the Ethical Unconscious
and the Menominee Story of the Flood
"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
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