Aesthetic Realism, founded by the American philosopher Eli Siegel, has identified contempt as the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” My life can be used to understand one form contempt can take in a person, and also the best thing in us—our hope to like the world honestly.
In An Outline of Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Siegel writes about food:
A child grows from 12 pounds to 80 pounds through making the world himself. In eating anything, we assimilate the world; that is, the world becomes like ourselves.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that whenever we see food, there is a question that is not stated but should be: Is this a chance for me to respect the world or have contempt for it? My attitude was to grab disproportionately and then dismiss.
For ten years—from age fourteen to twenty four—I suffered from a combination of the eating disorders anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Anorexia is self-starvation and excessive weight loss. Bulimia is eating non-stop, then disgorging all of what you eat.
I thought this would never change, and the side effects were devastating. I suffered from hair loss, loss of periods, dizziness, kidney infections, dehydration and cysts on my knees from excessive exercise. At this time I was very depressed and lonely, and my parents were desperate. They took me to doctors, psychologists and weight control centers. I took diet pills and later was addicted to speed.
A psychiatrist told me I was suffering from chronic depression, and his plan was to enter me into group therapy and administer antidepressants. This frightened me more, because no one had a clear explanation of the cause or seemed hopeful that my trouble about food would stop. I couldn’t read, couldn’t care deeply for a man, and I couldn’t sing, something I had once loved to do. I spent most of my time alone.
When I began to study Aesthetic Realism, I found the explanation. In his book Self and World Eli Siegel writes:
We are saying when we eat, and with humility, too, that we need the world from which our food comes. We say, unconsciously, when we eat well: Bless reality which gives us our daily nutriment.—If we can’t logically bless, our daily bread will be a daily peril.
I began to have consultations at the not-for-profit Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York. Early, my consultants asked me, “Do you think it is possible that a way of seeing the whole world is present in how you deal with food?”
Meryl Nietsch. Yes, I do.
Consultants. Do you want to grab it and get rid of it? Do you want to be controlled by reality or control it?
Meryl Nietsch. I like to be able to control things.
My consultants said about bulimia, “It’s a neat trick. It’s like the metaphor “having your cake and eating it too.” You have the world please you but not affect you in the way biology and botany want it to. Aren’t you a little proud of this?”
I felt I had it down to a science. I would choose certain foods to binge on because they came up easier. In consultations, I was asked to write about the advantages of vomiting and why I thought it was smart. Doing this assignment, I saw how contempt worked in me, and I simply couldn’t continue this procedure. I was able to keep my food down.
Anger and Confusion Turned into Triumph
In an issue of People magazine, Cherry Boone O’Neill, author of the book on anorexia Starving for Attention, writes, “When you start denying yourself food…it’s exhilarating. The anorexic feels that while she may not be able to control anything else, she will, by God, control every morsel that goes into her mouth.” Without knowing it, Mrs. O’Neill is describing the pleasure of contempt.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism how I came to a way of seeing the world that was to result in these eating disorders. My parents had a big job bringing up six children, and we didn’t make it easy. In our home there were a lot of fights and coldness. I was asked in a consultation, “Do you think, Miss Nietsch, that you came to feel the world was a messy place?”
Meryl Nietsch. Yes.
Consultants. Do you think that this eating and vomiting situation is anger and confusion turned into the triumph of contempt?
Meryl Nietsch. Yes, I do.
Consultants. Eli Siegel would often give the example of contempt, that a “high point” in a person’s life was his ability to vomit. It is a saying, “I get rid of you, world!” Do you have a very dramatic and organized example of saying, “I don’t need the world?”
I learned that I wanted to have myself pure, untouched by the outside world, but that this choice was keeping me from something I wanted more: to like the world on an honest basis.
In an early consultation, Ellen Reiss composed three couplets with humor that had me see my disorders in relation to the world:
The same universe in which I vomit
Has clouds, and also a star, and a comet.
When I meet something in the world, I will either become it,
Or get rid of it by trying to vomit.
I feel like a queen, or at least a duchess or a duke
Every time I can eat something and puke.
Food Puts Opposites Together
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that I worshipped food: I made it the most important thing in the world. I used to say, “Food is my world.”
I was so ashamed of the way I saw it that I felt I couldn’t go out with people or to parties. I knew there was something wrong when I thought more about getting to the table with the food than about getting to know the people at the party. My consultants asked me: “Do you think you see food as your Mecca? Some people wear crosses or gold stars around their necks. You should get yourself a little refrigerator charm.”
My eating disorders stopped in 1981 because of what I learned. Today I eat three meals a day like a normal person, and I never have to worry about my health the way I once did.
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the world, like a person, has a structure of opposites which can be counted on: it is aesthetic, the oneness of opposites, the same opposites that are in us. I began to study the opposites in food.
I saw, for example, that cottage cheese is both smooth and rough. It has smooth liquid and curds of harder cheese. And I have flesh that is soft and supple and bones and muscles that are hard and firm. Studying the opposites made me feel that I was stronger through being affected deeply by the world.
The clear explanation of the cause of eating disorders is in the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel. I want my life to be useful so that the hundred thousand anorexics in the United States alone will not face a prospect of dying of heart failure, infections, irreversible hypoglycemia, and simple starvation. I am one of the luckiest people on this earth because I have met truth about the world and myself.