In a 1974 Aesthetic Realism Ethical Study Conference—in which integrity was a central subject—Eli Siegel explained the reason people “toss about within themselves,” is that our minds are divided. “We have two purposes with reality;” he said. “We want to use people; we [also] want to be just to them.” And then he said:
You can’t have integrity unless you’re just....Integrity is composition, and the definition of integrity is to feel that in everything one does [there is] a purpose you see as really just.
As a college student, I did have a desire to know things and give them justice. I studied philosophy, history, religion and German literature—and most of all music. I wanted to be a composer, and I loved many composers: Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Stravinsky, Bach and Schoenberg. But I was also snobbish; interested in people who had made a mark in history, but people, just so, didn’t interest me very much. I hardly ever went to parties; I told myself it was all shallow; a waste of time.
But despite my bravado, it troubled me very much that I wasn’t able to maintain friendships. Even with my girlfriend, Cynthia—the person I felt closest to—I often had a sinking feeling I was pretending to more warmth than I truly felt; and she certainly felt this, too.
I hoped to be kind and thoughtful; I wanted her to trust me, see me as someone who would listen to what was on her mind. Yet in the midst of many conversations, I would suddenly feel irritated, and maneuver to cut the talk short—even if Cynthia was saying something that mattered very much to her. “Enough talk already,” I thought; “it’s time for something else.” I felt driven to sex. But afterwards I felt a dizzying sense of “who-the-hell-am-I?” A kind person, or a selfish bastard?
I saw love and music in two different worlds. Though I loved music, and was in training to be a composer, I was furious at how much work it demanded. I had a picture of myself as a “famous composer” applauded wildly; but when I hit “hard spots” in composing, when the music wouldn’t come easily, I felt a big desire just to put the work aside and be with Cynthia. Not for the purpose of talking through what I was in the midst of so I could do better—which would have shown respect both for music and for her—but to get some ecstatic corporeal relief from the harsh demands, as I felt it, of art.
I didn’t know what Aesthetic Realism teaches: without respect, a desire to give everything we meet the justice it deserves, a man will play one thing off against another, and tear himself apart.
“Do you think you get a value hiding from people,” I was asked early in my first Aesthetic Realism consultation, “even from your girlfriend?” I said yes, and they explained: “When you hide, people can’t know you too well, and so as a result you can feel: ‘See; I’m too deep for them!’ It’s a strategy for secret superiority—but it makes you lonely.”
This was so true! I wanted to show my feelings through music, but I was also afraid of digging deep, asking more of myself, working hard to get to authentic sincerity. And when people questioned a particular piece of music I had written, I bristled, felt hurt, and told myself that they were shallow, too uneducated to appreciate it. My consultants kindly asked me, “Do you think music is meant to stir the hearts, the minds of all people?” I hesitated; and the hesitation spoke volumes about my lack of integrity. Here I was: wanting to express myself through music and also wanting to hide myself from people. It was a contradiction, they said, that would weaken me.
And I was learning about my divided purposes in love. I wanted, on the one hand, to feel I could have a good effect on a woman; but I also wanted to make a separate world with her, where I could feel exalted. For example, when Cynthia and I were together, we spoke about friends in a way we didn’t dare do in front of them. Years later, in a class, Mr. Siegel described these conversations accurately when he said: “You spared no one.” And I learned: when two people collaborate at the expense of other people, they both feel they’ve lost integrity, and despise each other for it.
In that first consultation I was asked: “How long can a person maintain two diametrically opposed ways of thought without the hemispheres colliding? Do you think the hemispheres will collide and there will be pain?” Yes, there was pain, and how I changed I will say more about a little later.
1) An American Short Story Says Things About Integrity
“The saddest thing one can say of someone,” Mr. Siegel writes in an early issue of The Right Of entitled Towards Integration:
is that he is disintegrating. The word disintegrating can be applied to one’s mental outlook, to one’s perceptive powers, to one’s emotional strength and flexibility...It can be soberly inferred that man and woman would like to have more integrity.
In l819, Washington Irving wrote The Legend of Sleepy Hollow—a story that I believe says a great deal about integrity. In the story Ichabod Crane has come to the Hudson River village of Sleepy Hollow to be its schoolteacher. He becomes interested in Katrina, daughter of the wealthy farmer, van Tassel—interested, too, in her family’s wealth. A local man, Brom van Brunt, who cares for Katrina, decides to scare Ichabod away by impersonating the legendary “headless horseman”—a specter who rides every night in search of his severed head, lost in a battle of the Revolutionary War. The horseman, however, fought for the wrong side: he was a paid German mercenary fighting with the British to suppress American liberty.
