Mind, Violence, & Movies
Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish here, from notes taken at the time, a lecture Eli Siegel gave on December 12, 1946, at Steinway Hall. He speaks about the popularity of films that present mind gone awry, and films that contain violence. And he explains, as no one else has, why people want to see such films.
The terror film of 1946 can seem tame compared to what we have today. But in this lecture, with its feeling of a particular time—America a year after the end of World War II—we also meet the understanding of ourselves right now, of what people are looking for, including from the films and television programs we watch.
Mr. Siegel shows that people were interested in the psychiatric film and the terror film because they wanted to understand themselves. He shows that people had an increased sense in 1946—it’s even larger now—that there’s something in everyone related to humanity at its worst and most troubled. We want to understand that thing. Meanwhile, the people of 1946 and all the years since haven’t found, in psychology and the media, the comprehension of mind they’ve been looking for. That long sought after comprehension has been in Aesthetic Realism all these decades.
A recent New York Times article (7-19-09) refers to the psychiatric films we see Mr. Siegel speaking of in 1946. The writer, Terrence Rafferty, comments particularly on “Hitchcock’s 1946 ‘Spellbound.’” He says—and this is the point of the article—that in the movies of “that bygone era psychotherapists...were accorded a certain respect....Not any more.” Instead, in the last decades, psychiatrists have “been portrayed almost exclusively as either ridiculous, or sinister, or both.” Yes, the movies of our time express what people feel: that psychiatry is a mean and ludicrous flop.
Everyone’s Mind & the Popularity of Violence
What men and women have wanted most to understand about mind is outlined in this statement by Mr. Siegel:
The large fight...in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now, is between...respect for reality and contempt for reality. [TRO 151]
The desire to have contempt—to lessen what’s outside us as a means of heightening ourselves—is the thing that relates every person, no matter how well-behaved, to a vicious, violent brute. Contempt is that in us which interferes with our lives, but it’s also the cause of every cruelty.
Let’s take a boy of five, based on someone I saw recently. Craig felt it was his right to manage his little brother, Sam, age three, and that included literally pushing Sam around when he was insufficiently obedient to Craig. He also gave himself the right to lie to his parents as to who pushed whom first. And I observed Craig, with a glint in his eye, throw water on an adult who seemed interested in something other than him and whose happiness and composure Craig resented. Well, Craig is a pretty representative boy; he has good qualities; he likely will not grow up to be a gangster. But he was going after contempt.
The desire, which Craig showed, to have power and supremacy, to make someone who’s composed or strong seem ridiculous or weak—this is certainly in adults too. It can even, in social life, mask as “romance”— as two persons try to make each other become meltingly, palpitatingly foolish over oneself.
All this is related to violence. One can be attracted to violence, in film, television, video games, essentially for three reasons, all of which have to do with contempt:
1) As Mr. Siegel mentions, there can be a feeling of release through violence—and what’s released is contempt. Seeing a violent act, one can feel, “The world’s a cold, confusing place—but look at how it can be smashed and punished, put in its place and made weak and worthless, for my pleasure!”
2) As one sees violence, there’s also a reinforcement of one’s contemptuous feeling that “the world isn’t good enough for me: look at how brutal, ugly, and mean it is! Look at what people (not sensitive like me) can do!”
3) Then—and this is the reason Mr. Siegel emphasizes in the present lecture—there is a feeling, “There’s something in me like this, something that’s unkind, and I want to see it externalized as a means of understanding it.”
“The Contempt Which Crosses the Fence”
Aesthetic Realism explains that while contempt is the source of every unkindness, it is—in all its hurtful everydayness—also the cause of mental trouble. How that is so, Mr. Siegel described and documented extensively in his writing and teaching. But I’ll quote one passage. This is what people impelled toward the psychiatric films of 1946, and people now, have wanted to know:
We all of us employ contempt as a means of dissolving or defeating questions with which we are not at ease. Contempt is a quick way of settling matters in life. Yet...it is seldom we use that consummate, successful contempt which is insanity: the contempt which crosses the fence.
When this consummate, uncompromising contempt takes place...the purpose of mind...is to conserve its owner and to annul other things. [TRO 141]
Let’s take, for instance, the posture so often associated with insanity. A person sits, her head down toward her chest, her knees drawn up close to her body, her arms encircling her knees. This is a way of hugging oneself, making oneself the whole world, enclosed, tight, with the outside world rejected. It’s the posture of mind “conserv[ing] its owner” and “annul[ling] other things.”
Meanwhile, people every day make themselves contemptuously important by annulling the meaning of persons and things—perhaps by not listening to someone; or by uttering a dismissive expletive; or by feeling one doesn’t have to see a person as he deserves, but can see him any way oneself chooses; or by simply seeing others’ feelings as less real than one’s own.
Mind & Economics
In the lecture, Mr. Siegel says the question of economics is the same as the question of mind itself. Here again Aesthetic Realism is new—and great. It explains that both an individual mind and the economy of a nation need to make a one of self and world. Our minds won’t fare well unless we feel being just to the world is the same as taking care of ourselves. And economics won’t fare well until it’s based on an accurate, just joining of individual selves and the whole world. This accurate joining is described in the following clear, beautiful sentences from Eli Siegel’s Self and World; they were first published the same year as the lecture we’re printing:
It follows that the world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his. All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.