An Anthropologist Meets Aesthetic Realism
and learns a more accurate, kinder way to see anthropology, sociology, & himself

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"All Aboard" -- Photograph by Edward Steichen, 1934
Formal lovemaking in highland Papua New Guinea (From "The Family of Man"
Photograph by Edward Weston

What Big Mistakes Do Even Smart Men Make?

With a consideration of the African story
"Maliane and the Water Snake" from the Basotho people—
Originally presented in an Aesthetic Realism Foundation Seminar

by Arnold Perey


   Aesthetic Realism is greatly kind in enabling men to know the cause of our mistakes, so that we don't have to make them. I learned that the biggest mistake, out of which our other mistakes come, is to think the failure of another is success for oneself: to think that seeing the world as a mess and a flop makes oneself superior.   Eli Siegel described this pervasive, underlying mistake in his principle: "There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world."  This is a definition of contempt as a powerful motive in people. I believe Mr. Siegel's understanding of what contempt is and how it works is one of the great achievements of science.   I have seen that the common mistakes people make, and the most massive cruelties in the world arise alike from the unseen contempt people have cherished in themselves.  

     It was my contempt—and I am a happy man because I learned this—that made me sad and derisive, hate waking up in the morning, excessively suspicious of people, and which ruined every relationship I tried to have with a woman.   I had no notion what mistake I was making—but in learning what it was, I changed.  

1.   We Can Either Understand Our Mistakes or Keep on Making Them

In lines from a poem I love, "Ballade Concerning Our Mistake and Knowledge of It," Mr. Siegel describes the state of mind most people have—with graceful, critical, poetic music:

     We're always ready to complain:
     Our lives are not what they should be.
     We look for sun and we get rain;
     And stalking us is misery

     We hope; and sigh, Ah to be free.
     —But first we must see our mistake.
     [p. 103, Hail, American Development]

     "But first we must see our mistake."   This is what Todd Bentham wanted to do when he told us in an Aesthetic Realism consultation that friends from the time he was ten had accused him of having a swelled head and he wanted to understand why.   His girlfriend had said, "You're too full of yourself; I just can't stand it anymore!"   So he wrote to us, "I hope to learn how conceit is working in me so I can get rid of it."  

     Consultations are a new point in the history of culture: in them a person sees his feelings as objects, as things we can study, so that mistakes we make over and over again, can really change.   Todd Bentham, who works as an engineer in machine-parts manufacturing plant, recently was promoted.   His smile has charmed many people.   Yet, we saw that underneath his smile, he was unsure of himself.

     To get rid of conceit we have to (1) see it clearly, and (2) see it hurts us.   We asked Mr. Bentham, "Can you give an example of your conceit?"   He replied, "I have the feeling when I read a book or see a work of art, I appreciate it more than other people."   And we said:

Let's be scientific about this.   Conceit is defined by Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary as: "Excessive appreciation of one's own worth or virtue."   Are you saying that when you think you appreciate a book more than other people, you have this excessive appreciation of your own worth?

Todd Bentham: Yes I am.

Consultants: As you "excessively appreciate your own worth," do you think you depreciate the worth of other people?

TB  Yes. I do.

     Like most people, Todd Bentham's whole life had been permeated by this mistaken notion of himself as made of superior clay.   And in order to see how this works,   we discussed with him sentences in the document he wrote for the consultation in which, while he praised something else, he also praised himself inordinately.   For instance, while speaking of a novel he liked— Les Miserables, one that thousands of people have liked for over a century—he commended himself for having the unusual distinction and keenness to care so much for it.   And he used large, unusual words to call attention to his striking vocabulary, making the actual things he wrote about seem secondary.   With each instance of conceit he was able to see and criticize, Mr. Bentham got increasingly animated.

   Then he told us how much he was appreciated at work, how valuable his computer skills were.   In an earlier consultation, he had said he was taking courses to learn these skills and really respected his teachers.   Now, he did not mention them.   Instead, he spoke as if his success came only from himself, something I recognized in myself.   We asked:

Consultants.   Do you put yourself forth as a repository of knowledge and authority without asserting what you learned from other people?

TB  Yes I do.

Mr. Bentham also told us he liked to show off his knowledge with his former girl friend and she didn't like it. "I didn't value her mind," he said.   This is a large mistake of men for centuries which Aesthetic Realism has the knowledge to end.   Eli Siegel showed me, when a man lessens women—he lessens himself.   We said to Todd Bentham:

We have to see if this has an effect on you.   What do you think is the inevitable result of conceit?

TB  Is it self-loathing?

Consultants.   Have you gone from feeling lofty and important to feeling insignificant?

TB  Yes I have—very much.

I told Todd Bentham what Mr. Siegel once asked me in an Aesthetic Realism Lesson: What are you more interested in—being better than other people or as good as you can be?...."What you need," we said, "is to like yourself for how you see."

