Literature, Children, & Bullying
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 2 of the lecture we are publishing in 3 parts: When Does Evil Begin?, by Eli Siegel. In 1953 he gave a series of talks, landmarks in literary criticism and the understanding of self, talks explaining and placing Henry James’s short novel The Turn of the Screw. One of these is the present lecture, in which he looks at several children of literature and history as a means of showing what impelled Miles and Flora, the child protagonists of that puzzling James novella.
In the series on The Turn of the Screw, he was explaining something humanity needs burningly to know—about good and evil, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice: What is the source of evil, in a child or adult? Where does evil begin?
Speaking to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago, Mr. Siegel said:
There are two mes in everyone. There is one me that is the most beautiful thing in the world. There is one that is the ugliest thing in the world. Every person has that me, and they should hate it more than anything, because it’s theirs.
“The most beautiful thing” is the desire in a person to respect the world, see value in what’s not oneself, know and be richly fair to things, facts, people. “The ugliest thing in the world” is contempt—the going after an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Evil anywhere, Mr. Siegel showed—every injustice, meanness, coldness, brutality, whether in a schoolyard, on the internet, in government, across a dinner table, anywhere—arises from the desire for contempt, present in everyone. I think there is no greater contribution to human well-being than his seeing this and making it clear.
Bullying—the Fundamental Cause
Without Aesthetic Realism, contempt has not been understood—nor has “the most beautiful thing,” like of the world. And therefore contempt has had tremendous power, in the everyday lives of people and also nationally and internationally. Let us take a matter involving children, about which there is much concern now: bullying.
In the present section of the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel speaks about two children in important novels: Master Blifil in Fielding’s Tom Jones and Wackford Squeers Jr. in Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby. (In the previous section he spoke about another character in that Dickens novel, Ralph Nickleby.) Wackford Junior is, among other things, a bully. And Dickens describes him at once humorously and terrifyingly.
What is the central thing in bullying, the fundamental cause? Representative of current writing on the subject is a Huffington Post article, “What Causes Your Child to Become a Bully?,” by Dr. Gail Gross (10-14-2014). As to the question in her title: she never answers it. She says that “there is no one single profile of a child bully” but that she’ll mention “a few different situations that describe the majority of child bullies.” The first is: “Children model what they see”; that is, if the parents engage in bullying, the children may want to do that too. This is so, and something like it happens with Wackford Squeers Jr. But what caused the parent to be a bully? And what does seeing the bullying appeal to in the child?
Dr. Gross mentions other situations that she feels make for bullying. And they happen to be contradictory. “Sometimes,” she writes, “the child that bullies is the child who feels completely powerless at home.” Then, under the heading “The Entitled Child,” she writes: “I have seen children who are given everything they want...believe they have a right to bully others.”
But is there something central—the underlying, crucial, fundamental cause of bullying—larger than all the situations, though the situations can encourage it?
Always about the World
Every bully dislikes the world. While each instance of bullying of course has to do with the particular person bullied, it’s always about the world itself. A child can feel the world is a mess. And you can use various things to feel this—for example, the fact that your parents confuse you; or the terrible fact that there’s not enough money in the home; or that you’re showered with possessions and praise which you deeply feel you don’t deserve. But the crucial matter, the awful and immensely frequent mistake, is that people use what they have met to feel the world itself is unworthy of them, is something to look down on sneeringly, and manipulate, and punish. The mistake is the using of what one meets to have contempt for the world—rather than seeing reality as something to know, be exact about, value truly.
A bully is a person who wants to show, punishingly, his or her superiority and scorn of the world, and uses a representative of the world to do it. Bullying won’t be understood until it is seen as related to things that can seem so different. For instance, Mr. Siegel speaks here about Master Blifil’s smooth manipulative buttering of people and also Wackford Junior’s vicious bullying; these are forms of the same thing: contempt.
Three things are needed to defeat contempt and its various manifestations, including bullying. 1) It’s necessary to see, really see, what contempt is. 2) It’s necessary to see that we always despise ourselves for our contempt—and this self-despising can take the form of painful agitation, deep unsureness, depression, emptiness, and more. We may bluster, but having contempt makes us dislike ourselves because, as Aesthetic Realism shows, we have an ethical unconscious.
3) The alternative to contempt is like of the world, respect for it, good will; and to defeat contempt we need to see this alternative as thrilling, powerful, luscious. That means we have to see it (and I’m speaking quite swiftly here) as the same as beauty, in keeping with this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The alternative to contempt can’t be seen (as it usually is) as a “righteous” thing; it has to be seen as having the power of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and the ocean, the pleasure of the most delicious pastry and a wonderful dance. Through the study of Aesthetic Realism that is what a person can see!
And I’ll say here, again swiftly: New York City teachers using the Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method have documented the fact that through this method students not only learn but become kinder—they don’t want to bully. And there are the Aesthetic Realism Foundation’s anti-bullying and anti-racism outreach events at schools and libraries: these are loved by young people—and are grandly, mercifully successful.