NUMBER 1625 —October 20, 2004
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Mind and Charles Lamb

Dear Unknown Friends: 

ere is the conclusion of Aesthetic Realism Looks at Things, a 1966 lecture by Eli Siegel. Discussing terms from a glossary of the American Psychiatric Association, Mr. Siegel has been commenting on what he showed to be the crucial cause of mental difficulty: “The desire to have contempt for the outside world and for people and other objects as standing for the outside world, is a continuous, unseen desire making for mental insufficiency.” 1

     At the close of the lecture, Mr. Siegel quotes from an essay of Charles Lamb (1775-1834), because in a literary way it brings up the question underlying so many of those psychiatric terms: Why should our own minds get to thoughts that cause ourselves pain? Do we, as Aesthetic Realism explains, punish ourselves in various ways for having contempt for the outside world, for being unjust to what is not ourselves?

     What contempt is; how it works, both delicately and fiercely; how our desire for contempt is at war in us with our deepest desire, to like and be fair to the world: nothing is more necessary to understand. This understanding exists in Aesthetic Realism. And it's needed for our personal lives to fare well, but needed also nationally and internationally. That is because all injusticeincluding racism, economic exploitation, and warbegins with contempt: the feeling, I'm for myself, I'm more, by making less of what's not me!

    So as a prelude to Mr. Siegel's discussion, I look at some passages from Lamb's essays, passages in which he describes forms of contempt.

Good Writing, Economics, & Contempt

harles Lamb brought a new kind of warmth to English prose. His sentences can be intense, they can sneer, they can scream, but they always have a kind of rounded glow, like a welcoming, slightly melancholy fireplace. Writing in that genre which has been called “the personal essay,” again and again Lamb made literary delightfulness of the things that tormented him mostincluding his resentments and drunkennessand his sentences are usually beautiful.

     The rather famous opening sentence of his essay “Poor Relations” is 140 words long. And it makes clear that a richer member of the family has contempt for a poorer. Here is the beginning of that first sentence:

A poor relation is the most irrelevant thing in nature,—a piece of impertinent correspondency,—an odious approximation,—a haunting conscience,—a preposterous shadow, lengthening in the noontide of your prosperity,—an unwelcome remembrancer,—a perpetually recurring mortification,—a drain on your purse....

As he often does, Lamb is expressing a way of mind as a means of criticizing it. He wants people to think, There's something wrong with this.

The Most Important Question

he question, How should we see a person different from ourselves? is in the work of Lamb in many ways. It's the most important question in the world. Lamb did not say plainly that an economic system which has some people be poor while others make profit from them, is bad and wrong in itself. But he did see that the situation of some persons' being richer than others, brought out hurtful contempt. The passage I just quoted mingles terrific scorn for the “poor relation” with a feeling of shame (as in the phrase “a haunting conscience”).

      Later there's this, about one's relief when the poor relation leaves:

When he goeth away, you dismiss his chair into a corner, as precipitately as possible, and feel fairly rid of two nuisances.

(The “nuisances” are the extra chair and the person.) The rhythm of that passage is very fine. But the question is: Can we see other people in the way expressed there, and yet respect ourselves, feel inwardly at ease? Or will we punish ourselves in some fashion? The answer is always the latter. Our contempt for people has us feel (for example) nervous, anxious, dull, empty, self-disgusted, deeply unsure of ourselves. Charles Lamb did not know this.

The World Itself

he statements I quoted from “Poor Relations” are about contempt for people. But there is a desire in everyone to have contempt for the world itself, and Lamb, like every important writer, observed aspects of that contempt. He describes some in his essay “The Convalescent.” It is about the attractiveness of being in a sickbedwhere one can make the rest of the world dim and unimportant and oneself supreme. Isn't it “magnificent,” Lamb asks,

to lie abed, and...become insensible to all the operations of life, except the beatings of one feeble pulse? If there be a regal solitude, it is a sick-bed.

     ...How sickness enlarges the dimensions of a man's self to himself! he is his own exclusive object....What passes out of doors, or within them, so he hear not the jarring of them, affects him not....He keeps his sympathy, like some curious vintage, under trusty lock and key, for his own use only.

