The Two Desires
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we conclude our serialization of the lecture Everyday Life and Aesthetics Look at Psychiatric Terms, which Eli Siegel gave in 1966. It is one of several lectures based on Mr. Siegel's looking at an American Psychiatric Association glossary. The lectures are wide-ranging, informal, critical, sometimes humorous, and in them is the great Aesthetic Realism understanding of the human self.
We print too part of a paper by New York City high school teacher Leila Rosen, from a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What's Real Intelligence about the World and Ourselves?”
The Organic, and More
The last term Mr. Siegel looks at in this lecture is epilepsy, that ailment from which Dostoevsky suffered, and, it seems, Julius Caesar. Mr. Siegel comments very swiftly—as he says, he has spoken more lengthily on the matter elsewhere. While acknowledging the possible organic “disposition” behind epilepsy, he describes the way of seeing which can have the organic proclivity take the form, at a certain time, of that terrifying thing, a seizure.
I hesitated to include this short discussion of epilepsy, because Mr. Siegel is speaking informally and also briefly on the subject, and does not present here the full logic and evidence at the basis of his tremendously important explanation. Yet just because the explanation he gives in outline is so important, my decision was to include it—with much gratitude and admiration and in the context I've now provided.
In the history of Aesthetic Realism there have been persons who, because of their study of this philosophy, no longer had epileptic seizures. Aesthetic Realism is certainly not medical, and these persons were studying it not in order to have an ailment end, but in order to see the world and themselves more truly. Meanwhile, among other greatly good effects on their lives, there was this one.
James Stephens Illustrates Contempt
To comment on the desire which Mr. Siegel identified as the weakener of mind, the interference-from-within of everyone's life, the beginning of every cruelty, I'm going to quote a poem by the Irish writer James Stephens (1882-1950). Our most dangerous desire, Mr. Siegel wrote, “is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self; which lessening is Contempt.” Stephens' humorous poem “The Fur Coat” illustrates an aspect of contempt. (The word Pride in the first line does not mean honest self-respect but conceit.)
I walked out in my Coat of Pride;
I looked about on every side;
And said the mountains should not be
Just where they were, and that the sea
Was out of place, and that the beech
Should be an oak! And then, from each,
I turned in dignity, as if
They were not there! I sniffed a sniff;
And climbed upon my sunny shelf;
And sneezed a while; and scratched myself.
Stephens is satirizing contempt. Yet before Aesthetic Realism it was not known how subtle and large contempt is. And Stephens did not know that there is a fight in everyone all the time between contempt and the desire to respect the world, see meaning in what's not ourselves.
“I looked about on every side; / And said the mountains should not be / Just where they were”: yes, there is something in us that is hoping, looking, to find things unsatisfactory. The reason is: through looking down on things we can feel we're Somebody, we're superior. The victory of self-love through contempt for outside things is in the comically repulsive description at the end of the poem: “I sniffed a sniff; / And climbed upon my sunny shelf; / And sneezed a while; and scratched myself.”
This poem presents contempt as making for private smugness; but the same contempt has other effects too. For example, if we see people and things as unworthy of us, we also feel we have the right to exploit them, manipulate them, be cruel to them.
Further: people can think they're trying to find life interesting—but they don't see how much they're hoping to find things dull. After all, if things seem dull we can feel superior to them, while if something interests us we have to respect it, even need it. So people unwittingly arrange to feel bored and empty.
Further again: men and women feel they're looking for love, but they don't see how much they're also hoping to look down on a person, be dissatisfied with him or her. If we love truly, we can't feel superior. If we're disappointed with a person, we can. So an unseen fight between love and superiority goes on minute by minute within people, amid embraces and conversations, in the kitchens and streets and bedrooms of the world. And often persons unknowingly choose superiority, and then feel, “Why can't I ever find love?”
James Stephens has a poem called “Shame”; yet he didn't see, as others haven't, that the desire to have contempt is the thing that makes a person ashamed.
Our Best and Largest Purpose
Meanwhile, there is the desire to respect the world. This, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the largest desire in us, however much we betray it. To value the world honestly is the very purpose of our lives. That is why having contempt inevitably weakens us and makes us dislike ourselves.
The Stephens poem I quoted depicts contempt; but with its oneness of energy and structure, of melody and toughness, the poem itself is not contempt. Like all true art, it comes from and embodies a large respect for reality.
For now, to stand for the grandeur of respect, I quote some lines from one of Stephens' greatest poems. In “Deirdre” he uses that woman of Celtic mythology to stand for the world seen as beautiful. Our deepest desire, to like the world, resonates in these simple lines.
...Once she did tread the earth: men took her hand;
They looked into her eyes and said their say,
And she replied to them.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A thousand years! The grass is still the same,
The clouds as lovely as they were that time
When Deirdre was alive....
Aesthetic Realism explains what is best in every person, honors it, and enables it to prevail.