The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Feeling in America, & the Profit System

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Eli Siegel’s great lecture They Go Away from Something, of January 22, 1971. Eight months earlier he had begun his Goodbye Profit System talks, of which this is one. Economics based on contempt—on seeing people in terms of how much profit one could make from them—was, he showed, no longer able to flourish. It would never recover, and would become increasingly inefficient as the years went on.

That is what we are experiencing now. So much of American industry is gone, and with it millions of jobs. The agony of unemployment is throughout the land, and those who are working worry that soon they won’t be. Wages are lower and lower. And there is the terrible fact that hunger is growing. For America to have even one hungry child would be shameful. But the US Department of Agriculture reported last year that in this country “50.2 million people lived in food-insecure households, including 17.2 million children.”

History, Mr. Siegel explained, has reached the point when the only economy that will now work is something which has not yet existed fully in the world: an economy based on ethics. He described ethics as a oneness of opposites: “To be ethical is to give oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things” (Self and World, p. 243).

In the part of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel is discussing a Wall Street Journal article. It’s about a young man, Herbie Akers, who shot himself after using a large amount of LSD. Mr. Siegel praised the writing of the reporter, Kirk Scharfenberg. “Within [this story],” he said, “is a novel....The writer is conscious that...he’s writing literature.”

Mr. Siegel takes up the story because what’s said about Herbie Akers and his years of drug involvement comments on what millions of people feel about the profit economy they’re in the midst of:

People not necessarily left are against the profit system, and the present going for drugs is one of the ways that shows....You don’t have to get away from a world the financial basis of which you like, and the basis in general.

It is forty years since Mr. Siegel gave this lecture. The job situation is different now—people are going after work desperately. Yet Americans’ dislike of profit economics is larger than ever. I’ll mention some of the ways anger at the financial basis of our land is showing itself today.

1) Even as Americans are trying to get jobs, and are dutifully working longer hours, there is an atmosphere of ill-nature and resentment at most workplaces. People are more aware than ever that they’re being seen in terms of how much can I get out of you?—and they hate it.

2) Increasingly, anger in the workplace has taken the form of physical violence. Sometimes that anger makes news because it becomes homicide. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, between “2004-08, an average of 564 work-related homicides occurred each year in the United States.”

3) The drug use that Mr. Siegel spoke of in 1971 is more widespread. The December 2010 newsletter of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA Notes) has the headline “Drug Abuse at Highest Level in Nearly a Decade.” Further, over the decade “drug abuse among those aged 50 to 59 doubled.” People of all ages and job descriptions are deeply repulsed by how they’re seen and used economically, and how they’re compelled to see others—as beings to beat out. So there is a desire to get away from things, through, among other means, drugs, and certainly alcohol.

Among the persons inwardly disgusted with profit economics—however much money they make from it—are executives. It’s no secret that substance abuse is popular among the corporate mighty. There are drug rehab programs geared to business executives.

4) The use of foul language, by people of all ages, has increased. A person who sees the world as friendly, including economically, does not feel impelled to the sneering, dismissive, triumphantly contemptuous expletives.

5) Young people throughout America see their parents worried about money and humiliated by not being able to find work. And, as I said earlier, millions of these children do not have the food they need. High school students see an economic future that looks bleak.Young people are furious at a world which has an economy so insulting to them. They may lash out at that world through bullying. And, as Mr. Siegel says, “they go away from” the world—sometimes through drugs, and through not taking in knowledge presented in a classroom.

We have, Aesthetic Realism explains, an attitude to the world that affects everything we do. And to have contempt for the world is the greatest danger for every person. Getting rid of reality through drugs is one form of contempt; there are many others. People are using our unjust economy to have contempt for the world itself. That’s not how it should be used. We should be critical of the profit system, intensely, and use our criticism to see what we truly want.

What we want economically, Eli Siegel described in Self and World in the 1940s: “The world should be owned by the people living in it. Every person should be seen as living in a world truly his.” That is the only thing that will satisfy Americans. It is the only thing that will work.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Psychology & Economics Meet

By Eli Siegel

Scharfenberg says, about Herbie Akers’ continued use of drugs:

This was shielded from his parents who, by the testimony of their children, were heading “a good home, a close family.”

