The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Freud, Debs, & the Cause of War

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 3 of Contempt & World War I, a 1975 lecture by Eli Siegel. One of the huge, terrible mysteries these many centuries has been What is the cause of war? Why have people of one nation, or clan, or tribe, felt driven to kill those of another? Why have “nice” young men (and later, women too) been so ready to end the lives of people much like themselves who happen to be of another country; and why have they gotten a satisfaction in humiliating and tormenting that “enemy”?

Eli Siegel is the philosopher and historian who has explained at last the cause of war. It is contempt: the desire—fierce yet also quiet and ever so ordinary—to make oneself more through seeing what’s not oneself as less. Within every person, contempt is fighting with another desire: to care for ourselves, be ourselves, through being just to the world different from ourselves.

People have not seen clearly either desire in them: contempt, which is the most hurtful thing in one’s life and the source of every cruelty; or that other purpose, good will, which is the deepest, most beautiful, most truly power-giving thing in self, the source of all kindness, intelligence, and art. Now, because of Aesthetic Realism, we have the means to understand the best and worst in us, and so be true to ourselves. Our fine possibilities can flourish, not be squelched by our own contempt. Also—because Aesthetic Realism explains the source of war, that ongoing horror can at last be no more.

Honesty about Mind

In the part of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel comments on Sigmund Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” of 1915. In the section published two weeks ago, he discussed an editors’ introduction to that essay. Freud, in Vienna, was immensely affected, as all Europe was, by the massive continuous killing that was World War I. But, Mr. Siegel pointed out, the editors do not have the integrity to say, nor does Freud himself, that the explanation of mind Freud had been giving simply could not account for the trenches, the gassing, the shelling and being shelled. In the earlier writings, Mr. Siegel notes,

Freud made the essential thing in man his attitude to sex and his procedures about it..., saying that man, unless he has a sex life that can be praised, cultivates neurosis. [TRO 1784]

Suddenly, in the 1915 essay Freud is no longer talking that way. Yet he lacks the honesty to state that the explanation of self he had been putting forth was untrue.

Today most therapists have abandoned the Freudian approach to self. But there has still, on the part of psychiatrists, not been a clear statement that “Freud was wrong about what humanity is. Psychiatry’s decadeslong adulation of him and its subjecting people to the Freudian ‘explanation’ of their hopes, fears, distresses, dreams, lives, was based on a lie.” This absence of honesty is tremendously important, because nothing matters more than what the self really is and what impels it. And I imagine readers of this periodical know: it’s my opinion that Aesthetic Realism explains the self that is ours, greatly and truly.

Poetry & People

We include in this issue two poems by Eli Siegel. In 1925, after winning the Nation poetry prize for his “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” he began to write as a commentator for the Baltimore American. That spring, Baltimore opened a Memorial Hall honoring soldiers who had died in World War I, and the April 5, 1925 issue of the paper contains “War Is Remembered”: four poems by Eli Siegel, each written from the point of view of a different person visiting the hall. We reprint here poems 1 and 4. (All four are in TRO 1522.) In the first, a mother speaks; in the fourth, a man who had fought in France and now cannot find work.

As Eli Siegel, at age 22, becomes these people, tries to feel what they feel, we have the way of seeing which is the real opponent to war. We will either feel that another person is as real as we are and that we are expressed through wanting to know what goes on within that person, his hopes, thoughts, worries—or we will feel apart from and superior to him. The first way of seeing is that of art. But apart and superior is what people largely feel: they do not see other persons as having inner lives as deep and real as their own. And with that so ordinary making less of others, we have the reason people have consented to serve in unjust wars. Mr. Siegel wrote in 1968, in his James and the Children: “As soon as you have contempt, as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.”

Further, as I described in the last issue, a person who dislikes the world can get a certain terrible contemptuous satisfaction having a representative of that world be swiftly annihilated or brutally humiliated.

