Self-Criticism: Our Magnificent Need
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we conclude our serialization of the 1949 lecture Poetry and Words, by Eli Siegel. In it Mr. Siegel speaks about—among other things—what grammar itself arises from. I love this lecture, and think it is great in three huge fields at once: linguistics, literary criticism, and the comprehension of the human self. Here are some sentences from earlier sections of Poetry and Words. He spoke them on a fall day over 50 years ago, and they are alive with his width, and kindness, and scholarship:
We can never get over the wonder of words, because the fact that we have words in us at all means there is a certain kinship between us and things....
The parts of speech were not made by any professors. They were made by people once upon a time, who hunted, and maybe got food out of the ground, and went fishing, not for the fun but because they needed the fish, and who were early men. They were the persons who came to the parts of speech, not because a professor told them, “Look here, you fellows, now that you have a little time you'd better get to those parts of speech.” The parts of speech correspond to a necessary instinct of man....[They] come from a desire to see the world truly and flexibly....
There is nothing more democratic than language, and every time we meet a language we should bow to it and say: Here man worked instinctively and came to something! We should like every language. [TRO 1396, 1397, 1400]
As we print the conclusion of Poetry and Words I want to comment on Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of the self, in relation to the terrific anti-self-critical trend of now. For two decades at least, therapists, counselors, and the media have been telling people they should not criticize themselves; they should “accept” themselves; they should “esteem” themselves just as they are; and they should be given “unconditional” love. I’ll refer soon to a representative article with such advice. But I’ll say first that not only is the advice really impossible to take—it is a horrible insult to every human being.
Our human self is a critical thing. The need to criticize ourselves is as fundamental and inextinguishable as our need to breathe and get nourishment. It happens to be the most beautiful thing about us. What’s necessary is that we learn to be accurate critics, of ourselves and others—not that we be given sops of flattery or be taught unavailing methods to put our self-doubts aside.
And we have to see what criticism is. It is not laceration or humiliation. It is the proudest, kindest, and also most scientific of activities. Mr. Siegel described criticism as that which “makes a good thing look good, a bad thing look bad, and a middling thing look middling.” And I think this statement, from his book Damned Welcome: Aesthetic Realism Maxims, is both true and thrilling:
The self can slink; the self can crawl; the self can cower; but a self can also say it doesn’t like it; the fact that a self can criticize what it is, is its resplendent justification. [P. 87]
Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to be a good critic—of oneself and the world. Aesthetic Realism consultations, like the lessons given by Eli Siegel, are “the aesthetic criticism of self.” They contain the education every person longs for.
What Our Self-Criticism Is About
On February 15, Newsday ran an article titled “Oh, Shut Up!,” with recommendations for “Silencing the Critic Within.” Yet, as I said, the “critic within” us can never be silenced—because it is an aspect of the largest desire we have. That desire, Mr. Siegel showed, is “to like the world on an honest or accurate basis"—to be fair to what is not ourselves.
We have another terrific desire: to be unfair to the world “to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [our]sel[ves]; which lessening is Contempt.” To make less of things, facts, people as a means of making ourselves comfortable and superior, is enormously ordinary and has thousands of forms. But it is also, Mr. Siegel showed, the source of all the cruelty in history. Contempt includes the everyday hope that somebody else be deficient, because that way we seem better. Contempt is also the cause of all prejudice. Contempt is our not wanting to see another person as having feelings as deep and real as our own.
But we are inevitably against ourselves for our contempt! This is our honor, and our ethics. Our manner of objecting to our own contempt is usually unclear. It may be quite messy and murky. Our objection may take the form of nervousness, various ill-at-easenesses, a gnawing self-dislike. What we want to be told is not what Newsday quotes one writer as advising: that we should “replace” a “voice inside us that is constantly judging,” with “self-acceptance” and “affirmations” of ourselves. We want to learn about contempt and how it works in us. And we want to learn about that big, ethical, artistic thing in us: our desire to respect and be just to the world. The study of contempt and respect, as they are present in the aspects and happenings of our lives—from love to work to our thought about the past—is what takes place in Aesthetic Realism consultations. It is the most exciting study in the world.
