Aesthetic Realism is great and new in showing there is a deep, inevitable desire in every person to have a good effect on people, to have people stronger. How much we want our lives to mean something good for other people is so much bigger than we have known, and this is the most hopeful news for every person. It is part of our deepest desire, which I’ve learned is our desire to like the world. In his great lecture, “Mind and Friends,” Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism, said:
I have described the three possible situations a person may be in, in meeting even a stranger. Assume that John Rosen meets James Robinson. John Rosen talks to James Robinson for five minutes. John Rosen either leaves James Robinson exactly as he was; or through talking to him he can make him worse off than he was; or he can make him better off than he was. “I was introduced to him and I talked to him for five minutes. 1) I left him exactly as he was—I don’t like that. I don’t like talking to a guy for five minutes and not meaning a thing, even though it isn’t bad. 2) I did him some harm; I really did him some bad things; I don’t like that. 3) I did him a little good.” John Rosen likes that; everybody would.
Aesthetic Realism enables a person to see clearly how we have affected people, and also what effect we really want to have, and it makes for a beautiful change in that person’s life. I am grateful that this is what occurred with me—changing the deep self-doubt I had, and enabling me increasingly to be honestly proud of how I see and affect other people.
I’ll describe here how I changed and also discuss some aspects of the life of the great 20th century singer Elvis Presley, who had a large, good effect on people through his music, and so much wanted to in his day-to-day life.
How We Affect People Begins with How We See the World
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, I loved the grandeur of the Hudson River with the magnificent Palisades on the other shore; riding bikes in summer and sleds in winter; watching the “Million Dollar Movie” feature of the week on TV with stars like James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. And some of my happiest memories are of singing in harmony with my sister Marion many of the early songs of The Beatles. As we heard our voices blend and contrast trying to be exact about the notes and the rhythm, our effect on each other was good.
Yet when I wasn’t singing, I mainly had a very different purpose. I wanted to be the most important person in my sister’s life, and enjoyed conversations with her in which I made fun of people, looked down on them, and encouraged the feeling that the world was unlikable and beneath us. Without knowing it I was going after the victory of contempt, and didn’t think about what kind of effect this had on me, my sister, or anyone.
My parents were very busy—my mother with a house and four children, my father often with second jobs on top of his long hours as a fireman—and there was often tension between them. The lives of my oldest brother and sister seemed to be in frequent turmoil with school, friends, parents and each other. And I remember feeling very early that life was confusing and difficult.
The remedy I came to was to separate myself and feel superior, “too good” for all this. As the youngest, I cultivated a mild-mannered innocence. I got a lot of praise from my family for being well-behaved, good-looking, smart, a pleasure to be around. I used this to feel I had a special quality that made just my mere presence good for another person, without my having to do anything. Meanwhile, I came to be more and more dissatisfied, and saw the rest of the world—which didn’t give me the automatic approval my family did—as harsh and unfriendly. This affected very much how I was with people. In his essay “Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?,” Mr. Siegel explains: “If you feel that the world is ill-managed, is contemptible, is unkind, you have to show that in how you see [other people].”
I got less interested in things, and took to hanging around with Matty O’Brien on his back porch where we’d complain about having “nothing to do.” With friends in college, I wanted to be seen as witty and keenly insightful as we mocked people and pointed out the “phoniness” we’d seen in “society.” And I encouraged my friends to use drugs with me—mostly marijuana—ratifying in each other the feeling the world was unlikable and should be put aside. One friend, David, was often torn between his pre-med studies and social life on campus. I’m sorry that I never once encouraged him to study, but instead pressured him to party with us. Though I acted like I could laugh everything off, inwardly I agonized about my relationships with people. I would curse myself and cringe, going over and over things I’d said and done. I despised myself and had no idea why.
I Learned the Effect I Had Was Not the One I Wanted
I am so lucky that in 1981 I met Aesthetic Realism and began to study in consultations. Because of the kindness and knowledge with which my consultants asked questions, I felt they got to the heart of things I’d felt all my life. When I spoke about feeling very separate from people, they asked: “Have you felt you should keep your distance from people while trying to have them very impressed with you?” I recognized this right away and answered, “Yes.” They asked: “Are you proud of yourself for the way you’ve thought about people—the effect you’ve wanted to have—or are you ashamed?” I, who had wanted so much to convince people, including myself, that I was a well-meaning nice guy, answered, “Ashamed.”
I knew that beneath my smiling surface I really didn’t care so much about the lives of the people close to me, and then I saw something very important: I had actually hoped another person would dislike the world, because in doing so they seemed to be making more of me. The great thing that happened is that in seeing this purpose consciously, I didn’t want to have it anymore! Eli Siegel explains in his essay “The Call for Ethics”:
[T]he central force in ethics, the best thing … in man’s mind … can be described shortly as a man’s inability to like himself if he saw that he met someone or something and wasn’t in some way good for that someone or something …. This desire for self-respect is a much more powerful thing than is thought.