It seems that his younger brother and sister knew Herbie was given to nepenthe, as Poe said, and the lotus of our time. But the parents were too busy making good. So the other children, while different from Herbie, still didn’t tell everything to their parents. There is a situation in a home presented here that is very worth looking at. It is so usefully “normal”—in quotes.

Herbie Akers grew up in what could be called an ordinary American family. His father started out as a salesman in Norfolk, Va. “Our first house,” Akers said, “was purchased with $100 down and $200 in closing costs.”

I’m reading this because it’s a refutation of all the stock reports that have appeared in the last three months. It will be a refutation of perhaps all the stock reports appearing in the next few months. The American people, I say definitely, don’t like the profit system now.

Neither of the senior Akers went to college. Now, their son, Robert, 19, is an art student at the Maryland Institute of Art.

It seems the art student is, at least at 19, a little more of this world than the older son, given to engineering and other things.

Back in 1968, Herbie had a year at Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, dropping out, his parents said, after becoming involved with drugs.

Akers is now a manager for a manufacturing company....“I’ve been very lucky and very successful,” Akers said. “I guess it was a hard act to follow.”

Akers became a parent, but didn’t see being a parent as the first order of things in his life. The getting ahead was just as important.

His father...was very disappointed when Herbie failed to gain admittance to Virginia Polytechnic Institute. But he went off to Old Dominion vowing to make the dean’s list as an engineering student. And at first, his parents said, he did well.

If he wanted to be an engineering student, quantity or mathematics in some way meant a great deal to him.

When he came home for Christmas vacation, however, they noticed a change. “Arrogance” is the only word they could think of to describe it.

The human being goes from meekness to arrogance. And he goes from having to look at conscience to taking a trip away from it. The phrase “a trip,” about drugs, means a going away.

His brother, Robert, said Herbie confided to him during that vacation that he was “smoking grass.” Herbie went back to school but his marks fell off.

This meant that at school he didn’t have the means of elevating himself, expanding his internal economy in a way he’d have liked.

He Didn’t Like It

“By the time summer vacation arrived in 1968, the Akers had moved to Atlanta.” Herbie Akers felt he had to go where his father and mother went. About this time he showed he didn’t like what was asked of him.  He felt that looking at ants was more quieting:

Herbie spent much of his time in the woods behind the house, sitting by a stream. He became so interested in ants that he took books out of the local library to read about them.

Most often one doesn’t have an interest in engineering and entomology at once. Ants are very good engineers, but you can’t learn how to build a bridge from them.

Robert said his brother was also smoking marijuana back there. His parents said they knew nothing of it. Herbie finally broke the news that he wasn’t returning to school despite the fact that his father had already sent in $200 to reserve his place.

It seems that Herbie got a certain satisfaction in defying the male parent. Even though this story is more copious than most news stories of the kind, it doesn’t have everything. It could have a few more chapters.

Herbie finally took a job as the manager of a 7-Eleven Store in Atlanta. He did well and saved $1,000.

I guess what happened was: he felt that he had hurt his father very much, that he had shown his power enough. And he became docile for a while and did well in this 7-Eleven store.

During that time, his father said, they had a number of discussions about the future. “I think I got across. At least, I thought so.”

That’s one of the great delusions of parents: thinking they got across.

Then the store wanted to transfer him to another branch. He needed a car. But his father refused to cosign a bank loan because Herbie had a draft classification of 1A.

About this time, in order to perplex the already perplexed domestic situation, our armed forces get into the picture. It must be said that at certain times a good many of the persons who got draft notices just loved it: this is a wonderful patriotic way of leaving home. There are some who kiss their draft notices and say, “All my problems are solved! I not only can leave my parents but I’m a patriot.” There ought to be a sign: “Join the Marines and have no more trouble with your father and mother.” But it’s a high price to pay.

Different Ways of Seeing

Herbie left his job and took about five weeks off. His father spoke to him. “I’ve worked hard,” Akers said, “and I’m impatient with people that don’t work hard.”

There are people like that. There are people who, as far as they can see, can’t stand idlers, or persons who feel that they should idle as often as possible.

