Our Selves Are Philosophic
Dear Unknown Friends:
We’re honored to publish here the first half of Aesthetic Realism Doesn’t Mind Being Philosophic, from the lecture series Eli Siegel gave in 1946-7 at Steinway Hall.
I love this talk, with its grace, clarity, and definitive explanation of what the self—so specific to each of us—really is. It’s based on the Aesthetic Realism principle “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” And what Mr. Siegel shows is what people now, six decades later, want achingly to know. The self of everyone—with our hopes, worries, confusions, triumphs, defeats, angers, mistakes—is philosophic, because it’s composed the way reality itself is composed: of opposites. Our self is aesthetic, because our fundamental need is to do what art, every instance of art, does: make opposites one. Mr. Siegel speaks here about how such opposites as the intimate and the wide, sameness and change, body and mind, fact and wonder, are the very substance of ourselves. Our pleasures and our miseries are about them.
As a prelude to this talk, I’ll comment on a particular trouble the self can have. My purpose is to illustrate the fact that the one way we’ll ever really understand ourselves, and therefore be ourselves, see and feel as we hope to, is through the explanation Mr. Siegel is presenting.
Right now, it seems, millions of men and women are undergoing compulsions. The website FamilyDoctor.org describes compulsions as “certain behaviors” a person is driven “to repeat...over and over again.” It lists some “common compulsions.” Three of these, which torment people even as they can’t stop engaging in them, are: “cleaning and grooming, such as washing hands, showering or brushing teeth over and over again”; “checking drawers, door locks and appliances to be sure they are shut, locked or turned off”; “counting to a certain number, over and over.”
What Is the Cause?
It can be said that everybody at some time or other has some compulsion in a more or less delicate form. But the full blown thing is going on in many lives, and the psychiatry of now doesn’t understand it any more than did the Freudianism of 1946. What is the cause of a compulsion? The website I’m quoting from surmises: compulsions “may have to do with chemicals in the brain....A person...may not have enough serotonin.” As to treatment: “Several medicines are available.... These drugs can cause side effects.”
Well, do compulsions, and other distresses of mind, come from inadequate serotonin? (And is there a particular serotonin for excess tooth-brushing and another kind for too much counting, or door-closing?) Are the troubling ways of self hereditary, as it’s now fashionable to say? Do they—in keeping with another trend in psychology—arise from evolution, as some kind of effort to perpetuate our DNA? —Or do they, in their strangeness, have a deep logic and come because, as Mr. Siegel explains, the self, “which wants to be completely philosophic, has made an incomplete philosophic choice”?
The most fundamental opposites in everyone—philosophic opposites—are self and world; or our intimate, individual being and our unending relation to everything. And the big damager within everyone, Aesthetic Realism shows, is contempt: the feeling we take care of our unique self by looking down on the outside world. Our contempt makes our self apart from and superior to the world from which we come and to which we’re unlimitedly related. So contempt is “an incomplete philosophic choice.” It’s also ugly, and is the source of all cruelty.
That division between our self and the world different from us is what all compulsions are caused by and are about.
Shakespeare Is Eloquent on the Subject
Let’s take the most famous hand-washing compulsion ever. In act 5 of Macbeth, a servant says of Lady Macbeth: “It is an accustomed action with her, to seem thus washing her hands.” Lady Macbeth has become mad. She accompanies what would now be called her “repeated behavior” with words that are immortal, mighty, musical: “Out, damned spot! out, I say!... What! will these hands ne’er be clean?...Here’s the smell of blood still: all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand.”
Shakespeare makes it pretty clear that the reason Lady Macbeth has this compulsion is, she feels guilty. The cause is not her serotonin level. It’s that she encouraged her husband to be a murderer. The cause is: she used a notion of what would make her eminent to be hugely unjust to the world different from her. The outside world was (for example) Duncan, Banquo, Lady Macduff, who are dead because of her.
While others may not go as far in injustice as Lady Macbeth, they’re driven to repeated symbolic self-cleansing for the same reason: they’ve been unfair in their minds to what’s not themselves, and since they don’t want to be honest about this, the stain of the unfairness won’t go away.
Again: compulsions always have to do with a severing of self and world. They are, as with Lady Macbeth, a way the self objects to itself for being unjust to reality. They can also be a continuation of contempt for the world. For instance, some persons are compelled to wash after having to do with other people, feeling they’ve been contaminated by these outsiders. That feeling and its accompanying symbolic behavior are contempt. Yet the pain of having to keep engaging in the behavior is simultaneously a punishment for the very contempt one is demonstrating.
The Compulsion to Count
In chapter 5 of Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes about compulsions to count. He gives the instance of Henry Hillard, who “at one time failed to make the statement that would have helped a friend in an emergency. Had he done so Hillard’s position in life might have become a little less respectable and comfortable.” Shortly after, Hillard finds himself on a corner, “compelled to count cars.” An inexorable need to count cars comes to him again and again.
Mr. Siegel describes richly, logically, the aesthetics of that counting compulsion. It is a self punishing itself for being unjust to the world, even while the self still does not want to be clear about its injustice. Writes Mr. Siegel: Hillard’s “unconscious seized upon the ‘simile’ between clearly presenting details about a happening...and going through the one by one counting of moving cars.” He punished himself by compelling himself to give symbolically an accuracy he had failed to give when it mattered.
Then, there is that third “common compulsion” from FamilyDoctor.org: “checking drawers, door locks and appliances to be sure they are shut, locked or turned off.” This too arises from the feeling that we’ve been deeply sloppy about what the outside world deserves from us. We have not wanted to give ourselves entirely to what’s not ourselves—to things, people, happenings. We’ve kept something of ourselves apart, aloof, scornfully unhad. But the self’s aesthetics is also its ethics: there is that in us which says, “If you don’t want to look straight at where you’ve skimped at seeing something fully—I’ll make you unable to rest: I’ll make you feel you didn’t do a complete job with that door or that oven. I’ll make you feel you have to give yourself more, go back, look again!”
The history of Aesthetic Realism has shown that ways we have which distress us end at last when we understand their cause. Aesthetic Realism’s explanation of self is not only true but beautiful: who we are is philosophic—has a dignified, wide basis which can make us proud forever.