The Aesthetics of Restlessness
Dear Unknown Friends:
It is an honor to publish the first part of Mind and Restlessness, by Eli Siegel. This lecture, which he gave seventy years ago, explains definitively, kindly, clearly, richly, beautifully, a matter not understood by others attempting to deal with the human self.
We do not have a full transcript of Mind and Restlessness, but I have put together notes taken by two of the students present in that 1948 class: Martha Baird and my mother, Irene Reiss. Though these notes are incomplete, they bring us an authentic picture, not only of the ideas in the lecture, but of Eli Siegel’s depth, ease, great exactitude, humor, scholarship, down-to-earthness, respect for the self of everyone.
People have been tormented by their restlessness. And, as Mr. Siegel shows, along with the kind that is overt, there can be a restlessness that people don’t even know they have, but which makes them feel unsure, unplaced, rather empty.
Restlessness Is about Opposites
At the time of this lecture, the philosophy Aesthetic Realism was in its first decade: Mr. Siegel had begun to teach it seven years earlier. It is the philosophy showing that the human self is an aesthetic situation; that our fundamental need, in every aspect of our lives, is to do what art does: put opposites together. “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel explained in a landmark principle—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” So in this lecture he looks at restlessness as no one else ever did: as a question of aesthetics.
Take a woman who cannot concentrate on something important that she’s reading but must too often get up and look out the window, check her email, look for something on Ebay, wipe a countertop, text a friend, take a selfie with her dog, get something from the refrigerator. In her restlessness, she is dealing painfully, inaccurately, with opposites that are one in every instance of good music, motion and rest. The oneness of these opposites makes for beauty anywhere. For example, there’s the beauty of a tree as it stands with trunk firm and still, while its leaves move rustlingly, in delicate tumult.
And there are the biggest opposites in everyone’s life: self and world. Restlessness, Mr. Siegel shows, always has to do with a false relation of these. In the 1948 lecture he speaks about various forms of restlessness. The particular causes may be somewhat different. But in all, the decisive cause is a person’s unjust seeing of the world: a feeling that one takes care of oneself by looking down on it, getting away from it. That feeling is contempt, which Mr. Siegel showed to be the most hurtful thing in the human self: the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
In some instances of restlessness, the underlying contempt can seem to have practically been forced on one. Take a child who is very poor, or a child who is surrounded with insincerity: such a child can, wrongly but easily, feel the world itself is a mess, and get a miserable unjust gratification spurning it. Mainly, however, contempt for the world is gone for because it seems to make oneself important, able to sneer in superiority at things and people, kick them around in one’s mind however one pleases. In all restlessness there is the underlying contempt of feeling, Nothing is good enough to hold me; nothing deserves my full attention.
So restlessness can be a form of contempt. Then, it can also be a punishment we give ourselves for contempt. That is: no matter how contempt for the world is come to, we always dislike ourselves for having it. We have an inevitable shame, a self-dissatisfaction, because we were born to be fair to the world different from ourselves; our deepest desire is to know and value it. Our self-dissatisfaction, our displeasure with ourselves for being unjust, shows in various ways, among which is an agitation, continued unease, restlessness.
The explanation in Mind and Restlessness is true about life in any year, decade, century. However, I’ll mention aspects of restlessness that are of our particular time.
1) When Eli Siegel gave this talk there was no internet. The internet is wonderful, but, as everyone knows, it can be used in hurtful ways. The internet has been used restlessly, and can lend itself to restlessness and seem to justify it. That is, the internet can seem to justify non-attention, the contempt of dealing with the world by jumping from one thing to another and not thinking much about anything. The valuable technology of our time has unfortunately been used very much in behalf of the feeling, If I can’t “get” this in a couple of seconds it’s not worth my attention—on to something else! The fault is not the internet’s; the fault is contempt.
2) It has been noticed that many Millennials and Gen Z-ers have a tendency to talk fast, very fast. That may simply be part of the evolution of speech, affected by the fact that there is greater speed in the world as such. But it may also be, and I think is, part of a pervasive restlessness. It’s connected with that speedy, dismissive leaping from one thing to another, for which the internet has been misused. It is essentially a restless way of speech. And as you’ll see, Mr. Siegel says that the deep restlessness of not feeling “at home in the world...can take the form of talking fast.” In any instance of rapid speech, the criterion for its goodness or badness, beauty or ugliness, is this: Does your speaking fast arise from the desire to honor the idea you’re expressing, and the words used, and also the persons listening, or is there a sense that those words, ideas, people don’t deserve a certain fullness of attention and justice from you?
Then there is the matter of how a person listens to another’s rapid discourse. Is there the taken-for-granted feeling, I don’t need to hear every word—I can just grab what I think the idea is and move on? There is such a thing as restless listening—taking in a bit here and a bit there and not being affected with all of oneself—and too rapid speech seems to justify and demand that. (Meanwhile, speaking very slowly can be contempt too—can be a way of taking the life out of things.) We need to like ourselves for how we speak. We will when we feel we’re using words to be fair to the world. People of every generation are thirsty to know this.
I hope to say more in a coming issue about the restlessness in America today, and how our failed and unjust for-profit economy is part of its cause.
3) Over the last decades, the word hyperactive has been much used to characterize many, many children. The pharmaceutical companies have reeled in huge profits because mental practitioners, not understanding these children, have therefore condemned them to be drugged, often for decades. The “hyperactivity” of a child is a form of restlessness: it is an intense restlessness. It needs to be related to the restlessness Eli Siegel is speaking about, and understanding, in this lecture. And when what he explains about restlessness is studied, “hyperactivity” and much more will at last be understood—to the great happiness of young people and humanity.