2. My Mistake as to the World, and Women—and How It Changed

     The education I received in classes with Eli Siegel enabled me to understand the biggest mistake I made, growing up in Mt. Vernon, NY: I felt that whenever I could think less of things I added to myself.   And I became a very conceited child and grownup.   Yet, I was also excited by science—why a compass always pointed north for instance—and I loved drawing.   Those interests came NOT from the desire to lessen but the desire to get pleasure from the world through seeing things accurately.   But most often I used what I cared for and was good at, to add to my conceit.

     This was encouraged by my parents, when, as the first-born son, I was praised as wonderful by, especially, my mother—and I praised her, as we looked down on others and talked about people disapprovingly, including my father.   I was uncomfortably aware that I did not like to see good in anyone but myself and was angry when anybody knew more than I did.   In college and later, this was a major reason why women I was interested in—even when the interest was mutual—would object to me.   "What did I do?" I would think.   One thing I did was to assume my base of information was naturally greater than theirs and hold forth on virtually anything—dinosaurs, electricity, Edison's inventions, weevils, the Louvre.   Once, at a party, very late into the night, I went so far as to say with insufferable arrogance, to a woman who was about to comment on the subject "The Morality of Man,"—"What do you know about man, woman?"

     A tremendous change began in my life when I started to learn, from the person who knew it best, how to see women truly. Through Mr. Siegel's factuality and great, beautifully organized kindness, I began to see I'd had a greatly mistaken view of reality and of women—and as I saw this, the chains of conceit had less of a hold on me.   In an Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel said:

ES  We get down to this matter: that it's possible for persons to see the world in not a good way and to see persons in the world in also not a good way.   So, would you say that the way you see women, and Miss Lawrence in particular, is intelligent?

AP  No.

Eli Siegel. If a girl gets a good mark at Bennington, is it for the same reason a man gets a good mark at Yale?

Arnold Perey.   Yes, it is.

ES  Oh, so you grant that?

AP  Yes.

ES  Do you feel that in some way it's possible for a woman to see something you don't?

AP  [Pause]   Yes.

ES  Like what?

AP  I feel Miss Lawrence understands things sometimes.

Mr. Siegel continued:

ES  What does a woman see that a man may not want to see?

AP  I'm not sure I understand the question.

ES  Let's take Mrs. Henderson.   She has noticed sometimes in Mr. Henderson three things: 1. that he was somewhat conceited—which women see very quickly; 2. that he was embarrassed; and 3. that he was desirous.   Do you think women have enough sense to see these three things?

AP  Yes they do.

ES  Has Miss Lawrence seen them in you?

AP  She has.

     Through this Aesthetic Realism lesson I began to see how unjust I had been, how insulting, how unseeing.   I learned that a woman is a self, has a mind.   As factually and clearly true as this is, I would never have seen it; many men never do.   My conceit was too thick and virulent.   Eli Siegel had kindness and knowledge new in this world as he criticized that conceit, taught me what was true, and made possible new feeling in my life.

3. A Big Mistake of Men in a Traditional African Story

     The mistakes of men are universal—they are in every culture—and on every continent they arise from the same source: a man's contempt, his hope to lessen.   And I am grateful to Mr. Siegel for showing that in traditional stories everywhere there is criticism of contempt in the human mind: it is in the oldest texts that have been found.   I respect Mr. Siegel's work enormously, which replaces Freud, the way physics replaced the alchemist's cauldrons.

     In an African story I care for and have taught in the Aesthetic Realism and Anthropology class, there is a rich presentation of a man's mistakes and also his hope to be better.   Everybody remembers stories they loved about animals—Bre'r Rabbit and Peter Rabbit; Aesop's Fables.   And there is a Serpent who speaks in the Bible, the book of Genesis, which is related to the story I read from now, "Maliane and the Water Snake" from Stories from the Basotho, gathered by Minnie Postma. (The page references you will see are from this book.)  I believe the Water Snake himself represents the conceit and the desire for contempt in men—like the conceit Eli Siegel criticized in me with such good will.    

     Maliane, the story tells, was the "proud and presumptuous" daughter of a chief; and she angrily runs away from home.   Her little dog, who follows her, is critical of her and she becomes a much kinder person.   Arriving in a new region, she helps an old woman, who, taken by Maliane's goodness and her beauty, tells her to go to the chief.   He has an unmarried son—who will be chief after him.   "What does he look like?" asks Maliane.  

Yo, we don't know [says the old woman]. They keep him in the hut all the time, such is the care they take of him.   There is not one person who has seen him.   But his mother says he is very strong and very brave.   They have not yet seen a girl who is good enough for him. [p. 73]

This sounds very contemporary.   It was the message I got from my mother.   Maliane does not find out what her husband-to-be looks like until the wedding night, when she waits for him in their room, which has been stocked with large quantities of food for the bridegroom.   "In the dark she heard something stir in the room," reads the story—

It breathed.   It brushed against the reed thatch of the roof.   It came down to the ground.   Maliane heard it devour the meat, eat the other food, slurp up the beer 'It must be my husband,' said the heart of Maliane, 'but I cannot see him.' [p. 75]

A huge mistake of men is greed—a desire to engulf the world disrespectfully—and part of greed is our wish to possess a woman and take her over.   The bridegroom has it.   After he eats he says:

