There Are Self, Reality, and Freud
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing Everyday Life and Aesthetics Look at Psychiatric Terms, one of the lectures Mr. Siegel gave in 1966 based on an American Psychiatric Association glossary. These lectures are at once casual and definitive. I love the mingling of good nature and critical exactitude, humor and cultural scope, with which Mr. Siegel looks at those psychiatric terms, describing in the process what the human self truly is.
As we come to the term ego in this glossary of 1966, we are in the very midst of the Freudian psychological apparatus. Recent psychology has gone away from Freud. But it has not said what Mr. Siegel stated courageously and showed clearly as early as the 1940s, the height of the Freudian heyday: that Freud was wrong; that he did not understand the human mind; that the Freudianism which for decades was presented as unquestionable science about human emotions, was untrue to what people are and was (as Mr. Siegel says in the present lecture) “an invention.”
How Should We See the World?
“The large difference,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “between Aesthetic Realism and other ways of seeing an individual is that Aesthetic Realism makes the attitude of an individual to the whole world the most critical thing in his life.”¹ The crucial matter as to mental health—the crucial matter in the life of everyone—is: how should we see the world?, because the way we see any instance of reality depends on how we see the world of which it is part. Behind that question is the philosophic yet immediate, pressing question: what is the relation of the human self to the world as such? Present-day psychology is neglectful and unknowing about these all-important questions, and so was Freud.
Though Freud doesn’t look at the subject directly, throughout his work there is a presumption that the world is at odds with the self, our self—out to stifle it or deprive it. We see this in the American Psychiatric Association’s description of ego , on which Mr. Siegel comments. That description, based on Freud, presents “reality” and “external demands” as “contending” against what the self at its “deepest level” is after—with a “mental agent” having to “mediat[e].”
Freud is portentously elaborate; but that way of seeing the world is really the way of seeing with which people every day hurt their lives. It’s ordinary and harmful. Take, for example, a boy of 6 in Boston. For various reasons, Tommy has come to feel the world he’s in is an enemy to him. This makes him very suspicious of his 1st grade teacher and of the instances of the inimical world she’s trying to make him take into himself. He has an unconscious determination: he won’t let the alphabet in: he won’t give a home in his mind to letters, for they’re part of that unfriendly external reality.
And there is a wife in San Diego: Doreen. She, like Freud, has felt for a long time that the world is no friend. In fact, she married Mike to have a haven against the world with its “external demands.” She wanted to make a separate reality where she would be adored. But Mike, like every person, is part of the world itself, and therefore Doreen’s fight with the world would inevitably include him too. Now she constantly feels irritated by him. She doesn’t know it’s because he has the nerve to show he’s different from her and she feels—in fact, gets importance from feeling—that reality different from her is a foe. Also, she’s unknowingly angry that she needs a person from that outside world; she punishes Mike every day because she does.
Certainly we can meet things we object to, but is the world as such something that is essentially against us; or is it essentially for us—indeed, is it that which enables us to be ourselves?
It is, Aesthetic Realism shows, the latter.
Through the World, We Are Ourselves
Aesthetic Realism explains that our deepest desire is to like the world honestly. That includes being a good critic of it, but always with a hope to find meaning. The purpose of education, Mr. Siegel showed, is to like the world that every subject in the curriculum is about. The purpose of loving a person is to like the world, which that person comes from and has to do with. The words we speak and think with come from the world. The food we eat and air we breathe to live, are the outside world. The more of the outside world we know and take into ourselves and value—music, books, facts of science, skies, rain, ocean, petals of a flower, the whiskers and upward look of a kitten, the point of view of someone different from us—the more we are ourselves.
And Aesthetic Realism explains that there is a hope in every person to dislike the world. There is a triumph in looking down on things and people and feeling apart from them. This is the triumph of contempt. And contempt is the ugliest thing in the human self. It is the cause of mental ailment. Yet Freudian psychiatry, and much other psychiatry, presents the world deeply as an enemy—which is the way of seeing that made a person mentally distressed to begin with.
In 1930 Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents. In it we see, as elsewhere in his work, a presentation of reality—here in the form of civilization—as out to subjugate our dear self, to thwart our desires or instincts. Freud writes:
Most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts.²
And translator James Strachey notes that the book’s “main theme” is “the irremediable antagonism between the demands of instinct and the restrictions of civilization” (p. 6).
