The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

What Purpose Should We Have with People?

Dear Unknown Friends:

This issue is about the most important subject in the world: how should we think about people, and the world itself? The poems by Eli Siegel published here are on that subject. And so is the article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Jeffrey Carduner. It is from a paper he presented in November at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "What's the Difference between Wowing People & Liking Oneself?"

An aspect of people's trouble about the matter is in an article that appeared last month in the New York Times. Reporter Bob Morris writes about holiday parties and the agony people have about mingling, speaking to strangers, figuring out what to say. He quotes a woman "who runs a successful public relations firm": "I'd rather stick needles in my eye," she says, "than have to work those rooms."

What neither she, nor the Times writer, nor others see is that the ill-at-easeness people can have at parties has to do with something much larger. It has to do with what Aesthetic Realism shows is the biggest fight in the life of everyone: between the desire to respect the world and people, and the desire to have contempt for them.

The Two Purposes in Social Life

Every one of us wants other human beings to mean something to us. Social life may be ridden with meanness, coldness, insincerity; yet it also comes from the best thing in people: the feeling that the way to be myself is through seeing value in what's not myself. The simple need to be in the company of others is a tribute to what Eli Siegel explains in the Preface to his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems: "The very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things."

Meanwhile, there is contempt, which Aesthetic Realism identifies as our biggest danger, the source of every human cruelty. Contempt—the feeling we make ourselves more through lessening something or someone else—is what has brought ugliness and fakery to social life. It has also caused all the economic injustice of the centuries: to feel it's tolerable and even right that some persons be poor and others rich, is sheer contempt.

The Times article tells about angst at social events, but with no awareness that 1) the way the attendees think about people is contemptuous; and 2) this contempt is the cause of their deep discomfort. In the article and daily life, a belittling way of seeing people is taken for granted as just fine. It's in the phrase "work those rooms": people do see other people as to be "worked," managed, manipulated, impressed. As one person looks at another, whether at a party, on the street, at a job, even in the family, he doesn't see that fellow human as someone to comprehend, as having the fulness of feeling he himself has.

Do They Like Me?

The woman quoted earlier told the Times writer: "I just have this fear...that people won't like me." That's how people generally think about each other: they make the main thing about someone, Does the person like me?; is he impressed with me? It's not seen that this way of thinking is contempt: we've robbed the person of his depth, his value, the richness of his mind; he exists to make us important. Because such thought, though frequent, is ugly, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable about people and has us dislike ourselves. That's true even if we're adept at "working a room." To affect people victoriously is not the same as respecting them, wanting to be just to them.

Contempt Is Recommended

The Times article includes advice on how to feel at ease. For example, there's this, from Jeanne Martinet, author of The Art of Mingling: "At parties, you have to remember...they're all just thinking about themselves. So anything you do is usually fine." And the article offers this tip: "Flatter prudently. Complimenting an accessory is usually enough to start a conversation." In both instances, we're being told we'll get to ease through having contempt. In the first we're told that seeing people as self-centered will make us feel okay—which means we should be glad they're selfish and hope they continue to be. In the second, we're told to flatter, which means to praise not because we really like something but for some other motive. When we flatter people, we feel we're fooling them; also appealing to something cheap in them; also manipulating them. The advice is geared to have us more unsure—perhaps at the party, but definitely in life as such—and lonelier.

The One Cause of Ease

The one thing that can have us truly at ease about people, whether at a gathering or in our thoughts to ourselves, is to want to know them. And know doesn't mean the kind of thing mentioned in the article—asking, for example, where a person's "weekend house is." It means we're interested in how they see, what their feelings are, what they care for—not in an attempt to impress them, but because the knowledge will add to our mind and life. I remember Mr. Siegel saying that if your first purpose with someone is anything other than wanting to know the person, you are exploiting that person.

Connected with the desire to know are two more prerequisites for our feeling proud as to people, and for our being able to like ourselves:

a) As we want to know them, we want to show ourselves to them—not a display we put on, but who we really are. People take for granted they have to be insincere with people. They don't see that they get something out of being insincere: they can hide, manage persons, and have contempt because those persons don't know them and are fooled by them.

b) To be at ease about people, we have to want them to be as good as they can be—not hope they fail or are weak so we can be superior. The three factors I'm describing constitute good will, which Aesthetic Realism shows is no holiday phrase but the toughest, most practical, most intellectual and artistic purpose a human being can have. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to have it.

