Knowing Ourselves—& America
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are publishing, from notes taken at the time, the series of lectures Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall early in the history of Aesthetic Realism. And with this issue we have the third lecture, which he titled The Unconscious Is Next Door. He gave it on August 15, 1946. Here, and in Aesthetic Realism itself, is an explanation of the unconscious so different from what Freud and others described, and from what the unconscious is still largely taken to be—something fearsome, illogical, even lurid, in a world apart from the thoughts we know. Mr. Siegel shows that our unconscious is a philosophic matter, an aesthetic matter, also an everyday matter—that it’s in keeping with this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
The central fight in the unconscious of everyone, Aesthetic Realism explains, is between the desire to respect the world outside oneself, and the desire to have contempt for it; between the feeling “The more I see value in what’s not me, the more I’m myself” and the feeling “I’m more through looking down on things and people, manipulating them, and making a world in my mind away from them.” The second, contempt, is the ugly, hurtful thing in the unconscious of everyone. Out of it comes every meanness, coldness, and cruelty. The more we understand those two ways of seeing, the more the first—respect for the world—can win, and with it true pride and self-expression. That is what happens through the study of Aesthetic Realism.
The Unconscious of a Nation
In an essay written some months after the lecture we’re publishing, Mr. Siegel explained, “The unconscious in a person is all that in him which, though it affects him, he hasn’t seen” (TRO 913). Since a nation is composed of persons, there is such a thing as the unconscious of a nation. And we can see something about the existence of the unconscious of America through looking at the last seven years or so.
It was not so many years ago that the majority of Americans presented themselves as adamantly in favor of the Iraq war—the attack on, and occupation of, that land. To question the war was seen as tantamount to treason. Millions and millions of Americans consciously saw themselves as for the then-President. He made America strong, they told themselves; he made you feel proud; he was the kind of guy you could have a beer with. Liberal was a term that people across the land sneered at, so much so that most liberals refrained from using it of themselves. We can see something about the American unconscious through asking how we got from that atmosphere—of, say, 2005—to the election of November 2008.
External things happened, to be sure: the war did not fare well, and the economy became dire. But there would not have been such a reversal of opinion—such a turning against the war and such massive disgust with the 43rd President—had there not been all along within millions of Americans an unconscious feeling different from the one they vigorously put forth. What recent years show is that millions of people can act oh-so-fervently convinced, think they are, yet not be. They can have deep within them a mighty demur, and even an unconscious revulsion against what they’re showing.
Two Forces in America’s Unconscious
So the last years, like any group of years, are a study in the consciousness and unconsciousness of a nation. After September 11, 2001, Americans were lied to about the Iraqi “threat,” and people—in kitchens and factories and newspaper offices and halls of government—used that lie to agree there was a need for war. Well, part of the unconscious of a person is the willingness to believe a lie that makes one important and comfortable. This willingness is an aspect of contempt, and was operating in Americans, as it has operated in others. The desire not to question yourself, not to question what you hear from people who tell you how wonderful and hurt you are, the desire not to think but to show your supremacy, to crush someone as a means of showing what a hero you are: all this is part of the contempt unconscious. It made Americans ready to believe what they were told, and to have bombs fall on people who didn’t hurt us.
Yet all along, the other aspect of the American unconscious was there too. It corresponds to something present always in the private life of each individual. Because a person comes from the whole world, the deepest thing in us dislikes ourselves for being unjust to what’s not us, and objects to our own injustice. We may not be aware of our objection to our own unfairness and contempt; we may never verbally express it. Our unconscious ethical objection may show in our being nervous, irritable, angry. It may take the form of a sense of emptiness and lowness.
The American feeling that would show itself on Election Day 2008, the American opinion that would go into voting booths across the land and make Barack Obama President, was present somewhere unconsciously in ever so many people during the preceding years. It was an unseen objection to views oneself expressed and thought one had. An America that had been swept with war fever, some months later elected a person who stood out for having opposed the war.
During the campaign, the Republican candidate made statements that were supposed to capture the feeling of Americans: he tried to horrify the citizenry by calling Mr. Obama a man who wanted to “redistribute the wealth.” But Americans were not horrified. The candidate didn’t see that though Americans may have seemed for many years to be against something—the nation’s wealth being owned more equitably—deeply they were for it; and this unconscious opinion had, by autumn 2008, become more conscious.
America’s unconscious objection to its own contemptuous choices was encouraged powerfully, as I said, by happenings—trouble in both Iraq and the US economy. But it is described truly and charmingly in this statement from Eli Siegel’s great, musical essay “36 Things about America ”: “Americans don’t believe some of the bad things they seem to believe.”
That fact includes the matter of prejudice. It has been pointed out that people are more racist than they know, and that’s certainly so. But what we’ve seen in the last year is that people are also more against racism than they know. There are people who once would not have believed they'd vote for a person of color, who found themselves doing so.
We Can Know Ourselves
I think that the way Aesthetic Realism sees the unconscious is not only true but beautiful. And it’s not only beautiful, but urgently needed—because there’s nothing we need more than to understand our desire for contempt and our desire for respect.
The history of Aesthetic Realism itself is magnificent evidence that there’s no limit to how much the unconscious can become conscious—there’s no limit to how much we can know ourselves and what impels us. I think Aesthetic Realism is that in world thought which most fully enables people to know ourselves. And for this grand, kind fact I thank Mr. Siegel, and love him.