your feeling you have to grab and own the world, not understand it, came to include a woman you hope to care for?

FR. I don’t know.

Consultants. Can the desire to own and manipulate things hinder the ability to care for a person truly?

FR. Oh, yes. I see the logic. That makes sense to me.

A little later we said, “A woman has the same deep question as a man: How should I see the world, as a friend or an enemy? Do you want to know Lisa Kerns, or do you just want her to be a praise-giving machine for you?” Mr. Randall answered, “I’ve wanted the praise.”

Consultants. Can you be so enamored of yourself, it’s hard to see a woman as real?

FR. Yes. I’d like to ask, what does it mean to see a woman as being real?

Consultants. We’ve learned that every person has the structure of the world in him or her, the opposites. Lisa Kerns wants to put together opposites, the same opposites that are in you. For example, does she have both tenderness and toughness?

FR. Yes! She can be kind and also very keen.

Consultants. Is she a person who has a right to be known by you?

FR. That’s right! That’s very good.

A Woman & Education

I too once didn’t see a woman as someone to know, be fair to. I saw women as consoling me in a world that was confusing and unfriendly. One night I went home with a young woman and, after we were close, though she wanted to talk, I felt very uncomfortable and started to leave. I remember the look of shock and distress on her face as she said, “You’re leaving now?!” I made an excuse and left. I’d gotten what I thought I wanted, but I felt very bad on that long walk home, and felt that once more I’d made a mess of things with a girl.

As I studied Aesthetic Realism, I was coming to know Devorah Tarrow. But while I was affected by her kindness, beauty, and intelligence, I was also angry that she affected me so much. Seeing this, Mr. Siegel said to me in an Ethical Study Conference: “Are things getting too deep? You’re thinking about what’s the best way of seeing people, including women, and Ms. Tarrow puzzles you. When someone does, it’s compulsory education. Is Ms. Tarrow an inevitable Dean of Education?” The answer was, and is, Yes.

Mr. Siegel saw what was deeper in me than the desire for acquisition. And because of what he taught me, I wanted to know more and more what Devorah felt. To know and be fair to her is a great pleasure.

Men are now learning in Aesthetic Realism consultations that the world is there to be known and felt, not owned or acquired. Fred Randall wrote us: “I’m changing! I’m feeling better about myself. I thank Aesthetic Realism for this. As I’m learning, I’m becoming a happy man.”