|NUMBER 1628.—December 1, 2004||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
In 1966 Eli Siegel gave a number of lectures in which he discussed terms defined in a glossary of the American Psychiatric Association. The lectures are wide-ranging, critical, casual, compassionate, often humorous—and they contain what psychiatry lacks and people long for: the real understanding of mind, in its turmoil and hopes. Earlier this year we published the first of those lectures. And now we begin to serialize the second: Everyday Life and Aesthetics Look at Psychiatric Terms, of April 29, 1966.
What Is Necessary
To comprehend a person, one has to understand what the human mind—as represented by a wife in Iowa, a toddler in Tokyo , a working man in Naples—is most deeply going for, what its purpose is. And one has to understand what in the mind of everyone interferes with that purpose. Mr. Siegel explained: the largest purpose of a person "is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis." And "the desire to have contempt for the outside world...is a continuous, unseen desire making for mental insufficiency."¹
Further, Eli Siegel is the philosopher who saw that the questions of the human self are aesthetic questions. The criterion for how well or ill a mind fares is the criterion for a work of art: "All beauty,” he explained, "is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." The chief opposites in everyone's life are self and world. And the goodness of our mind, also how kind we are, depend on how much our care for ourselves goes along with care for the outside world, is the same as the desire to be just to things and people.
As large a mental health concern as any today is that terrible matter afflicting many aging people, Alzheimer's disease. I comment on it here because of a recent New York Times article titled "Alzheimer's Steals More Than Memory." Something little talked about, writes reporter Denise Grady, is the fact that people with Alzheimer's are not only forgetful and confused but are often "angry, sometimes even violent." They may be terrifically lethargic, but can also "slap, push or shout" at people, curse, and have "paranoia"—think people "are out to harm or rob them."
The abundant writing on Alzheimer's describes its cause as unknown. And I believe the ailment will not be understood until scientists and others study what Mr. Siegel showed to be the big fight in every human being: between the desire to like the world and the desire to have contempt for it.
What is notable in the Times article from which I quoted is that the little talked of aspects of Alzheimer's—the fury, belligerence, suspicion—are presented as so different from the memory loss. The practitioners do not see that there is something in common among all of these. The thing in common, as I'll describe, is a dislike of the world, a contempt.
We Are Mind and Body
Alzheimer's, it is said, has an organic component. As a report on "BBC News Online" puts it, "degeneration of tissues in the brain...is associated with Alzheimer's." Yet why the tissues degenerate is not known. And there are more and more statements like the following, from the Alzheimer's Association's website: "Research has found that keeping the brain active seems to increase its vitality and may build its reserves of brain cells and connections. You could even generate new brain cells." The Association says "mental activity" seems to have a "protective effect," and recommends: "Stay curious and involved."
The language in those statements is hardly exact. After all, "mental activity" is of many kinds, and some is ugly and weakening. People have used their minds to rob banks, cheat someone, come up with lies. People have kept their “brain[s] active” reading, with pleasure, dishonest books; thinking about how hurt they've been; hoping people flop. Does every “mental activity” have a "protective effect" on our brain tissues? I think the answer is no. Meanwhile, with all their imprecision, statements like those I quoted hint at the following tremendously important fact: our cells are affected by how much we like the world —how much we see the world as worth knowing, worth being active in, how much we feel it should stir us, how much we feel we should go out to it and have it get within us.
Two of the big opposites in life are mind and body. How are they related? Body can certainly affect mind. We can see—with those physical things, our eyes—a tree brilliant with yellow leaves on an autumn day, and this can make for that mental state called wonder. But mind affects body too. An example Mr. Siegel sometimes gave was the fact that a thought a person is ashamed of has blood come to her cheeks.
How Important Are Justice & Contempt?
With Alzheimer's, degenerate tissue can certainly affect the way a person thinks and feels. But the statements I quoted tell us that thoughts can also do things to that tissue, including revitalize it. Will that happen because our thoughts are simply "active," or is there anything else involved—like care for the world, justice to it, ethics? Is there a way of mind that causes brain cells to degenerate? The implication is that dullness, non-interest, does. But dullness is an aspect of contempt, and there are other aspects.
