NUMBER 1634 — February 23,  2005
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
The Ethical Unconscious of Everyone
Dear Unknown Friends: 

ere is the third part of the lecture by Eli Siegel that we have been serializing: Beginning with Psychiatric Terms: An Aesthetic Realism Consideration, of 1966. And we print part of a paper by Michael Palmer, sportswriter and Aesthetic Realism associate, from a recent public seminar titled “What's Real Intelligence about the World and Ourselves?”

     In his lecture Mr. Siegel is discussing an alphabetical list of terms put out by the American Psychiatric Association. While “beginning with” them, as the lecture's title says, he is describing the self as such, as Aesthetic Realism explains it.

The Central Question

he central question is whether, in the various forms of mental ailment—from nervousness, to depression, to the “hypochondriasis” Mr. Siegel speaks about here—there is contempt for the world , and also a person's punishment of herself or himself for having this contempt. That is what Mr. Siegel, in many lectures and writings, made clear, and what no one saw before him. Further, the fight between our deepest desire, to like the world, and our desire to have contempt is the big, continuous fight within everybody.

     Contempt is the “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” We go for it in thousands of ways. And, because the self is ethical, we unknowingly punish ourselves for our contempt in many ways too. When the choice for contempt is steep enough, inclusive enough, a person gets to one of the states of mental difficulty described in the psychiatric glossary.

     I wrote last month about the fact, not seen by the psychologists of now, that we are always criticizing ourselves, however unconsciously and unclearly. This criticism we give ourselves usually takes forms that are not so efficient—like nervousness, sleeplessness, a deep unsureness; but it is always about how fair we are and whether we are trying to respect the world or have contempt for it. And we long for a means to criticize ourselves clearly, logically, kindly, and efficiently.

     There are many illustrations of that fact in the literature of the world, but for now I'm going to comment on a poem by a person I quoted recently.

In the Mind of Everyone

consider “The Waste Places,” by the Irish poet James Stephens (1882-1950) one of the important poems of the last century. It is authentic in its presentation of something that goes on in the mind of everyone. And it is authentic as poetry: it has the music that arises from the oneness of large exactitude and large feeling.

     “The Waste Places” of 1915 is an allegory. What is it about—this narrative of a man walking through a barren landscape and being watched constantly by a lion, whom he fears? The poem consists of seven quatrains (4-line stanzas), and begins:

As a naked man I go
Through the desert sore afraid,
Holding up my head, although
I am as frightened as a maid.

The couching lion there I saw
From barren rocks lift up his eye,
He parts the cactus with his paw,
He stares at me as I go by.

     We have that in us which looks at us, questions us, pursues us, saying, “You haven't been fair, Jake. You've been unjust, selfish, dishonest, Samantha. You've made less of things and people—of this world that you were born to know and care for. And it MATTERS. And you can't get away with it.” We have that in us which wants to hide from—which trembles at—this thing in us that looks us over critically.

     “The Waste Places” is about the fact that the self has what Mr. Siegel called an “ethical unconscious ”; and about the fact that we won't be at ease until we want to see what we really think of ourselves and meet our own criticism of ourselves.

A Landscape of Our Thoughts

“...I go / Through the desert sore afraid.” Mind has often been described as geography: our thoughts are in motion; they travel, cover ground, take paths, have directions. The desert Stephens writes about, these waste places, are a certain landscape that people make themselves go over, sometimes as they lie in bed at night and can't sleep, but at other times too: the waste places are dislike of self become terrain.

     “Holding up my head, although / I am as frightened as a maid.” Can we want to act as though we're so sure of ourselves, so at ease with ourselves, when we are really very ill-at-ease? James Stephens was interested in the fact that people disliked themselves, yet could act as though they were very self-satisfied.

     So much of social life, political life, and business life consists of people putting on a show of “all's well” (“holding up [their] head”)—when they're really agitated, tremulous, and self-disgusted. One person looks at another and thinks, “I wish I had the self-assurance he has.” Meanwhile, that second person looks at the first and says inwardly, “Look how at ease he seems. Why can't I feel that way?” Both act confident; both are deeply and mightily unsure. Both feel they're trying to evade something—and they try to put that feeling aside.