     This is funny and well told. Meanwhile, even though Lamb uses the simile of rare wine, he did not see that the state of mind he described in this essay was related to the thing that tormented him most: his drive to drink. He was keen in seeing that one could use a sickbed to fulfill a desire in oneself. But he didn't understand that desire in its fullness, power, intricacy, danger, and ugliness: the desire to dismiss the whole world as unworthy of oneself. He didn't know it was this desire that made him find alcohol so attractive.

A Sister, Mary Lamb

cannot write lengthily here about the relation of Charles Lamb and his sister Mary, 11 years his senior. She is known for writing with him, in 1806, one of the finest books for children, the Tales from Shakespeare. And she is also known for murdering her mother with a kitchen knife, in 1796. From the age of 21, Charles Lamb devoted himself to taking care of his sister, who went crazy every year. He had tremendous pain about her, but praises her extravagantly in letters. In his essays he writes of her as Bridget Elia; and there is this passage, which, in a delicate way, points to a contempt in Bridget, or Mary Lamb:

I must touch upon the foibles of my kinswoman with a gentle hand, for Bridget does not like to be told of her faults. She hath an awkward trick (to say no worse of it) of reading in company: at which times she will answer yes or no to a question, without fully understanding its purport—which is provoking, and derogatory in the highest degree to the dignity of the putter of the said question.

     This means that Mary Lamb, even when she was not crazy, did the very ordinary thing of feeling that while she was with people she could also be in a superior world of her own; human beings did not deserve to be listened to, but should be satisfied with whatever monosyllable she cast at them. “Derogatory in the highest degree to the dignity of the putter of the said question” means Lamb felt his sister had a lot of contempt for him. The phrase sounds playful, but is also intense.

     In issue 134 of this periodical, Mr. Siegel writes about Charles Lamb with compassionate exactitude:

Lamb, the charming and subtle English essayist..., worried about his mind. We can see this in his “Confessions of a Drunkard.” Charles Lamb knew that his sister had given way to insanity....Somewhat hurriedly, we state that the reason Mary Lamb killed her mother was the unbearable state of antipathy and devotion, contempt and reverence, the daughter had for her mother....

     Lamb had thoughts, as we all do, which scared him.

Lamb would have been grateful to know what contempt had to do with those self-punishing, and perhaps world-punishing, thoughts.

Lamb Describes a Victory

ne of the places Lamb writes most vividly about contempt is in the 16th of the discussions that comprise his essay “Popular Fallacies.” The 16th fallacy is “That a Sulky Temper Is a Misfortune.” And Lamb, with his gentle humor, points out something very important: he says there's a victory people get in feeling injured. The victory is: we can look down on everyone.

     He tells of thinking a friend had snubbed him (the friend hadn't), and how he, Lamb, not only got importance feeling snubbed by this friend, but used the “snub” to feel none of his friends valued him. He recommends the same mental procedure to the reader:

Enlarge your speculations, and take in the rest of your friends....Was there one among them who has not to you proved hollow, false, slippery as water? Begin to think that the...very idea of friendship, with its component parts, as honour, fidelity, steadiness, exists but in your single bosom. Image yourself to yourself, as the only possible friend in a world incapable of that communion....The little star of self-love twinkles....Think the very idea of right and fit fled from the earth, or your breast the solitary receptacle of it....To grow bigger every moment in your own conceit, and the world to lessen; to deify yourself at the expense of your species;...these [are] the truePLEASURES OF SULKINESS.

     In various ways, then, Charles Lamb describes contempt. He does so charmingly, sometimes even musically. But, again, he did not see what contempt washow big and constant is that desire, in Mr. Siegel's words, “to get a false importance or glory through the lessening of things not [one]self.” And Lamb didn't see the consequences of contempt.

     He also did not see that the sentences he was writing, with their accuracy and nuance, their sharpness and caressing rotundity, had in them the opponent of contempt: respect for the large and immediate world.

     “A large purpose of Aesthetic Realism,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is to have a person make up his mind as to the value for him of contempt and respect.” 2 That is what Charles Lamb most hoped to do. And Eli Siegel, who saw Lamb and humanity so justly, made it possible for us to do so now.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Why Did He Punish Himself?

