Art versus Weariness
Dear Unknown Friends:
“To What Is the Artist Responsible?” is an introduction Eli Siegel wrote in 1973 for a public seminar presented by Aesthetic Realism consultants. This introduction is both leisurely and definitive, kind and historic. As Mr. Siegel answers the question in the title, he explains something huge, which no other critic of art saw. We also publish “Woman: Energetic and Weary,” part of a paper by artist and consultant Marcia Rackow, from an Aesthetic Realism seminar that took place this July.
Aesthetic Realism shows that there are two big purposes fighting within every person, and one of them is the source of all art. The deepest purpose we have is to like the world honestly, to see meaning in it, structure in it. From this purpose have come all intelligence, kindness, courage, and every instance of art in any century and nation. But there is another purpose working in each of us: contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” He showed—and there is no discovery more crucial or monumental—that all the injustice in history has come from this purpose; and that contempt is also the thing in every person which weakens our own minds and lives, even as we feel we are taking care of ourselves by having it.
The ordinary drive in people for contempt has many repercussions. It is what ruins love. It is also what makes us nervous and deeply unsure of ourselves. But one of the effects of our own contempt is the thing Ms. Rackow writes of here: weariness. I too will comment on weariness; because millions of people have a fatigue, lassitude, listlessness, a feeling that they are more tired than they ought to be, which troubles them keenly and which they don’t understand. Issue 168 of this journal is subtitled “Weariness”; and in it Mr. Siegel writes:
The relation of tiredness, fatigue, weariness, to contempt will be studied in coming years....One of the most important things to be seen in language is that when a person says: “I’m tired of all that,” he also means he is contemptuous of all that.
As Ms. Rackow describes—Mr. Siegel has explained that there is a desire in people, part of contempt, to be tired of the world. If the world, with all its objects and happenings and people and ideas and music and paintings and novels and possibilities, is something that burdens us, saps us, weighs us down—how superior to all that we are! A person, flinging himself onto a couch, and saying “I’ve had it! I’ve just got to rest!” can feel an unarticulated yet real triumph: he is going to a finer world, within himself. The more we can find the world of things and people a burden to us, the more something in us regally cavorts, feeling we have proven we were meant for better things, and the world within us, the “just me,” constitutes those better things.
Weariness and Economics
Weariness is a tremendous and intricate matter. There is certainly weariness that comes simply from working hard, or from the fact that we have been awake for perhaps 20 hours. All over America people have the fatigue of working too many hours, often at more than one job, in order to pay their bills and provide for their families. There has been a horrible fatigue forced on people for centuries, because the conditions of their work arose from the profit motive: from how they could be used to make profit for someone else.
So much of the energy of men, women, even children, that should have been used to find out about the world and care for it, has gone instead to supply others with money! We can see this, for instance, in Zola’s novel about French coal miners, Germinal. We can see it in Mrs. Browning’s furious and musical poem about children made to work in factories and mines, “The Cry of the Children.” There are these lines:
"For oh,” say the children, “we are weary,
And we cannot run or leap;
If we cared for any meadows, it were merely
To drop down in them and sleep."
And we see profit economics “wearing out...human creatures’ lives” in Thomas Hood’s “The Song of the Shirt.” We meet weariness in its very first line: “With fingers weary and worn.”
Despite current media lies about a “booming economy,” the energies of people are still being sapped, at too many hours for too little pay, by the profit system. And with that fact is another kind of tiredness, a true, beautiful tiredness: people are tired of being used unjustly on their jobs. They are tired of being seen and used with contempt. Mr. Siegel wrote in 1976: “Only contempt could permit a man to make money from the work of another—as man has done these hundreds of years” (TRO 166). There is now, in the feelings of Americans, a deep tiredness at the profit system. This tiredness is related to the tiredness about monarchy which Emerson described in his “Boston Hymn”: “God said, I am tired of kings, / I suffer them no more.”
The being worn out by work and the tiredness at being used for profit come from physiology and a sense of justice. I mention now some aspects of the other weariness: that coming from one’s own contempt.
The Other Weariness
Contempt can seem very languid: it can be that quiet inner sneer which people have about so much of life, “This doesn’t deserve my attention.” But contempt happens also to be an enormous user of energy. People have used themselves, their minds, the activity of their lives intensely—not trying to understand people, but trying to beat them out, be superior to them, fool them, have their way with them, impress them. Whatever the form, contempt is a wearying thing; because to use energy in a way that is against our life purpose, against what we are made for, is to weaken what we are—in the same way that wrongly using a machine wears it out and wrecks it.
And about that deepest purpose of ours, to be just to what is outside us: not using our energy for this true purpose is a wearying thing. It deadens us, in the same way that not using the muscles of our bodies makes for atrophy. So a businessman, spending his mental activity and the energy of his days on trying to make profit from people’s lives, on calculating how he can get as much out of them while giving as little as possible, may seem sometimes a dynamo; but he comes to feel an immense fatigue and a desire to just “get away from everything.” And he inevitably despises himself. Also, as people at social gatherings expend themselves insincerely, trying to impress and outdo each other and hide their true feelings and selves, they are preparing the deep fatigue they will feel later.
Aesthetic Realism is based on this great principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In all the arts, there is that which corresponds to energy and weariness: there are sounds, or shapes, which rise and sink; there is hubbub and stillness. But art is always respect for the world. Aesthetic Realism shows it is urgent that our lives become more and more like art. Through Aesthetic Realism they can, because Eli Siegel used the energy of his life in the most beautiful and courageous way: to be just to the things, people, terrific comprehensiveness of the world itself.