Who the Lion Is

n the second quatrain we meet the inner critic everyone has. That critic is represented by the lion. This stanza has humor, both visually and in its music: the lion is presented as fearsome, but the raising of his eye and the motion of his paw are rather delicate. The music has suspense—but is also jaunty:

The couching lion there I saw
From barren rocks lift up his eye,
He parts the cactus with his paw,
He stares at me as I go by.

The sound of the third line—“He parts the cactus with his paw”—through the way it has both heavy thrust and thoughtful pauses, makes us feel the movement of a large yet placid paw. Then:

He would follow on my trace
If he knew I was afraid,
If he knew my hardy face
Hides the terrors of a maid.

     Yes, we try to fool, not only others, but ourselves. We try to fool the critic in us and put it off the track. We put on a show for ourselves. As we get the feeling we're questioning ourselves, even accusing ourselves, we try to convince ourselves not to. We tell ourselves, “What are you questioning me for?—I'm a good guy. It's the fault of all those other people—you know that. I'm fine. In fact, I'm really quite wonderful.” That's the “hardy face” which “hides the terrors of a maid.”

The Critical Self in Motion

n the 4th and 5th quatrains we have various motions of this lion, presented musically:

In the night he rises, and
He stretches forth, he snuffs the air,
He roars and leaps along the sand,
He creeps and watches everywhere.

His burning eyes, his eyes of bale,
Through the darkness I can see;
He lashes fiercely with his tail,
He would love to spring at me.

     The way we look critically at ourselves can be seen as having motions; and that is what happens here. For example, we both doubt ourselves and accuse ourselves; but doubt and accusation move differently. We insinuate our self-criticism; we leap at ourselves with it; we eye ourselves; we keep track of ourselves; we lash out at ourselves. These stanzas are a choreography of self-suspicion and self-dislike.

     Meanwhile, as often in the poetry of Stephens, the writing here, the musical statement, has at once a naiveté, an innocence, and such a sense of evil.

     The sixth quatrain has might—and is also accurate about the self:

I am the lion in his lair,
I am the fear that frightens me,
I am the desert of despair,
And the nights of agony.

Yes. All this is in every person: the questioner of oneself; the fear of the questioning and the effort to evade it; the pain which is the punishment we give ourselves because we've tried to get away from our own criticism.

A Friend

Here is how Stephens concludes:

Night or day, whate'er befall,
I must walk that desert land,
Until I can dare to call
The lion out to lick my hand.

This is beautiful, and it is true. It says we will go on in fear and trouble until we want to welcome what the lion is—to welcome our own ethical unconscious, our criticism of ourselves. And when we do welcome it, we shall find that something we wanted to see as fearful is really kind to us. The lion will “lick [our] hand”: our inevitable self-questioning is really our friend; indeed, is really love.

     Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that enables people to articulate our criticism of ourselves so we can be the persons we truly want to be. The poem on which I've commented is an illustration of this important sentence in Eli Siegel's Self and World: “No self can truly know itself and be ashamed.” * In the Aesthetic Realism consultations now taking place, men and women standing for America are seeing with great pleasure that that statement is true.

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

You Punish Both
By Eli Siegel

he next term is quite different from the two we just looked at, fugue and hypnosis:
Hypochondriasis: Persistent overconcern with the state of physical or emotional health, accompanied by various bodily complaints without demonstrable organic pathology.

      This takes in a great deal of the history of human beings. Persons have been in a wobbly state between thinking they deserve less than they have and thinking they deserve more. Hypochondriasis is a phase of people's thinking that they deserve less than they have; that is, there is a worse person waiting who should be honored, and one way of honoring that person is to be punished with worse health than maybe one has.

     Hypochondriasis is two things: it is, one, a kind of belief or a working as if something were true; and the other, the hoping that it's true. In both instances, there is a desire to say that the self that is customary is really accompanied by a worse self and that this worse self ought to be given more control.

     Simultaneously, there's a desire to punish the world— as we've seen in other of these psychiatric terms. So in hypochondriasis, as in many things, there's a way of punishing oneself and punishing the world at the same time. You punish yourself because you feel there's really something deeper in you which is worse than what you show. You also punish the world, because you feel: the self that seems to get along with the world and seems to function quite healthily is a self that is giving too much credit or honor to the world, and that should stop. The world isn't that good that we should be well in it. That's giving it too much of a blue ribbon.

     The complications can go on and become richer.

