Originally presented at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City
True self-expression, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is expression of the deepest, most insistent desire we have—which pulses like a heartbeat from the moment we’re born and never gives up—our desire honestly to like the world. I also learned, and it revolutionized my life, that what stopped me–what stops every person–from having the true self-expression we most yearn for is our desire for contempt: our hope to despise the outside world in whatever way we can as a means of elevating ourselves. Studying what it means to like the world, and also how the hope to have contempt interferes, has enabled the real me to come forth in a way that I never knew could be, and I thank Eli Siegel for this with all my heart.
1. Aesthetic Realism Explains the Fight about True Expression
Growing up in Yonkers, New York, there was a deep drive in me to find the world exciting, loveable, and worthy of respect. From as early as I can remember I liked hearing songs and singing. I loved it when our whole family sang together, often using the “Sing Along with Mitch” recordings as our guide. Later, when the Beatles swept the world, I was absolutely mesmerized. I loved the way they poured forth big feeling with such life, joy and beautiful control. I thought “I’d like to make a sound like that!” and I’d play their records for hours and sing along energetically. And then, in 10th grade, I fell in love with Euclidean geometry, felt it had a logical, beautiful form, and enjoyed the great satisfaction of completing a proof. At these times, I did feel expressed in a way I was proud of.
But this kind of expression got terrific opposition from another, very different purpose in me. I was the youngest of four children, and more than I knew at the time, instead of being interested in the other people in my family, I used the fact that there was a lot of turmoil and confusion to withdraw, to feel I was left out, put aside. And I remember vividly instances of feeling very hurt. Meanwhile, my mother often praised my mild behavior, my good looks, and wavy red hair. I exploited the fact that I could easily get her to soothe and pity me, and envisioned myself as an angelic prince to whom the world and other people were unjustly harsh and mean. And with my sister Marion, though we sang together, often, as we played or hung out in each other’s room, we gave each other the clear message that we were above the noisy fracas, and saw ourselves as allies against a world that didn’t appreciate us.
This way of seeing interfered with my true expression. I came to the unintelligent opinion that not much in this world was good enough to interest me, excite me, spur me into action—I should just be cool, quietly scornful, stick to my home base, and this made me dull. By the time I was in high school, I mainly kept myself apart from people, and hardly spoke to anyone, except occasionally to answer a teacher’s question.
In Eli Siegel’s 1949 lecture, Aesthetic Realism and Expression, he explained:
To express means that you see yourself as an outside thing and you send yourself abroad. One thing people do is imagining they are expressing themselves by restraining themselves, by not talking. They think that by keeping themselves to themselves…they are expressing themselves. About that, Aesthetic Realism says very carefully, even solemnly, and most decidedly: Phooey!
The other side of my blandness was anger at my classmates, for not seeing me as special, and I told myself they were callous and mean, but the truth was: I felt I was too good for them. During college, though I managed to make more friends, and knew how to seem jolly and get laughs at a party, and sometimes even had a good time, I felt I was essentially an empty fake.
All the while, I longed to do something of value, to express myself in some way that had big meaning, but felt incapable, frozen, and would curse myself and call myself “lazy,” “coward” and every other name I could think of. This would have continued had I not had the amazing good fortune to learn of Aesthetic Realism and find out what it was in me that was smothering my expression.
2. True Self-Expression: Honest Like Of The World
In my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, when asked what I had most against myself, I said, “I’m letting everything go by. I’m letting the whole world go by without making a move.” Shortly afterward, when asked what I thought of the world, I said, a little defensively, “I love the world.” My consultants very logically inquired, “Well, if you love the world, why would you let it all go by? Do you feel like saying, ‘I’d like the world if it weren’t for people?’”
This surprised me, because I’d thought I was pained because people weren’t nice to me, not because I wasn’t fair to them. But I was also deeply thrilled. I was being spoken to with a kind of honesty I’d never experienced before. Later, my consultants asked: “Has the thing you have been most afraid of, that you would never have a big enough feeling about anything?” I answered, “Yes!”
Some time later when I was living in an apartment with two roommates, I found myself getting very irritated—with their habits, how they put away objects in the kitchen, etc., and the fact that they didn’t seem to see it as a privilege to live with such a high type person as me. My consultants asked: “Do you think you’re too good for them?—a prince cast among paupers?” And they also asked: “How interested are you in their lives—what excites them, what they hope to accomplish, what they might fear, what they’re proudest of? Would it do you good, would it encourage your own expression, to try to see the depths of a person—and would that go against your thirst to be displeased, to have contempt?”