"Monyohe is now going to sleep beside his wife."   Maliane was afraid, for she knew that Monyohe was the great snake of the deep waters....She lay quite still.   [He] slithered to her sleeping mat, he curled his long, slippery body in a coil beside his wife and laid his head on her breast.  Then he slept, but Maliane lay awake. [p.75]

     This picture in all its strangeness has within it a number of ordinary mistakes men make.   The qualities of the snake represent ways men see in NYC, the Bronx, Idaho—(a) The snake takes privileges to himself he does not deserved.   He does not ask Maliane a single question or give any assurance of good will on his part.   (b) The way he moves stands for an ethical mistake in men today....he slithers, and is slippery.   Men have been evasive, creepy and unctuous—trying to conceal our purposes from women, as I did and Todd Bentham had.   (c) It happens that a snake swallows its food whole and sleeps a long time to digest.   Men have gotten satisfaction from a woman and then slept complacently as the Water Snake sleeps—with "his head on her breast." (d) And finally, a water snake is cold to the touch.   Like many men, Monyohe is cold to the feelings of Maliane.   He goes to sleep on her bosom while she is wakeful and troubled.   Men have gotten pleasure from a woman's body and been asleep mentally—oblivious to the fact that she is discontent with him and herself, feels less an integrity, through what has happened.   These ways of seeing women are all major mistakes of a man.   And each arises from his desire to get "a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself."  

4. How Much, How Intensely, Have Men Desired to Change?

The story continues:

[When Maliane woke the next morning] her bridegroom ... lay again on the top of the wall...and looked down at her with his little beady eyes.   "I am going to fetch water for you, Big Man" said Maliane.

But she did not return.   "She did not look back, she just ran."

     He chases her—and she hears him breathing behind her, "ffoo, ffoo, ffoo!"... "and when he reached Maliane he beat her with his tail."   Like millions of men today he is angry she does not give him what he wants but is not interested in why.   In a class Eli Siegel said to me:

Let's put it this way: a human being wants all the glory and all the pleasure he can get.   There's no limit to what the ego thinks it deserves and what it goes after.   In so far, then, as a person we know doesn't give us all that glory and all that pleasure, we resent that person.   Does Miss Lawrence give you those two values?

AP  No, she doesn't.

ES  All right, could you then resent her?

AP  Yes, I do.

ES  Is that a good reason for resenting her?

AP  No, it's not.

ES  The only reason we should resent a person is because of a motive of that person.

In this story Monyoho's conceit and unkindness are opposed.   People in the village try to help the fleeing Maliane by setting a trap for the giant snake, planting "sharp knives in his path."   But these knives are symbolic and though sharp, they are liberating; I believe they stand for the criticism Monyohe needs to change (p. 69).

[When he arrived] the skin of his stomach was cut open from the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail.   It burst open.

     Men have been desperate for that which would release us from the thick skin of our conceit—as Todd Bentham was—so we could be truly ourselves.   Men want most deeply, as Aesthetic Realism alone has shown, to care for reality boldly, straight on, and be kind.   This is what happens next:

They saw a wonderful was not a dead snake that they saw.   No, it was a live man who came out of that snakeskin.

Yo, but he was beautiful!   He was young and he was strong.   Round his shoulders there hung a blanket of iron. [p. 69]

.... and when Monyohe came to his wife, she immediately loved him with a love that was red.   [p. 77]

This story says, there is something a woman most deeply is looking for from a man—she'll object when she doesn't find it—and care for it passionately when she does.   That something Eli Siegel has explained: it is good will—"the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful."

     I thank Eli Siegel for making anthropology, which this story represents, a means for people to see understand themselves better.   Through Aesthetic Realism I came to feel a respect for woman, simply through the facts, that had been inconceivable before then.   With all the gratitude of my heart, I thank Eli Siegel for changing the mistaken and really dwarfed way I saw the world through the large knowledge he taught.   One result is that I love a woman now, my wife, Barbara Allen: Aesthetic Realism consultant, with whom I have the privilege of teaching, from whom I am glad to learn every day, and with whom I study in classes taught by Ellen Reiss, whom we both esteem and love deeply.

     The knowledge of Aesthetic Realism is the most important in the world.   Eli Siegel came to it, lived by it, and enabled others to learn it, as we are doing tonight.


"Maliane and the Water Snake" is a story of the Basotho people who live in the Southern African country Lesotho. I read it, and a second version I also use here, in the book Tales from the Basotho by Minnie Postma, published for the American Folklore Society by the University of Texas Press [1974] .

Aesthetic Realism shows how men of different cultures are more alike than different. Also see:

bulletHow Much Feeling—and What Kind—Should a Man Have?

Discussing My Life, the Life of Fusiwe, a Head Man of the Yanomami People, and Men of the United States   Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3

bulletWhat Makes a Man's Life Large or Small?

The Life of Charles Darwin and Men Today
Part 1 | Part 2

bulletAbout the Ethical Unconscious

The myth of the flood; discussing anthropology and the anthropologist.

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Links to Aesthetic Realism Resources
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Aesthetic Realism and Self-Expression
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture,"Friends of Aesthetic Realism — Countering the Lies"

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