What's Real Intelligence?
By Michael Palmer

rowing up in the Bronx, I was affected early by the enthusiasm of my father and older brother for sports and popular music. I admired persons who seemed to look out for others, such as Knicks basketball star Dick McGuire, who loved setting up teammates for easy baskets even more than shooting, himself. And at a stage show my father took me to, I remember being thrilled by trumpeters Charley Shavers and Ziggy Elman driving the Tommy Dorsey band in a swinging instrumental, then providing a mellow background for the band's singer. I also loved watching Perry Mason on TV as he used his legal knowledge to clear people who'd been wrongly accused. These persons were illustrating what Eli Siegel describes in his lecture Mind and Intelligence:

Intelligence can be defined as the ability to take care of oneself and also to care as such....We want to be smart about how to take care of ourselves, but we also have to do a good job with everything else. [TRO 706]

     Yet as I had to do with people every day, my focus was not on caring for them, but on myself narrowly. I avidly studied sports and became a whiz on players' records and little known facts, and my father liked bragging to friends, “Ask him anything about sports.” When Benny Schwartz asked, “How many games did Jack Chesboro win in 1904?” and I answered, “Forty-one,” I felt I was wonderful. Meanwhile, Benny's life mattered little. He existed to admire my “intelligence.”

     Mr. Siegel explains:

To be intelligent means to have an ability to know—not just one kind of thing, but those things that life in its uncertainty, richness, and variety can bring up.

As I was specializing in the minutiae of sports at the expense of everything else—especially the feelings of people—life's “richness, and variety” were passing me by.

     As a first baseman on my PAL baseball team, I liked helping my teammates, pulling in a high throw from shortstop, scooping up a low throw from third; but, in my quiet way, I also wanted to be the star even if it meant sacrificing the team. For example, in a game for the city championship I ignored a bunt signal, swinging away instead, ruining a rally. After being deservedly benched, I was so angry I secretly hoped my team would lose. So while I gave the appearance of being a nice guy, I knew I wasn't. I had little or no feeling for other people and I didn't respect myself.

     After college, when I got a job writing sports at WCBS Radio, I thought I had made it, being there as the news of the world was coming in. But I used that to be even colder to the feelings of people. Our country was in Vietnam, brutally trying to impose an economic system on people who did not want it. I had no feeling for the suffering of the Vietnamese, and was annoyed with war protesters here for causing so much “trouble in getting around town.” When I wasn't working, I preferred being by myself or playing golf. I went for long walks alone, feeling that other people would surely interfere with my reverie and routines. But I felt empty, and soon began having mysterious panic attacks that had me quite worried.

To See Oneself Well

everal years later, in a class that I attended early in my study of Aesthetic Realism, Mr. Siegel asked me, “Are you as nice a guy as you'd like to be?” I said, “I think my attitude could be better to people.” And he asked, “Can you be against them?” I was. I was competitive with people, secretly hoping they wouldn't do well so I'd look better, and I was certain they felt the same way. Mr. Siegel saw I was against myself for this attitude, and he asked me, “How do you want to see yourself?”

     MP. I want to approve of myself.

     ES. Good. How are you going to do it? There are many persons who are going to concerts tonight. Their purpose is to see themselves better. The thing is, what does it mean to see oneself well? To see oneself well has two departments. You can say, 1) “I am Michael Palmer,” and 2) “I am also how I am related to all things.”

     Relation was a new way of thinking for me! Studying Aesthetic Realism, I began to see, through the art and literature of the world, how I was related to things. For instance, in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, through how Pip and his roommate encouraged each other, I was learning how I wanted to be with other people! In James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer, Natty Bumppo showed that being ethical and fighting for justice made a man strong and also wise. And reading Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, I was thrilled by Elizabeth Bennett's criticism of Darcy; I saw that a woman could sincerely want to have a good effect on a man.

The Greatest Intelligence

was learning what it means to have good will, which Mr. Siegel showed to be the greatest intelligence. He defined good will as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” (TRO 121). I came to care deeply for a woman: Lynette Abel, whose feeling for people and justice and whose kind criticism have me more related to the world every day. I love her for it! I'm grateful for our happy marriage of more than 11 years.

     Real intelligence, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the beautiful oneness of justice to humanity and to ourselves. It has never been needed more in the world than now!  

* (NY: Definition Press, 1981), p. 98.

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

1.  The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

2.  The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.

3.  All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

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