"The Ordinary Doom" with its Preface, from The Frances Sanders Lesson and Two Related Works by Eli Siegel
The Ordinary Doom
The best thing about the present tendency in the world to tell all and show all in sex, is that it is an acknowledgment of man's desire to be known; and also his desire to know. We haven't yet come to the courage needed to have ourselves be seen and to see another fully. We make up for this by carnal nudity and subtlety.
The thing to be seen, though, is that nudity is not yet honesty. Skin takes the place of brave, graceful desire. Our bodies can glide, stalk, prance about all day in a state of non-vesture; but we ourselves hang on to wrappings.
A nymph of 600 B.C. by a Greek brook could show herself in one way quickly, entirely, by twitching off an ancient habiliment. We can still do this. We can prance around in unshielded epidermis.
But showing our feelings is something else. We cannot show our feelings unless we like what represents the world possibly seeing these feelings. We have to think that what is to know us deserves to know us before candor will be cared for by us adequately or used adequately. Our attitude to the world is still one of fear, one of contempt, and one of aloofness. This means that whomever we know, our attitude to that person will be one of fear, contempt, aloofness. Wrestling in bed does not annul this. Elaborate proximity of sections of body will not annul this.
The large inward catastrophe of today is: We let ourselves be pleased by and do what we can to please a person we still want to hide from, we still do not fully respect. The one way we can fully respect a person is to feel that that person deserves wholly to know us and it would be good for us to know that person.
The rift between sexual achievement and the happily and deeply being known, goes on, as it did in past centuries. To know a person is to know the universe become throbbingly specific. It is always the universe on two feet, with two eyes, and an articulate mouth. It is the universe we want to skip.
I believe that even today The Ordinary Doom can be used to see an unintermittent question in oneself. It can be used to see why sex often angers and makes for a dim, annoying vacuity. I hope the essay is used for knowledge. I hope Aesthetic Realism is cared for. I know of no better way of caring for oneself and what concerns one, is around one.
The Ordinary Doom
He never spoke out. –Matthew Arnold on Thomas Gray
If we judge from history, we are doomed not to show our feelings; not to have them known. There have been many, many persons who have lived rather long lives, and who have been in many conversations; who yet did not show what was in their minds, what feelings they truly had. When people can't show their emotion, they are disappointed and resentful. So disappointment and resentment have been big things in social history; which means the history of individuals.
There are three large reasons, which are in close relation, for people's not having shown their feelings. The first is, feelings are hard to know; we don't know a feeling just because we have it. The second is, there is a kind of triumph or satisfaction in not showing the feelings we may know–in making them our own secret property. The third is, people have not been adequately interested in seeing, thoroughly, how we felt.
It is by now pretty well accepted that we are just as unknown to ourselves as something else may be. We may not know the mind of George Washington or Stendhal or Cleopatra; but we may not know our own mind or self, so well, either. The phrase once so much used of our minds–"the dark continent"–is not so often heard these days, but the truth in the phrase has hardly gone. To know ourselves is hard; and to say just what it is we feel is, therefore, hard. A person who knows just what he feels is as rare as a person who knows both Sanskrit and jazz, fully. Besides, we are afraid to know our feelings; we don't know what awaits us. So what with the difficulty in knowing and the disinclination to know our feelings, we go through our lives quite far away from what is in our minds; from what we wholly feel about specific things, the world and ourselves. This means that the doom I have talked about is in the making: our not knowing our own feelings is certainly no assistance to their being known by others.
I have mentioned the disinclination to know our feelings, because we fear the result. Fear is a great motive. But there is also a triumph in having our feelings out of circulation, even as to ourselves. Moreover, there is a triumph in withholding the feelings we may be aware of. Concealment is equated, unknowingly to ourselves, with individuality: the more we conceal the more it seems we are asserting our very personality, resisting a somewhat repellent, unwelcome intrusion of other things into ourselves. The desire for secrecy is a deep thing in a child and in a grownup. Through secrecy, we can be defying the world and deceiving it. That is attractive to the profound, if spurious or evil, tendency towards autonomy or separation in us. With this going on, it is even harder for our feelings to be seen.
Yet, even though there is a triumph in keeping our feelings apart from external existence, the situation is sad. In our triumph we become lonely. Our achievement is our curtailment. And, even in our triumph, we are disappointed; we have a sense of failure; we feel we have been thwarted. There is a certain relation between affirmation of life and the desire to be known as we are; so if this desire is not honored, our being alive is that much interfered with or defeated. We live not only in our minds, but in other minds; our minds depend for their full existence, on being apprehended by other minds justly, beautifully. If this does not happen, there is misfortune.