Riding alone one night, Ichabod—believing the horseman is after him—in great fright tries to escape. But as he gallops desperately, the horseman draws closer and closer. He throws his severed head at Ichabod. And what happens next, we’ll soon see.
It is important that the figure who so terrifies Ichabod is a person literally divided—a headless horseman. He seems, physically, to stand for the non-integrity which can frighten anyone. People do say, “I felt split in two,” and “I lost my head.”
And Washington Irving says Ichabod Crane’s head looked like a weathervane, “perched upon his spindle neck, to tell which way the wind blew.” The idea that someone’s head is like a weathervane, blowing this way and that, is funny. But there is the phrase, “he blows with the wind,”—a person is so eager to please everyone, has so little integrity, that he stands for nothing at all!
“Washington Irving,” said Eli Siegel in an issue of The Right of entitled America Has Literature, “is a genial, hopeful, encouraging writer. However there is no writer of much account who has not seen evil keenly.”
And Ichabod Crane represents something unfortunate in man; the name Irving gives him—“Ichabod”—I learned, means in Hebrew: “inglorious;” in the Bible the phrase is used, “the glory has departed.” When a person is unjust to things, it can be said that the best thing in him—his true glory—has gone.
2) Integrity and The Oneness of Opposites
Ichabod Crane sees the world—the large, mysterious, diverse, beautiful world—as existing mainly as an annex to himself, there for the purpose of making him important and comfortable. As a result he is very unkind. He likes to whip horses and birch students. Meanwhile, as he is too harsh, he also is too oily, smooth. There is an ugly relation of opposites in him, so different from the beautiful coming together of criticism and geniality which Mr. Siegel saw in Irving as author.
The oneness of opposites, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the cause of beauty in art, and it is what every person is hoping for in our lives. Ichabod’s harshness and sweetness however are very far from each other; right after telling us that as a teacher Ichabod did not hesitate to “spare the rod,” Irving shows another side of him:
When school hours were over, he was even the companion and playmate of the larger boys; and on holiday afternoons would convoy some of the smaller ones home, who happened to have pretty sisters, or good housewives for mothers, noted for the comforts of the cupboard.
So he is strategic with the opposites in himself—with seeming cleverness he’s harsh one moment, sweet the next. But he is really making for disintegration. When a person tries to advance himself at the expense of reality, I learned, he pays a price; there is inevitable dislike of oneself.
Part of Ichabod’s non-integrity is his greedy way with food. It is a wonderfully comic and critical thing how Irving presents Crane as having an astoundingly voracious appetite, yet an emaciated body! The implication is: he arrogantly grabs the world, but can’t retain it because deeply he doesn’t like it.
Of Ichabod’s competitive spirit, Irving gives this instance:
It was a matter of no little vanity to him, on Sundays, to take his station in front of the church gallery, with a band of chosen singers; where, in his own mind, he completely carried away the palm from the parson.
Yet in this ego-reverie, Ichabod is oblivious to the truth; he doesn’t have a clue as to the actual quality of his voice—which is thrustingly nasal—or its painful effect on people. Hearing that prominent nasality, Irving writes humorously, “the good people of Sleepy Hollow...were often filled with awe.”
A nasal sound has a sneer, and Ichabod likes to assert his sneer. “His voice,” we learn, “resounded far above all the rest of the congregation.” And, Irving says, it could be heard “half a mile off, quite to the opposite side of the millpond.”
Ichabod is using his voice to fill up the world with himself, to make it impossible for anyone not to focus on him! I did this. And in an Aesthetic Realism class Mr. Siegel enabled me see how it was hurting me. My loud voice separated me from other people, and also from the best thing in myself. And in an Aesthetic Realism class Mr. Siegel said: “I hear Mr. Green’s booming laugh,” as I was forcing my voice to rise above everyone else’s—and he continued with such good will:
My hope is that your laugh be deeper, more inclusive, more accurate, keener, and more than ever your own.
3) How Can a Man Have Integrity With a Woman?
Irving describes the beautiful, rich abundance of earth as Ichabod rides through the fields of the van Tassel estate on his way to pay court to the lovely Katrina—“the rich fields of wheat, of rye, of buckwheat, and Indian corn, and the orchards burdened with ruddy fruit”—and his heart, we are told, “yearned after the damsel who was to inherit these domains.” Ichabod is smitten, Irving makes clear, not only with the girl, but with the wealth associated with her. The story continues:
his imagination expanded with the idea how they might be readily turned to cash...Nay, his busy fancy already realized his hopes, and presented to him the blooming Katrina, with a whole family of children, mounted on top of a wagon loaded with household trumpery, with pots and kettles dangling beneath; and he beheld himself bestriding a pacing mare, with a colt at her heels, setting out for Kentucky, Tennessee, or the Lord knows where.
