Aesthetic Realism Seminar

How Do Men Hurt Themselves?—In Love, the Family, Economics

By Bruce Blaustein 

Bruce Blaustein and his father, David Blaustein

From a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, New York City

One of the biggest ways men hurt themselves, and have for centuries, is in how we have gone after having our way, being important. This was certainly true of me. Growing up, I came to feel that if I made as much money as possible, had many material possessions, an impressive house and car, I'd show everybody how important I was. As a teenager, I thought if I just owned a Rolex watch then I would really be somebody. But even as I got more and more things, I felt empty and unsure of myself.

I didn't know it, but the reason I felt bad was that my way of being somebody was essentially based on contempt, defined by Aesthetic Realism as "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it." The contempt way of going after importance includes what Eli Siegel, founder of Aesthetic Realism, once described in a lecture as "the tendency in a premature and not beautiful way to take things and make them part of oneself without having seen them." The desire to grab things without wanting sufficiently to respect or know them is a large way I hurt myself—making my mind less keen, my feelings duller. Though somewhere I longed to have big emotions, and wanted to feel my life had real meaning, I had a pervasive feeling of hollowness, with all my outward cheerfulness and energy.

Seeing or Owning: An Early Fight in Me

As a boy, I loved learning about animals and had many pets: horned toads, chameleons, tropical fish, birds, hamsters, even a monkey. I would stay up late reading about the different species of animals, their sleeping patterns, feeding habits. Aesthetic Realism taught me that the desire to know these living beings represented my deepest hope: to like the world.

But I also had another desire. As I looked at these small beings in their tanks and cages in our basement, I would pretend that I was a powerful warden of a jail, and these creatures were my prisoners. Once, when a hamster tried to bite me, I punished it by not feeding it for a day. I felt omnipotent.

But I was troubled, and thought if people could look into my heart they would hate me. I felt I was mean. Aesthetic Realism shows that this contempt, this not seeing feelings outside oneself as real, is the cause of pain in every aspect of life—in love, the family, economics.

As a teenager, I wanted to possess my friends and family. On a typical night in 1967, for instance, I would be on the phone giving advice to a cousin, telling him what he should do and where he should go with his girlfriend. And I expected to be thanked. If friends showed they were happy through anything other than me, I felt angry and betrayed.

As I put aside my desire to know the world, preferring to own and run people, I was hurting my mind. I was unable to give deep, continuous, accurate thought to anything outside myself. For example, in high school when I was given reading assignments such as Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield, and Shakespeare's Hamlet and Macbeth, I couldn' t get past the first three pages without becoming bored and fidgety, and my mind would wander. As other students spoke enthusiastically about what there were reading, I felt ashamed and empty. "Where possession is ahead of seeing," Mr. Siegel explains, "there is calamity."

I am grateful that through my Aesthetic Realism education, my life today—as I am with my wife, Lauren Philips, our son Michael—at any moment I can ask myself: "Do I want to know or own; see, or possess?" I'm able to criticize and change my hurtful purposes with people.

For example, in an Aesthetic Realism class some years ago, as I spoke about being concerned about my intense desire to acquire things, Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education, asked me: "If a person owned something but didn't really know that thing, even if he held onto it for a hundred years, would he have it?"

Does a Parent Hurt Himself by Wanting to Own His Child?

As a fairly new father, I was very proud that I had a son. But I was already making a mistake many fathers have made. Because I felt he was "mine" and therefore already perfect, I was not a friendly and useful critic of him. When, as a very small child, he was beginning to act bossy, whining when he didn't get his way, I would wait on him, get him juice and candy whenever he wanted—because I saw his approval of me as more important than wanting him to be fair to things. In the class I quoted from, Ms. Reiss asked me: "Does Michael Blaustein judge himself on how he sees the world, or on thinking Bruce Blaustein is the best thing going?" This had in it a respect for the mind of a child that I needed.

One of the most hurtful things I did—hurtful to both my son and me—was when we were out together, I hoped that somebody I knew would meet us and give me the opportunity to show him off. I would think, "Come on Michael, say something profound that no other two year old child ever said before." And whatever he said in his baby voice, I would be intoxicated with self-importance: thinking, "That's my boy!" At other times when Michael looked at a person and turned away without uttering a word, I was mortified and angry with my infant son for making me look bad.

Ms. Reiss explained that the main ethical question a parent has in anything he does or says as to a child, is: "Is he going to respect the world more?" And she showed me the beautiful alternative to wanting to own a person: " Do you want Michael to care for the whole world—or just you?"

These questions and others have made for deep, good changes. Lauren, Michael, who is now in his twenties, and I want this knowledge to reach families all over America.

The Fight between Seeing and Owning in a Notable Play

I speak now about some aspects of the 1949 play Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller. Sometimes called "an American tragedy," Death of A Salesman shows the everyday choices a man makes between owning and knowing—in love, the family, economics—and how these choices, in their ordinariness, can be terrifically hurtful.

