Why Don’t People Like Themselves?
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing a discussion by Eli Siegel—definitive on the tremendous subject of why people are displeased with themselves—from a 1953 Aesthetic Realism class. And we print a paper that Aesthetic Realism consultant Joseph Meglino presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Does a Man Think Too Little of Himself—and Too Much?”
This issue of TRO is about a fundamental difference—a great, beautiful difference—of Aesthetic Realism from the various current approaches to self. Why don’t people like themselves, esteem themselves? Why do they feel anxious, or low? What people hear today, in the media and from practitioners, is that the cause of one’s self-discomfort is outside oneself. It’s the fault of heredity, which gave you depression-inclined genes or a chemical imbalance. Or there was a time in your childhood (the memory of which you have repressed) when someone was abusive of you, and that’s why you get so unsure of yourself now. Or your mother or father didn’t give you emotional support, make you feel special, and bond with you—etc. People are hearing, from persons whom the press designates “experts,” dressed-up versions of what they hear from their own egos: that their self-displeasure doesn’t come because there’s anything to be truly criticized in themselves—it exists because the outside world has cruelly made a wonderful person feel bad.
The real answer is much more beautiful, honorable, and pride-giving; and Aesthetic Realism has been presenting it, greatly, these many years. To describe it, I comment on a short poem by Eli Siegel, which I love. This poem, which he wrote in 1927, appears in his Hail, American Development (Definition Press, 1968):
This Seen Now
This seen now: a fly
Is all the world to a fly,
And a lady crossing a street
Is all there is, has been ever
To lady doing the crossing.
And the world has so many,
Flies and ladies,
Crossing streets, ladies, flies.
We Make the World Less
Mr. Siegel wrote this poem 14 years before he began to teach Aesthetic Realism, but it is a prelude to the principle at the basis of this philosophy: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The life of every person is composed of the big opposites that are our Self and a wide, complete World other than our self. Both are real; but the beginning mistake of everyone is to see one’s own dear, intimate self as more real than other things. The need of our lives is to put those opposites together: to feel, “I take care of me by seeing other things and people as having the full reality I have. I have value the more I see the value of what’s not me. I want to be endlessly just to human beings, happenings, objects, history, earth, words; being fair to them is the same as my being important!”
But that is not what people usually feel. What people usually go after, what the lady in the poem has gone after, Mr. Siegel has described in the following principle: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.” Our lessening of other things and people in order to make ourselves comfortable and important, is—he explained—the reason we dislike ourselves, feel nervous, centrally unsure, ashamed, depressed.
The technique of the immensely musical poem I quoted is the answer to, the aesthetic alternative to, the way of seeing it criticizes. So let us look at the first two lines: “This seen now: a fly / Is all the world to a fly.”
A fly may have no other choice than to feel its precious being makes up the whole world. It can’t help being uninterested in foreign affairs or medieval literature; though occasionally, as Mr. Siegel writes in his note to the poem, it has to see as real something not itself. “A subjective fly, “ he writes, “would be interested in some quick motion towards it....[Still,] the fly’s objective apprising is in behalf of its subjective security.”
However, our tendency to see things and people in terms of ourselves, in terms of whether they praise us, give us our way, make us important—our feeling that we are the center of the universe, and other things matter much less than we do—is the beginning of every instance of cruelty. It is primal unintelligence and brutishness, and everyone has it. It is what racism comes from, and domestic meanness. Eli Siegel’s seeing and showing this fact is great in human history. It is the means for people to stop being unkind to each other—and also to stop disliking themselves. He said, with his magnificent oneness of passion and logic:
There is only one thing that is immoral in the world: liking oneself too much and the outside world too little....Once you feel what is owing to yourself is more and what is owing to other people is less, you can rob people’s purses, tell lies, keep back things that would do good to people, start wars.
The Aesthetic Answer
Together in the first two lines of the poem are the things people have kept apart: a hugging of their so specific self; and the wideness of things. The words in the first line have tightness, concentration; all except the fourth are accented; yet the line ends with a feeling of incompleteness and a reaching for more: “This seen now: a fly...” Then the second line has wonder, with the wide, rolling, large sound of “all the world”: “Is all the world to a fly.” Though the lines are about narrow self-love, in their music they make contraction and vast expansiveness one. And that, Aesthetic Realism shows, is what we need to do!
In the next three lines, the oneness of confinement and respectful wideness continues. The sound of the second of these lines is snug, cozy, as its consonants seem to rub each other in a self-caress: “Is all there is, has been ever.” Yet the lines also have wonder, largeness, a dignity-in-motion: “And a lady crossing a street / Is all there is, has been ever / To lady doing the crossing.”
It is our dignity, Aesthetic Realism shows, that we were born to be just to what is not ourselves. Our self-despising, our deep discomfort, comes because we have not been just. Our self-dislike is a tribute to what Eli Siegel called the force of ethics in the world and in ourselves, demanding reality’s rights from us.
The next lines of this beautiful poem, in the music of their statement, make the vastness of the world feel also warm: “And the world has so many, / Many, many...” And the final lines, interweaving ladies, flies, streets, show that things which seem unalike are connected in this limitless yet intimate world: “Flies and ladies, / Crossing streets, ladies, flies.”
I know of no person in all the centuries who was more critical than Eli Siegel, and no one kinder. That complete oneness he had of criticism and kindness, uncompromising justice and unceasing warmth, was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. And it is alive and permanent in Aesthetic Realism. Because of Mr. Siegel’s knowledge and integrity, people no longer have to be afraid to look at ourselves: we can at last learn how to criticize ourselves and feel that criticism is joyous love and pride.