Our Minds—& What Interferes with Them
Dear Unknown Friends:
We publish here The Philosophy of Schizophrenia, a lecture Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall in 1947. Part of Mr. Siegel’s greatness as philosopher is his discovery and understanding of that way of seeing in every person which interferes with our lives; which is the source of all unkindness; which always weakens our minds and, if present with sufficient fullness, can do so catastrophically. This way of seeing is contempt: the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
In the present journal, beginning in 1975, he gave rich documentation for his finding that “contempt causes insanity and...interferes with mind in a less disastrous way. Contempt is the great failure of man.” In issue after issue for many years he presented evidence, explanation, illustration. The scope of his material was vast. It included psychiatric case studies, but also world literature and history. He wrote, for example, about Dostoyevsky, Coleridge, Baudelaire, Hawthorne, Poe, and that great sanity which is art. And he wrote, definitively, about the cause of Nazism, and of all prejudice. Always, his writing was clear, graceful, and powerful; often there was humor.
Those qualities are also in the spoken prose of the 1947 lecture. It is one in a series of talks that he was giving, and we publish it from notes taken at the time by Martha Baird. Since Mr. Siegel refers to the two aspects of self, or the two selves, but does not in this lecture explain what they are, I’ll say something about that fundamental idea.
Every person will recognize that we have a self within, which seems just ours, apart from everything. We also have a self that has to do with people and things and that wants to know and be affected by the world. We’re like a circle: we have a center, as inner as can be; but from it we have radii that go forth. Contempt makes the two aspects of self fight. It says that the way to care for and glorify that precious center is to make less of what’s beyond it.
Some Symptoms, Looked At
To relate the 1947 lecture on schizophrenia to the present moment, I go to a popular website: WebMD.com. Sixty-three years after Mr. Siegel gave this talk, psychiatry still does not understand why people have mental distress, whether severe or less severe. That is because psychiatry does not understand the human self. So we read on WebMD.com:
Experts don’t know what causes schizophrenia.... Family history may play a role...but most people who have a family member with schizophrenia don’t develop it....It’s possible that neurotransmitters...don’t work the right way in people with schizophrenia.
We have “don’t know” and “may” and “it’s possible.” And, in all politeness, it would seem that if persons don’t know, one should stop calling them “experts.”
I’ll comment on some “symptoms” described on this website, to point to what Mr. Siegel has explained: that a schizophrenic person does with a certain fullness what all people do in fragments, and that these ways, which we all have, are forms of contempt.
1) WebMD notes that some persons with schizophrenia have “bizarre behaviors.” It gives this example, apparently based on observation: a person “may wear aluminum foil in the belief that it will stop one’s thoughts from being broadcast and protect against malicious waves entering the brain.”
Well, this may be “bizarre,” but what it shows is that the person wants an utter separation between himself and the world. He uses aluminum foil to insist that his private thoughts should be just private—the outside world is not good enough to have them. And he uses the foil to say that the world is replete with malice and must not get into him!
2) The writers of the WebMD article do not see the relation between that “bizarre behavior” and another symptom, which they list as “cognitive”: the schizophrenic, they say, can have “difficulties attending to and processing of information” [sic].
This “information” comes from, and is part of, what’s not ourselves. We will not give our attention to the outside world’s information if we’ve felt that the way to be ourselves is to be separate from a world not good enough for us. In order to “process” this foreign information we have to take it inside of us, and if we feel we should be unsullied by the world, we just won’t let it in! So the non-attending and non-processing and the aluminum foil are parts of the same thing: contempt for reality different from oneself.
Everyone is somewhat against “attending to and processing... information.” At a dinner table tonight an exasperated wife will ask her husband, “Haven’t you been paying attention to what I’ve been saying?!” He hasn’t. Meanwhile, she regularly does him the favor of completing his sentences: she feels she doesn’t have to “attend” to what he might say—she’s got him summed up. Both husband and wife have, along with devotion, the contemptuous sense that the other, who stands for the outside world, is not entirely worth hearing.
Also, all over America people are smiling and nodding in social situations while really not listening to the other people. The reason is: one feels, without articulating it, “The important conversation is the one I have with just me. I should be able to annul another person anytime I please.”
Are We For or Against Relation?
3) WebMD notes that a person who is “schizoid” has an “almost complete lack of interest in social relationships” and appears “cold and aloof.” This description contains, in the word relationships, the tremendously important word relation.
There are millions of non-schizophrenic people who—while they may have a busy social life and may send text messages abundantly—nevertheless do not feel they are deeply related to the people they meet and laugh with and work with and text. Most people don’t feel that what goes on inside them is like what goes on in others. And so most people think, truly, there is something “cold and aloof” in themselves.
A schizophrenic person is thorough in his feeling not related to anyone. A non-schizophrenic, while feeling somewhat connected to certain people, usually has the sense, mainly unarticulated, that ever so many others are just not good enough to be like him. This is ordinary contempt. The victory of feeling unrelated is also the basis of all racism: “I’m Somebody, I’m superior, through feeling that this person, who looks different, is not like me—doesn’t have the same humanity I have!”
The contempt of feeling unrelated is the basis too of economic cruelty. If you see a person as having emotions as deep and wide as your own, you cannot think of that person in terms of, “How can I make as much money as possible from this guy?”
While Eli Siegel was the person to understand the most hurtful thing in self, contempt, he was also the person to show that the deepest desire of everyone is against contempt. This deepest desire is to be ourselves through honestly liking the world.