I wrote this article in celebration of the 70th birthday of Ramat Hashofet, the kibbutzin Israel where I was born. As I thought about attending the reunion honoring this event, and meeting people I grew up with, I felt impelled to tell of the effect on my life through my study of Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by Eli Siegel.
With all of our good fortune living on the Kibbutz where we never had to worry about food or clothing or shelter, there was still a comprehension of ourselves that we were all looking for. This understanding of myself is what I met when I began to study Aesthetic Realism. My hope is that every person who reads my story will feel a new hope for her or his life!
I am very moved to celebrate Ramat Hashofet's 70th birthday. I spent 21 years on the beautiful hill where Ramat Hashofet stands, and have many fond memories. I loved the summer nights when we played D’galim. I remember the excitement as we tried to get inside that guarded circle, waiting for the right moment to run away with a flag and delivering it safely to our group on the other side of the Kibbutz. I also loved the holiday of Too-B-shvat when we all planted new trees and, in time, saw scorched earth turn into a lush grove. Yet, I remember too, the heated conversations we had about equality and the lack of it that could be felt among members of the kibbutz. I remember thinking that the collective life made us very special, more “ethical” than other people, but also feeling deprived and envious of a certain “freedom” that I thought existed elsewhere.
To my surprise and great happiness, when I began to study Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by the poet and critic Eli Siegel, I found out that I was like all people. This was a revelation to me. One of the things I saw pretty quickly was that every person wants to be happy, as I did, but also people are deeply involved with themselves, as I was, and were so little aware of the feelings of others around us. I was learning that every human being, whether they live in a bustling city or on a farm, whether they are in the same house as their parents or with a group of peers, has this aesthetic and ethical question which Mr. Siegel describes in his book Self and World:
There is a deep and “dialectic” duality facing every human being, which can be put this way: How is he to be entirely himself, and yet be fair to that world which he does not see as himself?
In trying to answer this question honestly I have been engaged in the most exciting study ever! It has had me understand better thoughts and feelings I had living in Ramat Hashofet which didn’t make sense to me. It has also enabled me to be kinder, see other people more deeply.
How I wish that when I was growing up in the kibbutz, in the early 40s and 50s, this education was known to us! But I am happy on the 70th birthday of the kibbutz to have you, my friends, know it now. Aesthetic Realism explains that every person has two completely different notions of how we will be entirely ourselves: either through liking the world, our deepest desire, or having contempt for it--being able to look down on other people and things.
We worked together removing stones to enable things to grow on the land; picking apples or digging up potatoes made us proud and the happiness and camaraderie was evident. But also at any moment someone could get very hurt by a remark that was made and fights often broke out. We lived in a collective, but like people everywhere, we didn’t know how to make sense of these two feelings –being for people and against them--that permeated our daily lives.
As a child I remember how confused I felt between the Ruth who got pleasure liking things and the Ruth that wanted to despise them. I liked having a good effect--nurturing a tree for instance, or being useful to the other children by ironing their shirts and then I could get so angry I would beat up some of those same children and throw stones at them. And these two directions continued in other ways when I married and left the Kibbutz. I wanted to care for my husband, who I saw as strong and mysterious--he was from Morocco and spoke French, Spanish and Arabic. I wanted to work hard to build a life together with him but I also let him know that I felt I was so much more sensitive than he was. Like many wives, I often gave him the message that he didn’t make me happy and never would. Needless to say, this made for great pain in our marriage which later ended in divorce.
Aesthetic Realism taught me this tremendous thing--we need to learn from art to have lives we can like. “All beauty,” Eli Siegel stated, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In one of my Aesthetic Realism consultations I told my consultants that I was worried about how I could feel close to people at one moment, and later aloof and severe.
They asked me to read the definition of kindness from Mr. Siegel’s work, Definitions and Comment: Being a Description of the World: “Kindness is that in a self which wants other things to be rightly pleased.”
Wow, I immediately saw that I didn’t always have that purpose. I could, for instance flatter a person because I was more interested in having that person like me; I didn’t think about what will have that person “rightly pleased.” My consultants said:
Kindness is not just saying: “Oh yes, I want to be nice to you and give you things.” Kindness begins with whether we really want to think about another human being or an object.
They asked me to look at Jan Vermeer’s “Young Woman Standing at a Virginal,”
and asked: “Do you think in this painting Vermeer was kind?—was he kind to the window?” I felt it was kind but I was surprised—It never occurred to me that the way a person looked at objects, like a window, could be kind. They explained:
Do you think Vermeer wanted to understand how that window met light? How it was related to that triangular shadow? Do you think he wanted to see what the window had to do with the woman at the virginal? Was he interested in the color of the light that came through the window in relation to the blue in that picture?
As I looked at this beautiful painting I felt amazed. I was learning a new way of looking at art. My consultants asked me further:
So, do you think kindness begins with wanting to see how one thing is related to other things? Kindness is giving something everything it deserves, all its relations, all its meaning, or the hope to. Not that we can ever do a complete job, but we can hope to.
This consultation, where my questions were related to the lines and colors, lights and shadows, of this 17th century masterpiece, changed the way I saw the world. I immediately bought a book of Vermeer’s paintings and saw that when he painted a woman in the midst of domesticity--in the kitchen, making lace, or even asleep at a table, he showed her relation to the whole world. I was thrilled to see how inside these cozy Dutch interiors, bathed in sunlight and shadow, there is an enormous depth and width. The light in Vermeer’s painting is used by him to show each particular thing, and also the relation among things. This is what I didn’t do, as I looked at a girl in my group, or thought about my mother or later my husband. I realized that I had seen people narrowly, just in relation to myself, and resented their relation to other things. I had no idea that this was why I so often felt unkind to people, something that troubled me very much.
What Vermeer quietly insists on in his paintings–that a person has the structure of the whole world in them: the opposites of hardness and softness, straight line and curve, surface and depth, light and shadow, the touchable and the untouchable—I am so glad to be learning is the way I want to see all the time.
Through studying Aesthetic Realism my life is so much richer. It includes now more of the beautiful light Vermeer so greatly had in his paintings—the light that sparkles and gleams on the edge of frame, on a satin cloth, on the points of metal studding a chair. I cared for art from an early age, but over the years I had less and less to do with it. It means so much to me that now I am painting and working in ceramics. I also love drawing objects, an egg or a tomato with the hope to be accurate about their meaning. Through studying the opposites in things, in art, in myself, I feel my mind is clearer and more organized and I know myself better. Aesthetic Realism enabled me to feel at home in the world.
In celebrating Ramat Hashofet's birthday I have a very large emotion of respect for the pioneers, our parents, who used their selves and bodies courageously, turning desolate land into a beautiful, flourishing home. The excitement and pride we all felt living on the kibbutz, I believe, had to do with having a purpose that was larger than oursevles--the general good, the success of a community. But I believe too, that this purpose wasn't seen widely enough, nor was it the only purpose we had. Now Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet, and most of the other Kibbutzim, no longer exist. But I have seen that wherever we live and whatever lifestyle we have, our largest need is to see the world and other people truly. As Ellen Reiss, Chairman of Education explains in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known:
We need to hope to see another human being the way art sees an object: as fully real—which means standing for the whole world. There is no need more urgent. The other way—contempt, the lessening of people, the seeing of them in terms of whether they do what we want—is the way of seeing that has made for every cruelty in history….Aesthetic Realism is the great philosophy which shows that…the one way of seeing the world which is fully kind, safe, and sane is the aesthetic way. And do the people of the world need to learn how to see in a way that is kind, safe, and sane!
(For more information, visit www.AestheticRealism.org and my website at www.RuthOron.net