The State of the Individual
By Eli Siegel
The individual now, as once, is a single thing and a strange thing meeting and retaining all sorts of objects. And as an individual goes through many motions, and is affected in many ways, and accumulates many and diversified memories, he has to organize all that comes to him, and, willy-nilly, he does somehow; because once you have something in your mind or some memory, it must keep company in one way or another with every other thing in your mind. A question individuals ask and should ask is: What things are in my mind and just how are they in it?
In a most interesting and deep manner, we are what is in our minds and at the same time are affected by what is in our minds. It is easy to think of Julius Brown looking at things already in his mind and getting into tears or maybe just being puzzled. And we can imagine that once the things getting Julius Brown into tears were not in his mind at all; and that Julius Brown existed as Mr. Brown anyway.
How each one of us gets things into his mind, and what they do to us when they get there and after they get there, and how they become—these perceptive invaders what we are, is a problem of immense beauty, definite bewilderment, and unavoidable, mighty significance.
Since an individual must get things into his mind, it is well to inquire how we look on the things that may reach our minds. Everything that we learn was once not ourselves. Learning, like growing, is a way of making what was once foreign to us quite intimate: in fact, the more intimate we can make foreign matters, the more it can be said we have learned about these matters. States of mind are things; they also can be described as coming from things. It seems we have things in us, and about us. Besides, if we are to be and go on, we have to come to some arrangement with things. Life can hardly go on without objects getting into us and becoming our dear selves.
Suppose We Are against Things
So suppose we are against things and don't know just what things we're against; and suppose these things reach our individualities anyway? The contemplation of this indecision as to that which may become ourselves is, offhand, not comfortable. Moreover, all the things that can be—good and bad—make up the world. The world can usefully be defined as the aggregate of all things. Suppose again the individual has not decided that he is for the world which contains all things. If he in any way is against the world, then surely those things which represent his being against the world would hardly be welcome. Besides, it is so hard to choose.
If most individuals were consulted on the subject they would say they liked some things in the world and didn't like others; and that they liked the world in general but also disliked it. All this would be well if individuals could be sure of the boundaries of the liked and disliked. Most individuals are not sure at all.
This Double Desire
When an individual is born, it seems he wants to like as much as possible. A baby has not come to any general judgments. It also seems that an individual, just come to be, must get himself into some shape; put otherwise, he must affirm his individuality. It appears that a person wants to like as much as possible and to be himself as much as possible. There is no harm in this double desire if one side of the desire goes along nicely with the other. But does it?
Sadly, it must be said our fundamental desires can very well not go along together. If we look at an individual we see that he is a definite, fairly lonely biological world. He wants to persist; he wants to be, neatly. And it seems that this want is not always encouraged by what is external to the walking miniature world. Yet Julius Brown must, if he is to like things, find them in that world which appears at times inimical to the neatness, the composure of his individuality. So Mr. Brown, while yearning for the satisfactions he must find—if he finds them at all—in this world, is led to be suspicious of it. And if he is suspicious of the world, he that much must be suspicious of things; since, as was said, the world is equivalent to all things seen together.
It is possible, then, that Julius Brown be bewildered, and that he also play tricks. His mind wants to take things from this world, and this means he wants to be affected by the world; yet he isn't sure that this world is friendly. It can be expected therefore that when things reach his mind, their presence in his mind is not serenely certain, composedly entire. This is so because Julius Brown, like most individuals, hasn't decided that the universe is his friend. If, somehow, a person we are not sure of visits us, it would not be surprising that if he stayed for the night, we would not be completely tranquil. Would it not follow then that if Julius Brown had entertained in his mind many things as visitors and he wasn't sure what they represented, he also would be apprehensive and deeply perturbed?
We Have to Find the World Friendly
The consequence of all this is that unless we can see the world in general as our friend, we, as individuals, can't see anything in particular as wholly our friend while that thing is seen as representing the general universe—and we might as well not forget it. Logically, as soon as we separate one thing or some things from the general universe, we are making a choice, soothing universe for ourselves as apart from existence as such, and the results of such a disconnection are not good.