Ladies and gentlemen, I embarked on the most wonderful journey of a lifetime, as I began to really see how much contempt had hurt me and how much better life could be with a whole other purpose. I was given assignments to write, including 25 Things I Have in Common with My Father, and a soliloquy of thoughts my mother may have to herself. Another assignment was to take the Aesthetic Realism principle, “Every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself” and write about it, with specifics, as to a different person I knew, every day. I saw, for example, that my father wanted to think well of himself—just as keenly as I did; that my mother had depths, emotions and perceptions far beyond what I’d ever wanted to see; also that a man I worked with at the post office was hoping to make a one of light-heartedness and tough-mindedness, seriousness and gaiety, just as I was. To my amazement and great pleasure, I was seeing that people are much more like me than I’d ever supposed; also more interesting, valuable and worth knowing. Obvious as it may sound, I was seeing that the most important thing about people was not how they treated me!
And there was more. I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the great opposition to contempt is to see that anything you see or can think about—any object, any person—has the aesthetic structure of the world: the oneness of opposites. I saw that a phonograph record is a oneness of surface and depth, that a tree is strong and yielding, digging low and reaching high; that the strings of my guitar, the pick in my hand, my own arm, and my own feeling as I strummed—all were a relation of firmness and flexibility, hardness and softness, motion and rest. So, at the very same time that I was learning to be a critic of my contempt, I was seeing there is a far greater pleasure in seeing the world as it truly is, and respecting it.
One very natural result of liking the world more is the feeling you inevitably have: this is the real me! I came to feel: I’m in a world that matters, that deserves my respect and my doing something about. I no longer wanted to let a minute or day go by. And I found I had plenty to express myself about–including music, politics, economics, and the great value of Aesthetic Realism itself. Also, in my everyday interactions with people—a friend, a coworker, a person I meet for the first time—I feel more and more all the time that it’s me that person is seeing, not some arrangement or mask I can hide behind.
As my education has continued in consultations and then in great classes taught by Ellen Reiss, my life has become richer and happier with every month and year. I fell in love with a woman. Her name is Carol McCluer. The first time I saw her, I saw right away how pretty she was and how sweetly and kindly she smiled. As we talked, I felt she wanted to see the real me and I wanted her to know me as I’d never wanted someone to before. And I wanted to know her! With her love of animals, objects, music and literature, her incisive and often humorous criticism of me, and her large desire to be true to what she’s learned from Aesthetic Realism, she has encouraged my self-expression as a man, a friend to others, a singer, a writer, and as the father of our daughter Sara. I love her so much! And I admire very much her fine artistic expression as a singer and actress in the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company.
3. William Lloyd Garrison—Mightily Expressed
In the lecture on Expression I’ve been quoting from, Eli Siegel explained that for true expression to be, “It is necessary to have ourselves stirred—because we have to be impressed before we can express ourselves.”
A man whose life shows that true self-expression is the same as the desire to be affected—to want to know and have as much accurate feeling about the world and people as one can—is the great American abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who lived from 1805 to 1879. He is a man who changed the course of our nation’s history powerfully with his voice and his beloved printing press.
In Eli Siegel’s great poem, “Americans Have Tried to See What They Felt: Some of Them,” he writes:
It was men whom William Lloyd Garrison looked at in order to know himself better and his feelings more adequately.
Garrison saw injustice in himself—and lo, he saw it not just in himself, but in this land.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Garrison saw this feeling in himself: That Negro I don’t know in Alabama is not free, and I can’t stand it. I won’t have it. I’ll wake up other people; I’ll take them out of their unseeing, unkind, death-torpor; I’ll set them to freeing that Negro in Alabama, or that black woman in Virginia.
Was he busy with his feelings! Was Garrison busy!
He is of American history, Garrison is.
William Lloyd Garrison grew up in the town of Newburyport, Massachusetts, and when he was only three, his father left the family, abandoning them to poverty. His mother, who was a strictly religious Baptist, soon found that she couldn’t afford to keep her young son, and had to ask friends to take him in. It is said that he was humiliated by his poverty.
Yet, even as a young boy, Garrison loved school and learning to read, but had to drop out at the age of 9 to go to work–first to help the man he lived with in his work of cutting wood and sharpening saws, then as a laborer in a shoe-making factory, and later as a carpenter’s apprentice. He was heartbroken at not being able to continue school, but sought out books and every opportunity he could find to read.
Finally at the age of 13, he became a printer’s apprentice. Here, although at first staggered by the complexity of the work, young Lloyd soon became deeply enamored with what biographer Henry Mayer calls “the art and mystery of printing”—how the setting of type and the intricate mechanical workings of a press, produced words upon a page that many, many people could read.
Invited by the editor himself, Ephraim W. Allen, to move into his home, Garrison found material comfort, friendship in Allen’s sons, and also the presence of many books. He fell in love with poetry, literature and the power of words in Shakespeare, Milton, Walter Scott. He was particularly swept by Byron. Mayer quotes Garrison saying that he “read the stanzas [of Childe Harold] on the Battle of Waterloo over and over again until he was ‘weary with excitement.’ Byron’s verses, he thought, were ‘unsurpassed’ for ‘rousing the blood like a trumpet call.’”
