By Barbara Allen

Reprinted from The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue No. 604, October 31, 1984

NOTE: This article remains desperately relevant to students and teachers today. Allen writes of the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method, which has been tested in New York City public schools--and elsewhere--with enormous success for decades.

There is a form of despair in students that has grown alarmingly in the last years: teenage suicide. Programs have been instituted in schools to teach students and teachers how to recognize the signs of a child thinking of suicide: listlessness, grades dropping, lack of interest, sudden angers, more and more isolation. "Specialists agree," reports the New York Times (March 14, 1984), "that no single theory can account for all suicides and no single measure can prevent them."

This is not true. Eli Siegel has described what takes place in a person who wants to kill himself. He wrote in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, no. 229:

There are only two things we can do about the world. One is respect it more and more; the other is to have contempt for it....As Aesthetic Realism sees it, contempt for the world is the cause of insanity and also the cause, often, of the condition accompanying insanity or accompanied by it, suicide. Listlessness, boredom, lack of interest all show an attitude to the world: contempt for the world's possibilities.

Children need to learn from the time they are born and in every class at school how to like the world. No person who honestly likes reality wants to die. This is what Aesthetic Realism as teaching method is prepared to do: 1. teach every child how to like the world through history, science, arithmetic, and more; 2. criticize contempt wherever it occurs--inside and outside ourselves. Aesthetic Realism defines contempt as the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."

"The awful omission of man so far," writes Eli Siegel in The Right Of no. 229, "is that he hasn't seen the study of the world itself in order to like it, as a study in its own right. By this I mean that one can use a person one knows, a blade of grass, the sky, the naval history of England--all these--both to know the world better and to like it more." He explains, "Aesthetic Realism states that nothing exists or can be thought of that is not a oneness of opposites."

When a child learns that a blade of grass, for instance, is like his own body--both are flexible and strong--he sees a relation between himself and the world that has him value both more. And if a girl can see that her mother, who doesn't know whether to be strict or give in, is a little like the British naval officer Lord Nelson, this girl is seeing that the world makes sense and is closer to liking it. No person wants to leave a world that makes sense.

Because teachers themselves do not like the world, nor do they see this desire in their students, they are unknowingly encouraging despair.

Vivienne Loomis killed herself in 1973 at age fourteen. Letters and journal entries by her, essays and lines of verse, were compiled by John E. Mack and Holly Hickler and published with the title Vivienne by Little, Brown and Company in 1981. She was a good student, and interested in what was going on inside herself. But there was something she needed desperately to know. She could not distinguish between using her mind to know things and using her mind to be scornful of things and people.

    Vivienne wrote in her journal when she was in sixth grade, "I bet nobody knows the things I know or feels the things I feel. Does anyone admire things the way I do? I don't think so, but maybe, no, it couldn't be" (p. 15). Vivienne wanted two things: she wanted to think somebody could feel as she did and she also liked thinking she could not be understood--it made her superior.

Like many children, Vivienne used what she saw between her parents to feel that she would not be comprehended, and that the world was a disappointing place which she in her keenness could mock. Her father was a Unitarian minister who, it seems, was very unsure of himself. Her mother, Paulette, "suffered though her husband's slow and extended decision-making" (p. 10). This mother was a confusing mingling of someone who told people what to do and someone who showed helplessness, needing to confide in Vivienne. Vivienne developed a sarcastic wit, and soon other children did not want to be with her. 

This was the way she was seeing the world when she came to the sixth grade English class of John May, who, the authors say, "undertook to help" and "increase [her] self-confidence." The way he did this was by praising the things she wrote, and having he feel she was a person of "special value" (p. 14).

In my second year of teaching, before I knew Aesthetic Realism, I met a girl, Jeanie Quinn [not her real name], who was so lonely and unsure of herself that I did something like what John May did. I encouraged her to write what she felt in a journal or in lines of verse, and even if I didn't understand what she wrote, I praised it. As the school year went on, she and her only friend, Lisa, came after school to talk to me, called me at home, wrote me letters. I felt very important; but I did not do what I learned later I most needed and wanted to do as a teacher: encourage her to be just to the world, see meaning in things, be fair to the feelings of other people. I unknowingly encouraged her separation from the world and her superiority.

John May did not now how to distinguish between the feelings Vivienne expressed that were for life, and her desire to have contempt, which was destroying her care for the world. For example, she writes:

      My mind is like a cool shady nook
      A place where I can retreat
      . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
      You cannot push your way in.... [P. 45]
A terrible mistake made by English teachers--and I made it--is that when a student writes lines of verse, almost anything is praised, as long as it looks like a poem and the person seems to be expressing himself. Vivienne Loomis was hurt by this kind of teaching. No one distinguished between the fact that she had justified criticisms of her parents' self-absorption, her sister's remoteness, the Vietnam war; and the fact that she used these criticisms in a completely unjustified way to glorify herself. There is much contempt in the verses Vivienne wrote, and the praise she got for them encouraged her to have more contempt for the world. This contempt, Eli Siegel saw, "is the cause..., often, of...suicide."

When John May left the school, he did not leave Vivienne with the knowledge she needed--to find meaning in the world outside herself. The only thing he had really encouraged her to see as friendly was himself. Unknowingly John May had encouraged her to like him as a substitute for the world. So when he went away she felt bereft. She wrote, just two months before she killed herself, "Soon I can hear them in the blackness; noisy and squabbling among themselves....They are trampling me down....There's my old nurse...and my first ignorant and oblivious, with such cheap ideals....They grind me to the ground" (pp. 103-104).

What state of mind, an English teacher should have asked, did Vivienne have as she wrote this way: was she trying to be exact; or was she managing the facts to see the world as uglier, more contemptible? What desperately needed to be criticized in this writing was her purpose.

Two things are indispensable to education in order to change despair: criticism of our desire to have contempt, and knowledge of how to like the world. Had Aesthetic Realism been known--which it could have been for many years before Vivienne killed herself--she would have been asked to describe an object exactly every day. Had Vivienne written three sentences about an object every day, she would have taken steps away from suicide. She would have seen that a leaf, say, has form and color; it has a stem, and widens; it is smooth and has jagged edges. Mr. Siegel writes of what any object would say if it had a chance: "'My existence tells you to like the world, for every instance of existence is a oneness of opposites; and when we like something truly, it is because we have seen the oneness of opposites in that thing.'"

A junior high school French teacher who took the Board of Education in-service course, The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel As Teaching Method, told us about a student of hers who tried to kill herself. We suggested that Mrs. M get a notebook for this girl and ask her to write two sentences ever day: a complete sentence about something she liked in the outside world; a sentence on what she is angry about. Mrs. M. did so, and some time later described what happened: after a few absences, the student was able to return to class, could do her work, and would be taking the city-wide French test in June. And Mrs. M expressed gratitude to Aesthetic Realism for learning that a teacher's purpose is to show a student how to like the world.

So much can be done when the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel is able to reach people.

Copyright © 2000-2015 Barbara Allen, Aesthetic Realism Consultant