Beauty versus Depression
Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we print the second half of one of the earliest Aesthetic Realism lectures. It is Ethics Isn’t Soft, for Guilt Exists, and Eli Siegel gave it at Steinway Hall on October 10, 1946. He explains what psychiatry is still far away from understanding: the cause of depression and other mental ailment.
In this half Mr. Siegel does something that I find magnificent—thrilling in its logic and newness. He describes in detail the relation of victory and self-loathing, supremacy and self-disgust, which, he makes clear, is in all depression.
He would explain in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism that contempt is the cause of mental difficulty. It’s the making of ourselves more by lessening what's not ourselves, and it’s the primal injustice in every person. From contempt all particular injustices arise—from everyday coldness, to racism, to physical cruelty. Contempt is that in us which interferes with love, and with the ability to learn. And contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, taken far enough by a person, causes insanity. The reason is: our deepest, most fundamental purpose is to like the world honestly, be just to it; and so we loathe ourselves for our contempt, however slick a show we may put on. Contempt, Mr. Siegel wrote in Self and World, “is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker” (p. 362).
Emily Dickinson Describes Contempt
As a prelude to part 2 of the 1946 lecture, I’m going to comment on two poems of Emily Dickinson. She is without doubt one of the authentic poets of America and the world, and yet at various times she suffered from depression.
This woman of Amherst, Massachusetts, who looked lovingly, joyfully, precisely, mischievously, deeply, and widely at birds, grass, weather, light, insects, skies, wrote a poem that has been seen as a description of depression. Its first line (and title) is “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” As far as I know, it has never been related to another poem of Emily Dickinson, written around the same time. It needs to be. That other poem, which I’ll comment on first, is about the self, not as feeling low, but as feeling important. It begins:
The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more.
This is a musically satiric description of the thing in every person that feels we are better than the rest of the world. We want to be in the edifice of ourselves with the door shut. We are our own “divine Majority” and no others should be presented to us for entrance—they’re simply not good enough for us. The poem continues to describe this self:
Unmoved – she notes the Chariots – pausing –
At her low Gate –
Unmoved – an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat.
That is the victory of contempt. Human life, represented by the moving chariots, asks us to join it—pauses for us at our gate. We most certainly will not! We have superior company—ourselves. The grandeur of outside things may beg of us to welcome it—“an Emperor be kneeling”—but we turn up our nose. We are triumphantly unaffected.
Emily Dickinson needed very much to know what Eli Siegel is showing in the lecture published here: the way of mind she tells about so keenly in this poem is the cause of the depression told of in “I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain.”
From Smugness to Suffering
So let us look now at the poem about mental misery. It begins:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading....
In “The Soul Selects,” other people were despised as the self reveled in seeing itself as supreme. Here, the self feels different—it feels awful, deadened. Yet what continues is the seeing of other people as oppressive. We’re told with weighty rhythm that they “Kept treading – treading.” And later:
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again....
In the first poem I spoke about, the self preened itself on despising people; it was smug in its contempt. In the second we find the result of that contempt: the self feels miserable. But within the misery, the scorn for people goes on: they “creak” and are given “Boots of Lead.” What Mr. Siegel wrote of another woman is true about the self Ms. Dickinson is telling of: “She found the world not much good; but in finding the world not much good, she endowed herself with disaster” ( Self and World, p. 362).
The “I felt a Funeral” poem has lines in which Ms. Dickinson says she’s apart from—in fact a different race than—other people: “And I,” she says, “...[am] some strange Race / Wrecked, solitary, here.” This feeling is exceedingly painful. But the pain, as Mr. Siegel shows, is the penalty for the false triumph of making oneself apart. The agony of “Wrecked, solitary, here” is punishment for the smugness of “The Soul selects her own Society – / Then – shuts the Door.”
Depression Is Contempt; Poetry Is Respect
Poetry, Eli Siegel explained, “is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” When someone writes a true poem, no matter how wretched its subject, that person is fair to, is respecting, loving, musically presenting the structure of the world.
Aesthetic Realism shows that what makes for depression is completely opposed to what makes for true poetry. The poems from which I quoted are about contempt for the world, and about the result of that contempt. But in their technique, in their use of words and sounds, in their music, they are respect—a mighty respect for the world.
I don’t have the space to show that with fulness here. But we can look a little at a line I just quoted: “The Soul selects her own Society.”
There’s contraction in the sound of this line: there’s something like a swift clenching, then separation, with each of its iambic feet—“The Sóul...selécts...her ówn....” Meanwhile, this line, in which we hear the self as tight and separate, has another kind of sound too, sound that is wide, large: the sound of O in “Soul” and “own”; the reaching sound of I and the going-on sound of ee in “Society.” The line’s music, then, puts together reality’s opposites, contraction and width. It has what every person wants: a oneness of oneself as contained individual, “just me”—and wide comprehensiveness.
The line’s five s sounds hiss with delicate aversion, even as the syllables are precise: that means being against and the respect of being exact are together in it.
And in all the lines I’ve quoted, we hear the wonder of things and down-to-earth-ness, simultaneously.
What distinguishes Emily Dickinson’s lines about depression from those of ever so many other people is that hers are lovingly just to the world. They have in their very music the opposition to what pained her. She wanted mightily to know this. She wanted to know Aesthetic Realism.