Aesthetic Realism is a cult

  Who they are, how they operate • Written by former members

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“...one of the consultants took the tape cassette out of the recorder and... informed me that there would be no further consultations until I changed and incorporated AR more radically into my life.”

written by a former AR student, May 2, 2005

When I read Eli Siegel's book, Self and World I was deeply impressed. Even now that I have long believed that Aesthetic Realism is too cultish for me, I still think Self and World is one of the great books of the human race. What made it impossible for me to fully participate in the activities of AR's adherents was the dogmatism about Siegel being #1 in all of history, and other similar rigid dogmatisms of the AR people.

I admired that for a quite modest price, I could have three people sit around a table and dialogue very insightfully with me about my life. But I still recall the last consultation I had -- at the time I did not know it was to be the last.

“It was very difficult for me to surrender to AR in the total fashion they seemed to want.”

Toward the end of the consultation, to my slight shock, one of the consultants took the tape cassette out of the recorder and, instead of giving it to me as had been the practice with prior consultations with me, put it into his bag and informed me that there would be no further consultations until I changed and incorporated AR more radically into my life.

I didn't have a problem with the fact that they were terminating the consultations. It was true that I had always resisted and questioned the kind of total commitment they evinced, in part because I had been exposed to many other teachings and had my own spiritual experiences as touchstones, and I didn't believe that any one doctrine could ever exhaustively or perfectly explain the evolving human condition. So it was very difficult for me to surrender to AR in the total fashion they seemed to want. I was merely looking for the best current doctrines and practices I could find, not the one doctrine, and AR had looked like it could be very important and helpful.

What bothered me was not that they had suddenly ended the consultations, but that they had at the end of the last consultation taken into their possession a tape cassette on which I had bared my soul very intimately, and they had done so without any prior warning that this was to happen. I felt a

“I felt a bit raped psychologically.... if you are thinking of getting into the AR consultation process, realize that they could end it all suddenly, and that you could find your most intimate thoughts on tape in someone else's possession.”
bit raped psychologically, and I suspected that they were holding the tape as a kind of security for themselves -- should I criticize AE publicly, they could air my dirty laundry publicly. Sort of a form of unspoken blackmail. As I say, I was never told in advance that any of the tapes made of my consultations would not be given into my possession -- all of them before had been given to me, until the very last consultation -- when the rug was pulled out from under me and I suddenly found there were to be no more consultations.

So if you are thinking of getting into the AR consultation process, realize that they could end it all suddenly, and that you could find your most intimate thoughts on tape in someone else's possession.

I could never swallow how dogmatically AR consultants would say Self and World was THE greatest book of all time, and that Siegel was THE greatest man, etc. It would be one thing if they had proposed such ideas of Siegel's preeminence hypothetically, as a possibility, about which they did not pretend to dogmatize, and if they had remained open to his perhaps having a lesser status in the scheme of things. That would have been a more ordinary intellectual/spiritual exercise or game -- the modest effort to rank an apparently outstanding man among history's greats. And it would be one thing if they offered a tentative open-ended judgement that he was somewhere in the top tier of human beings, and that his teaching was one of a number of very great teachings given in history. But they weren't humble, and they did pretend to dogmatize about Siegel being #1.

“How could such a brilliant and wise teaching be associated with such arrogance?”

To me, that was weirdly arrogant. How could such a brilliant and wise teaching be associated with such arrogance? Though it might seem naive of me, I felt a lot of cognitive dissonance about this combination of arrogance and wisdom. But, at least for the young and inexperienced, such cognitive dissonances seem to be an eventual response to almost any great teaching. One can indeed find almost supernatural gifts and wisdom in a number of great teachings, but then somewhere oddly mixed in with them, one seems inevitably to find also things that seem to be error and darkness, though hopefully not so much as to completely taint the high wisdom one had seen at first, nor confuse one terminally. But since the wisdom of any teaching is mediated through humans, who are growing and evolving and therefore imperfect, at least some flaws and darknesses seem to be inevitably and paradoxically mixed in with the divine inspiration encoded in great teachings. One's responsibility seems to be to try as best one can in one's imperfect way to sift the wheat from the chaff, no matter how great the teacher or teaching is.