“I told him, “Herbie, you can’t sit around and look at the ants all day.’ ”

Scharfenberg is very much aware of his literary manner here.

In May, 1969, Herbie enlisted in the Air Force. At Christmas that year Herbie told the family he was getting out of the service....Mrs. Akers thought the discharge was due to a bad back. But Robert said...the real reason was [Herbie’s] involvement with drugs and insolence toward superior officers.

Last June, the Akers moved to Rockville [Maryland]. Herbie came north a month later, ...and took a job as a dental technician.

That may have pleased his desire for engineering and also a human sense.

The Attraction of Drugs

Robert said Herbie told him last week that he was “never going to use a needle again.” Robert was convinced that Herbie was off drugs.

But once you have a sense of peace and repose from something, you don’t give it up easily. Any person who has been allowed house-room for a while in heaven is not going to give up his claim, and people have felt, “When I took LSD I had house-room in heaven.”

Last Thursday, Robert said, Herbie...showed his brother drugs that he had obtained, including two LSD tablets. “A quarter tab will do it,” Herbie told his brother. None of the Akers could explain why Herbie suddenly returned to drugs.

The battle of liking yourself and not liking yourself is around. Herbie had the big battle everyone has of contempt and respect. If you can’t settle it, drugs come in very handy.

On Friday night...[Herbie] went to a friend’s house. He did not return until 9 a.m. Saturday. His parents were upset at his over-night absence and Robert, angry because his brother had upset their parents, refused to speak with him until Sunday afternoon.

Robert’s position must be unusual. He had to try to understand his brother and at the same time act as a buffer between him and their parents. That’s no life for an art student.

When he finally went into Herbie’s bedroom, Robert found Herbie crawling on the closet floor. Herbie, glassy-eyed and groping with his arms in the air, told his brother he had taken “a full tab.”

There is not yet an agreed upon description of just what LSD can do to one. It seems to do many things. It can get you crawling on the floor. This did—and his arms in the air too.

At 10 p.m., Mr. and Mrs. Akers went to bed. An hour and a half later, Robert, growing more concerned, called Hotline, a Rockville service that informs callers on how to deal with drug problems.

Throughout America

At this time, the question of drugs unifies the country. South and North are at last in agreement: drugs are wherever a state capital is. In fact, they’re almost wherever a county seat is, and that’s saying a lot. Drugs cover the country. And they show a dissatisfaction with the basis of the land’s activity.

“They said to stay with him, to reassure him,” Robert recalled. And he did. By 4 a.m., “he seemed to be coming out of it,” Robert said. “By 6 a.m. he seemed to be just like anyone who came out of a heavy sleep.”

It happens that parents know their children take drugs but seem to come out of it. What is not realized, and it’s not realized too well by the persons themselves, is the shame of having to deal with the world in this way.

At 7:30, Mrs. Akers knocked on Herbie’s bedroom door, and it was then that Herbie told her he was too sick to go to work. She left to visit a friend.

This activity or episode or procedure, of a mother knocking on a son’s door and waking him up, hoping he can go to work, is so much like things that have appeared in novels; in novels in France, Germany, England. And we have it now: that early morning mother’s solicitude.

At noon, Robert left for art school in Baltimore. He returned at about 3:30 p.m. and went directly to his brother’s room....“I don’t know whether you’ve ever seen a dead person. The color of the skin is unbelievable. I touched his arm. It was stiff. He was yellow.”

So he shows his interest in color.

“I picked up his head and there was blood everywhere on the pillow.” Later, police found in the bedroom a .22-caliber pistol Herbie had purchased in Atlanta and a quantity of hashish and marijuana.

A novel would tell how he got the pistol. Apparently they sold it in Atlanta.

A Quotation

On the wall of the room was a poster given to Herbie by his father with a quotation from novelist James Baldwin: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Somehow a person like James Baldwin could say something that is a little like a slogan of 1910. That is: if you have a difficulty, you have to face it. What is said here is in that poem which appeared in many offices in 1910, Kipling’s “If”—other people are not facing it, but you can face it.

This story is mighty important. I have given a subtitle to it: “Psychology and Economics Meet.”