Economics & War

The poem about the jobless former soldier has to do with economics. People have given various economic explanations of war. And many persons who were progressive said that the First World War was being waged for the profit of industrialists: working people were sent to kill and be killed so rich individuals could become richer. That is somewhat true, but it is not the fundamental cause of war, including World War I.

Aesthetic Realism explains that contempt is the cause of both unjust economics and the killing of 1914-1918. The former soldier who in 1925 could not find work is like millions of people today. They could be enormously useful, could make things and do things others need; but they’re not permitted to, because jobs are based, not on a person’s ability to be useful, but on whether one’s work can supply profits for somebody. For the economy of a nation, the work and lives of people, to be based on profit—on how much money somebody can make from your labor and your needs—is sheer contempt.

Among those who saw the First World War as arising from the profit motive was one of the kind, courageous people in American history: Eugene V. Debs. He was jailed in 1918 because of a speech he gave critical of America’s taking part in the war. Debs did not understand contempt: he did not understand why a young man who was not a capitalist could agree to run a bayonet through another young man, and even look forward to doing so. Debs did not see that contempt in millions of working people had them not try to understand what the war was about, not ask whether it was just. Their contempt had them simply assume that their nation was right and superior.

Yet when Debs spoke in a federal courtroom on September 18, 1918, just before being sentenced, what he said had in it the opponent of contempt and therefore of war. I quote from the beginning of his statement, with its famous and beautiful words:

Your Honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings....I said then and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

To see ourselves as related to the things and people not ourselves, is against war. What that means, how it is the same as real self-importance, and the same as happiness, and the same as art, is the magnificent, urgently needed study of Aesthetic Realism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


There Are Mind & War

By Eli Siegel

I’ll comment on the first paragraph of Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death,” which is as important as any in it. This part of the essay has the heading “The Disillusionment of theWar”—though Freud doesn’t make too clear what the disillusionment contained. Here is the first sentence:

Swept as we are into the vortex of this wartime, our information one-sided, ourselves too near to focus the mighty transformations which have already taken place or are beginning to take place, and without a glimmering of the inchoate future, we are incapable of apprehending the significance of the thronging impressions, and know not what value to attach to the judgments we form.

Freud could have said in 1915, and made as public as possible, that he didn’t know what in man’s mind, singly and as collective, made for the German invasion of Russia, or the Russian invasion of Austria. (Things like that happened. The Germans got into Russia, but the Russians invaded Germany too—Tannenberg is an early battle, a big victory of Hindenburg.) If Freud had said, “My psychoanalysis is not large enough to explain why this is going on,” I think his life would have been happier.

His psychoanalysis was not able to explain it. And you don’t have anything in his early works about, say, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, which Freud as a child was likely affected by. He was ten years old at the time. Or the 1870 war, the Franco-Prussian War. Or, for that matter, the Peace of 1878 (the Congress of Berlin), in which the two leading persons were Bismarck and Disraeli, and which had something to do with the war of 1914. There were a good many disturbances, and Freud was not interested. Two years before 1914 there was a Balkan war in which Italy took part.

There was enough to see that man could be something else than the person who goes to a classroom. The madness of war—and many persons thought that war was a madness—was not something that Freud was interested in. He’d have a hard time explaining the warfare between Bulgaria and Turkey on sexual terms, very hard. Or the discontent of Montenegro; it was small and discontent. Or the most turbulent places—you always get them together—Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Our information one-sided” means Freud had to read the Viennese newspapers, and could not read the English, or, for that matter, the American newspapers. I think that’s great social awareness on the part of the doctor: that maybe in reading the Vienna Tageblatt, or whatever it was, he didn’t get all the information that could have been provided by the Parisian newspapers— because I don’t think many Parisian newspapers got to Vienna at this time. But it’s good that he felt he mostly was reading the viewpoint of the Central Powers. I commend Dr. Freud. I don’t want to withhold any commendation. If he knew that reading only the newspapers of the Central Powers was not enough, I think that’s a height he should have attained elsewhere.