It never occurs to Ichabod to ask Katrina what she might feel about leaving her home. He sees her as existing to further his plans, his ambitions. As he rides towards her house, all this wooer can think of is how, on his arrival, Katrina will serve him honeyed and buttered slapjacks!
When I was still in my 20s, I was very affected by a beautiful young woman who was also a scholar much esteemed by her professional colleagues. I thought—if this woman goes for me, it will impress the hell out the people! Meanwhile, I wanted her to act mindless—to shower me with unquestioning and lavish approval.
My closest friends tried to tell me I was on a terrible track. But I wouldn’t listen; I didn’t want anyone to interfere. I expressed interest in this young woman’s scholarly work, asking many questions about it—but my purpose was flattery; I wanted her to drop her friends and see me as the person she needed most to talk to and confer with, which she would not do. And I was secretly competitive with her teachers, angry at her respect for them. I burned inside when she spoke of what she was learning; why, I thought, couldn’t she quote me instead?
In a class Eli Siegel explained that the path I was on was terrifically against my life, and wanted me to see it, and proudly change direction. He said:
The purpose of Aesthetic Realism is to have people proud of how they see the people they know. Are you sure that is what you want? Or do you think that in having Sandra Clarke care for you, you felt you had hit the jackpot, and were very important?
“Men are very often attracted to the prestige of a woman,” Mr. Siegel continued, “as women can be to the prestige of a man. Do you think you liked Sandra Clarke simply as herself—as woman? Or because you saw her as intellectually important?” And, he asked me: “Are you proud of how you see women?” I said I wasn’t. And Mr. Siegel explained:
Men and women suffer...for the same reason: they want approval, and they are more interested in having it than in deserving it...Approval of a true kind should make one’s desire to know stronger than ever.
I studied what Mr. Siegel said, and came to see it was true. I now have a rich life and happy marriage with Carrie Wilson, who is an actress, singer, and Aesthetic Realism consultant. I thank Mr. Siegel for his great kindness, and I thank Ellen Reiss, for so deeply continuing my education in the years since, which is making me a better man, and musician.
4) Non-Integrity Makes for Fear
At the climax of the story, as Ichabod rides home angry and disconsolate that Katrina has rejected his marriage proposal, he imagines that a pumpkin thrown at him by his rival, the likable, earthy Brom Van Brunt, is in fact the head of the legendary headless horseman! “The gauntness of Ichabod Crane...and his flight from round objects—properly pumpkins,” writes Mr. Siegel “have in them the continuous fact that people are presumptuous and fearful at once.” Irving writes—and “Gunpowder” here is the horse Ichabod is riding:
“If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied he felt his hot breath. Another convulsive kick in the ribs and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.
The next morning, the people of Sleepy Hollow find old Gunpowder “soberly cropping the grass at his master’s gate.” Ichabod is nowhere to be seen—but on the path by the bridge to the van Tassel home, his hat lies, and by it a shattered pumpkin.
The sweet nutritiousness and colorful brightness of a pumpkin stand, I think, for the fact that what Ichabod is fleeing really is deeply friendly to him.
Unfortunately, he skips town. Rather than turn a new leaf, he is rumored to have gone to New York, become a lawyer, a newspaperman, and finally a politician. His non-integrity, in other words, finds new fields to flourish in! It is a very funny, and pointedly critical ending to a classic American story.
I want to conclude by quoting from the first Aesthetic Realism class I attended—because a discussion in it has a clear relation to Ichabod Crane, as he flees the headless horseman. Mr. Siegel asked whether I had had any recurrent dreams. Yes, I said—a terrifying dream of being chased in the dark, feeling that someone was behind me, ready to attack. But as I ran my feet grew heavy, and eventually planted themselves in the earth, so I couldn’t move. I would wake up in a sweat.
“Why do you think you criticize yourself that way?” Mr. Siegel asked. I said, I thought the dream meant I wouldn’t defend myself when attacked—that I was weak. No, he explained; it didn’t mean that. It meant I was telling myself I shouldn’t be so afraid of criticism; I should see it as friendly; I should stay and listen. That’s why I gave myself heavy feet, Mr. Siegel said, to stop myself from running. “I think,” he continued, “this has to do with what you have most against yourself.”
It did; and as I thought about it, and talked about it with friends, I learned and changed. And I never had that terrifying dream again. Aesthetic Realism is the education men are looking for—here in America, and everywhere in the world. As we have begun to show tonight, it answers that urgent, difficult, wonderful question: “How Can a Man Have True Integrity?