How Much Should We Feel?
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is a short section of the great lecture by Eli Siegel we have been serializing: Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things, of April 22, 1966. Mr. Siegel is discussing a list of psychiatric terms and definitions presented by the American Psychiatric Association and published in the Reader’s Digest Almanac for 1966. His comments on each term are purposely brief and informal; there is humor—and there is also what he has described with tremendous fulness and variety elsewhere: his landmark explanation of the central purpose we have and of that in us which interferes. Our largest desire, he showed,
is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.... [And] the desire to have contempt for the outside world and for people and other objects as standing for the outside world, is a continuous, unseen desire making for mental insufficiency. [Self and World, p.1]
Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” People, he showed, go for it casually and furiously as part of everyday life—thereby weakening themselves while thinking they’re taking care of themselves. Contempt is the beginning of every cruelty, and is the chief matter in ailments of mind.
The Lessening of Feeling
In this TRO too is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism Associate Lynette Abel, from a public seminar of this summer titled “Why Are Women Disappointed—and Do They Ever Want to Be?” And I’m going to comment a little on an aspect of contempt which Mr. Siegel points to in the part of the lecture included here. That is: there is a desire in every person to have less feeling, to be less affected by things, to be unstirred, unmoved. There is also a desire, which stands for life itself, to have the world with its things and happenings and people do something to us, cause emotion, affect us, mean much to us: that is what our minds and senses are for.
Let us take a person who had, in his short life, feeling of the largest, deepest, most beautiful, most accurate kind. This person is the poet John Keats (1795-1821). In a letter of November 22, 1817 to his friend Benjamin Bailey, Keats worries about a non-feelingness in himself, a being unaffected, and he says it can have him think the deep feelings he previously had were fake:
I assure you I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week—and so long this sometimes continues I begin to suspect myself and the genuineness of my feelings at other times—thinking them a few barren Tragedy-tears.
The feelings of Keats were not, of course, “barren Tragedy-tears”—they were immortally authentic. They made for and are in his poems. There is this description, of and embodying great emotion, in “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Yet Keats did not understand what in people, in him, made also for non-feelingness, imperviousness, impassivity. He did not see that we can have a triumph in feeling little, and that it is a victory of primal contempt.
Self-Protection & Contempt
People go after lessening feeling for essentially three reasons. The first two are: 1) some feelings are painful; 2) our feelings can confuse us. So there can be a desire to protect ourselves through getting to a tepidity, a numbness. There is contempt in this preference—it’s terrifically inexact and unjust: we’re pained about something, and therefore we say to everything in reality, “You can’t mean much to me—I’m not going to see and feel what you are; I’m making you into a shadow, a squeak, into nothing. I’ve quietly annihilated you, because I’ve made your ability to affect me nil. I spit at your possibility of affecting me!”
People in homes, streets, offices right now are trying to play it safe by feeling little. In the process they make themselves less and less alive, because our aliveness depends on how much and how accurately we can be affected. Besides, this protective measure doesn’t work. Cold people suffer anyway. In fact, they really suffer more than people who have tried less to quash feeling.
The third reason—the big reason—people consciously and unconsciously try to feel little, is that whenever something affects us, we cannot be wholly superior to it. If things and persons leave us cold, we have the victory of feeling that the only thing worthy of affecting us is ourselves.
If something moves us—music, a person, a news event, a sentence—we are, in a fashion, taking orders from that thing: it has power over us. We aren’t running it. To be affected is, willy-nilly, to respect the power of the world and of that particular instance of the world. And if the effect is good, we have to be grateful to what caused it! The ego says, “Never.” The ego wants to be superior, and the one way to be wholly superior is to be completely unaffected.
That is why so often people try to lessen their feeling about someone they think they love. Marriages have in them an unseen drama of wanting to care more for one’s spouse yet at the same time flattening his or her meaning, summing the person up. A wife, for instance, can go after the superiority of having tepid feeling about her husband and at the same time be honestly distressed that she doesn’t feel enough.
The word unfeelingness means numbness, and it also means cruelty. Every cruelty, from a nasty remark to murder, needed to have first a person’s being unaffected by the emotions, the life, the reality of the to-be recipient of the unkindness. In proportion as we limit authentic feeling in ourselves, we make ourselves cruel.
To feel little is to be empty, and there is pain in that. But the empty feeling is also a victory to the ego, because we feel filled with only ourselves.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose in life is to have the largest and most accurate emotions. Emotions can be sloppy, ugly, mean—in other words, in the service of contempt. There is a lot of such emotion. But emotion that is exact, feeling that arises from and makes for honest thought, is what our world most needs and what every person is thirsty for. The philosophy Eli Siegel founded, taught, and was grandly true to, is the means to that thought and feeling.