What Happens in an Aesthetic Realism Consultation?
by Margot Carpenter, continued
The Aesthetic Criticism of Self
In his book Self and World: An Explanation of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel writes:
The basis of the Aesthetic Realism method is that every human being is a self whose fundamental and constant purpose is to be at one with reality. It is impossible for that self to evade this purpose, although he can curtail it, obscure it, limit it.
Aesthetic Realism consultations are critical, because a person wants and—in order to like herself—needs to understand how she has “curtailed, obscured, limited” her own desire to like the world. The great, crippling interference from within ourselves with our desire to like the world, Aesthetic Realism explains, is our simultaneous desire to have contempt . Eli Siegel described contempt in the following principle: “There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” He was the person in the history of thought to identify contempt as the fundamental interference with people’s minds, and to see the tremendous harmfulness of it in both its most ordinary forms and most extreme.
In over three decades of giving consultations, I have seen his description of contempt as “the great failure of man” to be true in countless ways. Sometimes the way a person we are speaking to has cultivated contempt is unique, but always its beginnings are those I have learned to recognize in myself. As I criticize contempt in another person, I am criticizing it in myself. This is one of the greatest benefits to me personally as an Aesthetic Realism consultant.
In the instance of Ms. de Renza, we spoke about what she called “my private world to myself inside,” and how, though she had a busy social life, she felt bored and apart from people. And as often happens, I was able to ask questions which in a lesson, Mr. Siegel once had asked me. Ms. de Renza, like most people, felt lonely. We asked:
The Three Persons: Somewhere, do you feel you’re too good for people?
Hope de Renza: I don’t think so.
The Three Persons: Do you feel people deserve for you to show yourself—just as you are, all the time—to them?
Hope de Renza: I see what you mean. No, I don’t.
I remember telling people I knew, shortly after I had begun to study Aesthetic Realism how much it affected me to learn that a self is criticized on the same basis a poem is: how well it puts opposites together and how fair it is to a subject, the central subject being reality itself. I immediately felt my life had been given scope, and a dignity I had never felt before. The years and every person we have spoken to in consultations have ratified this feeling.
In this consultation, we asked Hope de Renza to read a poem, written in 1864, which Eli Siegel saw as very important: “Who Shall Deliver Me?” by Christina Rossetti. He read it in some of the earliest Aesthetic Realism lessons he gave, in the 1940s, and it is often part of consultations now. As she read these stanzas, Hope de Renza told us, “This describes what I feel”:
All others are outside myself;
I lock my door and bar them out
The turmoil, tedium, gad-about.
I lock my door upon myself,
And bar them out; but who shall wall
Self from myself, most loathed of all?
When a woman sees that what she feels was felt by another person over a hundred years ago, and is told that many other people—women and men—reading this poem in Aesthetic Realism consultations have said, as she did, “This is what I feel,” a certain loneliness and sense of separation leave her. When we see that the feelings of other people are more like our own than we thought, we do not have contempt for people in the taken-for-granted way we did before. Contempt dies hard, and we need to look in an ongoing way at our desire to have it, but the initial thing which can begin to oppose our contempt is seeing that other people’s feelings have the same reality as our own.
The Opposites Illuminate Any Situation
Aesthetic Realism is for all people. In 1972, Eli Siegel composed this “Poem for Consultants”:
Unheard, inward disaster;
Knowledge of this
Is what we’re after.
In the instance of Hope de Renza, the disaster was “unheard, inward.” She didn’t like the world which made her and into which she had come. She is learning from Aesthetic Realism, as I learned, that in not liking the world, she has been working against her own deepest hope.
But as might be expected in the study of people and of mind, consultations have also been exceedingly dramatic. An incident will be told, and I will ask myself, “What does this mean?” “What opposites are here?” Every time, the opposites illuminate the situation.
Take, for example, a consultation with Carla Burhman, a traffic manager. First there was a discussion of the work of an artist she cares for, Edvard Munch—a surprising choice for a woman who spoke in a kind of monotone a good deal of the time, and gave the appearance of being bored. In much of Munch’s work, the terror, the angles of people, the screams inside of people as they are near each other, but seem to feel separate, are presented.
We asked Ms. Buhrman, “Is there something in you like the terror you can see in Munch’s work, in the people?” “Yes,” she replied. “Is something of that terror in you all the time?” “Yes.” We began to show her that Munch does not cover over people’s trouble with dullness, as she had tried to do. He shows there is a composition to things which is beautiful, even while there are situations and feelings one doesn’t like.
Later in the consultation, Carla Burhman told us about an incident that occurred when she was about four years old. Her parents were having a patio party, and she dropped a glass on the patio stone floor. It shattered to bits. “I looked down at the shattered pieces of glass and got terrified. I ran away for blocks before someone could stop me,” Ms. Burhman told us, and as she did, we could see the feeling had not entirely gone. Certainly a child can fear being punished for breaking a glass, but Ms. Burhman’s fear seemed to be about the broken glass itself.
We asked many questions, and I was very moved by what emerged. A glass is smooth—Carla Burhman likes to appear calm, almost smooth. And we learned that beginning very early she was mixed up about smoothness in other people. She felt people could seem nice, pleasant, and then be quite different—angry and even mean, she said:
Carla Burhman: They would act very warm, and then be cold, uncaring.
Ms. Burhman had a notion early of the world around her as being smooth and then rough, warm and then cold. It didn’t make sense. Her notion of the world was fragmented.
The Three Persons: Do you think when you saw the shattered glass, it was an illustration of an idea of the world which was one you’d already had, a world you couldn’t like?
Carla Burhman: I feel this is so important. Yes.
The Three Persons: Aesthetic Realism explains that we need to feel the opposites in the world can make sense.
They can, and we can learn to see how they do. You were running away from a shattered picture of the world. Meanwhile, the work of Munch does this very thing. Munch shows the feeling people are breaking apart, and gives it composure through composition.
In consultations, I see people, like Hope de Renza and Carla Burhman, feel their very selves are understood. This is because Eli Siegel, with his vast scholarship, never tired of asking about people, as he did in his poem “Ralph Isham: 1756 and Later”:
What was he to himself?
There, there is something.
That is what Aesthetic Realism has taught consultants to ask. When Aesthetic Realism consultations began in 1971, Mr. Siegel said that the motto for consultants should be this line from Chaucer: “And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche.” Consultants and Associates are learning as we attend classes conducted by Ellen Reiss, who was appointed Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism by Eli Siegel. Part of our education is the opportunity to hear aesthetic criticism. As people living our own lives and as consultants trying to meet the hopes of others, we are still learning about ourselves. I think the way Aesthetic Realism explains reality is true, and it is beautiful. I am grateful to the women we teach for enabling me to see that freshly in every consultation.
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