Notes on Nervousness
Dear Unknown Friends:
“Who’s Nervous?,” of January 16, 1947, is one of the lectures in a series that Eli Siegel gave early in the history of Aesthetic Realism, at Steinway Hall. We’re honored to present it here, through notes taken at the time by Martha Baird.
Three decades later, in the preface to his Self and World, Mr. Siegel wrote:
Is it true, as Aesthetic Realism said years ago, that man’s deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis? And is it true...that 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?
Yes, it is true. And unless we want to learn about the fight in everyone between those two desires—to respect the world and to have contempt for it—we shall never understand mind, including our own. That goes too for the various psychologists and counselors, who are really as unknowing about the human self in its might and puzzlingness as the Freudians, lobotomy advocates, and electric shock prescribers were before them.
There Are the Senses
To precede Mr. Siegel’s lecture, I’ll comment on a situation of self told about recently in the New York Times. The matter is fairly unusual, but I’m discussing it because often the unusual can stand, in vivid fashion, for the everyday, and that is so here. On August 11, the Times published an article by Jane G. Andrews about her phantosmia, or “illusory sense of smell”: that is, “I smell a smell when no odorant is present.”
Why, without any preliminary physical damage, should a sense go awry?
All the senses are means of joining the two great opposites in our lives, self and world. It’s through the senses that the world, with its sights, sounds, tactile diversity, tastes, fragrances, comes into us, joins with us, can be known by us. “The attitude of an individual to the whole world,” Mr. Siegel writes, “[is] the most critical thing in his life.” The fight in us between respect and contempt for the world itself concerns what we do in our mind about the particular things we see, hear, touch, taste, smell.
Ms. Andrews writes that she continuously smells a bad odor that isn’t actually present. She says, “My phantosmia specializes in the disagreeable. That is typically the case.” Even some smells that are pleasant to others are repulsive to her. She writes that after a trip to Provence, the smell of
southern France’s lavender-infested landscape...trailed me back home. Some might think me lucky—lavender is hugely popular. But I hated this smell that had squirmed its way into my brain.
When (sometimes after months) a foul smell would finally leave her, it would immediately be replaced by another “stench” or “gruesome odor.”
She recounts an explanation she heard from a doctor: that “almost always the patient [with phantosmia] has lost some ability to smell....The brain...overcompensates by offering up odors, usually disagreeable.” But why was there this olfactory loss? And why should “disagreeable” odors be the ones the self “offer[s] up” to itself?
The Presence of Contempt
Contempt—the desire to heighten ourselves through depreciating the world in its difference—has to do with all the senses. Let’s take sight. People have looked (for instance) at garbage in the street or a sink full of dirty dishes and used what they saw to feel disgusted with life—to feel the world itself was disgusting, not good enough for them to be in. And along with making an unpleasant sight equivalent to the whole world, people have also visually altered what was before them: they’ve looked at a room, or a person, and found in the sight a shabbiness, distortion, vulgarity, repulsiveness that weren’t really present.
A popular phrase in America is “That stinks!” Its use, often with a sneer, about so many things and occurrences is a sign that the olfactory can stand for a ubiquitous contempt. Mr. Siegel writes, describing contempt, “To see the world itself as an impossible mess...gives a certain triumph to the individual.” Bad smells can be used for that triumph.
We can want to solve our mix-up about caring for the world and hating it by getting to an encompassing disgust. And we can use repugnant odors as evidence that disgust for the world is correct. Then, just as we can visually misperceive with contempt impelling us, we can misperceive olfactorily too. It can suit something in us to feel the world around us stinks—figuratively or literally—because this is reason to feel we’re too good for the world, too precious for it, and only in ourselves is there comfort for us.
Meanwhile, we punish ourselves for depreciating the world, because the deepest desire we have is to be fair to it, see meaning in it. And so, in phantosmia, along with the contempt triumph there is also an unarticulated self-criticism. The self tells itself, “You wanted to get importance by finding the world foul. That’s a fake, ugly way to be important. I’ll make you feel how bad that victory is!”
The person through whom my parents learned of Aesthetic Realism quite a few decades ago was a woman who was troubled by, among other things, an olfactory difficulty. She could smell only bad odors. Through her study of Aesthetic Realism, this torment about odor went away: she was able at last to smell good odors. That is because she learned that the way to be an individual was not through lessening and despising the world, but through seeing that it was related to her and explained her.
Mind and body are opposites that affect each other all the time. If we’re in physical pain, for instance, it’s hard to have a sunny disposition: our body affects our mind. Conversely, when we are mentally stirred, moved through something we read or hear, tears—very physical—may come to our eyes. When we’re ethically embarrassed, blood can come to our face and we blush. How does the fight between respect and contempt affect neurons dealing with smell—and more?
Ms. Andrews has refused to try the “antidepressants, antiseizure medicines or sedatives recommended by one doctor or another” for her situation. She says that their “explanations aren’t entirely satisfying.” She is right.
The Aesthetics of Smell
There is a poem by William Carlos Williams called “Smell!” It is a very good poem; it has music. And it stands for the aesthetic way of seeing self, which Aesthetic Realism shows to be the necessary way. Here is some of it:
Oh strong-ridged and deeply hollowed
nose of mine! what will you not be smelling?
What tactless asses we are, you and I, boney nose,
always indiscriminate, always unashamed,
and now it is the souring flowers of the bedraggled
poplars: a festering pulp on the wet earth
beneath them. With what deep thirst
we quicken our desires
to that rank odor of a passing springtime!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Must you taste everything? Must you know
Must you have a part in everything?
Williams is saying that as artist he is impelled to find out what the world is, be affected by it in its fullness, join himself with it. He makes the sense of smell stand for this beautiful desire. He indicates that he doesn’t understand the desire; it can surprise him, seem unconventional, seem to run him. But the lines have a musical pride.
In art, a person uses himself to be fair to the world, and uses the world to become more himself. That, Aesthetic Realism shows, is what we want and need to do.