The statement of Freud sounds impressive, but it’s not true. And I remember the intellectual thrill I felt when I first heard Mr. Siegel explain the fallacy behind it. He said that, far from civilization’s being against instinct, everything in civilization has arisen from instinct. The instinct to invent the wheel is as much instinct as the instinct to eat. A baby has an instinct to learn, to know. The instinct to arrange materials so that something beautiful and useful arise is a primal thing; the building of a cathedral, with all the knowledge required, begins with instinct. There is a drive to hear music, and make music. Civilization does not depend on the “renunciation” and “non-satisfaction” of instinct, but the true honoring of it.
In the 1940s, commenting on Freud, Mr. Siegel wrote:
Nature wanted man, if one wishes, to...express libido, desire body fiercely; but it is just as apparent that nature wanted man to get to the multiplication table, to find an alphabet, to get to grammar, to write history, to get joy from logic. Was neolithic man, when he approached the alphabet, running away from the fact that he wanted to lie with a woman in a cave? Is it not possible that the reality which made a man of fifty thousand years ago bear a child on a woman also of fifty thousand years ago, was just as courageous when it made that man come to a notion of form, utter words, love primitive wisdom, see meaning in the sun? [Self and World, p. 201]
Mr. Siegel not only shows that the world and our most primal self are not against each other; he shows that other opposites which torment us because we see them as so apart—intellect and body—are really akin! Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of both intellect and sex is to like the world. And we suffer because we have used them (or anything else) to have contempt, to look down on reality and people. My learning this is a cause of tremendous personal gratitude.
Freud Recommends Contempt
Neither Freud nor the psychiatry of today has seen that the big weakener of mind is the desire for contempt. This desire is also the source of all injustice. In Civilization and Its Discontents there is a passage in which Freud, speaking about aggression, is really recommending a form of contempt: the being against and “ridiculing” persons different from those of one’s own group. He writes:
The advantage which a comparatively small cultural group offers of allowing this instinct [aggression] an outlet in the form of hostility against intruders is not to be despised. It is always possible to bind together a considerable number of people in love, so long as there are other people left over to receive the manifestations of their aggressiveness....It is a convenient and relatively harmless satisfaction of the inclination to aggression, by means of which cohesion between the members of the community is made easier. [P. 61]
This writing, for all its posture of authority, is untrue and very confused. There is also a terrible poignancy to it when one realizes that soon Freud would flee Austria because Hitler had made himself powerful through the very means that Freud here calls “relatively harmless”: having Germans “bind together” through being against others. “Hitler,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history” (TRO 165).
Thomas Wolfe vs. Sigmund Freud
I am going to quote from an American novelist who died the year before Freud did: Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938). Wolfe was unsure how friendly the outside world is to an individual. But early in Look Homeward, Angel, as he is telling about the childhood of Eugene Gant, Wolfe describes for paragraphs the many smells that affected his young protagonist. It’s part of a description of the world with its pleasingness and displeasingness meeting a self—the boy Eugene—getting into him, enabling him to become who he is. This passage, about perhaps a hundred-fifty smells—smells of both nature and civilization—is some of the best writing of Wolfe. It’s a contradiction of Freud, and an illustration of the Aesthetic Realism statement that the world is the other half of ourselves, which we were born to value. Wolfe writes in chapter 8:
...He had felt now the nostalgic thrill of dew-wet mornings in Spring, the cherry scent,...the pungent breakfast smells...; the smell of cellars, cobwebs...; of the smooth worn leather sofa, with the gaping horse-hair rent....
Yes, and the exciting smell of chalk and varnished desks;...of honey and of unground coffee; of barreled sweet-pickles and cheese....
Yes, and of the rank slow river, and of tomatoes rotten on the vine;...and of foul weeds rotting in green marsh scum;...the winter smell of horse-warm stables and smoking dung; of old oak and walnut; and the butcher’s smell of meat;...of carbolic and nitric acids; the coarse true smell of a dog;...of seed-time, bloom, and mellow dropping harvest.
There are more. And they are the world, not our suppressor but partner. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to like oneself through being just to the outside world.