There Is an Ethical Unconscious
Dear Unknown Friends:
We have reached the 5th section of the great 1950 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature, by Eli Siegel. And at the end of it is his unforgettable description of a ship as standing for the relation of nature and the human self. We print here too part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this month: "Sureness & Unsureness in a Woman’s Life—Can They Ever Make Sense?"
A matter in the world of sports that has been affecting people very much is close to the subject of Ms. Driscoll’s article. That matter is the repeated inability of award-winning Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch to make simple throws successfully. The June 17 New York Times quotes a sports psychologist, Rick Wolff, who says such troubles occur when a player starts to think consciously about an action that should be spontaneous. But even if Wolff is correct (I’m not sure he is), he doesn’t know why such a change in thought and feeling happens: "There’s no rhyme or reason," he says. Well, there is a reason for the tumult of an eminent ballplayer, as there is for all people’s. Aesthetic Realism is the means of knowing it, because Eli Siegel is the person of thought who understood the human self.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the deepest purpose of everyone is to like the world, to see it with justice. But there is also something tremendous in everyone against our being just. It is contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt includes the desire to look down on things; the feeling that much of the world is not worth our thinking about; the seeing of people not in terms of what they deserve but in terms of how important they make us. Mr. Siegel showed—and there is nothing humanity needs more urgently to know—that contempt is the thing in self from which all cruelty comes. Yet it is also terrifically everyday. It is the thing in us that makes us uneasy, nervous, self-disliking. This is because we have what Mr. Siegel called an "ethical unconscious": "When we are unfair to the world," he writes, "it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it" (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 45).
So we come to a top-notch second baseman who now cannot control his throws. It has happened in various fields that a person was able to do something beautifully, yet felt deeply that the way he saw people and reality, the way he thought about them, was not beautiful. Mishaps can take place when we feel something we can do, something we can show, is better than who we, as a person, are. The mishap can be a big confusion; it can be an anger one doesn’t understand. And sometimes it can be a big unconscious feeling that one doesn’t deserve to accomplish what one has accomplished so well; and therefore somewhere in the self, one arranges not to accomplish it. We want whatever we do well or beautifully to stand for all of us; and if it doesn’t, we can feel like a fraud.
Does Chuck Knoblauch feel somewhere that he doesn’t deserve to throw with accurate might, because the way he sees, the way he thinks about people, is not accurate, not kind and respectful enough? Is the source of this feeling something he should be proud of—though the form it is taking (trouble on the ball field) is not the best?
Aesthetic Realism explains not only that there is ethics in our unconscious, but that it is aesthetic ethics, described by this principle: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." The activity Mr. Knoblauch is so involved with, catching and throwing, is a deep reciprocity of the two biggest opposites in our lives: self and world. The world comes to us all the time; and we need to meet it, take it to ourselves rightly—as in a good catch. Then, we want to express what we have, what is of us; give it forth to the world with accuracy—as in a good throw. I would ask Chuck Knoblauch: "Do you think somewhere you feel you have no right to throw a ball with ease, because what a throw stands for— the relating of yourself to the world—you’re not at ease about, not proud of?" Were he to have Aesthetic Realism consultations (and I hope he does), he would learn to use the meaning of a good throw as an encouragement to have what is within him go forth fairly toward other things, be just to them. Then his criticism of himself would not have to take the form of wild throws on a baseball field he once saw as a friend.
In Aesthetic Realism and Nature, Mr. Siegel has been speaking about one way persons are unjust to the world and therefore to themselves: it is by using nature not to be more interested in people, but less. Eli Siegel himself used his life to be just to reality in its fullness. That reality included literature, history, baseball, and much more. It included people—to whom he was fair with unprecedented scope, particularity, comprehension, feeling, and magnificence.