|NUMBER 1829.—August 15, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
As we publish part 9 of Eli Siegel’s 1970 lecture Philosophy Begins with That, I am going to comment on a poem by him that is related to the subject. “Character Sketch” is about a way of seeing that goes on in everyone. The poem is humorous, vivid, subtle, and musical.
In the lecture we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel shows that philosophy is not some theoretical study separate from daily life. In fact, there is nothing more ordinary: philosophy is in every object, person, feeling, happening. That’s because each of these—each of us—has to do with nothing less than the whole world. Every thing and every person has reality’s structure: the oneness of such opposites as motion and rest, difference and sameness, freedom and order, sheer individuality and unending relation.
Mr. Siegel uses, as a text in this lecture, the Journal 1929 of novelist Arnold Bennett. He shows there is philosophy present as Bennett writes, factually and with style, about the happenings in his life.
Philosophy Is in Self-Dislike
The poem we begin with, “Character Sketch,” is an imaginary soliloquy of a person displeased with himself or herself. Displeasure with oneself, berating of oneself, goes on now as much as it ever did. The various counselors and therapists don’t understand it, and mainly encourage people to do what it’s impossible to do: just extinguish their self-accusations. Since we cannot undo our own condemnation unless we understand ourselves, and since the therapists are completely unequipped to bring such comprehension about, the therapists instead prescribe medication. A Wall Street Journal article titled “The Medication Generation” (June 30-July 1, 2012) has the statement “Many young people today have now spent most of their lives on antidepressants.”
It is Aesthetic Realism which does explain—truly and greatly—why we don’t like ourselves. The reason we disapprove of ourselves is philosophic; it is ethical. The reason is also ontological and epistemological, concerned with existence as such and how we have it in our minds. The reason always has to do with our relation to the world itself. That is: we dislike ourselves, have low self-esteem, feel guilty, are naggingly or sharply or sinkingly disgusted with ourselves, because we have been unfair to the world, through things and people, which are its representatives. Rather than wanting to know and value them, we have preferred to look down on them, manage them, grab them, dismiss them.
The cause of self-dislike, Aesthetic Realism makes grandly and kindly clear, is contempt for the world. Contempt is the ugliest thing in us, but it is also philosophic. It is, Mr. Siegel wrote, the “disposition...to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”
With Poetic Form
Here, then, is “Character Sketch,” in which self-condemnation is presented with both satiric humor and kind seriousness—and with poetic form. Eli Siegel wrote it in 1961. It appears in his collection Hail, American Development.
I am no good.
No one knows it as well as I do.
Even the world I came into is not so good.
But I haven’t done with it as well as I could.
When I talk, people are not improved.
When I talk, people are often less cheerful.
When people talk, I am often less cheerful.
When I succeed, it is on a matter which doesn’t make much difference whether I succeed or fail.
I don’t know how to insult people: my best insults are under my breath.
I get ordinary ailments.
I think of being distinguished, but I get afraid.
I am a scatterbrain.
Even on the subject of why I am no good, it seems I am a scatterbrain.
Having too much good will, and for too many people, scares me completely.
I am foolish in unknown ways.
My mistakes are monotonous.
I can be bored at the drop of a hat,
And I can bore a person at the drop of a glove.
Poetry has no steady friend in me.
The Renaissance is so far off, it seems like dim water.
I don’t know whom I’m talking to, so I talk.
I am a hodge-podge,
And I feel safe because I am a hodge-podge,
But so dissatisfied—
And also so lazy, and so afraid.
And here is Mr. Siegel’s note to “Character Sketch”:
A person is the only being in the Zoological or Divine Kingdom who can be dissatisfied with himself or herself, and know it; and say it. Moreover, the thoroughness or comprehensiveness or keenness with which a person can be dissatisfied with that person’s being doesn’t have ascertained bounds. A good part of the conversation one has with oneself is darkly critical muttering about self; another good part is less darkly critical muttering about one’s foes. The muttering in both fields can be organized. The present poem can be described as First Step in the Organization of the Muttering Against Oneself to Which Selves Are Disposed. People can’t help telling themselves how ineffectual they are. Sometimes, like Richard III or Hedda Gabler, they can say how mean they are. They also can know and say how dismissing, uninterested or contemptuous they are. This poem accents a likelihood man has of telling himself how inept he is; inglorious.
I referred earlier to the prose style of Arnold Bennett. This note by Eli Siegel to “Character Sketch” is also English prose as ever so good. It is beautiful, graceful, sharp, deep, charming. That there can be charming writing about our dismal self-disapproval—and such writing is in both the note and the poem itself—is one of the most hopeful things I know, and a high aesthetic accomplishment.