I love the following sentences from Eli Siegel's Self and World, and see them as a beginning for understanding mind at its best, worst, and everything in between. They are also beautiful as prose:
There are two means, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, of bringing some satisfaction to ourselves. The first is, the seeing of something like a sunset, a poem, a concerto, which can stand for the world and which pleases us through what it is: its structure in mind, time, and space. This is the aesthetic victory, which is the most sensible of all victories. The other victory is our ability to depreciate anything that exists. To see the world itself as an impossible mess—and this is often not difficult at all—gives a certain triumph to the individual. [P. 11]
The danger of every person is, as time goes on, to build up that second victory. It is contempt; and it is bad aesthetics, this use of self against world: the inward, unarticulated, but intense feeling that I take care of me, I am much, by lessening and despising the outside world.
The fight between the victory of respecting the world and the victory of contempt for it is present at every age, including in childhood. A child can look at a flower and utter a sincere and happy "Ooh!" The same child can stick her fingers in her ears and say with a triumphant sneer on her tender lips, "Nyah, nyah—no matter what you say I can't hear you!" But year after year, we make choices. And if through the years we cultivate dislike of the world, what we cultivate can come in time to run us.
Memory Is Care for the World
As I said, the various modes of behavior the Times article tells of are all manifestations of dislike of the world. There is the matter most associated with Alzheimer's, loss of memory. And we need to see that memory as such is a tribute to the world, an honoring of it. In his 1949 lecture Mind and Memory, Mr. Siegel explained:
Every time we remember something, we have been saying, "You and I, World, have got along, because things in you are now part of me." . . . Memory happens to be the residuum of a friendship still going on. [TRO 334]
That is why people, at any age, can unknowingly be against remembering. They may be annoyed that they forget things, and make various lists so they won't, but if they don't like the world they won't want to have it as a lodger deep within them. Mr. Siegel describes a feeling in people:
"My mind belongs to me and I can evict anything I want; I'm the landlord of my memory and there is no rent control. Kick out anybody!" Now, people do that. Then after having gone through their youth and middle age, in later years, that which was a trick once becomes an inevitability. People have not wanted to remember the things that didn't seem suitable;...they have done a lot of rearranging and distorting. And then later, they don't remember. [TRO 335]
Lethargy, Outbursts, Paranoia
There is lethargy in Alzheimer's, and, as a person quoted in the Times says, apathy: "My wife is apathetic....Nothing makes any difference to her." However, all through life there is that in people which goes toward such a state. There is a tendency in everyone to say, "This world, this 'impossible mess,' doesn't deserve to affect me, doesn't deserve to have me active in it. As I'm unmoved, I'm royal. I'm too good for everything. And I love only myself!" This triumph comes to be, as Mr. Siegel says, "an inevitability." But we won't understand the inevitability, or stop it from being inevitable, unless we understand the triumph.
There are the "violent outbursts" and "paranoia," told of in the Times article. These are forms of two things which people also cultivate through the years, sometimes under cover of politeness: anger and suspicion. There is something in us which wants to be angry and suspiciousóbecause we can use feeling people are against us to see ourselves as superior, to feel we need not question ourselves, to justify our own unfairness and give ourselves the right to be unfair some more. The desire of a person of forty to be against the world may have her, at eighty-five, slap a rather kind nurse and think a neighbor is trying to steal her money.
Present in Alzheimer's too, as in every situation of mind, is the fact that we judge ourselves on how fair we are to the world. "When we are unfair to the world," Mr. Siegel writes, "it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn't like it." ² There is no more beautiful fact about the human self. We can show our dislike for ourselves in various murky and even agonizing ways, but the dislike comes because we were born to be fair to what is not ourselves, and therefore we punish ourselves if we're not fair.
Aesthetic Realism can change the murky punishment into proud, clear, happy self-criticism. It is the education in how to do what we were born to do: like ourselves through knowing and liking the world.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
What Is in Psychiatric Terms?
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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