from The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, issue No. 604,
October 31, 1984
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.
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."
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.
lack of interest all show an attitude to the world: contempt for the world's
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."
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."
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
teachers themselves do not like the world, nor do they see this desire
in their students, they are unknowingly encouraging despair.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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."
My mind is like
a cool shady nook
A place where I
. . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You cannot push
your way in.... [P. 45]
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 boyfriend...so ignorant and oblivious, with such cheap ideals....They
grind me to the ground" (pp. 103-104).
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.
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.'"
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.
much can be done when the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel is able to reach