|NUMBER 225. — July 20, 1977|
|Dear Unknown Friends:
There are two ways of building up oneself. The first of these ways is honestly to respect a thing, give it meaning. Respect for a match is with respect for the stars. The second way is to diminish as much as possible, give as little meaning to things as we can; and feel the less we have given meaning to other things, the more the edifice of ourselves is substantial. This is hinted at in many places of literature, but perhaps the most notable is in some lines from Meredith's Modern Love. Meredith saw that the desire for contempt could make for a diminution or dulling or thinning of feeling. It is necessary that we see what he saw.
1. Meredith Is Looked At
In Poem XLI of Modern Love, Meredith tells us:
George Meredith hardly saw contempt as Aesthetic Realism sees it; but in his Poem XLI, he clearly implies that contempt is a competitor with deep feeling for anyone, even from the first day of life. The two ways of building up oneself—the way of giving meaning and the way of contempt—are in a fervid, virulent, frightening battle in the field of love. Contempt and meaning are fighting now, everywhere in New York, with casualties for all the combatants.
That man's desire to change fire into dust may likely succeed, is in these earlier lines of Modern Love, Poem XXIX:
The Victorian poem makes it clear that persons in love in the 1850s were not deprived of the possibility of making someone less, even though that someone was a wife or husband. When present-day psychiatry sees the necessity of studying contempt in all its forms, it will be a psychiatry no longer unable clearly to succeed in its purposes.
Is contempt as pervasive and as deep as Aesthetic Realism says it is? I now use a poem of Emerson to illustrate or elucidate lines of Meredith.
2. Two Realities Quarrel
The Emerson poem I have in mind was much printed in American readers of the 1890s or 1900s. Nevertheless, it has been given the dignity of the grown-up anthology. I copy the poem from American Poetry and Prose, edited by Norman Foerster (Boston: 1925), page 359:
This poem, with its imperfections—and it is still a poem—if understood, makes for the seeing of contempt in a manner which would lessen crime, give repose to families, and make war less likely.
The poem tells us in its philosophically jumpy way that a thing, seen as alive, may have contempt for two reasons: One, because a thing is itself, is just what it is; and Two, because something else is different. All we need to have the most hurtful contempt is sameness and difference unfortunately placed. We are disposed to think less of others because they are not ourselves; and that's enough. We are disposed to think more of ourselves because we are ourselves; and that's enough. And from these two likelihoods of difference and equivalence, the most frightening and painful things can ensue. "You are not me," the unconscious says, "and so I have the right to think less of you and to place you as I want to." The social consequences are told of poetically in the Modern Love of Meredith.
3. John Selden, Robert Burns
Because we have a preference for ourselves and a possibility of contempt for what is not ourselves, we can make less of the occupations or activities of others. A famous passage in English literature is about this. It is from the Table Talk of John Selden (1584-1654), quoted in Craik's English Prose (II, 172):
No matter what our situation is, we can use it to be contemptuous of something else. The housewife uses her good fortune at the hearth to be contemptuous of the unsettled, albeit dazzling, situation of the surmised-about Hollywood lady of note. And, of course, Hollywood can be contemptuous of all the shuffling Griseldas that make our meals. If it is different from ourselves, an adage of the unconscious tells us we can have contempt for it. Furthermore, if we need this contempt, we should get it.
One occupation has contempt for another. Plumbers likely have contempt for advertising people. Florists may have contempt for road builders. Grandmothers may have contempt for the mature and feminine and childless. Warriors may have contempt for those who didn't take part in some silly or cruel occupation of an Asian land.
4. Contempt without Limit
Shakespeare, La Rochefoucauld, and Baudelaire have all three, in their manner, presented contempt as something that tends to eat the world up, and to make it a nullity. La Rochefoucauld says this in an addition to his Maximes of 1665. Here are two sentences:
We have, then, in La Rochefoucauld, contempt presented as the exclusive possibility of love for oneself. It is only through deep care for something other than ourselves that this self-love can become less; can in time be absent. There is a tendency, not understood by either Freud or the existentialists, to make self the one form of reality. The matter needs much better understanding; an understanding that should get beyond epigrams.
Hamlet, in the world play, anticipates La Rochefaucauld. In an early speech (II. 2) he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—of all people!—
Hamlet is informing us that one way to conquer or annul the world, and so have contempt for it, is to go into oneself and stay there. The drawback is that even when one is monarch of the unbounded dark stillness of oneself, one may have a bad time—in the play described as "bad dreams.” Is it a wise thing to have supremacy over reality and yet not feel so good? Many persons have done some exploring here.
The junction of contempt, lust, and hate—a dreary, fearful possibility in man—is present, not clearly enough, in Shakespeare's Sonnet 129. This junction makes for madness and shame in the person having it. An informative line is:
The awful constancy and variations with which a person tries contemptuously to conquer another, are in this sonnet. Despite the fact that lucidity was hardly reached by Shakespeare, there is that in the sonnet deeper and more useful than psychoanalysis; or the contemporary way of seeing mind when intense. Often, contempt and intensity make up one situation of mind in the life of a person. I hope to say more about this.
Another writer who has presented contempt as everywhere and devouring, is Baudelaire in his "Au Lecteur" of Les Fleurs du mal. Baudelaire calls contempt Ennui, just as there was a tendency in La Rochefoucauld to identify contempt with self-love, and in Hamlet to have contempt the equivalent of complete absence from the world, with the rule of it nevertheless. So again, I present Baudelaire:
I translated these lines in Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968) as:
The meaning of these lines, both in French and English, has a large part of the future of the world.
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.
Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
Editor: Ellen Reiss • Coordinator: Nancy Huntting
Subscriptions: 26 issues, US $18; 12 issues, US $9, Canada and Mexico $14, elsewhere $20. Make check or money order payable to Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
© Copyright by Aesthetic Realism Foundation • A not-for-profit educational foundation