The Real Honoring of Ourselves
With all the psychological buttering the counselors of today provide, the real honoring of a person takes place in Aesthetic Realism consultations. Through consultations one sees that there is something much better, grander, more beautiful in oneself than one had any idea of: an inner insistence that one be just to reality! Certainly, something in us wants to be told we’re perfect just as we are. We can lap up flattery, and can get annoyed when someone suggests we’re other than ideal. But underneath, we despise the flatterer, and ourselves for succumbing to the junk he or she dishes out. We want criticism, because we want to know what in ourselves interferes with our lives. And Aesthetic Realism consultations are the height of Civilization, Style, Culture, Kindness, Pleasure. They make the other stuff look like what it is: stultifying hocus-pocus.
The Critical Basis
Now I quote a principle that I love passionately. It is the critical basis: the means of understanding and opposing what is amiss in us, and of valuing and encouraging what is good. “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We want to be aesthetic—to put together opposites as a painting, dance, poem does. We have an objection to ourselves if we do not put opposites together; we have pain.
For example, as the present section of Poetry and Words begins, Mr. Siegel has been speaking about the fact that words in a language are at once fixed and changeable. Those opposites are in our lives too, and we have trouble about them. We have the pain of feeling there is too much change—we’re tossed from one happening to the next, and also our emotions are too changeable. Then, we feel there is not enough change; we’re stuck; and we’re too stubborn, inflexible.
I give an instance of the aesthetic criticism of self, which I received, and treasure. It stands for the beauty of Aesthetic Realism criticism, and for the way of being seen that people want pantingly, achingly, now. It took place in an Aesthetic Realism lesson three decades ago. Mr. Siegel was speaking about something in me that interfered with my life, as it interferes with people’s lives all over the world: my lack of desire to know myself. This was a bad relation of two opposites, self and world: I didn’t want to see myself, my feelings, what impelled me, the way I would see something in the outside world to be understood—an event in history or a paragraph in a book. I made what was in me a separate reality. The largeness and kindness with which Mr. Siegel spoke to me were present always as he spoke to a person. I felt that I, Ellen Reiss, in my particularity, was comprehended; I felt too that I was related to humanity, and to the literature I love.
Mr. Siegel said, with a touch of humor: “My complaint about Miss Reiss is: she doesn’t know herself; she happens to be a mingling of desire for learning and personal energy.” And he continued:
These two things caused trouble in, say, Charlotte Bronte. Charlotte Bronte was quite learned; at the same time there was tremendous passion in her, and her sister. The desire for learning accompanied by large feeling is good in literature, but as one goes through it, one has pain. So if I were talking to Emily Bronte, and I’m sorry sometimes I didn’t , I would say, There were forces in Emily Bronte, in you, and do you think you know them as objects well enough, or do you just undergo them—are just driven by them? And I’m sure she would say ‘I’m just driven by them.’...The fact that Emily Bronte didn’t know herself was against her life as such. So, Miss Reiss, how well do you think you know yourself?
Ellen Reiss. I don’t think I know myself very well at all.
Eli Siegel. How did you say that?
ER. A little sadly?
ES. You insulted yourself....You acted as if you were unknowable. You don’t see how deeply you insulted yourself.
He explained: “The idea of knowing ourselves as a thing as such has not yet been seen as having any great value; and that does make for a lot of harm because we would rather use ourselves than know ourselves. We feel the purpose of ourselves is not to, know ourselves; the purpose of ourselves is to impress and manage other people.” However, he said, “if we don’t know ourselves, it’s like not knowing a car or an elevator: we may do the wrong thing with it. We may jam the elevator or misuse the car….That goes for ourselves: we cannot use ourselves rightly unless we know ourselves.”
Criticism, Aesthetic Realism shows, is love. And this was love. This was being for and against as one thing: for what was best in me, so it could thrive; against that in me which hurt my life. Eli Siegel, through his knowledge and courage, has provided humanity with what we most want: the means to be good critics.