Because good will and contempt are not understood, the Times article ends with some really miserable advice about social life, quoting from author Amy Sedaris. The advice is given jocularly, but shows how despairing people feel about being able to like how they are with other people: "'Accentuate the positives, medicate the negatives.' So have a drink. Then go ahead and mingle all the way."

Meanwhile, the longing to see value in people, and be seen truly by them, goes on. This longing is present at a social event: in each person, somewhere amid all the fakery and scorn, maybe submerged by these, maybe stifled, but unkillable, is the desire to have good will—to like the world through that form of it which can look at us and talk to us. In fact, the pain people feel because of their contempt is a tribute to how much we hope not to have contempt, how much we want something else.

Poems Tell about How We Want to See

“Being Good," the first of the following poems by Eli Siegel, is satiric. Many people have made "being good" equivalent to something narrow. At the same time, they've committed the largest sin: they haven't wanted to respond to the world (including people) with accuracy and fullness.

I love what the second poem, "Hopes That Are Large," explains. It is about that criticism as good will which everyone is thirsty to receive, and to be able to give.

Both poems, with their succinctness and logic, are also musical. The music comes, as poetic music always does, from the author's sincerity. And, since this TRO deals with social life, I am very grateful to say that Eli Siegel showed it is possible to be sincere all the time: with many people, one person, any person, under any circumstances. It is what he was always.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Two Poems by Eli Siegel

Being Good

He was good.

He never ate

Between meals;

And he greeted the commendable

With murmurs,

Never with squeals.

Hopes That Are Large

He who is critical

Has a greater desire to admire rightly.

To question honestly

Is to respect beauty more.

To see the imperfect

Is to honor the possible when best.

To be critical

Is to have hopes that are large.


Wowing People or Liking Oneself?

By Jeffrey Carduner

My dictionary defines wow in two ways: as an interjection, "an exclamation of surprise, wonder, pleasure,"; but also as a transitive verb, "to raise great enthusiasm...as in to wow an audience."
I had a terrible time between the first idea of wow, to find the world surprising and wonderful, and the second, "to raise great enthusiasm" in people—enthusiasm about myself. And my making that second thing the main thing made me dislike myself intensely. I wanted to find love, but I also was driven to make a big impression on a woman. I tried to do it through cars, clothes, and talking about what an experienced man of the world I was—through tales of adventure on the high seas where I'd been close to death, facing giant squalls in my sailboat (which wasn't really mine).

When I began to date Miranda Shelby, I saw she was intellectual and thoughtful about people. So I set out to wow her by purchasing very expensive second row tickets for a show that had just won a Tony, though I didn't know much what it was about. The play was The Deputy, by Rolf Hochhuth, about a Pope and his relation to the Nazis during World War II. I'd planned to read up on it in the Playbill, but was more interested in looking at the ads to see what showy place I could take Miranda to afterwards. Meanwhile, I had a very hard time following the plot. And at the restaurant, when she began to ask what I felt the meaning of the play was, I went blank.

I could see she was very disappointed in me, and I knew the date was a disaster. I told myself I was a phony and a showoff, felt shallow and small, and hated myself. I swore I'd be different, but I didn't know how to be.

What's the Distinction?

“So much of social life," writes Ellen Reiss, "...consists of people putting on a show of 'all's well'...when they're really agitated,...deeply and mightily unsure" (TRO 1634). That's how I felt. I had wanted people to focus exclusively on me; I'd thought that was how I'd like myself. But I didn't like myself, no matter how many people I managed to impress. The reason was, I was going against my deepest desire: to like the world honestly, respect it, be wowed by it.

Have you ever seen a child with a look of wonder on his face as he sees a very nice dog? I had that as a boy, watching " Wild Kingdom " on television with my family. Yet that same family went after impressing people through lavish material possessions. As a child, I loved reading about history, but I began to love other things more: getting the right English racer, the right car, and looking down on people who didn't have them.

