|NUMBER 1621.—August 25, 2004||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the 1966 lecture we are serializing, Eli Siegel is commenting on a list of terms defined by the American Psychiatric Association and published in the Reader’s Digest Almanac of that year. The lecture is Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things. It’s informal: there are lightness, humor—with, certainly, the exactitude, depth, and kindness Mr. Siegel always had. But he is using the list to speak about what the human mind really is.
The human mind was not understood by Freud and the psychiatry of the 20th century, nor is it understood by the psychologists and therapists of today. The knowledge of what our minds are and do, of our feelings, of what impels us, of our confusions and self-dislike and pride—this knowledge is in Aesthetic Realism, the work of Eli Siegel.
To illustrate that beautiful fact, I’m going to comment on an article that appeared in the New York Times. It’s about something which has been part of history, everyday life, and people’s thoughts: the desire for revenge.
The article, of July 27, “Payback Time: Why Revenge Tastes So Sweet,” by Benedict Carey, has in it the way the psychiatry of now sees mind. That is, there’s the approach of what has been called “evolutionary psychology”: the saying that your desires, actions, choices arise from your genes and you have these desires, etc., because they served a necessary purpose during the various stages of evolution.
A Sentence about Revenge
Early in the article, there is this sentence about the desire for revenge:
But the urge to extract a pound of flesh, researchers find, is primed in the genes.
My purpose is not to discuss the use of language in the article, but since I’m commenting on this sentence I have to point out first that the use of the word find is simply inaccurate. Researchers may be guessing or theorizing or hoping that revenge begins in the genes, but they haven’t found that it does. In order for something to be found, it has to exist. And no evidence has been presented showing that when a high school girl tried to make miserable someone who stole her boyfriend, or when the Nazis killed everyone in a town where an inhabitant had shot a German soldier, or when a child refused to eat because he didn’t get the present he wanted, genetic material was the determining reason.
The three instances I just gave show how various revenge can be, how ordinary and terrible. It is a matter which it is necessary really to understand, because much of the agony, brutality, and shame of humanity is with it.
The current making of our genes the source of our drives, feelings, choices, while it may sound impressive, is deeply meaningless. The reason is: you can say that anything a human being does begins with the genes in some fashion, because people begin with genes. For instance, if you didn’t have genes, you wouldn’t be able to read—nobody ever read who didn’t have genes. So a person could say the ability and desire to read starts with the genes; that is, it starts with your being alive.
This doesn’t tell us much. We can say just as easily, and uselessly, that the desire not to get revenge begins with our genes, because it too begins with our having a self.
We Begin with Reality
In fact, one trouble with this psychology which goes back to our genes to explain our desires, is that it doesn’t go back far enough. It would be more useful to say that what we feel, what we do, begins with the forces that are in geology, matter, reality as such. A principle of Aesthetic Realism is this statement by Eli Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” At any moment of our lives we’re trying to make sense of for and against—opposites present too, for example, in a river which both nourishes the earth and wears away at it. At any moment we are individuality and relation—we’re just ourselves, yet we have to do with millions of other people and things—as a tree is one tree yet has to do with everything else in the forest. And the biggest need we have—along with the need for food and shelter—is to see taking care of our individual self as the same as being just to other people, other things.
We have the opposites because reality has them and we’re part of reality. Meanwhile, we make ethical choices which are about the opposites, and these choices come from something more than our genes. We won’t understand revenge—with all its ordinariness and horror—until we understand the ethics of the self. Mr. Siegel speaks about the main thing in ethics, the thing making revenge or any other desire right or wrong, in the following eloquent, clear statement:
There is only one thing that is immoral in the world: liking oneself too much and the outside world too little....Once you feel what is owing to yourself is more and what is owing to other people is less, you can rob people’s purses, tell lies, keep back things that would do good to people, start wars.
Can We Be Wrong about Justice?
The Times article gives this explanation by current psychologists:
Acts of personal vengeance reflect a biologically rooted sense of justice, they say, that functions in the brain something like appetite.
That sounds as though something important were being said, but it isn’t. Yes, “biologically rooted” or not, there’s a “sense of justice” in everybody—but the important thing, completely omitted here, is that our “sense of justice” is often terrifically wrong. And the wrongness has a cause.
