|NUMBER 1748. —July 8, 2009|
Dear Unknown Friends:
e are honored to publish here the second half of an early Aesthetic Realism lecture, Unhappiness in America, which Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall in November 1946. In it we see some of the thorough, clear logic on which Aesthetic Realism is based. And we see Mr. Siegel explaining what people today want mightily to understand: what happiness really is; what interferes with it; and why, so often when persons get what they think will make them happy, they are unhappy still and perhaps more than ever.
This lecture is about the cause within oneself of unhappiness. To be sure, there have been external causes—things outside a person which have made for misery. One of the biggest is the profit system, the barbaric way of economics that has had certain people be rich and condemned many others to lives of poverty. What Keats wrote, with musical intensity, about destitution's effect on love is perhaps even truer about its effect on happiness:
In human history, millions of men, women, and children have been forced by profit economics to live under conditions that made happiness impossible. And I believe no one will feel deserving of happiness unless he or she is passionately interested in having those conditions exist no longer.
There Is a Hope to Be Unhappy
esthetic Realism explains what nothing else has—the chief reason within a person for unhappiness. This massive, often subtle, cause of unhappiness is contempt: the feeling that we're “for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” In the lecture we're publishing, Mr. Siegel describes aspects of contempt for the world and how they make happiness impossible. As a prelude I'll comment on one of those aspects. It is the actual desire to be displeased, unhappy.
We don't, of course, tell ourselves that we want things to disappoint us. Yet occasionally a person has a sneaking suspicion that she is looking to be displeased. A woman, for instance, can walk into her home and surprise herself with how eager she is to find things her husband did wrong: “Ha! There are his socks, left in the middle of the floor again! I'll bet he didn't put out the garbage—as usual! He said he would fix the broken picture frame, but he probably didn't—aha, there it is, still broken! And I'm sure he forgot to pick up an extra quart of milk—ohhh, he remembered....” And she feels guilty: “Why don't I like it that he remembered? Am I looking for trouble?”
What this woman—we can call her Kimberly—doesn't see is that if her husband disappoints her she can feel superior, to him and the world he represents. There's that in every person which would like to feel we do reality a favor by being in it; we do people a favor by having to do with them. We'd rather feel we're misunderstood and beset and let down than feel grateful. That's because in being misunderstood, beset, let down, we feel special, too good for a mean, insensitive world. We feel the only person we can count on is ourselves: we're a precious jewel and everyone else is crude plastic. To feel this is to have a triumph, a miserable triumph, but a triumph nonetheless—of contempt.
Deeply, Kimberly feels that if she were fully happy with her husband, grateful to him, she would not be important, because she associates importance with being able to look down. So while she tells herself she longs to be happy, she really feels happiness would diminish her; it would annul her sense of superiority. She unknowingly wishes to be unhappy, looks to be. She succeeds, and is victorious and wretched.
There Is Mrs. Gummidge
ne of the famous characters in English literature satirizes the hope in people to be unhappy. She is Mrs. Gummidge in Dickens' David Copperfield. Her refrain, heard again and again, is “I'm a lone lorn creetur' and everythink goes contrairy with me.” We find this wonderful description—of a person who gets something out of unhappiness:
A hint of the superiority Mrs. Gummidge gets out of being unhappy is in these words of hers: “I feel more than other people do....It's my misfortune.”
Charles Dickens observed keenly aspects of contempt and described them powerfully in hundreds of ways. He would have wanted to understand the thing itself, as principle and desire in everyone. We can learn this now, from Aesthetic Realism, and learn how to criticize contempt in us effectively at last.
Unhappiness in America, II
o know what happiness is, we would have to know what is in common in every instance of happiness. If a child going to school is happy, and a woman, a year married, is happy, and a man who has won political office is happy, and a writer writing his first book is happy, what is present in each of the instances of happiness?
What seems to be clear is that there is a relation, always, of two kinds. There is a relation between a person and something which is not the person. Then, there is a relation between something in the person and another thing in the person. By the second I mean that when we, as we are, are at one with ourselves in terms of what we want, we can be said to be happy. If we are at one with something not ourselves we can be said to be happy; but the something not ourselves also represents something in ourselves: desire. So we find a oneness in ourselves through finding a oneness with something not ourselves.