I began to ask myself with friends, co-workers, people in my family, people I met for the first time: Do I hope this person likes things more, sees more meaning in the world around him or her, is more composed?—and in asking it, I saw how much I wanted to answer, Yes! I felt for the first time I was really capable of being kind. Ten lifetimes would not be enough to thank Eli Siegel for the knowledge that loosened the tangled knot that was my life, and gave me a chance to be honestly proud of my effect on people. I cherish the life I have, which includes my happy marriage to Carol McCluer who is a singer and actress, and the fact that we can study together in classes taught by Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education.
The Good Effect on People That Is Art
The great American singer Elvis Presley had one of the largest effects on people—including in terms of numbers of people—of any person who has ever lived. Still loved now, he shook the world in the 1950’s and later with a voice, a sound, and electrifying stage performances that were exciting and new. I believe the reason his singing has had such a lasting good effect on people is explained by this principle, stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Listen to the opening of his classic 1958 recording, “Jailhouse Rock,” written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Elvis sings with tremendous, all-out exuberance, while also there is measure, precision, even curtailment as each line is articulated separately:
[The] warden threw a party in the county jail.
The prison band was there and they began to wail.
The band was jumpin’ and the joint began to swing…
I think there is no other singer in all of rock and roll who has that magnificent oneness of something tremblingly moved, stirred, and masterfully powerful at once. Until now, the guitar and drums have sounded like they’re struggling to break free, just like the prisoners in the song. Then Elvis gets to the line, “You shoulda heard this knocked-out jailbird sing,” with such exact fairness to the rhythm, and with every note on the same pitch, but with utter, abandoned wildness that sends a thrill through you as the band does what Elvis now sings: “Let’s rock! Everybody, let’s rock!”
Elvis Presley’s singing is loved because it shows opposites we hope to make sense of in ourselves can be one; That you can be free and not only not lose control, but have beautiful control; That you can give yourself over to something and not only maintain yourself, but be more yourself because of it.
The Effect He Hoped to Have and the Unknown Opposition
Elvis Presley was born in a two-room “shotgun” shack, in the midst of the Great Depression, January 8, 1935, to Vernon and Gladys Presley—desperately poor descendants of Mississippi sharecroppers who perpetually owed nearly every cent they earned to the landlord. He was one of twins. The other, a boy, died at birth. The effect of America’s unjust economic system on the Presleys was enormous and horrible. When Elvis was two, his father, frantic for money, sold his only cow to their landlord. Feeling cheated by the payment—a check for only four dollars—he altered the check to make it appear like 40 dollars. The landlord had him arrested and he went to prison for a year and a half, causing Elvis and his mother to have to leave the tiny shack they rented from this landlord. They remained poor throughout Elvis’s growing up.
In all the hardship they went through, the Presleys keenly felt they needed each other. In particular, Elvis felt his mother depended on him for her happiness. Peter Brown and Pat Broeske write in their book, Down at the End of Lonely Street:
Elvis came to understand he was the most important person in the world to Gladys, and he repaid that attention by becoming—as best he could—the little man of the house.
He was coming to an attitude to the world—feeling it was out to rook him and his family—and that the best way to take care of himself was to stay close to the home base and to those persons he felt belonged to him and whom he could manage. He was very protective of his mother—and often spoke of someday making enough money to “pay all the bills.” But with people outside the family, he is described as “shy” and “removed.” In high school, he painfully felt he “didn’t fit in.” I have learned that when a person concentrates excessively on what Mr. Siegel once called “the near as had by oneself,” it has a bad effect on him and the people he knows—because he is not being true to his greatest need, to like the world himself and encourage that in others. But in his singing, he had another purpose—and the way near and far, the intimate and wide are made one is very often powerful and beautiful.
In later years—after the death of his mother and remarriage of his father, and after achieving enormous fame—Elvis shied away from meeting new people in his personal life, and preferred the company of a familiar group of friends, whom he saw, in many ways, as like his family. He demanded their loyalty, and was very hurt when someone acted as if he or she wanted to live an independent life. And it seems he expected the women he was in relation to, including his wife Priscilla, to be devoted to him in an exclusive way. He didn’t know that this possessive attitude had a bad effect on the people he knew, and that it was in conflict with another tremendous desire he had: to be kind.
“Elvis couldn’t stand for anybody to be in pain,” writes friend Jo Smith, “If anybody in the group had a problem, he had to solve it.” Once when he learned a friend was having difficulty with hospital bills after the birth of his son, Elvis paid the bills. Another time, when a woman visiting his neighbor suddenly died, he paid for all the funeral arrangements and transportation of her family back to England. And there are many instances of his giving gifts—of money, jewelry, a new car—to people he knew, but also to people he didn’t know, who seemed to him to need it.