Justice is always about what’s coming to me and what’s coming to something else. And usually our feeling on the subject is quite tilted toward the me, and inexact.
It happens that every lynching has been revenge arising from a “sense of justice”: “That guy didn’t treat one of our folks right—let’s get him!” So we are really useless and hurtful if we don’t distinguish between a false “sense of justice” and a true.
The Central Matter
The central matter that needs to be seen about revenge is the central matter, the central criterion, as to any desire we have, and Eli Siegel is the philosopher who explained it: There are two big purposes that are fighting in us. They are 1) the purpose to respect the world, to have good will—“to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful”; or 2) the purpose of contempt—to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” The ethical criterion as to anything we want or feel or do is: which of these purposes is impelling us?
And so, if you’re out to teach a person a lesson of some kind, the crucial thing is: is your purpose good will or contempt? Revenge is generally impelled by the ugliest, most hurtful purpose in self: contempt, the feeling “If I can lessen him, look down on him, humiliate him, show I have power over him, that’s how I’ll think well of myself and be Somebody.”
Is It Ever Useful?
The Times article has this paragraph:
“The best way to understand revenge is not as some disease or moral failing or crime but as a deeply human and sometimes very functional behavior,” said Dr. Michael McCullough, a psychologist....“Revenge can be a very good deterrent to bad behavior, and bring feelings of completeness and fulfillment.”
If “functional” means valuable, revenge is never “functional behavior”; it is never a “good deterrent to bad behavior.” If we teach someone a lesson to have him or her and the world better, we need not call it revenge; it’s simply fairness and kindness. Revenge always has something narrowly personal—you get some superiority for yourself out of it.
And if we have that revenge on people which is not the same as consideration for them, which is not a desire to have them better and stronger, we’re not deterring something bad. We may weaken these persons, but they will be resentful and wait for the chance to punish and hurt in return. That has been so much in the history of the world.
We’re told revenge is also “functional” because it can “bring feelings of completeness and fulfillment.” Well, a certain “fulfillment” comes from contempt, and that’s why contempt is so attractive and so terrible. A little boy felt bigger, fuller, when he mocked his sister and made her afraid. The persons in the lynch mob I mentioned felt horribly fulfilled when they got that man to swing from a tree. The fulfillment of contempt doesn’t last; it’s followed by an emptiness, agitation, self-dislike, and more. But no matter how much one invokes genetics and evolution, one won’t understand revenge until one understands the desire for contempt.
To call revenge, as this article does, “a socially functional instinct” which can get “pervert[ed],” is to make some of the worst things in humanity look not so bad, because their source is said to be your genetic material, not your motives.
One of the greatest literary instances of retribution as good will and respect for reality, is Dante’s Inferno. The persons in Hell who, Dante tells us, are being blown forever in wind, or go about eternally in leaden cloaks, or have been turned into tree trunks, are not punished out of personal revenge; no one is getting some ego boost through lessening them.
And to show good will as the same as condign punishment, I’ll quote a poem by Eli Siegel. It was written in 1967, during the Vietnam War, and is about Lyndon Baines Johnson, whom Mr. Siegel sometimes called, with humorous irony, “Our Leader.” Mr. Siegel’s opposition to that war was tremendous, passionate, and logical—and it always had beauty, kindness, art. This poem appears in his book Hail, American Development:
Condign Punishment for Our Leader
On December 7, 1967, Our Leader took part in the funeral services for Cardinal Spellman.
From this comes the idea of a just punishment for Our Leader, the cause present in so many deaths in Asia.
This punishment would be Lyndon Baines Johnson attending the funeral of every person killed needlessly in Vietnam.
Our Leader would look at the dead body of a boy of eight, and, conspicuously, be of the funeral.
The next day he would attend the funeral of a United States Major, who perhaps did not have to die.
The day after, Our Leader would properly mourn at the funeral of a woman of forty.
Within the following twenty-four hours, Lyndon Baines Johnson would show appropriate mortuary honor to a soldier of twenty years.
And so it would go on.
The idea of hell would be there, with its punishing recurrence, its reprimanding persistence.
Lyndon Baines Johnson has gone to the funeral of Francis Joseph Spellman, Cardinal Spellman.
The presence of Our Leader at this funeral should be only a beginning.
Aesthetic Realism is the kind, true study of ethics, the study humanity wants so much.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
A Drama of Objections
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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