Aesthetic Realism
A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology


Reprinted from:

The Right of  
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

April 18, 1984
International Periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation 

About the Ethical Unconscious 
and the Menominee Story of the Flood

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By Arnold Perey, Ph.D.

"Do you think you have a case against yourself?" Eli Siegel asked me, in a discussion, at the first Aesthetic Realism Ethical Study Conference I attended. "Lots of thoughts of people are against themselves," he continued. "This is a tendency. Man lacerates himself. If man were more athletic he would kick himself variously. The question is, why does this anti-self feeling come to be? Does it come from the fact that there is something in this world we don't see as it deserves?" 

I didn't know. I also didn't know it was an anthropological problem, a philosophic problem, and a religious problem. I thought it was just my own problem. "If you don't have confidence in yourself," Mr. Siegel said later, "the reason is, the way you see the universe doesn't suit you." 

In this interchange with a new student, myself, Eli Siegel was explaining what he writes about in the Guilt Chapter of Self and World, the existence of the ethical unconscious; "There is such a thing as the ethical unconscious," he writes, and I think this graceful, sure sentence is one of the most beautiful in the world. Because we come from the world, he explains, if we have contempt for it, we have contempt for ourselves. "Guilt ... is ... the feeling that one, in one's efforts to please oneself, has excluded the reality belonging to the other side of oneself." 

Against the background of Freudianism and its influence, which makes the unconscious seem dark, forbidding, full of repressed wishes you wouldn't want to know, Eli Siegel shows that the deepest thing in man's unconscious is ethical: the world is in us, telling us to be fair to it. An idea of right and wrong, as much a part of our substance as the atoms we are made of, and as exact as atomic rhythms, is in us from birth. 

Evidence for the existence of this ethical unconscious is in sociology, literature, anthropology, biology (see, for example, Charles Darwin's Descent of Man). But the instance I give now belongs to evidence that is the legends, religious and secular, which are told in every nation. One kind of legend with a worldwide distribution is the story of the Flood or Deluge, which appears in the Old Testament as well. Writes Alfred L. Kroeber in his esteemed text of 1948, Anthropology, "Flood myths are told by probably the majority of human nations." Why are they? Were they borrowed from culture to culture around the globe, or reinvented time after time? Kroeber says, "It is difficult to reach conclusions as to what happened." 

My study of the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel has convinced me that 1. flood legends arise from the ethical unconscious in man, criticizing us for not liking the world enough, and they are proof of its existence; and 2. they show that mankind as such is beautiful, because we have the opposites of personal and impersonal in us. 

Manabus is a legendary figure of the American Indians of the Woodlands. He is a form of Coyote, the Trickster and also Creator. In the Menomini Indian legend - as given in John Greenway's The Primitive Reader, 1965 - Manabus evokes a flood that is tremendous. "The water rose up .... It knew very well where Manabus had gone." He runs, he runs; but the water, coming from Lake Michigan, chases him faster and faster, even as he runs up a mountain and climbs to the top of the lofty pine at its peak. Four times he begs the tree to grow just a little more, and four times it obliges until it can grow no more. But the water keeps climbing "up, up, right to his chin, and there it stopped": there was nothing but water stretching out to the horizon. 

Why did the water go after Manabus? Looking for the cause, I felt a great excitement as I came to the sentence which shows Manabus had a contempt for the meaning of the gods of earth, the "underground gods": he wanted to defeat representatives of reality: 

Fired by his lust for revenge he promptly took his bow ... and fired twice at each of the underground gods .... His arrows sped true, and the gods rushed for the water .... Their diving caused great waves to roll. 

And the water "knew very well where Manabus had gone." That Manabus had hubris, contempt for the gods, for which heroes are punished in Greek mythology, is in the sentence, "Why, it must have been Manabus; he's done this, nobody else would dare to attack the underground gods." 

As you look at myths and legends, you see God critical of man. God may be represented by an antelope in an African tale; or a flock of angry sea birds in Eskimo legend; or he may use Leviathan, a whale, to punish Jonah. But in every instance, man, through his own mind, criticizes himself. And this self-criticism is in us every day. 

Often in the first Aesthetic Realism class in the subject of self that a person attended, Eli Siegel inquired into recurrent dreams. A dream which repeats has an insistent ethical meaning for the person. And this meaning is looking to be made conscious. The Aesthetic Realism point of view to dreams is stated by Eli Siegel in the "Outline of Aesthetic Realism" this way: "Dreams are criticisms of oneself through pictures one earlier was busy in arranging." 

Daphne Baker had a recurrent dream "of a forty-foot wave chasing me down the beach." She also dreamed of the sea coming in her window. "What was the silliest thing you ever did?" Mr. Siegel asked her. 

"Seeing the world as two-dimensional." 

"It happens that two dimensions are a way of conquering the three-dimensional aspect of the world," said Mr. Siegel. "Did you ever feel completely shut off from things?" Miss Baker had. And he said about the ocean, "You avoid things, and it's going to show that it can include you. You said you wanted to be two-dimensional. Is the sea trying to engulf you for being two-dimensional? It happens that in the folklore of the world, the flood has been used to punish sinners." 

Aesthetic Realism takes guilt with the utmost seriousness; not as a by-product of society, but as a sign of what man most deeply wants. What humanity has groped toward unconsciously, Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism have put on a conscious footing: to like the world as a oneness of opposites; that is, aesthetically. 

Reprinted from The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, No. 576 
Copyright 1984 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation

Copyright © 2001-2009 by Arnold Perey. All rights reserved