"To live," Mr. Siegel wrote in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #148, "is to have one's way somehow":

The question is whether we know our true way well enough. Our desire to have our way is always accompanied by what the facts are....Reality and the facts may be at one with our desire; or reality and the facts may not be in agreement with our desire. If we have contempt for reality, contempt for the facts because these seem not in accord with having our way and we go after our way nevertheless, the disaster called mental trouble may follow.

Death of A Salesman shows powerfully that the desire to impress others by accumulating a lot of money, beating out others, and using one's sons to feel superior is really a dangerous, crippling thing. And I have seen that this way of dealing with the world, so hurtful to a man's life, has been encouraged by our economic system, the profit system. Eli Siegel, as historian and economist, showed that the seeing of other persons as existing to make profit for oneself, and the seeing of their feelings as inferior, not mattering, comes from the ugliest motive in a person—contempt.

Lee J. Cobb as Willy Loman, his wife, Linda, Mildred Dunnock in original 1949 productionDeath of a Salesman is set in Brooklyn in the early 1940s, and the central character is Willy Loman, a traveling salesman, who, in Act II at 63, after working for the Wagner Company for 34 years, is fired. The action takes place in a 24 hour period. Throughout the play Willy has flashbacks to 14 years earlier, and these become part of the action.

The following dialogue in Act II, between Willy Loman and his boss Howard Wagner is related to what went on in offices in America today:

Howard:...Willy....there just is no spot here for you.

Willy: There were promises made across this desk. I put thirty-four years into this firm, Howard, and now I can't pay my insurance! You can't eat the orange and throw the peel away—a man is not a piece of fruit!

In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #1279, Ellen Reiss asks: "What is it we are made for?"—and she continues:

Aesthetic Realism shows that the economics that has gone on for centuries and is in disarray now, has been contrary to what every self was born for. That is why this profit economy caused agony throughout the years and why as Eli Siegel showed in 1970— it has failed in our time and will never work successfully again.

As the play begins, we are in the present and Willy Loman has just returned home, having ended prematurely a sales trip to New England. He is tired and worried about his driving. He feels he can't make another trip. And although he has prided himself as being "vital" to the New England territory, in reality, we find out that he has been borrowing fifty dollars a week from a neighbor, telling his wife Linda that it is his salary.

Willy Loman represents men right now in America who because their work is no longer profitable to an employer are cast aside. But, without knowing it, he is also the cause of his own pain. He feels knowing himself and other people is inconsequential; that "personal attractiveness," putting on a good show and gaining advantage is the way to take care of himself. However, deeply he feels he is a failure. In Act I, with all his outward bravado, he confides to his wife:

Willy:  The trouble is, Linda, people don’t seem to take to me....They seem to laugh at me...They just pass me by. I' m not noticed.

Linda:  You're doing wonderful, dear.

Willy:  But, I gotta be at it ten, twelve hours a day...I don't know why—I can’t stop myself—I talk too much.

I remember when, at my other job working in the garment center, I felt the main thing was to make a lot of money while charming people with my personality so I could feel I was "somebody." But more and more, I felt I was a fake, and remember looking into a mirror and feeling ashamed.

Linda is troubled about Willy. She knows his mind is in turmoil. But because she doesn't know what to be for in her husband and what to be against, and she herself is in a fight between wanting to know and wanting to own, like wives all over America, she tries to appease him, propping up his vanity while also feeling deeply hollow and unsure.

Linda:  You don' t talk too much, you're just lively.

Will: (Smiling):  Well, I figure, What the hell, life is short, a couple of jokes.

And the tragedy of a self, unknown to itself, is shown when Willy says:

Willy: (To himself)  I joke too much!  (the smile goes).

Later in Act I Willy gives advice to his sons, Biff and Happy, who he sees as his prize possessions. He has a notion of importance that is at the core of the profit system: that the world and others are not things to know, but to impress and beat out:Arthur Kennedy as Willy Loman's son Biff, Cameron Mitchell as son Happy, with father, Lee J. Cobb

 Willy:  I thank Almighty God you're both built like Adonises...Be liked and you will never want. You take me, for instance, Never have to wait in line to see a buyer. '"Willy Loman is here!" That's all they have to know, and I go right through.

Biff: Did you knock them dead, Pop?

Willy: Knocked ' em cold in Providence, slaughtered ' em in Boston.

Willy doesn't know it, but he is hurting himself terribly talking this way. He thinks the only way he can be successful in their eyes is by having them see him as a great salesman. As Willy brags about "slaughter[ing]" the buyers, those buyers' feelings are made unreal and so are the feelings of his two sons.

