What Purpose Should We Have with People?
Dear Unknown Friends:
This issue is about the most important subject in the world: how should we think about people, and the world itself? The poems by Eli Siegel published here are on that subject. And so is the article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Jeffrey Carduner. It is from a paper he presented in November at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled "What's the Difference between Wowing People & Liking Oneself?"
An aspect of people's trouble about the matter is in an article that appeared last month in the New York Times. Reporter Bob Morris writes about holiday parties and the agony people have about mingling, speaking to strangers, figuring out what to say. He quotes a woman "who runs a successful public relations firm": "I'd rather stick needles in my eye," she says, "than have to work those rooms."
What neither she, nor the Times writer, nor others see is that the ill-at-easeness people can have at parties has to do with something much larger. It has to do with what Aesthetic Realism shows is the biggest fight in the life of everyone: between the desire to respect the world and people, and the desire to have contempt for them.
The Two Purposes in Social Life
Every one of us wants other human beings to mean something to us. Social life may be ridden with meanness, coldness, insincerity; yet it also comes from the best thing in people: the feeling that the way to be myself is through seeing value in what's not myself. The simple need to be in the company of others is a tribute to what Eli Siegel explains in the Preface to his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems: "The very self of a thing is its relations, its having-to-do-with other things."
Meanwhile, there is contempt, which Aesthetic Realism identifies as our biggest danger, the source of every human cruelty. Contempt—the feeling we make ourselves more through lessening something or someone else—is what has brought ugliness and fakery to social life. It has also caused all the economic injustice of the centuries: to feel it's tolerable and even right that some persons be poor and others rich, is sheer contempt.
The Times article tells about angst at social events, but with no awareness that 1) the way the attendees think about people is contemptuous; and 2) this contempt is the cause of their deep discomfort. In the article and daily life, a belittling way of seeing people is taken for granted as just fine. It's in the phrase "work those rooms": people do see other people as to be "worked," managed, manipulated, impressed. As one person looks at another, whether at a party, on the street, at a job, even in the family, he doesn't see that fellow human as someone to comprehend, as having the fulness of feeling he himself has.
Do They Like Me?
The woman quoted earlier told the Times writer: "I just have this fear...that people won't like me." That's how people generally think about each other: they make the main thing about someone, Does the person like me?; is he impressed with me? It's not seen that this way of thinking is contempt: we've robbed the person of his depth, his value, the richness of his mind; he exists to make us important. Because such thought, though frequent, is ugly, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable about people and has us dislike ourselves. That's true even if we're adept at "working a room." To affect people victoriously is not the same as respecting them, wanting to be just to them.
Contempt Is Recommended
The Times article includes advice on how to feel at ease. For example, there's this, from Jeanne Martinet, author of The Art of Mingling: "At parties, you have to remember...they're all just thinking about themselves. So anything you do is usually fine." And the article offers this tip: "Flatter prudently. Complimenting an accessory is usually enough to start a conversation." In both instances, we're being told we'll get to ease through having contempt. In the first we're told that seeing people as self-centered will make us feel okay—which means we should be glad they're selfish and hope they continue to be. In the second, we're told to flatter, which means to praise not because we really like something but for some other motive. When we flatter people, we feel we're fooling them; also appealing to something cheap in them; also manipulating them. The advice is geared to have us more unsure—perhaps at the party, but definitely in life as such—and lonelier.
The One Cause of Ease
The one thing that can have us truly at ease about people, whether at a gathering or in our thoughts to ourselves, is to want to know them. And know doesn't mean the kind of thing mentioned in the article—asking, for example, where a person's "weekend house is." It means we're interested in how they see, what their feelings are, what they care for—not in an attempt to impress them, but because the knowledge will add to our mind and life. I remember Mr. Siegel saying that if your first purpose with someone is anything other than wanting to know the person, you are exploiting that person.
Connected with the desire to know are two more prerequisites for our feeling proud as to people, and for our being able to like ourselves:
a) As we want to know them, we want to show ourselves to them—not a display we put on, but who we really are. People take for granted they have to be insincere with people. They don't see that they get something out of being insincere: they can hide, manage persons, and have contempt because those persons don't know them and are fooled by them.
b) To be at ease about people, we have to want them to be as good as they can be—not hope they fail or are weak so we can be superior. The three factors I'm describing constitute good will, which Aesthetic Realism shows is no holiday phrase but the toughest, most practical, most intellectual and artistic purpose a human being can have. Aesthetic Realism is the study of how to have it.
Because good will and contempt are not understood, the Times article ends with some really miserable advice about social life, quoting from author Amy Sedaris. The advice is given jocularly, but shows how despairing people feel about being able to like how they are with other people: "'Accentuate the positives, medicate the negatives.' So have a drink. Then go ahead and mingle all the way."
Meanwhile, the longing to see value in people, and be seen truly by them, goes on. This longing is present at a social event: in each person, somewhere amid all the fakery and scorn, maybe submerged by these, maybe stifled, but unkillable, is the desire to have good will—to like the world through that form of it which can look at us and talk to us. In fact, the pain people feel because of their contempt is a tribute to how much we hope not to have contempt, how much we want something else.
Poems Tell about How We Want to See
“Being Good," the first of the following poems by Eli Siegel, is satiric. Many people have made "being good" equivalent to something narrow. At the same time, they've committed the largest sin: they haven't wanted to respond to the world (including people) with accuracy and fullness.
I love what the second poem, "Hopes That Are Large," explains. It is about that criticism as good will which everyone is thirsty to receive, and to be able to give.
Both poems, with their succinctness and logic, are also musical. The music comes, as poetic music always does, from the author's sincerity. And, since this TRO deals with social life, I am very grateful to say that Eli Siegel showed it is possible to be sincere all the time: with many people, one person, any person, under any circumstances. It is what he was always.