I think the fight in Elvis Presley between the desire to have an effect on people he could be proud of, and another, more narrow desire, got him down very much. He told a friend, “I’m self-centered, and I don’t like it. It’s a really bad situation.” And I believe this unresolved battle contributed to his insomnia, frequent nightmares, and also his attraction to drugs, which increasingly hurt his life. I wish he could have learned from Aesthetic Realism about the thing in himself that interfered with the deep hope he had to affect people in a good way, a strengthening way, all the time. It is a fact that the understanding of himself and his art he was thirsting for, crying out for all his life, deserved to have and never got, was in Aesthetic Realism all those years.
From very early in his life, Elvis Presley loved music, and particularly music that was sung with deep and yearning feeling. He said in an interview:
We were a religious family, going ’round together to sing at camp meetings and revivals. Since I was two years old, all I knew was gospel music. That music became such a part of my life it was as natural as dancing.
And as he grew, first in Tupelo, Mississippi and later in Memphis, Tennessee, he drank in the white gospel, black gospel, blues and country music he heard on the radio, the street, and anywhere he could find it. The good effect music had on him, he passionately wanted to have on other people. In spite of his shyness, by the age of 9 he had learned some guitar and sang on the radio, and at 10 performed on stage at the County Fair.
In a great Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel gave to a rock and roll musician in 1969, he explained:
The purpose of art is to show feeling can have accuracy. An artist feels he should show his feeling, and if he does, it will be delightful to himself and delightful to others.
The first recording Elvis made—in 1954 at the age of 19—was “That’s All Right (Mama),” which became an immediate sensation throughout the South. In an interview, he said this about the man who originally recorded that song: “I used to hear Arthur (“Big Boy”) Crudup…and I said if I ever got to the place where I could feel all that old Arthur felt, I’d be a music man like nobody ever saw.” I think the singing he heard and loved gave Elvis hope—however unconsciously—that his feelings, including the pain and degradation of poverty, and his feeling of lonely separation from people, could be given form. Aesthetic Realism provides the logic for this.
Rock and Roll: the Oneness of Pleasure and Pain
In the lesson I quoted from, Mr. Siegel said to that musician:
The thing about rock and roll is that it puts two things together. Have you found in rock and roll a sense of assertion and agony? (Yes)… All right. Now this has the answer to people’s problems. On the one hand, they want to be very private and sad, and on the other, they want to have something like sunlight and public force… Is there [in rock and roll] the utmost pain and the utmost assertion?… Is it the blare of agony?…
These great words of Eli Siegel explain for all time why millions of people have loved rock and roll—why I have. The best thing in me, my desire to like the world, has always hoped to win out against my desire to hide, skulk, be inward and strategic. And it is that best thing in me that cared for rock and roll. But I never would have known it if Aesthetic Realism had not made it clear, and it never would have changed.
In a beautiful discussion in an Aesthetic Realism class for which I’m very grateful, Ellen Reiss spoke to me about my desire to keep my feelings to myself. Carol McCluer was expecting the birth of our daughter, Sara, and I stupidly felt I should hang onto myself and not show the big, new feelings I was having. Miss Reiss asked me: “Do you feel you should have a life within that says ‘NO TRESPASSING’?” I answered Yes, and she asked, “What good does it do you?” And she spoke with such passion and confidence about the alternative:
If Kevin Fennell really wants to have good will for Carol McCluer, he’ll feel his mind meets the world in a way it never has before. He’ll see more, know more, things will mean more to him, his life will be more exciting. People don’t know how much non-good will has put a dull gray film on everything. You don’t know how much dimmer your life is now than if your purpose was to have good will.
I thank Ellen Reiss very much for this discussion, which made for an immediate change, enabling me to have such pleasure and pride showing my true feelings to my wife, and wanting to know hers.
Elvis Presley’s great 1956 recording, “Heartbreak Hotel,” written by Mae Boren Axton and Tommy Durden, has “the blare of agony” all the way through. The agony is given such fervent, energetic form in Presley’s great singing, that it is also thrilling, joyous! In the lesson of the rock musician, Eli Siegel said:
I would say that every person has to make a one of the most secret thing and the most public thing. And rock and roll says that that can be done… Do you believe that there’s a desire for a person to unburden himself as if he were an earthquake?… I say the purpose of rock and roll is to make secrets a public delight.
This describes Elvis Presley’s singing at its best. Listen to the beginning of Heartbreak Hotel:
I want every person in this world to know Aesthetic Realism, to learn with pleasure and pride how we truly want to affect people. And I believe Elvis Presley wants the same thing.
Learn more: AestheticRealism.org