Contempt or Respect: The Battle in Everyone
Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish here the conclusion of the 1949 lecture Poetry and the Unconscious, by Eli Siegel. Throughout this amazing talk, he speaks about the 19th-century English poet James Thomson as a means of showing what the largest matter in the self of every person is. This is literary criticism of supreme greatness. It contains unprecedented and true understanding of who we are. And its prose, spoken prose—rich with kindness, exactitude, and joy in knowing—is beautiful.
What Mr. Siegel is describing in this final section, he put as principle in the following statement:
The greatest fight man is concerned with, is the fight between respect for reality and contempt for reality that has taken place in all minds of the past and is taking place now. [TRO 151]
I’ll comment a little on that fight in relation to something much talked about in recent weeks: the matter of sexual harassment in high places, with various eminent men being accused of dealing with women in uninvited and unwelcome lewd ways.
Mr. Siegel described contempt as the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” He identified contempt as the hurtful thing in the human mind—immensely ordinary yet the source of every injustice, including the most vicious. Clearly, if a man sees a woman as something he can grab and deal with as he pleases, he is having contempt. And the fact that this horrible, centuries-old way of using people is being publicly objected to, is a very good thing. It is in behalf of humanity’s being civilized.
At the same time, there is something long considered a human right, the honoring of which is central to the difference between a just society and a brutal, fascistic one. It is the “presumption of innocence,” the idea that a person should be presumed innocent unless proven guilty. That is a legal term, but it is about everyday ethics too, the way we think and talk. A woman should definitely be able to say, if something cruel was done to her, “This happened!” And some of the men recently accused have admitted their guilt. But we have to see that the making of accusations by persons is not the same as those accusations’ being true. And if we act as though it is, we ourselves are having contempt for truth.
So two things should be obvious: 1) the loathsome corporeal behavior should not be permitted; 2) a person should not be considered guilty unless shown to be—whether we like the person or not.
What More Should We Do?
We need to see—to learn from Aesthetic Realism—what contempt itself is. We need to see how contempt is behind all sexual harassment. And we need to use those instances of untrammeled contempt to understand and be against contempt as such.
We have, Aesthetic Realism explains, an attitude to the world itself, and every person we meet is a representative of that world different from us. Either 1) we’ll want, through a person, to respect the world more, see value in it—which means we’ll want to understand the person, see him or her as real, having feelings as existent as our own—or 2) we’ll want to be victorious over a world we dislike by asserting our supremacy over someone, which includes feeling we should be able to deal with him or her however we please. That second way is contempt. It is present in all racism. It’s present in economics based on using people for profit. And it can be present in the field of sex.
While certainly there is a large difference, it’s important to ask: can there be a way of seeing in the most seemingly accepted situations that is related to the way of seeing in the most reprehensible? For example, take the scornful pleasure someone gets looking down on a co-worker, feeling that person’s taste is far inferior to one’s own. Is this disdainful relish in any way like the contempt in racism: the fake self-esteem of feeling one is superior to a whole race?
And in the field of body: can a man and woman, married 20 years, approach each other’s bodies with ill will, feel (without articulating it) that they’re running the world through each other and having a victory over each other? Then afterward, though neither may say so, they feel uncomfortable, duller, irritable, quietly ashamed—because the way they used each other is not what the true self of either wants. Of course: they are consenting adults and what took place between them is certainly not equivalent to the unwanted grabbing that’s now told of so much and that simply should not be tolerated. But if we don’t want to understand contempt at its most everyday, we will never understand it at its most virulent and even illegal.
We always dislike ourselves for our contempt. That is because our deepest desire, the purpose of our lives, is to be ourselves through honestly caring for the world not ourselves. And it should be seen that every man who misuses a woman is disgusted with himself for it. He despises himself, even as he may try to justify himself and go on with his cruel behavior.
This Is What We Need
What people and our nation need in every aspect of our lives—from economics to bodily expression, from education to love—is to see that respect is more thrilling than contempt. We need to see that the desire to know a thing or person is more powerful and exciting than feeling it or he or she is subservient to and run by us. Aesthetic Realism makes clear: art shows that respect and knowing are power and excitement. And Aesthetic Realism is the education in how to see the way art sees. It is beautiful, longed-for, successful education, and I love it with all my heart.