"An emotion that's good," writes Ellen Reiss, "...is an emotion that we use to respect the world....An emotion that's bad is one we use to have contempt for the world: to aggrandize ourselves through looking down on what's not us" (TRO 1649).

As the years went on, I had the feeling I was slowly eating away at my own hopes, that things "weren't right" with me. Sometimes I took drugs to try to feel everything was fine.

"What bothers you most?" Eli Siegel asked me in a class, early in my study of Aesthetic Realism.

JC. Why am I so unhappy?

ES. When did that begin?

JC. I don't know.

When I told Mr. Siegel I thought my father was the cause of my unhappiness, he asked: "You're sure he's the cause? What would be the next?"

JC.How I operate in the world.

ES. What do you mean by operate? A person can feel that although he'd like to be happy, the thrill of despising something is not to be missed. The source of our happiness is two things: ourselves and the outside world, and the way you see both may not be good enough. Do you give enough meaning to what is not yourself?

JC. I don't know.

ES. Well, did you ever find yourself not listening to somebody?

JC. All the time.

ES. Does that mean you prefer your own thoughts to what goes on externally? Does it show an insufficient care for the things of the world?

JC. I guess it does!

ES. Every person has two tendencies: an unlimited desire to be affected by all things, and an unlimited desire to be affected only by oneself.

This was such an accurate description of me, I had a feeling of relief. And the discussion made for a big change. One evening when my roommate's girlfriend was at our apartment, I began to ask her questions about her life, with a real desire to know. She told me about her childhood in Peru, and as I listened, I was surprised that I felt good about myself—I liked myself this way. I began to try to see other people more deeply, including my mother, whom I'd mainly seen as living to take care of me.
Mr. Siegel said to me: "The one way we can like ourselves is to be a representative of justice to the world, which includes people." I've tested this, and seen it is true.

To Wow People or Respect Them?

Richard Snyder is a computer programmer who very excitedly told his Aesthetic Realism consultants that he'd asked Mary Gold to marry him and she'd said yes. They were planning the wedding and matters had come up which he wanted to talk about and understand better:

RS. People are coming from everywhere, even from overseas, to be at this wedding. My head is spinning and so is Mary's!

Consultants. It's hard to be sensible about weddings. If you are ten percent sensible it will be very good.

RS. The engagement ring—it's very important. It has to be a certain size. Giving a smaller diamond—people will look down on that. But I have large student loans. I'll have to work overtime the whole summer.

Consultants. What size ring are we talking about? Is it the Hope diamond? The Star of India ?

RS. Not quite that large, and Mary doesn't think the ring is so important. But it's how it's seen . By everyone—the family, friends, business, everyone! Something too small would be no good.

Consultants. But you have debts to pay; people know that. Do you think a ring needs to be at one with a beautiful purpose? Is it a symbol of something?

RS. I can't tell you how much this has bothered me.

Consultants. A ring shouldn't interfere with your perception. The criterion for everything we do is: would it be good for the world; for people as such (and certainly Ms. Gold); and for you? What is the beginning thing—to impress, or to be in a better relation to the world?

RS. I've felt it was to impress.

I told Richard Snyder what Mr. Siegel once said in a class: "The message of Ralph Waldo Emerson is that the liking of the world is enough work in the life of man. You don't have to get trinkets with your name on them."

Consultants. That's why you feel driven in this matter and not at ease. You can't like yourself with the purpose you've had—it's "how I will be seen." Would you respect people who felt a large ring is the important thing?

RS. I thought they'd say, "He loves her so much."

Consultants. Are you sure? Do you patronize people? To say "I have to give this because it's what they want" is contempt for them. We think the trouble has to do more with how you see. You want to make the big impression.

RS. I think that is true.

Consultants. Is the ring a symbol of "how I can wow the world and be superior," or a symbol of one's joining closely with a representative of the world and liking the world? We ask you to think about this. Although we're speaking about a specific thing, this is about how you see as such: whether you want to be impressive in a false way or be impressed by the world itself.

RS. I feel like a weight has been taken off me. Thank you.

Because Aesthetic Realism has made this important subject clear, we can honestly like ourselves, wow ourselves.