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"The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites," — Eli Siegel

March 23, 2007
The Siegel Concept of the Ethical Unconscious

"There is such a thing as the ethical unconscious," wrote Eli Siegel in Self and World. [P. 267]

As I was reading The Big Tree of Mexico, in which John Skeaping, an American artist, tells how he lived close to Zapotec speaking villagers, I found a striking instance of the ethical unconscious that is in every person. It can take the form of organic, unpremeditated ethics. There is a narrative by Skeaping. He tells how Sabina, a young girl, and her older sister, Lupe, are with him as he drives them to the coast to see something they never saw before: the ocean. It frightens them but they are interested in the shells they find and other Zapotec speaking people whose ways are very different. While there, they “come upon a stall selling coloured silk handkerchiefs, one of which took Sabiana’s eye”—

“That is the most lovely thing I have ever seen,” she said, and before she could protest I had bought it for her. She made no attempt to conceal her delight. I was fairly certain she had refused quite a lot of things because she didn’t want me to spend my money on her. She is one of the most unselfish children that it has been my lot to meet. [P. 107]

But when they reach home and have “unloaded all the treasures that we had brought back,” the handkerchief is gone. “The car was searched again and again….It was quite certain that Lupe had stolen and hidden it.” And next day the paper wrapping from the handkerchief was found “hidden behind maize leaves.” The mother of the girls “laughed and said, ‘Of course Lupe stole it.’” [P. 108]

John Skeaping keeps away from the village for a time. Then what he writes evidences unconscious guilt in Lupe, who seemed quite undisturbed by it all as did the people around her:

Then one day Lupe came to see me. She was as sweet and nice as ever, but she was looking ill. “I have got the fears,” she said.

The author explains:

According to doctors, the “fears” is a psychological trouble from which Indians often suffer, though they cannot give any satisfactory explanation as to its cause. Although purely psychological in origin, it has a very real physical effect upon the sufferer. It starts with a high temperature, followed by toothache and headache …. The medical profession cannot cope with it at all, but doctors tell me that witches can cure it….A witch…demands that he [the sufferer] make a confession of some kind. This done, the patient is relieved of the mental strain and recovers completely within a day. [Pp. 109-110]

What happened is evidence of the following explanation by Eli Siegel for the cause of guilt. (Guilt can be ordinary and in the background, hardly noticeable, but it can sometimes come forth suddenly and inexplicably, and this can include anxiety attacks in our culture.) This is Eli Siegel's explanation:

In every instance of a guilt feeling, there is evidence pointing to the fact that the cause is a feeling of separation of oneself from reality as a whole….The unconscious, as judge, has said: “Do not separate yourself from reality. If you do, you are not being yourself entirely, and one side of you will punish the other.” [P. 53, Self and World]

Lupe has separated herself from reality in that (1) she lies about it; (2) she steals from those representatives of reality called people; (3) she has, specifically, separated herself from her sister’s feelings and has taken something her sister cherished. Lupe has done two things with the opposites of separation and junction: She grabs things that don’t belong to her, or joined herself to them unjustly, and separated them from their owners. Meanwhile she seems immune to the pain she has given the former owners of things she has stolen. And society, represented by her mother, seems to laugh it off. But the side of her that cannot help wanting to be just, punishes the side of her that gets its way unfairly—and she has “fears.”

That ethics were alive in Mexico from the earliest recorded time is illustrated by the fact that Fray Bernadino de Sahagun (1495-1590) describes “Confession to a Mexican God.” [Mead and Calas, Primitive Heritage, 1953). In it, the guilty pre-Columbian person must truthfully confess wrongdoing to a representative of the goddess Tlaculteutl in order to make penance and receive absolution.

In native North America, purification is, everywhere, a potent concern--to rejoin with a world one has somehow put aside is the basis, for example, of Navaho curing ceremonies. This too speaks of the ethical unconscious.

 

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Critical Links

bulletAesthetic Realism Foundation bulletAesthetic Realism Online Library  
  bulletMy Weblog: "A New Perspective" bulletMy Weblog: "An Anthropologist Speaks"  
  bulletEllen Reiss on "Criticizing" John Keats (1818) bulletThe Theatre Company I Work With  
  bulletA Class I Attended, Conducted by Ellen Reiss bulletTerrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation  
  bullet"Jobs, Discontent, and Beauty" bullet Aesthetic Realism vs. Racism  
  bulletEllen Reiss on poems of Robert Burns and Eli Siegel, & the prose of J.K. Rowling  

 

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