|NUMBER 1865.—January 1, 2014||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are honored to publish “Shakespeare’s Eighth Sonnet & Self,” an essay by Eli Siegel. It is mightily important as literary criticism—and for everyone’s understanding of our own lives.
I could write lengthily about Mr. Siegel’s love for and explanation of the work of Shakespeare. For instance, there are his lectures on Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and more. These talks, with vivid presentation of scenes, are part of the dramatic repertory of the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. His Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited is simply one of the great works of world literature. And he discussed, line by line, all the Sonnets, explaining them definitively.
He enabled people really to love Shakespeare, and understand him. Through what he said about Shakespeare’s plays, people can feel at last that the play is about them, their immediate lives, their inner tumults, and can feel inextricably too its true, full grandeur.
At the basis of Eli Siegel’s Shakespeare criticism is this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In the essay on Sonnet 8, he shows Shakespeare dealing in a particular way with the biggest opposites in the life of everyone: self and world. The sonnet, Mr. Siegel makes clear, is about the fight between care for our own cherished self and our desire to be richly just to outside reality. And it’s about that thing which Aesthetic Realism shows is the most hurtful desire in everyone: contempt, the desire to make ourselves big through looking down on what’s not us.
Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Here I make a relation to something that seems very different from a Shakespeare sonnet. Less than a month ago, one of the most important people of the last century died: Nelson Mandela. And there were the memorial service and so many adulatory statements by press and government leaders about him. From what I know of those statements, at least those in the western media, there has been a tremendous inaccuracy in the placing of his life and meaning. That inaccuracy and who Mandela really was, concern the same opposites as those in Shakespeare’s sonnet: self and world. They are opposites central to how a nation should be owned.
The large thing in the life of Nelson Mandela was the seeing, put into courageous action, that the world—in the form of the land and wealth of South Africa—was the birthright of every self, every person, of South Africa; that this was so no matter what the color of one’s skin. He knew that the fight to end the horrible apartheid system could not really be dissevered from the just ownership of the South African earth by all South Africans.
Mandela had centrally to do with the writing of the Freedom Charter, in 1955. In 1994, after his election as President, he affirms in his autobiography his belief in that charter and cites these passages from it:
The national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people;
The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;
All other industries and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people. [Long Walk to Freedom, p. 152]
For this, he put his life in danger again and again. For this he was hunted, tormented, jailed for 27 years, including 18 on Robben Island. He was not a communist, though he was called one. However, the statements I just quoted are definitely against the profit system, as Mandela himself was. And that is why he was labeled a “terrorist” by various governments that are now praising him, one of which was the government of the United States.
The profit system, in any nation, is a severing of those opposites self and world—each individual and the land we’re of. The profit system is based on the idea that it’s right for some few people to own most of a nation’s wealth and use others to enrich themselves. The profit motive is sheer contempt: it’s the seeing of human beings in terms of how much you can get from their labor, while giving them as little as possible. In his autobiography Mandela tells of observing what this motive meant when, as a young man, he labored in a gold mine:
Only the presence of cheap labor in the form of thousands of Africans working long hours for little pay with no rights made gold-mining profitable for the mining houses....It was my first sight of South African capitalism at work. [P. 55]
Novelist Nadine Gordimer, writing on Mandela in the New Yorker (Dec. 5), notes that South Africa’s “apartheid forces [were] financed by Western allies.” The apartheid government did everything it could to annihilate Mandela and his colleagues. It tortured and murdered. The Reagan and Thatcher administrations backed the apartheid government, and called Mandela a terrorist, not because these administrations were so much for racial separation—but because they wanted to wipe out everything and everyone questioning the profit system. It’s quite clear that if they’d had their way Nelson Mandela would have rotted and died on Robben Island. It seems to me that persons representing those governments at his memorial service should at least have had the decency to express regret.
The Largest Matter
In the recent statements about him, the big subject of praise has been that Mandela was for “reconciliation” with the oppressors. Whether or not that reconciliation was always right—it was definitely not the largest matter in Mandela’s life. The largest matter was what he fought for so steadily for half a century. But many of the persons now praising him hate what his life was really about: that the wealth of a nation belongs to every person in it, black or white. So they prefer to speak about a “reconciler.” Again—had persons like them succeeded, Mandela would have been in no position to do any reconciling at all.
I believe Nelson Mandela in his last years was deeply saddened by a compromise he’d felt he had to make. That is: while apartheid technically ended, a South African economy based on the profit motive did not. As a result of the retained profit system, Mandela, in his 90s, saw massive poverty continuing for black South Africans; a 70% unemployment rate for people below age 35; black government police gunning down over 100 workers on strike at platinum mines—mines owned, not by “the people as a whole,” but by private companies.
In the 1940s, Eli Siegel wrote: “The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.” Nelson Mandela would have loved that statement and loved, I am sure, Mr. Siegel himself: a person completely unprejudiced, and beautiful about art, justice, and all humanity.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Shakespeare’s Eighth Sonnet & Self
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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