This love for the power of words, together with his new-found profession in the world of printing, opened the way for the great expression of his life. As Mr. Siegel said in Aesthetic Realism and Expression:
Part of the being impressed is the being stirred. If in the field of thought we have put up so many guards that we can be immune to anything deeply exciting, we’ll never express ourselves.
This young man who had met so much hardship could have so easily put up guards, despised the world, and made himself “immune to anything deeply exciting,” but he wanted to see what was good and beautiful and true. He wanted to be affected as deeply as he could. And God, did he come to express himself!
4. Complacency: The Enemy
Garrison became a newspaper editor and writer in various towns, including eventually, Boston. He spoke out on important issues of the time, and early came to see the abolition of slavery as the most urgent issue facing America.
At first, he was a proponent of the gradual emancipation of American slaves, saying in his first important speech on the subject that it would be a “wild vision” to expect it to come about in a single generation. But only 10 days later, at a gathering of free blacks in Boston, while other white abolitionists spoke about the need for gradual emancipation, Garrison heard “a very audible murmur” run through the house which, he said, “spoke the language of nature—the unbending spirit of liberty.” On the spot, Mayer tells, Garrison underwent “an emotional revelation” and sorely regretted ever advocating gradualism for a minute. This is beautiful self-expression, because he wasn’t afraid to look at himself and see something ugly there. As Mr. Siegel wrote in the poem I quoted, “Garrison saw injustice in himself—and lo, he saw it not just in himself, but in this land.”
From then on, Garrison passionately criticized anyone—clergymen, editors, politicians, acquaintances—anybody who spoke as though slavery should be tolerated for another hour. He hated the complacency of people that wanted to act as though the issue was not so important since it affected persons of a different color from themselves. When his dear friend Samuel May remarked with some alarm that he was “all on fire,” Garrison replied, “Brother May, I have need to be all on fire, for I have mountains of ice to melt!”
I respect this tremendously, and am learning from it about a mistake I made. While I had changed very much, I’m sorry to say, at times I found myself suddenly cool, lacking the big feeling I’d had a day, a week, even an hour before. Then, instead of criticizing myself effectively, a further mistake was to feel sorry for myself, thinking, “Oh, look at me! I haven’t changed at all—still the same old mild-mannered faker.”
I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class and Ellen Reiss met my hope. She asked whether there was kind of “warm oasis” I still liked to go to inside myself—as a well-meaning, hurt fellow who is misunderstood and should be soothed. I said yes, I definitely recognized myself in that description. And she continued:
The question is whether this motive interferes with another purpose you might have. Is there a tremendous desire in you to be complacent and also a tremendous desire to be a revolutionary? … The thing in you that wants to be passionate about the truth and beauty in this world is you. The other thing is the imposter!”
The value I got from this discussion is a treasure, and I thank Ellen Reiss for it. Aesthetic Realism is beautiful in enabling a person to see what really expresses him—that liking the world, having big feeling about it, and having good will for other people, is not a donation or an unusual, special effort, but is really the most selfish, self-strengthening, deeply satisfying thing we can do. It is, in fact, the only true self-expression.
The education I’ve gotten from Aesthetic Realism has given me a real, beating heart, where there was mainly ice before. It matters to me that every person in this country and in this world not be hungry, have a home, receive education, not have to go without something as basic and decent as health care—and that every person have the same chance to enjoy this world that any other person may have. I passionately want the knowledge we’re presenting tonight to be known by people far and wide, so that people can know what is the real expression we’re after, and also—just as the ill will of slavery had to end—that an economy based on ill will (which we have now) needs to be replaced with one that is based on good will.
William Lloyd Garrison was met with ferocious opposition—not only from slaveholders in the South and the newspapers and politicians representing them, but from nearly everyone here in the North, ranging from out-and-out racists, to “gradualists” who felt he was impractical, to apologists who said we have to tolerate the way of life of our neighbors in the South who after all “take good care of their Negros,” to people who simply didn’t seem to care much about the issue, to cynics who laughed in his face and said he was crazy to think he was ever going to make a dent in all this.
But he believed that if people really saw the ugliness of slavery as if it was happening to them, they would change their minds; and that if enough people changed, the nation itself would have to change. So long before the Civil War came, along with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and finally the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in America, Garrison wrote in the very first issue of The Liberator, January 1, 1831, these famous words, which Ellen Reiss described, in a recent issue of The Right of, “one of the great statements of America … against deferred justice, justice made slow to arrive:”
I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse – I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.
In the three decades and more that he continued to speak and write passionately about this matter, Garrison was a major force in bringing about the end of slavery in America. I believe he would love what we’re speaking about tonight.
Aesthetic Realism is knowledge so needed by every human being on this earth, because it offers a clear, learnable path to the real self-expression we have longed for from the moment we were born. True self-expression is exactly the same as justice to the world and people.