The Self, Shelley, & What People Deserve
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the 1966 lecture Psychiatric Terms and Shelley, Byron, Keats, by Eli Siegel. In it he discusses an American Psychiatric Association glossary of terms. And as he does, we see illustrated this landmark principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The basis for understanding mind—both mind troubled and mind eminently, grandly sane—is in that principle.
Opposites, Fighting and at One
Every mental difficulty represented by the psychiatric terms has at its basis a severing of opposites—the very opposites that are one in all art and in beauty as such. For example, there are the most fundamental opposites in our lives, self and world. These are obviously at odds in a term Mr. Siegel refers to in the present section: egomania. But in all mental disorder a person is using self to be inaccurate about the outside world.
We see the opposites of motion and rest—which are beautifully one in dance, and ocean, and the flight of a bird—disjoined in a term like manic-depressive.
Pride and humility are definitely severed in another term mentioned here: megalomania. In megalomania there seems to be pride without humility. Meanwhile, every good artist puts these opposites together. To be an artist is to feel humble before one’s subject, trying to be fair to it, yet simultaneously feeling one can bring something to it never brought before.
Freedom and order are agonizingly apart in an obsession or compulsion. You feel you have to do something—you have to put your toes on every crack in the pavement or something awful will happen: there is terrific order. Yet you got to this behavior on your own—no one forced you into it; you’ve departed from what the facts really demand; you’ve taken big liberties with truth, with what’s so, what’s needed. That’s terrific freedom. Those very same opposites, freedom and order, as one, are what we hear, feel, love, in every movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
All of us have trouble about the opposites. There are rifts between them, and disproportions, even in the best people. Mr. Siegel speaks about one of those best people in the section of the lecture printed here: the poet Shelley. However, while opposites may fight in anyone, there is something which makes for that thorough severing of them present in mental illness; and Aesthetic Realism explains it. A person who is insane has had contempt for the world with a certain fulness and decisiveness. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” and he showed that the desire for it is the most hurtful desire of everyone. “Both nervousness and insanity,” he showed, “are caused by the common human inclination for contempt....Contempt is the great failure of man” (Self and World, pp. 8, 15).
Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England”
Since Shelley is present in the part of the lecture printed here, I'm going to comment on some stanzas of his, because they’re a means of looking both at the opposites and at a big way contempt is affecting people now.
Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England,” of 1819, begins this way:
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Though some of the language of Shelley here (the use of wherefore for why and ye for you) is not of the present moment, the stanza is about the biggest social and economic question today. That question is: To whom should the world and its wealth belong? Shelley was passionate on the subject: the earth, he felt, should belong to everyone living on it. The idea that some few people owned the land of England, and that other people who should rightly own it too had to work for those few persons and provide wealth for them, Shelley despised. That idea is, in fact, contempt, and has the disproportion which, in another field, is insanity.
It is hard to see how disproportionate something is when one lives with it day after day and it has been around for hundreds of years. But the notion behind the profit system is that some people are entitled to much more of the world than others, and it’s all right that at birth one child should have ever so little and be poor while another is born into wealth. This notion has in it a deeply insane rift between a self and what’s other than the self, between arrogance and humility.
Meanwhile, that first stanza, as poetry, is a oneness of opposites. It is clearly intense; in fact, it is furious without bounds. But it is also definite, orderly, strict.
Shelley Comments on the Profit Motive
In the second stanza, Shelley says this to the people of England:
Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?
A drone is a parasite. And Shelley is writing about the famous profit motive: the desire to get as much out of another person as possible, while giving that person as little as possible. In the 1940s, in the tenth chapter of his Self and World, “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics,” Mr. Siegel asked whether this motive encourages mental health or mental ill health in the person having it. To hope others are weak so you can use them to aggrandize yourself; to harden yourself so that you don’t have to think about what they endure as you use their labor to enrich yourself—this is not in behalf of glowing sanity.
Here is the fourth stanza of “Song to the Men of England”:
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?
Those lines are fierce in their anger at economic contempt, but with the fierceness there is a great tenderness, which can be heard in the music of the words. There is the couplet “Or what is it ye buy so dear / With your pain and with your fear?”: it trembles, and seems, with its long ee and r sounds, to penetrate within the people Shelley is writing of.
That stanza is about the question Mr. Siegel presented as the most important question for people now to ask: What does a person deserve by being a person? Shelley is mentioning some of the things every person, simply by being alive, should have: for example, “shelter,” “food,” “leisure,” “comfort.” And “comfort,” in our time, includes not having to worry about affording healthcare. More than ever in America there is an awareness in people that they deserve those things and that they’re being hugely rooked because they either lack them or have to get them with such difficulty.
Then there’s “love’s gentle balm.” Shelley saw that when one has to wear out oneself working, and worry about money, it is hard to have love fare well. His contemporary, Keats, saw this too, and described it in a famous couplet:
Love in a hut, with water and a crust,
Is—Love, forgive us!—cinders, ashes, dust.
That Keats couplet, which begins part 2 of his Lamia, is anguish and melody; twisting and clarity; outburst and stillness.
The fifth stanza of “Song to the Men of England” describes what Shelley saw as an ongoing, cruel economic insanity:
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears.
The stanza brings up the question: On what basis should people work?—to be useful to others and oneself, or to enrich someone who doesn’t do the work? Which is just? Which is sane?
Percy Bysshe Shelley was the son of a baronet, but he wanted to feel what other people felt, including those not born as fortunately as he. This desire is both sanity and aesthetics. It is the oneness of self and world. It is the saying, Who I am is not separate from what other people are; as I am fair to them, I become truly I.