This can be exemplified by a woman looking at fabrics. She doesn't know what she wants; she looks and says, “That is what I want.” The desire for that fabric existed before she saw it. It became actual when she saw it. So there is a triplicity of things at one: something in oneself; the other part of oneself; and an object. In every instance of happiness, desire, actuality, and something outside of oneself become one.
If in every instance of happiness we meet something specific and are at one with it, then if in some way we could feel at one with everything which is outside of ourselves—and everything is the world—we would have the sure basis of being at one with specific things. Unless we have that basis, our happiness is precarious. If we like an apple without liking the world from which it came, what we say unconsciously to the apple is, “You are very special. The world, I'm not sure about. You, I like.” What we like is something not seen as representative of the world but as a little peculiar. Then, as soon as the instances that come our way seem to be puzzling, we can feel that we and the world should separate.
A neurotic person is one who is more ready to affirm the likelihood of separation from the world that goes on in every person. Every person is not sure as to whether the outside world is a friend or not. We are all somewhat suspicious. There is something in us that wants to get happiness only from ourselves, because it says that we are the only thing that is for our happiness—that other things may be nice, convenient, necessary even, but they don't stand for our happiness as we do. Therefore, everybody is suspicious.
Since happiness is the oneness of ourselves with what we meet, it becomes permanent and sure in proportion as we can say that what isn't ourselves is really on our side. We can go at happiness too actively; we can try to grab happiness. Then, because we don't really believe in it, we can become very passive. These two ways, of being active and passive, when not put together, can make for that feeling of apathy which can be in everybody, let alone neurotic persons, and also for the intense zeal that we can see in the same person.
Happiness & the Unconscious
n dealing with happiness, deeply the idea of the unconscious must be present. In contemporary approaches we have, on the one hand, ways of thought and writing that don't seem interested in happiness at all: the saying that what you have to do is sublimate, avoid repression, see to it that your id and ego get along fairly well. The idea that this could amount to happiness is a little too optimistic. On the other hand, we find ways of talking about happiness as coming fast, in a second.
The fact that most approaches to the unconscious don't correlate the unconscious with happiness is not something that Aesthetic Realism is for, because it should be asked: If we have unconscious desires, are those desires for us or against us? If they are for us, why can't they be called desires for happiness? There is a good deal of talk of “gratification,” “sadism,” but what is it all for? How is it related to having a good time in the right way?
Happiness can be called a mathematical relation of our truest wants with our most existent acquisitions. That is, if we have wanted so much and then get a small fraction of it, we can't be called happy. On the other hand, if we feel we have wanted little and really have wanted much (because wants exist unconsciously), we also can't be happy. It can be said that our happiness occurs in proportion to the satisfaction of our true wants. It is important, therefore, to find out what we want.
Most persons in America would, when cornered, confidentially admit they didn't know what they wanted. Knowing what you want is a big order. A good deal of unhappiness in America comes from the fact that a person can fool himself by saying, “This is what I want,” and be afraid to see that there is a greater want.
Individuality & Comprehensiveness
here are two basic desires in everybody: for individuality and for comprehensiveness. If these get tangled, whatever happens to a person—whether he becomes senator, or a vice-president of a bank, or the wife of a handsome movie actor—that person can't be happy. I have said that happiness is the oneness between a self and what isn't the self; it also is the oneness between the two aspects of self. The most unconscious desire—by which I mean the desire hardest to see—is the desire to put the two desires together.
The desire to be an individual, a self, is a tremendous desire. But people, in making themselves individuals, can feel they have to do things in their minds against other people. For example, if a woman as wife does not also feel she is a full person, she will make up a life for herself within. If a man doesn't feel he has enough comprehensiveness of meaning from his wife, he will make up another life. A person has to feel that in being in the world he or she means something to the world, and furthermore, that he or she is. So there is a big desire for individuality, present from birth and present in a man of ninety.
Then there is a desire for comprehensiveness and diversity, adventure of mind. If the desire to be a secure individual is not at one with the desire to experience the world in its diversity, there cannot be true happiness. This may sound abstract, but it makes for pain all over America . Unless it is understood, I don't see how specific situations can be dealt with in a sensible fashion.
The deepest unconscious desires, then, are desires which have to do with seeing the self as individual opposed to the world and seeing the self as individual friendly to the world. With the first, the feeling that we have to get happiness by managing the world is always present. If a child sees himself as individual opposed to the world, he may pour ink into oatmeal, try to tear a dress off his mother, purposely wet his bed, all because of a feeling that what is around one does not complete one but is opposed to one.