The individual, then, has to find the world and things friendly or, whether he knows it or not, he will be in a state of subterranean if delicate alarm. How can we go on surrounded by a Mighty This, the friendship of which we are not sure? Oh, we can say we'll fight a hostile universe, we shall be stoics, scientifically resigned without whimpering. But isn't it strange that a universe should make an individual so that the individual can be against the fashioning universe? It is well to be stoical, defiant, resigned; yet suppose in our minds, deeply, is a feeling that we need not be—we are not sure that the universe is hostile? It does seem right to state that if we don't know whether the universe is hostile or friendly, we can't decide just what our position should be. And if it is said we should fight the universe as evil do we really know just where and how much the universe is evil? Some people may say all this is theoretical, but there is evidence showing that the problem of whether the universe is friend or foe is the biggest job of the unconscious as motivation for our individualities. I believe that the most philosophic problems are also the most constant, inescapable ones for the unconscious.
If Julius Brown likes an apple and eats it, he is saying that an apple is friendly to the individuality of Julius Brown. However, if that individuality has not decided that the universe from which the apple comes is friendly, then Julius Brown would be disposed to think the apple was something "special." Also, as much as Julius Brown saw the universe as unfriendly and the apple as of the universe—which it is so much would that aspect of Julius Brown regarding the universe as unfriendly be suspicious of and unfriendly to the apple likewise. Julius Brown's indecision as to the universe would, without his knowing it, interfere with his response as a whole being to the apple. This means that unless Julius Brown could see the universe as friendly, he could never be happy with the universe as cause. Yes, we can apparently like specific things, but if the cause of it all isn't definitely on our side, our like is incomplete, unstable, disturbing.
He Won't Be Wholly an Individual
When one asks what any individuality is most concerned with, the quickest reply might be, "with one's individuality." It is quite apparent that a person must be concerned with that person, a self with that self, and an individuality with that individuality. Some of the job of cherishing what we are is unmistakably ours. It would seem, however, that before an individual can adequately be concerned with his individuality, he must know what it is. It seems that most individuals do not desire this knowledge. And because most individuals don't desire knowledge of what they are, most individuals are not adequately concerned with themselves.
It does appear that an individuality grows, comes to be, through experience. Experience is what a person meets, thought of as had by that person, or as having become that person. Everyone can see that however individualistic we are, if we had no food at birth, our individualities would have had no chance to flower. Eating is an experience, as many other things are. Eating is an important example of the process by which what was not ourselves becomes ourselves (with details). When we eat, we are meeting and absorbing objects external to our individualities. Food is produced by a creative universe. When we learn we also meet things arising from a productive cosmos. Since these things become ourselves, it would seem we should have opinions as to their source—and good, sound opinions, too. Do we? Do we try to? When we don't, are we really interested in our individualities? I don't think so.
It follows that Julius Brown as an individual interested in his individuality, must bestir himself and get interested in what affects and becomes his individuality. Otherwise, he will cower and be complacent in his cowering. He himself will be distressingly divided. He won't be wholly an individual.
And the state of Julius Brown as an individual is the general state. This state is fair neither to man, child, beast, thing, nor universe. Philosophically, it is the schizophrenic state, the fundamentally nervous state. If the self can't see the universe as friend and act accordingly, it will be nervous. It will try to enjoy a world which it suspects and wants to get away from. What disorder!
When the state of the individual is at one and in exciting peace with all about the individual, the basic situation in art is present. As I see it, if we can't make ourselves wholly at one with the things not ourselves, we shall be miserable and against that accuracy which is art; if an individual changes his state from fearful and disorderly to friendly, wonderful, orderly, and free, reality will be seen as aesthetic. Reality should be seen as aesthetic for the simple reason that reality (including that thing which is the state of the individual) actually is.
NOTE: "The State of the Individual" was published in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, number 914, October 10, 1990.
Copyright© 1947 by Eli Siegel