|NUMBER 1861.—November 6, 2013||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue our serialization of the great 1963 lecture Romanticism and Guilt, by Eli Siegel. And we print an article by sportswriter and Aesthetic Realism associate Michael Palmer. It is part of a paper he presented last year at a public seminar titled “Care for Yourself & Justice to Others: Do They Have to Fight?” As you’ll see, that subject has much to do with a poem of Wordsworth spoken of in the lecture. It is a famous poem, but its meaning is made clear for the first time by Mr. Siegel.
The opposites in the seminar title, care for self and justice to what’s not us, are the biggest opposites in our lives. And, Aesthetic Realism shows, all the cruelty in the world comes from dividing them—from feeling that the way to take care of ourselves is to lessen and look down on other people and things. That feeling is contempt. It’s immensely ordinary, and also the worst thing in humanity. Mr. Siegel explains—and I find these resounding, vivid, deep, clear sentences beautiful:
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.
Contempt is also the cause of guilt—or, as it’s often called today, low self-esteem. Guilt can take such forms as anxiety, nervousness, excess unsureness. But the reason we have it is that there is what Mr. Siegel described as an “ethical unconscious” in us. And that ethical unconscious punishes us for being unjust. It says, within all of us, You, Jason, you, Megan, were born into reality to see meaning in it—to become yourself through knowing and valuing what’s not you! You weren’t born into the world to get some sleazy, fake importance by looking down on other people and things.
Do They Feel Guilty?
A New York Times article is a means to look at our subject—care for self, justice to something else, and guilt—in relation to matters of right now. The article (Oct. 8) by Jan Hoffman is titled “Cheating’s Surprising Thrill.” What it says is: people today don’t really feel guilty about cheating—in fact, they feel good. Hoffman writes:
When was the last time you cheated?...Let your eyes wander during a high-stakes exam. Or copied a friend’s expensive software. And how did you feel afterward?...New research shows that...you may have felt great.
The article tells us that “psychologists and management specialists...want to understand...why cheating appears to be on the rise.” And: “researchers found that those who cheated experienced thrill, self-satisfaction,” not shame.
Well, there’s so much that’s unscientific and, really, uneducated, in what the article describes. For example, it’s important to see what the nature of that “thrill” and “self-satisfaction” is. Is there a kind of satisfaction that does not displace or negate guilt but is accompanied by it—even causes it? Then, there are the diverse activities the article describes as “cheating.” Some may be quite different from others, but they’re all lumped together and just called “cheating.” In the passage I quoted, looking at someone else’s answers during an exam is called cheating; and so is copying “a friend’s expensive software.” Yet these two may have some big differences in their cause.
There Are Contempt & the Profit System
Let’s take some classic examples of cheating: playing poker with marked cards; passing off a phony Cézanne as the real thing; plagiarizing—lifting passages from someone else’s writing on Andrew Jackson and publishing them as yours in your new biography of our seventh president. In each of these activities, there is contempt—with the ugly satisfaction that is part of contempt. You feel that the world is an opponent, and now you have beaten it out! You’ve fooled people—and therefore can look down on them and feel you’re oh so superior. The “researchers” are wrong in saying that such cheating does not make for guilt. What happens is: the victory of contempt, the thrill of superiority, can temporarily mask the fact that a person is deeply ashamed.
Then, there is a huge matter not talked of in the article. It’s this: a central reason why “cheating appears to be on the rise” is that people have come to feel the profit system itself is a cheat. All over America people feel, “The way corporations and bosses are getting rich through using other people—using me—may be technically legal, but it’s robbery. It’s thievery. I’m being rooked, swindled. So why shouldn’t I ‘cheat’ some myself?”
There’s a difference people feel between the cheating of, say, using anabolic steroids to win a race, and that activity mentioned early in the article: copying “expensive software.” It happens that in copying software people don’t exactly feel they’re cheating. They think that the company has no right to charge them so much for it; that they’d be cheated if they paid full price for it; and, even, that they’d be doing the right thing if, after copying it, they enabled someone else to copy it from them. I am not advocating this logic, but it is what people all over America feel.
Profit economics is, in fact, one of the most massive, pervasive, hurtful cheats in the history of the world. It is based on a severing of those opposites care for self and justice to what’s not self. The profit motive is the motive to aggrandize yourself through the weakness of someone else: pay him as little as possible for his labor; hope he’s so desperate that he’ll work for a pittance. Then you take the profits which he has worked to produce. That is the cheat. It’s an aspect of the following vast cheat: the world by right belongs to everyone—but, through profit economics, it is owned mainly by a few people, while millions of others struggle.
A Poem—& Who Is Cheated?
Wordsworth is present very much in the lecture we’re serializing, and so it seems right to quote him on this matter of cheating and how the world is owned. In his poem “Goody Blake and Harry Gill,” of 1798, he describes a woman:
Old Goody Blake was old and poor;
Ill fed she was, and thinly clad;
And any man who passed her door
Might see how poor a hut she had.
All day she spun in her poor dwelling:
And then her three hours’ work at night,
Alas! ’t was hardly worth the telling,
It would not pay for candle-light.
So Goody Blake is like millions of people over the centuries and in America right now: she works hard; yet she cannot afford what she needs. Wordsworth’s poetry here is beautiful. It is musical. It is factual and tender. Clearly, he sees Goody Blake as cheated. And he tells how, in the winter, she cannot pay for firewood—so she does something that’s technically robbery. A rather prosperous and very mean person, Harry Gill, lives near her—and at night she takes some sticks of wood from his hedge:
Now, when the frost was past enduring,
And made her poor old bones to ache,
Could any thing be more alluring
Than an old hedge to Goody Blake?
And, now and then, it must be said,
When her old bones were cold and chill,
She left her fire, or left her bed,
To seek the hedge of Harry Gill.
He suspects her; lies in wait for her; grabs her: “And fiercely by the arm he shook her, / And cried, ‘I’ve caught you then at last!’”
Goody Blake, by English law, is a thief. But Wordsworth does not see her that way. He sees her as robbed by the economic structure of England. And he sees Harry Gill, not her, as the offender. Wordsworth writes that Harry, because of his coldness to a person, will become physically cold, irreparably: no matter how many coats and blankets Harry uses, “He never will be warm again”—“His teeth they chatter, chatter still.”
In the 1970s, Eli Siegel explained that, after centuries, the profit system was no longer able to succeed. Like Harry Gill’s temperature, it was irreparable. Today in America, there are persons trying to force its continuation the only way they now can: through having most Americans become poorer and poorer—become more and more like Goody Blake—so some few others can make profit from them.
As this effort goes on, lo and behold! the Times article tells us that “management specialists” are very concerned about cheating. We can presume the cheating involves not only software copying, but, perhaps, such things as employees’ “borrowing” office supplies, and “liberating” product and setting up a cottage industry of one’s own with it. These activities are wrong; they should not take place. But the matter won’t be dealt with honestly until people are asking, Is the way economics is now run, essentially a cheat; and do people in America know it, resent it, and feel (however incorrectly) that they have a right to get revenge?
This TRO is being published two days before the 35th anniversary of Eli Siegel’s death. I have written many times, with detail, about how that tragic dying came to be. For now, I’ll say just this: he was true, through his very last days, to the ethics of the philosophy he taught. He wrote in Self and World: “To be ethical is to give oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things.” That is what Eli Siegel went by, with depth, beauty, grandeur, all the time.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
The Sensible Skylark
Care for Self & Justice to Others
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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