The Divided Self
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the lecture Beginning with Psychiatric Terms: An Aesthetic Realism Consideration, which Eli Siegel gave in 1966. In it, he discusses terms from a glossary of the American Psychiatric Association, and we have reached his discussions of the terms fugue and hypnosis. Here, with rich, deep, and I think stunning logic, he speaks about the desire people have to divide ourselves. It’s one of the most unintelligent of desires, though, as he says, it can seem to us ever so wise.
I'm going to comment briefly on a recent New York Times article (Jan. 11, 2005), because it’s really about a form of this dividing of self. And looking at it is a means of pointing out some of the crucially important knowledge that is in Aesthetic Realism and is not to be found elsewhere. The article’s title is “The Secret Lives of Just about Everybody.”
What Makes It Good or Bad?
To have a secret life is obviously to divide yourself. Reporter Benedict Carey gives some examples: a family man in Westchester has a secret life as a frequenter of brothels; a person maintains two separate families, complete with children and their mother, unknown to each other; and there are less dramatic forms—for instance, “some people gamble on the sly.” He cites this criterion presented by psychologists:
Whether a secret life is ultimately destructive, experts find, depends both on the nature of the secret and on the psychological makeup of the individual.
That is a statement that sounds as though it is telling us something when it really explains nothing. It’s like saying, “Whether an act is hurtful depends on the nature of the act.” The question is, what is the determining thing in the secret or “nature of the secret” that makes it useful or hurtful? And what kind of “psychological makeup,” or what factor in one’s “psychological makeup,” is useful, and what is hurtful?
Aesthetic Realism is clear. Here is the great criterion in this matter, as in everything we do: Is our purpose to have contempt for the world or respect for the world? The constant and most critical fight in everyone, Mr. Siegel showed, is between the desire to value the world and the desire to “get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self; which lessening is Contempt.” As to a secret life: When a Frenchwoman during World War II dated a Nazi officer but was secretly a member of the Resistance, trying to gather needed information, her secrecy and double life came from a large respect for the world. It came from a courageous desire to have justice to reality and humanity win. Usually, however, the having of a secret life comes from contempt.
A person can want two different things that don’t seem to go along with each other. He can want, for instance, to be attached to a person yet also be unattached, aloof, unhad. Instead of trying to look honestly at what these two feelings are, he turns an inability into a contemptuous victory: he has a wife and three children in Brooklyn and a secret family in Jersey City. He has the triumph of feeling he’s fooling all of them and has put one over on reality itself. Mostly, when a person has a secret life, he feels he’s outsmarted both society and the world. He feels he’s smart, others are pretty stupid because look how they’re fooled, and he has the hidden pleasure of looking down at everything. That is what makes a “secret life” hurtful.
The Most Ordinary Form
The most ordinary form of secret life is not mentioned in the Times article. It’s the secret life that goes on in the mind of everyone. We have thoughts to ourselves that we tell nobody about. And the criterion is the same. In a 1977 essay titled “Civilization Begins,” in issue 228 of this journal, Mr. Siegel wrote:
We have been given the power or right to think anything we please, as long as we don’t rashly or unwisely make it public. But the thoughts we have we don’t tell anybody, still affect us....Until man likes his thoughts, no matter how secret they are, he is not definitely civilized....
As our thought is more secret, instead of being uglier, which it usually is, it should be more just, more beautiful, more comprehensive, more aiming to like reality because of the meaning reality has.
Good Mental Health?
The Times article, continuing to present the view of contemporary psychology, has the following statement about the value of being hidden and devious:
In adolescence and adulthood, a fluency with small social lies is associated [by psychologists] with good mental health.
I have to say that for anyone, psychologist or not, to make such an association is exceedingly foolish. When a young man pleases his mother’s friend by saying, “Oh, Mrs. McGwyre, what a lovely dress you’re wearing” and doesn’t feel the dress is lovely, he usually thinks she’s a dope. Further, he feels that truth is unimportant and he can do what he pleases with it—he’s superior to it. This feeling is definitely not in behalf of “good mental health”; it’s in behalf of mental injustice and ugliness, however often it occurs.
The criterion holds. Small lie or large—are you telling it to respect the world and people (as when, again during World War II, a person lied to the SS and said “There are no Jews hidden here”)? Or are you lying because you think your comfort and self-importance and some notion of expedience matter more than truth? In his book James and the Children, Mr. Siegel writes:
Lying, which children can do, is next to pretending; pretending is next to hiding. Once we lie, we are trying to take advantage of people. Taking advantage of people has many forms, including the form which has gone on in history of using them for our financial advantage....
When you think you have the right to do something to truth, the right goes on to include doing things, to suit yourself, with people. [Pp. 40, vii]
Does Attraction Have Two Sources?
There is in the Times article this statement about the rewards of secrecy:
Researchers have confirmed that secrecy can enhance attraction....In one study, men and women living in Texas reported that the past relationships they continued to think about were most often secret ones.
Yes, secrecy may at times “enhance attraction,” and the reason is, there can be a thrill in contempt. A couple can feel a certain sizzle because in being together they are fooling other people—together they’ve put one over on the world and so are superior to it. Contempt would not be so popular if it weren’t very attractive. And the feeling that through this person one can (in some way or another) conquer the world, has been a terrific aphrodisiac. The other source of attraction is the feeling, “Through this person I can see more meaning in everything”: that is the attraction of respect. It is great and proud, and is completely against deviousness.
Romeo and Juliet had to be secret. But their attraction to each other certainly did not come from secrecy, and they did not want secrecy. The attraction of Romeo and Juliet had in it: The whole world looks more beautiful through you! That feeling is in the lines Shakespeare gives them, lines that have an openness and width at one with tenderness; for instance, “What light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!”
What Do We Think of Ourselves?
When we have a secret life, or even a secret thought, that is contemptuous of reality and people, we cannot like ourselves. As Mr. Siegel writes, “The thoughts...we don’t tell anybody, still affect us.”
However, the Times article says that “psychologists have identified a...group they call repressors, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the population, who are...well equipped to keep secrets” without feeling bad about it. The psychologists have come to this conclusion because “repressors” filled out a questionnaire, on which they “report[ed], for example, that they are rarely resentful...or troubled by nightmares....They think well of themselves and don’t sweat the small stuff.”
I don’t, in all politeness, think such a questionnaire is adequate to the human self. No matter who we are, to divide ourselves contemptuously, to use ourselves to fool others, has us feel we’re a fake. We may bluster or act cool, but we feel fundamentally unsure. We feel deeply that we don’t deserve to be cared for or trusted. We’re nervous, and have a pervasive sense of self-loathing. This is because the self is inherently ethical.
In TRO 228, from which I quoted, Mr. Siegel writes: “Aesthetic Realism has as its purpose the liking by a person of his thoughts, secret and apparent.” I thank him for that purpose and for the great fact that through Aesthetic Realism it can at last be achieved!