Some Lines Looked At, a Little
The first line is very simple; miserable but simple: “I am no good.” The person speaking is inexact: to be no good happens to be impossible. I remember Mr. Siegel pointing out that even a gangster can occasionally be kind to a canary. The line represents one of the contempt-tricks of the self: We can prefer to be vague and falsely all-encompassing in our self-condemnation, rather than criticize ourselves specifically. This way we don’t have to look directly at where we’ve been unjust, so we’re free to tell ourselves quite soon that we are the hurt ones: others have been unfair to us.
That line is followed by “No one knows it as well as I do.” Even in condemning oneself, one manages to feel superior—to say others’ knowledge is inferior to one’s own!
Meanwhile, poetry is proceeding. The four heavy, slow syllables of the first line meet the more delicate, swiftly flaunting, syncopated movement of the second: “I am no good. / No one knows it as well as I do.” This coming together, musically, of heaviness and flourish is beautiful.
The third line is “Even the world I came into is not so good.” It’s easy to find the world not so good. But the mistake is to get a triumph in finding this, and to hope to find things no good as a means of feeling that the only thing really warm and friendly is oneself. Having such a triumph and hope is the reason people come to dislike themselves. That result is inevitable, and is a tribute to the ethical nature of the human self. It is a thrilling and inexorable fact that our like of ourselves does not arise from how many compliments we get or how impressive we can be: our respect for ourselves depends on how just we are to what Mr. Siegel called the world “that begins where our fingertips end.”
Conversation, Success, Insults
There are lines about conversation: “When I talk, people are not improved. / When I talk, people are often less cheerful. / When people talk, I am often less cheerful.” Each of these lines has a hopeful rise of sound at the beginning (“When I talk”), followed by a let-down. The relation is comic, and poignant.
We would like to have a good effect on people through what we say, but most persons are not sure they do. The reason is, the desire to affect people well has big competition: from our desire to feel superior to them; to get them to approve of us; to complain about the world to them. All these purposes cause us, when we talk, not to affect people in a way we can be proud of. The one way we’ll really like our conversation is if our purpose is to know the other person, the world, and ourselves better through it.
In line 8, the speaker says: “When I succeed, it is on a matter which doesn’t make much difference whether I succeed or fail.” Many people have this feeling. And the reason is: unless our deepest purpose—to see the world justly—is what we’re going after, other successes will seem empty. They’ll feel like evasions of the main success we desire.
The next line is obviously funny; and it states something many people do tell themselves: “I don’t know how to insult people: my best insults are under my breath.” People would like to put the world and other humans in their place, deftly, triumphantly, utterly. A person may be outward and untrammeled in excoriating others; another may do so in a more hidden and inward way—but neither feels good about it. We won’t feel good unless the “insult” is really critical good will: unless it comes with a hope to respect the person and a desire to see what can be valued in him or her.
After that long line, we have a very short complaint: “I get ordinary ailments.” It’s funny, and recognizable. People would like even through their illnesses to seem more complex than others, in a special realm.
Then: “I think of being distinguished, but I get afraid.” If we give ourselves secret, contemptuous distinction, we can be afraid of real distinction.
“Having too much good will, and for too many people, scares me completely.” The reason is: we’ve associated care for ourselves with feeling superior to, and apart from, others. So we think if we have good will for them we’ll lose ourselves, be unfaithful to our real love: us.
There are lines about boredom, something that afflicts millions of men and women: “My mistakes are monotonous. / I can be bored at the drop of a hat, / And I can bore a person at the drop of a glove.” The essential cause of boredom is: we have made our sense of our own importance be in competition with the importance of other things. To give ourselves a false superiority, we’ve lessened the meaning, the aliveness, things have. Yet if we don’t see meaning in things we have to be bored. To the contemptuous self, to be able to say things are dull is a triumph. We unconsciously punish ourselves for this injustice by feeling we are boring.
Late in the poem is the following, a mingling of pathos, grandeur, and regret: “Poetry has no steady friend in me. / The Renaissance is so far off, it seems like dim water.” We judge ourselves on our attitude to beauty. That is true of everyone, whether the person knows it or not.
“I am a hodge-podge, / And I feel safe because I am a hodge-podge.” The “safety” comes from this: if we can see ourselves as just a messy confusion, we don’t have to be exact about ourselves, distinguish between what’s good and what’s not—and change. We’re enmeshed in our own painful yet unalterable and therefore holy world, unrelated to other things. Yet, the speaker says, such a being “safe” makes us “afraid.”
I’ve commented just a little on this amazing and magnificent poem. Within it, and impelling it, is that way of seeing which is Aesthetic Realism. And Aesthetic Realism can enable us to know accurately and proudly what we don’t like in ourselves, and to like ourselves authentically at last.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Philosophy Is Traveling Too
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
Subscriptions: 26 issues, US $18; 12 issues, US $9, Canada and Mexico $14, elsewhere $20. Make check or money order payable to Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
© Copyright 2016 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation • A not–for–profit educational foundation