This Is What I Learned

Some years ago I received a promotion at my job which put me in the position of telling many people what to do. As the months passed I was becoming agitated and unsure of myself. When the company had to lay people off, I had to tell John Stokes if he didn't do extra work cleaning the bathrooms, he, too, would lose his job. After I told him this, John quit, and I felt terrible. When I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, I said that I felt responsible. Ms.Reiss asked me if the reason I did was because even though I spoke against my boss's treatment of this man, I had a similar state of mind, liking the power of feeling superior, ordering people around. "Is there that in oneself," Ms. Reiss asked me "that treasures the profit system approach?" "Yes," I said.

I remember, for instance, being impatient with Adele Cameras, talking sharply to her because she wasn't sewing a dress fast enough that had to be ready for a catalogue shoot for Saks Fifth Avenue. Afterwards, I felt so cheap. "What has the profit system done to people as to power?" Ms. Reiss asked me; and she continued, "Does the power of owning interfere with some other kind of power?"

It did. At work, I tried to look confident and in control. But, inside, no matter how much I tried to "pep" myself up, I felt I was a mean fraud. I couldn't look people straight in their eyes. "Do you think the way that you've used your position," Ms. Reiss asked me, "has it in any way made you less powerful?" "Yes," I said. And she explained:

If you are going to see a person in terms of: how much can I get...will it make you [weak] in terms of being able to see meaning in a person?...

This was tremendously kind, and it changed the direction of my life. It encouraged me to see people differently, including Adele Cameras. As I wanted to know the feelings of the people I worked with and wanted to encourage them rather than run them, I came to feel more deeply at ease under my skin.

Is It Love or Hurtful Self-Love?

Willy Loman' s favorite son is Biff, and throughout the play,Willy's thoughts go back to the day when Biff, a football hero, played in the high school championship game and scouts from all over the country were there to offer him a college scholarship. But now, fourteen years later, Willy is anguished. He cannot accept the fact that Biff, at 34, has no job and no prospects for the future. Instead, Willy says of his son:

Mildred Dunnock and Lee J. Cobb as Linda and Willy LomanWilly: ....When the team came out—he was the tallest, remember? Like a young god, Hercules—something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out—Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he'll be great yet, A star like that, magnificent, can never fade away!

Willy's emotion here is really self-love. That question "Remember how he waved to me?"is revealing. He doesn't care about what his son might have felt on this daywas he scared? Did he feel he deserved all this praise? Was Biff unsure of himself? Because Willy's desire is to own, not know, he doesn't think about these matters.

In Aesthetic Realism consultations, a man learns how to recognize ways he has of seeing other people that are hurtful to him. Some of the questions we have asked are:

1. How interested are you in what goes on inside your wife? Have you been more concerned with how much she compliments you, even serves you, makes things comfortable around the house—than in wanting to know this woman you are close to?

2. When your son shows he's interested in a subject in school very different from what you were interested in, do you take it as an insult—or as an opportunity to know him and the world better?

3. What do you care more about—your child making you look impressive, or in his being fair to other people?

In Act II of the play, in a flashback, when Willy finds out that Biff has stolen a football from the school's lockeroom, instead of being critical of him for stealing, Willy turns it into praise of Biff. He laughs with him at the theft and says: "Coach'll probably congratulate you on your initiative!...."

Biff comes to despise Willy because his father has encouraged the worst thing in him. Eli Siegel explained in his lecture "Aesthetic Realism and People":

There can be no such thing as love without knowledge. Where there isn’t knowledge you are really loving somebody else, somebody who you made up.

In one of the most dramatic scenes of the play, near the end, Biff pleads with Willy to be honest about the past. There is pain, but the honesty is better than all that hurtful flattery and praise:

Biff:  We never told the truth for ten minutes in this house...You know why I had no address for three months? I stole a suit in Kansas City and I was in jail.

Willy:  I suppose that' s my fault.

Biff:  I stole myself out of every good job since high school!

Willy:  And whose fault is that?

Biff:  And I never got anywhere because you blew me so full of hot air I could never stand taking orders from anybody. That' s whose fault it is...I had to be boss big shot in two weeks, and I'm through with it.... Why am I trying to become what I don't want to be?...I'm not bringing home any prizes anymore, and you' re going to stop waiting for me to bring them home!...Will you take that phony dream and burn it before something happens?

Biff is right. Meanwhile, he doesn't say that he and his brother collaborated with their father—that they all tried to have their way through owning and making it big, not through trying to know the world and be just to people.

Men in cities and towns all over America have the right to know how they themselves actually hurt themselves, so that the hurting can change to useful, strengthening criticism of themselves. It's a beautiful fact that the study of Aesthetic Realism really enables this to happen on a solid, logical, lasting basis. This is what happened to me, and I want and intend for men everywhere to know it.

* Photo of David Blaustein & son Bruce Blaustein from "A Father Seen Anew"

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