And surely what the AR people do sometimes amounts to extreme arrogance. After all, how can one know dogmatically who is the greatest human being (as the AR people claim to know), unless one's judgement is in a way equal to that human being (whoever it may be)? If I pretended to be an infallible judge of greatness, wouldn't that mean I in a sense placed myself at the pinnacle of greatness? How else could I know with certainty that I have made the correct judgement about greatness, unless I pretended to be a perfect expert in greatness? This sort of unconscious arrogance is typical of the cult member. The healthy human being, I think, must in life always be seeking to learn better to distinguish in him or herself metaphysical arrogance from genuine spiritual confidence that incorporates openness and humility.

For me, one of the biggest questions I've always had about AR is, to what extent did the cultish aspect come from Siegel himself, and to what extent did it com from a warping of the teaching by his followers? Because to my mind, if one simply added humility to the way AR is taught, it would indeed

“To what extent did the cultish aspect come from Siegel himself, and to what extent did it come from a warping of the teaching by his followers?”

be one of the great cultural creations of humankind, and one of the deepest interpretations of our human situation. Siegel's books, so far as I have read them, do not seem at all megalomaniacal. Just his students' presentations of the them and of Siegel.

But one clue as to the extent to which Siegel himself was responsible for the cultish aspect, comes from William Carlos Williams. Although WCW found Siegel a truly great writer, WCW, on seeing Siegel with Siegel's students, at one point seems to criticize Siegel and says something about how one must avoid being 'submerged' or something to that effect. This brief interchange is recorded in one of the books sold by the AR people themselves. The remark by WCW, as I understand it, seems to suggest that WCW had come to the conclusion that Siegel had somehow lost the distinction between himself and the ALL, in which Siegel had been 'submerged', and that Siegel had in effect confused himself with that ALL, i.e., with God. And that Siegel had at the same time lost all sense of his own imperfection and humble humanity and equality with other mere mortals. In my view, one can indeed sometimes legitimately claim oneness with God, but only provided one does so in a paradoxical manner, wherein one also fully recognizes one's simultaneous mortality and limits and full equality with other mere mortals. The cult leader gets the God part, but forgets the humble fallible mortal part. I suspect that forgetting is more or less what WCW was alluding to rather elliptically and perhaps timidly in his rather gnomic remark criticizing Siegel about submergence.

 
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Former members describe Aesthetic Realism

 

Aesthetic Realism at a Glance

Name

The Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Founded

1941

Founder

Eli Siegel, poet and art/literary critic.
Committed suicide in 1978

Purpose

To get the world to realize that Eli Siegel was the greatest person who ever lived, and that Aesthetic Realism is the most important knowledge, ever.


Philosophy

The key to all social ills is for people to learn to like the world. Having contempt for the world leads to unhappiness and even insanity. (Their slogan is "Contempt causes insanity".) For example, homosexuality is a form of insanity caused by not liking the world sufficiently.

Also teaches that "beauty is the making one of opposites".

Location

New York City (SoHo)


Membership

About 106 (33 teachers, 44 training to be teachers, and 29 regular students). Has failed to grow appreciably even after 70 years of existence, and is currently shrinking.

All members call themselves "students", even the leaders/teachers. Advanced members who teach others are called "consultants".

Method of study

Public seminars/lectures at their headquarters (in lower Manhattan), group classes, and individual consultations (three consultants vs. one student).


Cult aspects

  • Fanatical devotion to their leader/founder
  • Belief that they have the one true answer to universal happiness
  • Ultimate purpose is to recruit new members
  • Feeling that they are being persecuted
  • Wild, paranoid reactions to criticism
  • Non-communication (or at least very limited communication) with those who have left the group
  • Odd, specialized language.

  • More about cult aspects...


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What former members say...

They reeled me in like a brook trout... Guilt was introduced into the experience. They told me I was "not showing respect for this great education I was receiving" by [not getting more involved].