Thirdly, other people are not too interested in knowing us. It is true that we don't ask enough that they do; but at any one time the desire on the part of most people to know the feelings of another is rather sluggish, and it is impure; for where there is a desire to know, it is for the purpose of using a person, not for the purpose of knowing a person so that the knower feels his awareness is greater; his experience of reality deeper; his pride in his own existence surer.
Consequently, there is a tepidity in the matter of minds knowing minds, people knowing people. So far in history, individuality has meant a curtailment of interest in other instances of individuality. There is a good deal of subterranean fraud in the matter; people act as if they were interested in knowing others, but the interest could not bear rigid, comprehensive examination.
And so, there are many mothers lying in their graves, whose feelings were not known by their sons or daughters. Husbands lie in their graves whose feelings were not known by their wives. Wives unknown to husbands also lie at rest all over the world. It is very disappointing.
In the greatest moments of literature, we feel we know someone or something (the difference between knowing a person and something else isn't as big as may be supposed). When we know another person, we meet another way of taking the world. This can bring form to our own. When we feel that our own way of taking the world is seen by another, that way, here too, is encouraged to take on more form. One great advantage in knowing ourselves rather honestly is, that we have an idea of what another person would feel if he knew us. Meanwhile, we can use the manifestations of another person, even if they do not arise from adequate knowledge of ourselves, or are not accompanied by adequate knowledge, as a means of knowing ourselves better.
The self wants to be an object. It participates, but it wants to be participated in. Awareness helps it. The self is a to-be-known reality. If that knowing does not take place, the deep and ordinary doom I have mentioned occurs.
Our desire for praise, so common and often so hurtful, is really a substitute for our desire to be known as we are. It is quite clear that if we are praised and we do not feel we are known, that praise cannot be satisfactory. It is true that most people seem to prefer being praised without being known, to being known without being praised; nevertheless, our greatest desire is to be known first. If we are praised without being known, no matter how intense and multitudinous the praise may be, we are not wholly alive. To be taken for someone else is hardly a way to be alive in one's own right.
This is why authors, painters, composers, actors, and others have not taken, often, the praise they have received as happily as they might. They could not see the praise as entirely of them. Certainly they accepted it, but the acceptance was not entire. Anyone who praises us without knowing us confuses our fundamental selves. To be known is to be seen in relation with all things: and when we can see our relation with all things, we like ourselves. The largest purpose of every person is to become what one is, entirely, by making accurate relations between what one is and all other realities.
We do not fight enough to have our feelings known. We are like Gray, poet of the eighteenth century, of whom Arnold says so often in the essay on him: "He never spoke out." The cemeteries consist of people who never spoke out. The streets are everywhere walked on by people who don't speak out.
To be able to show our feelings and to have them seen, is full expression. We cannot express ourselves in certain specific situations of moment or unusualness; but there is an insufficiency of expression which is constant. We early come to feel we are not seen right, and it appears we never will be. So we accommodate ourselves to this. It is dull, basic tragedy. In the long run, it is unnecessary.
Some of the prettiest lines of Shakespeare are about one's feelings not seen. Viola in Twelfth Night (II. 4.) describes a woman not esteemed, or not loved:
She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i' the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,
And with a green and yellow melancholy
She sat, like patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.
We can presume that the woman here didn't wholly want her feelings, or herself, to be known. There is something admirable about the easy, though enduring way, she takes being seen badly. But really we could not love a person who did not want to see us justly. We in some way collaborate with the person not seeing us truly. We may not see how we do, but the grief we get from someone's not appreciating us, partly arises from our not wanting wholly to be known.
However, whether we are "smiling at grief" or not, there is an intangible sense of doom in us, where, we think, our feelings are not known. That doom is so customary, so ordinary, we do not see it as doom. But it is. It has befallen many, many men and women. The aim of this paper is to have us more against it.
NOTE. "The Ordinary Doom" first appeared in the journal Definition (1961), and was reprinted in A Book of Non-fiction, ed. Rev. Joseph T. Browne (NY: The Macmillan Company, 1965). The Preface was written to accompany the essay's publication in The Frances Sanders Lesson and Two Related Works (NY: Definition Press, 1974).
Click to read this essay in Spanish: "La Condena Común"
Copyright © by Definition Press 1961, 1974, 1986.