By Eli Siegel 

harles Lamb happens to be a repository of how a child can find the world unlikable; also how humanity can. There's his “Confessions of a Drunkard,” and there are other writings. Then there was his sister. There's the essay “Witches and Other Night Fears.” In it Lamb says:

I was dreadfully alive to nervous terrors. The night-time solitude, and the dark, were my hell....I never laid my head on my pillow, I suppose, from the fourth to the seventh or eighth year of my life—so far as memory serves in things so long ago—without an assurance... of seeing some frightful spectre.

    We're here in a famous essay of literature. Why did this man, as we'll see, think thoughts that distressed him, have pictures that distressed him, have dreams that could make him scream? What is that for? What does a person want to punish himself for?

     As to Lamb, one thing I'm pretty sure of is that he felt superior to his family, including his father and mother, and the relatives. That is all right, but I think Lamb, as can be seen in his essays, enjoyed that superiority wrongly, which means without sufficient good will. A child can feel superior to the people around him, the adults, the parents. And Lamb was also anxious about how the persons around him saw him—how much they cared for him.

Be old Stackhouse then acquitted in part, if I say, that to his picture of the Witch raising up Samuel...I owe—not my midnight terrors, the hell of my infancy—but the shape and manner of their visitation.

Stackhouse was the editor of a two-folio-volume Bible with illustrations, and Lamb is speaking about the illustration of the Witch of Endor.

It was he who dressed up for me a hag that nightly sate upon my pillow....I durst not, even in the day-light, once enter the chamber where I slept, without my face turned to the window, aversely from the bed where my witch-ridden pillow was.

     To be in consort with witches was to have a “familiar spirit.” The familiar spirit, which Faustus is supposed to have had, is a sign that the thing we're afraid of can also be the thing that makes us so important, because we can summon this familiar spirit. A familiar spirit is one who will accompany you if you want him to or her to.

What Is the Whole Cause?

Parents do not know what they do when they leave tender babes alone to go to sleep in the dark.

Still, we have to ask: what is the whole cause of the terror?

The keeping them up till midnight...would, I am satisfied, in a medical point of view, prove the better caution.

     What I think is that Charles Lamb could see the adults talking around 7:30 or 8:00 in the evening, and wish they'd ask him to be awake, to go to bed when they did, which might be around midnight, while at the same time he thought he was better than they.

Had I never met with the picture, the fears would have come self-pictured in some shape or other....It is not book, or picture, or the stories of foolish servants, which create these terrors in children....Dear little T.H., who of all children has been brought up with the most scrupulous exclusion of every taint of superstition—

That's the son of Leigh Hunt.

who was never allowed to hear of goblin or apparition…—finds all this world of fear...in his own “thick-coming fancies”; and from his little midnight pillow, this nurse-child of optimism will start at shapes, unborrowed of tradition, in sweats to which the reveries of the cell-damned murderer are tranquillity.

That is quite so. The things we do within ourselves can make for sights within and without.

Mythology Is Present

Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire—

That is a phrase of Milton . The mythology that will be complete is going to ask why the Greeks came to “Gorgons, and Hydras, and Chimaeras dire”: why there should be this lady whose look would change you into stone; and then the living being of the water, who was against you, and as soon as you killed one head, there'd be another taking its place; and Chimaera, which is a relating of wings and a horse and nothing at all—why there should be this.

—stories of Celaeno and the Harpies—may reproduce themselves in the brain of superstition—but they were there before....The archetypes are in us, and eternal.

That is so. The Harpies are beings who insist on clawing at you and looking unattractive in the sky very close to you.

How else should the recital of that, which we know in a waking sense to be false, come to affect us at all?

     We have the question that is in a term discussed earlier, accident prone. Do we look for punishment as something that can make up for criticism we can't gladly and energetically give ourselves?

A Representative of Criticism

hen Lamb quotes from Coleridge's “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to describe something “so fearful to the spirit of man,...the simple idea of a spirit unembodied following him”:

Like one that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turn'd round, walks on
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.

     That is a representative of criticism—a person who follows us. What follows us usually is critical. If not critical, it's just obedient. And the two meet. A follower is one who looks ominous but also one who, like the servant with the silverware, looks ever so obliging.

     So with this addition, I have presented part of the glossary of the American Psychiatric Association. And while I object to the descriptions, the meaning of the words themselves can take us anywhere and also everywhere that is truly important.  


1Self and World (NY: Definition Press, 1981), p. 1.
2 Ibid., p. 19.

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

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.

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John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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