If there is anything the Aesthetic Realists are good at, it is convincing people that if they think they see anything wrong with Siegel, AR, Reiss or how the organization is run, there is really something wrong with them. Any time I began to question things or think I saw something amiss, I had been programmed to think that what it really meant was that something was terribly wrong with me.

My new AR friends were starting to apply the hard sell a bit more so the word "cult" did come to mind , but I naïvely believed that it couldn't be a cult because it wasn't religious in nature.

They get you to actually control yourself. A lot of people's lives have been hurt --ruined.

So, there was Eli Siegel, who came up with all these rules, but to whom none of the rules applied, and there was everybody else.

[Eli Siegel] was a hurtful person. He was a sociopath. He was a control freak, and he was a cult leader.

Poor John then would be the subject of an onslaught of criticism to help him see his own contempt for Eli Siegel.... This is merely one example of the way people were controlled and humiliated if they stepped out of line or didn't conform to accepted behavior.

We all had to present ourselves as essentially miserable failures whose lives were in shambles until we found the glorious "answers to all our questions" in AR.

It was very difficult for me to surrender to AR in the total fashion they seemed to want.

I received a call from one of the AR bigwigs asking me to donate money to the foundation.  When I told him I was low on cash I received a considerable verbal drubbing.

I consider my "study" of Aesthetic Realism to be one of the factors that led to the eventual breakup of my marriage, to my eternal sorrow.

I felt a bit raped psychologically.... if you are thinking of getting into the AR consultation process, realize that they could end it all suddenly, and that you could find your most intimate thoughts on tape in someone else's possession.

They flatter you to death and tell you that you're so wonderful, and you have all these qualities that others have never seen. And then there's this horrible criticizing.

That's when I finally knew for sure: AESTHETIC REALISM IS A CULT.  I swore on that moment that if I was ever given the opportunity to tell the world what these people did to me, I would.

When I left I was definitely shunned by other students. I would meet people in the NYC streets -as I still do to this day - and they would turn the other way to avoid me, or some even made derogatory comments about me.

[New AR students] would be shocked if they knew that the lives of the people they are supposed to learn from are very different from the principles they are taught in consultations. Even though publicly the AR foundation preaches respect for people and like of the world, inside the organization the message is very different. The underlying feeling is, "People who do not study AR are inferior to us, and the world is our enemy, out to get us." We had contempt for outsiders and were scared of the world. We huddled together for safety, secure in our sense of superiority.

When I was studying, we were allowed to associate with our families only if they continuously demonstrated that they were grateful to and respectful of Eli Siegel and AR. This did not include going to visit them if they lived far away because then we would have had to miss classes, and that would have meant we were "making our family more important than AR."

Some of the students I remember going at most intensely and viciously to stop them from associating with their families, (and whom we succeeded in stopping for many, many years), are people who are now bragging on the AR website about how great their relationships with their families are and writing as though that was always the case.

There were even instances of students refusing to visit their parents when one of them was dying because the parents did not "express regret" and renounce their unfairness to Eli Siegel and AR. There were parents who literally begged their son or daughter to relent so they could see them one more time, but the child refused. The parent died without ever seeing their child again. Far from being criticized for such behavior, students who went this far were seen as heroes in AR. They received public praise from Ellen Reiss.

While I was in AR, I did believe that Eli Siegel was greater than Christ.... It would have been accurate to say I worshipped him.

People were told that if their families did not support aesthetic realism, they were not their families.

Some of the people with statements on the Countering the Lies website claiming that AR students do not shun former students have actually passed me on the street, looked straight at me, and pretended they were seeing right through me. This includes people in the highest positions in the organization.

More and more the AR zombies demanded that I express gratitude to ES and AR. Every paper that a student wrote had to end with the obligatory "I am so grateful to ES and AR for..." along with "I deeply regret that I have met this great knowledge with contempt..."

Eli Siegel was an evil person. And I don't use the word evil lightly.

See former members' statements in their entirety


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