Envy & Our Biggest Desire
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are publishing, from notes taken at the time, lectures that Eli Siegel gave early in the history of Aesthetic Realism, at New York’s Steinway Hall. In this issue we print the first half of “Pleasure, Desire, & Frustration,” the talk of August 29, 1946.
In presenting what is true about the human self, it was necessary for Mr. Siegel to show the falsity of the way that was then overwhelmingly prevalent: the Freudian way. Freud is not so current now. But it can be said soberly that the therapists of today don’t understand the self any better than he did. And as Mr. Siegel criticizes the Freudian way, he shows what people today are thirsty to know: what’s true about our own feelings, which confuse us so much.
To place swiftly some of what he is countering, I quote two statements. The first is by Mr. Siegel himself, from “Aesthetic Realism; or, Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?”:
The essential difference between Aesthetic Realism and Freud is that Freud saw nervousness as arising from what, earlier, was incomplete expression in sex, and, later, a damming up or conflict in the libido—a prettier word than sex. Freud would disagree with Aesthetic Realism because he did not see, as many people don’t, that an attitude to the world, to reality,...governs one in one’s everyday life. If you feel that the world is ill-managed, is contemptible, is unkind, you have to show that in how you see Mildred or how you see Morton.
And here is a description of a Freudian staple. In A Primer of Freudian Psychology (1954), Calvin Hall writes: “A frustration is something that stands in the way of the operation of the pleasure principle” (p. 73). Mr. Siegel shows that this idea, which intimidated people, is simply untrue.
I love the logic in his lecture. That logic, with all its intellectual precision, pulsates with everyday life and people’s tumult.
The Understanding of Envy
As a means of relating Aesthetic Realism to how mind is seen by psychologists in 2009, I’m going to comment on an article that appeared in the New York Times on February 17. It’s about a tormenting emotion: envy. The writer, Natalie Angier, begins by saying that envy, unlike other “vices,” is not “tempting,” doesn't feel “good to indulge in”; “instead feels so painful” and “is a vice...nobody craves.” Why then do we feel driven to be envious, to have this pain, for which we also despise ourselves?
From the article's beginning, then, we see an ignorance on the subject of the lecture published here: pleasure. The writer and the psychologists quoted don’t know that while we suffer from envy there's also a terrific unseen pleasure involved in it. This pleasure is the pleasure of contempt.
It’s necessary to ask: does envy arise from a way of seeing the world? Aesthetic Realism explains that the big fight in everyone is about the world itself: will I be important and pleased through respecting reality outside myself, or through having contempt for it? If we feel that the way to be ourselves is to see value in what’s not us, we won’t be envious; we'll be glad, not distressed, if we see good in another person. But if we feel the way to be ourselves is to look down on things and people, be superior to them, beat out what’s not ourselves, then as soon as we can’t feel superior we’ll be resentful—and envious. Envy won’t be understood until the desire for contempt is understood.
Though the article tells us we don't “crave” envy, that is not so. We have a craving to find the world unworthy of us, to see it as mean, as something that rooks us, that gives others what it doesn't give us. This way we can feel that we’re too good for the world—that it’s a cruel mess and we're a sensitive, hurt person. What we’re craving is the miserable pleasure of contempt. And if we see a good in another, rather than respect and learn from him we can prefer to envy him, deeply choose to hope he flops, because contempt says, Good in another person diminishes you!
What Is Inevitable?
The Times article presents envy as inevitable. The concluding sentence is: “If envy is a tax levied by civilization, it is one that everyone must pay.” That (aside from the metaphor) is what people generally feel: that if someone knows more than you in your own field, or has a nicer garment than the one you're wearing, or is more attractive, or gets the praise you wanted, you have to be envious. Yet everyone dislikes himself for this emotion. The article quotes people saying about their envy, “I’m privately ashamed of myself.” That is very important, because if a feeling is inevitable, we shouldn’t be ashamed of having it.
People’s shame about their envy happens to be a beautiful thing and shows that what’s inevitable is the fact that we always dislike ourselves for having contempt. —Because the thing wrong with envy is the contempt in it: the hope that another person be less good than he or she is, be less successful, less happy, so that you can be superior.
The psychologists also do not understand that there’s a difference between malicious envy and something similar but good. In Self and World, Eli Siegel describes this difference:
A “bad” emotion like envy has next to it certain quite praiseworthy states like emulation, ambition, self-criticism. It needs to be seen, then, in any instance of envy what the envy is about, from what it arises....The zeal to attain a good or beauty possessed by another need not be bad in itself. [Pp. 297-8]
The non-comprehension of this difference has the writer cite an experiment with monkeys as instancing envy:
Monkeys were perfectly happy to work for cucumber slices until a person started giving one monkey a preferred treat like grapes. Then the others stopped working for cucumbers.
Well, this is not the emotion that the rest of the article is about. There is no indication of ill will, that the striking monkeys hoped the favored one would no longer get his grapes. There is no indication that they wanted something they didn’t earn. They saw that their work was worth more than they were getting, that there were good things they deserved as much as another did, and they had a right to them.
Similarly, on a much higher level: two hundred years ago a girl could be aware that her brother was sent to school, was learning things—and she could feel, “Why can’t I learn too?!” This “envy” doesn't have ill will for the brother. It doesn’t have a desire to look down. It does not make for shame. It comes, not from contempt, but from respect for the world. That is the crucial distinction among human emotions. It’s a distinction that psychiatry does not understand and that's completely absent from the article.
The miserable message that envy is inevitable—that we’re stuck with sleazy, mean emotion—is, I’m grateful to say, untrue. The history of Aesthetic Realism makes that clear. When we learn about contempt, and see there's something we want more than to feel superior—see that we're increasingly ourselves the more meaning we see in the world—envy can lessen, and leave.