True Excitement vs. Competition
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 2 in our serialization of Eli Siegel’s great 1949 lecture Poetry and Excitement. In this lecture, with such scholarship, vividness, and ease, Mr. Siegel does a tremendous thing: he shows the structure of excitement—that which makes any thing or moment or happening exciting. The basis is this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And as we see that excitement has a structure, a scientific and poetic organization, there are thrill, relief, grandeur—because people have felt excitement and order or dignity were opposites that had to fight; and they have been ashamed and distressed by the disjunction in their lives between an “exciting” time and an accurate or just time.
We also print part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this June. The seminar’s title was “What’s Wrong with Competition; or, Is Anything More Important Than Being Superior?”
The way the two subjects of this TRO—excitement and competition—come together in our lives concerns our very happiness; also our intelligence, and our kindness.
First of all: that thing which Mr. Siegel showed to be the great weakener of the human mind, contempt, is a competition we make between ourselves and reality. Mr. Siegel described contempt as the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” Contempt is a competition with the world so pervasive in us that we mostly don’t even see it as competition: we simply feel that we can’t be big unless we can see something or someone else as smaller, unless we can look down. But whether this feeling is a quiet assumption or a fierce drive, it is always completely ugly. From it, Aesthetic Realism explains, comes every human cruelty, including racism and war.
As part of our contempt, we have an actual, intense, albeit mainly unconscious, hope not to be excited by the world. Our contempt is like a businessman under the profit system who most certainly does not want his competitor’s product to seem exciting; he wants what he competes with to be a dull, unattractive flop. To the way of seeing which is contempt, all things not us constitute the wares of our big competitor, Reality; and to be excited by them takes away from our profit, our glory. Mr. Siegel explains in Self and World: "To be bored by the world is wearisome, but...it is a victory for the individual. We are in a fight between being bored and being aroused. Being bored is a victory for ubiquitous contempt” (p. 18).
While contempt is the self competing with the world, contempt also competes with something in the self of everyone. That something is the biggest desire we have, the purpose of our very lives: to like the world, see meaning in it. We were born, Aesthetic Realism shows, not to compete with the world but to see it as a deep and wide and multitudinous partner of ours—in fact, as the other half of ourselves. Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, in beautiful prose, about a baby whom he calls Joe Johnson:
He has needs. Those needs, if met at all, will be met by an arrangement of the larger world and himself. When Joseph’s needs are met, a feeling, however unexpressed, will occur amounting to: “We make a team.” Joe will want to eat; there is food in the world. Joe will want to see; there are things to be seen, and there is light in the world. Joe will want to crawl, and walk, and run; and there is space in the world to be crawled in, to be walked in, to be run in.... [Pp. 215-16]
One of the silliest and most awful mistakes concerning competition and excitement is the feeling some people have that the big excitement, the charge, the real exhilaration comes from competition, from demolishing an opponent, leaving somebody in the dust. As Aesthetic Realism sees it, the only kind of competition that is any good is competition which has the world and people look more beautiful. There can be that kind of competition in sports; and Mr. Siegel described it in an article in the Baltimore American, March 29, 1925, when he was 22:
The reason we are thrilled at hearing of a running record broken, or a broad-jumping one, is because it shows how powerful we also, who are men, can be....[People] want to see man in general made greater and nobler.
Can we hit a ball, or field one, or sing well, or dress well, do anything well, for the purpose of showing how good humanity and reality are—instead of competing for the purpose of showing we’re better than everyone and the world should be at our feet? The answer is yes! That second kind of competition is contempt, and it is the kind that is most frequent. But whatever adrenaline-surging excitement may accompany it, it leaves one feeling empty, dull, nervous, and ashamed.
So there are two kinds of excitement: from contempt, and from respect. Because of Eli Siegel’s magnificent, rich integrity as person and educator, Aesthetic Realism is that in human history which shows with logic and flesh-and-blood convincingness that respect makes for the greatest, fullest excitement we can ever have.