Jobs, Discontent, and Beauty
by Ellen Reiss
about Robert Burns
What the Discontent Is About
The huge discontent of Americans—on assembly lines, at computers, in trucks, operating machines of every kind, on construction sites, in fields, working in hospitals—is part of that historic occurrence which Eli Siegel identified and explained in 1970. He showed, with opulent evidence, that economics based on using human beings for profit had failed and would never recover. He showed that the profit motive—the seeing of a hoping, feeling human being in terms of how much you can get out of him and how little you can give him—is contempt.
People's discontent about work includes, along with the sheer pain of not making enough money, a terrific anger at being seen with contempt. People hate being seen as mechanisms to squeeze as much profit as possible from and to eliminate if the squeezing doesn't fare so well. There is this feeling across America, "I am more than that, for God's sake! A human being is more than that!"
How Should Work Be?
I comment on two poems of Robert Burns that are a means of asking, How should jobs and work be in this land? "Man Was Made to Mourn" has the famous great and aching statement "Man's inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!" And it has these lines:
|See yonder poor, o'er labour'd wight, |
So abject, mean, and vile,
Who begs a brother of the earth
To give him leave to toil;
And see his lordly fellow-worm
The poor petition spurn,
Unmindful, tho' a weeping wife
And helpless offspring mourn.
Burns felt it was horrible that a "wight," a human being, needing to earn money and wanting to be useful to people, was able to work only by permission of somebody else - somebody who could make profit from him! This intense objection, expressed musically by Burns, is churning within people now.
Then, there is the lively poem "Merry Hae I Been Teethin a Heckle." To teethe a heckle is to make an instrument for combing flax by putting prongs, or teeth, into wood. Here is the first stanza (the Scottish hae means have; cloutin means patching):
|O merry hae I been teethin a heckle, |
An' merry hae I been shapin a spoon;
O merry hae I been cloutin a kettle,
An' kissin my Katie when a' was done.
This poem is notable because it makes two big things in the world happily continuous: production and love. Aesthetic Realism shows that production and love have to have the very same basis. That basis is to be found in the following principle, stated by Eli Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves."
The biggest opposites in everyone's life are Self and World; and real love is a person's feeling, "I will be myself
, my full, rich, expressed self, through being resplendently fair to this person who's not me!
The same big opposites have to be one for work to be civilized. A person has to feel, "As I do this work I am expressing myself!" That sense of pleased self-expression is in the Burns lines about making and mending objects. A person also has to feel, "My doing this work is useful to other people." Profit economics has made it exceedingly hard, often impossible, to feel either.