Our Self—& What Explains It
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are honored to publish here the first part of a 1946 lecture by Eli Siegel, What Aesthetic Realism Is & Is Not, from his Steinway Hall series. He is describing how Aesthetic Realism differs from other approaches to mind then current. And as he does, we can see too that it differs vitally from the approaches current now.
Commenting on such persons as Freud, Horney, Adler, and Jung, Mr. Siegel points out that he is not, in this talk, discussing texts. He certainly did so, closely and richly, on other occasions. Here, speaking somewhat casually but exactly, he is giving an overview.
Eli Siegel respected the work of other philosophers and writers on mind—he loved, for instance, Kant, Descartes, Hegel, Locke—and saw Aesthetic Realism as coherent with good thought anywhere. But he did not want it to be made falsely akin to things it differed from hugely. And in those early years of its existence, it was necessary to make clear that there is something Aesthetic Realism has which the various psychotherapies do not have. That great something is a true understanding of the human self—the self which is everyone’s own—and a true understanding of the world. As Mr. Siegel speaks about Aesthetic Realism and other ways of seeing, his description of six decades ago is alive now—vivid, graceful, passionate, tremendously important. It has Aesthetic Realism’s grandeur—factual, practical grandeur.
Aesthetics, Contempt, & the Internet
The principle Mr. Siegel is chiefly commenting on in this 1946 talk is “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” I’ll comment a little here on another principle, in relation to something that didn’t exist in 1946: the Internet. That second principle is “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself; which lessening is Contempt.”
An August 10th New York Times article, “Internet Use Tied to Depression in Youths,” begins: “A large Chinese study suggests that otherwise healthy teenagers are much more vulnerable to depression if they spend too much time on the Internet.” Six months earlier there was a similar British study: according to a Yorkshire Evening Post article that I found on the Huffington Post website, psychologists saw “a strong link between time spent surfing the web and depression.”
I have written about the Internet and the fact that it is aesthetic. It does what Aesthetic Realism describes beauty of any time or place as doing: it makes opposites one. For instance, it brings together near and far. You can find out about something that happened thousands of years ago and thousands of miles away, through your fingertips and a screen in the intimacy of your home or in your hand as you walk down a street. And the Internet is surely what Mr. Siegel describes all organization as being: a oneness of one and many. The Internet is one thing, bringing together an almost inconceivable multitude of people, places, happenings, ideas.
Meanwhile, the Internet, like ever so many other things, can be used to have either respect for the world or contempt for it. Aesthetic Realism explains that the fight between the desire to respect and the desire to have contempt is the big, continuous fight in the life of everyone. And Eli Siegel is the scholar who identified contempt as that in every person which weakens our mind and life, and as the source of all the cruelty of the centuries. This explanation is Aesthetic Realism’s alone. The psychologists conducting the Chinese and British studies do not understand contempt.
For example, the relation of depression and the Internet is not essentially a matter of “spend[ing] too much time” online. It is a matter of: are you using the Internet to see more meaning in reality and people, including the people you may meet during the day; or are you using the Internet to feel that you have the world at your command, under your thumb, serving you, and that you’ve gotten away from and annulled the world of sidewalks, conversations, unforeseen happenings, and people you don’t understand and can’t control? The first way is respect. The second is contempt. People use the Internet for contempt in essentially two ways: to make the world around them meaningless and beneath them; to make the world online something that they can manipulate and rule. In both ways there is a deep sneer, and there is the result of that sneer: a feeling low, agitated, empty, and, even, depressed.
Let’s take the Yorkshire Times’s headline (with its pun): “Internet surfers caught in a web of depression.” Surfing the web can be in behalf of respectful interest and knowledge. But it’s so often a means of grabbing and dismissing. You take a look, skim, and, with a click, get rid of what you looked at and go to something else—again and again. This stands for how the contemptuous self wants to deal with reality: you are a monarch, summoning and dismissing, and you don’t have to give your attention steadily to anything.
How Do We See People?
There are the social networking sites. They can be very valuable and pleasurable, a means of relation to other people. But a person can also use them in behalf of one of the most frequent forms of contempt: you have to do with people without really giving yourself—while having yourself hidden, aloof, apart. You “interact” without really wanting to know and be affected by anyone. You manage how you’re affected, which means you manage people and reality.
Then, of course, there is the availability of pornography, noted in the British study. The big thing not seen about it by the psychologists is this: however popular it is, and however much people want to say it’s just fine, every person is ashamed of going for pornography; and that’s because it is contempt. Pornography is a means of wiping out the mind, the feelings, the humanity, the depth of a person, who stands for the world, and turning the person into someone who exists for the sole purpose of pleasing you while you look down on her or him and on the world she or he represents.
Either Contempt & Self-Dislike or Aesthetics
When we make less of the world, we deeply despise ourselves. The reason is: we come from the world and were born to see it truly. Our having contempt makes us feel temporarily set up, mighty, superior, but it brings us unsureness, nervousness, dullness, disorganization, self-dislike, and, if we have enough of it, depression.
As big a misuse of the Internet as any is what is called cyberbullying. People have used the Internet to feel they can put forth anything mean and dishonest that they please. It is worrying parents and school districts enormously, and I’ll say more about it in the future. But this can be said now: the only way for cyberbullying to end is for people to learn from Aesthetic Realism about the fight in all of us between contempt and respect—and about the aesthetic fact that we are more through valuing truly what is not ourselves.
I want to comment on the last two paragraphs published here of Mr. Siegel’s talk. The love of knowledge that he describes—inclusive, wide knowledge—is what I saw in him all the time. And yes, Aesthetic Realism certainly is a magnificent, effective encourager of people’s desire to know. Also: the oneness of science and art that he says is in its seeing of a person is what he had, always. It was beautiful; it was steady. I saw it as he spoke to others and, I am immensely grateful to say, as he spoke to me.