Aesthetic Realism Seminar
Do Men Hurt
Themselves?—In Love, the Family, Economics
From a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation,
New York City
One of the biggest ways men hurt
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
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
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
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
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
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
Death of A Salesman shows
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.
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
Loman and his boss Howard Wagner is related to what went on in offices
in America today:
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!
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
As the play begins, we are in the present
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
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
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:
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
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
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
Some years ago I received a promotion at my
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
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
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
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
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:
Willy: ....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
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 day—was 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
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
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
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
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.