Happiness Can Be
appiness can be. There is nothing in the unconscious that does not permit a oneness of individuality with otherness in its most diverse form. If we could feel that the world in its tremendousness helped our individuality, if we could believe it was our friend, we would be able to take specific mishaps and say, “This act went wrong but the main show is okay.”
If we have unconsciously a desire to be an individual and a desire also to see what is outside ourselves, the big thing is: what are we going to do about it? Most people cannot put these together, because they don't see being interested in the world as conserving their individuality. If there cannot be the feeling that the outside world can affect one very deeply without any kind of hindrance, then we will be in a constant state of unconscious fear. We want the world to affect us, and then we feel, “Where will our individuality be?” This fear can make for all kinds of questionable behavior at parties, on jobs, in unions, but it is a fear of happiness, because the only way we can get happiness is to believe in the source of happiness, and what else is the source of happiness but things outside ourselves?
The biggest unconscious desire is for happiness in the deepest meaning of the word: a sense of unlimited oneness with existence. That means the deepest desire is aesthetic, because the deepest desire in a person is that which says: “If I can see myself as an individual and see everything I meet as making my individuality sharper, more definite, I shall be happy.” That is the only way that true happiness can come. Any other happiness is a specious kind, which accents division. If a person is happy because he has beaten someone in a deal, he has gotten happiness at the price of despising what isn't himself. If you get happiness this way, you are saying the source of happiness is not important. It is like going after soup you have called tasteless.
Unless through the experiences of social life, marriage, family, there is a constant feeling that the self in its loneness is at one with the self standing for a world that is strange and eternal and unlimited and surprising, the unconscious won't be happy. When a person has a break or meets somebody he likes, and says, “I'm happy,” he is not saying that his whole self is happy but that a certain portion of him is happy. That is good. That portion can be enlarged; it can be a springboard for liking the world. But we must have a feeling that this isn't transitory; that it isn't a flash in the pan; that we can say all the time, even when the ice cream is not good, that the universe is on our side. The purpose of life is for a self to come to be by accepting the universe as tremendously different, tremendously other.
The Familiar & the Strange
ere I come to another phase of the happiness and unhappiness question. When people feel the world is tasteless, is cold oatmeal, unsalted soup, colorless, ill-smelling oil, what they are trying to do is say, “The world is so boring, so unimportant, that my individuality is infinite Great Stuff. I am I because the whole world is boring.”
This brings up the problem of the familiar and the strange. If we cannot be surprised by the world, we don't have that sense of newness which is necessary. How many women in America at fifty feel the world can offer nothing new—they have raised their children, have read the bestsellers, have explored everything? That is because in those fifty years there was a desire to see the world as not new.
There is the wish for the world to be familiar—just as a person likes to feel, when he visits a party, that he knows someone there. The desire for the novel is also present. Isn't it true that if a person were meeting only the familiar he could be called unhappy, and if he were meeting only the unsettling, strange, new, he could be called unhappy? And isn't it true that if a person were meeting the familiar as if it were the strange, he would have the pleasure of familiarity with the excitement of strangeness? Wouldn't this be happiness? Otherwise there is a separation between the universe as strange and the universe as familiar. It is necessary for our happiness that we see the universe as strange and familiar, surprising and ordinary, remote and friendly, at once.
Where a person is deeply unhappy, he doesn't believe that the problems of politics, ill health, money; of people once loving each other now hating each other; of children and parents; of space and time—he doesn't believe that the world, otherness, makes sense. If we think the world is an enemy, we may become more liable to sickness, because we won't live with a deep, accurate assertiveness, and so we will be liable to have a slowdown, an interference. When we have the slowdown, we can use that to accentuate our separation from the world.
The essential fight is not what psychiatry says it is: between wants and society. It is between the wants of accurate desire, whole desire, the desire of the whole self, and the desires of vanity or contempt.
Happiness is the aesthetic oneness of a self and all else. That is the only kind of happiness that is thorough. All kinds of happiness are an example of it. When a book is enjoyable, there is a sense of oneness with the world. There are many ways of having a self pleased. But if we went further we could like the cause of it all. Furthermore, where the world in a specific form didn't make for like, we could so understand it that the world would still make sense.
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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