“...ourselves too near to focus the mighty transformations which have already taken place or are beginning to take place...” That is a way of saying that Sigmund Freud doesn’t understand what happened. I feel he underwent the privations the Viennese population did, from 1914 through 1918 and beyond. “...and without a glimmering of the inchoate future...” In 1915 Freud did not know what was going to be. It was hard to say.

“...we are incapable of apprehending the significance of the thronging impressions...” That’s wonderful: to see Freud talking this way, that he’s “incapable of apprehending the significance of the thronging impressions.” If he had done more of that later, I think it would have been more useful to mankind.

“...and know not what value to attach to the judgments we form.” There were all kinds of judgments, of gossip. In, say, August 1914 to August 1915, all the capitals had strange things said in them—Vienna, Berlin, Paris, Petrograd.

What People Felt

Then, the second sentence. Freud shows some social awareness, even if it’s in a world that’s bellicose:

We are constrained to believe that never has any event been destructive of so much that is valuable in the common wealth of humanity, nor so misleading to many of the clearest intelligences, nor so debasing to the highest that we know.

This is important because there was a feeling, Humanity has shown its sickness and its inadequacy in having this war! That was said in many ways everywhere in the world. Today, when people see what goes on in Ireland and the Middle East, and in Bangladesh, they feel humanity has not yet gotten out of elementary school, let alone high school.

“Never has any event been...so misleading to many of the clearest intelligences, nor so debasing to the highest that we know.” American professors came to learn of explanations in Germany. There was a book, a symposium of German professors explaining the German viewpoint toward the war for English-speaking readers. It was edited by Max Eastman. There were many things that should have been known in America and England, but all those learned German professors didn’t do a perfect job. And there were other works. Every German pundit, including classical scholars, explained why Germany was in the war. This was also done elsewhere; a good many important things were said, but the whole story wasn’t given. John Dewey explained why America might get into the war. Randolph Bourne objected. There are explanations by learned people in England, which German professors should have known. There was a war among the professors. Every professor, for some strange reason, stood up for his own country.

Science & Contempt

Then, Freud sees that the war was too much for German science and also English science. I wrote in The Aesthetic Nature of the World about the fact that a scientist can use his science to present a certain viewpoint that is narrow. Freud says:

Science herself has lost her passionless impartiality; in their deep embitterment her servants seek for weapons from her with which to contribute towards the defeat of the enemy.

This was true. Scientists became propagandists for the Berlin Chancellery.

Freud mentions anthropology, and that it was enlisted for the purpose of contempt: “The anthropologist is driven to declare the opponent inferior and degenerate.” Anthropologists may have done it, but nicknames came to be, and every country had a nickname. The Germans were “Heinies” and “Boches.” Meanwhile, Freud says the anthropologist used his science to make another person of Europe less. As soon as you’re angry, you get into the business of declaring your opponent “inferior” or “degenerate” or something else. You need to have the great comfort of contempt. This is as near as Freud gets to seeing contempt as a force.

The anthropologist is driven to declare the opponent inferior and degenerate; the psychiatrist to publish his diagnosis of the enemy’s disease of mind or spirit.

He says even psychiatry is used for this war purpose.

But probably our sense of these immediate evils is disproportionately strong, and we are not entitled to compare them with the evils of other times of which we have not undergone the experience.

Freud is sensible here, in being hesitant. He acts a little bewildered. He knows that science has not kept the faith. But his bewilderment is rather charming.


from War Is Remembered

Eli Siegel

1. A mother who lost her son in the war
sees the War Memorial Hall.

He is in his grave

Which I have never seen

And I am here,

In this great building that looks so well.

His grave must be small, and people

I’m sure never look at it.

Look at that great man make a speech;

He’s talking about my son, in this way.

I like the looks of this place,

But I’d rather see Tom’s grave.

And, Oh, God, I’d like to see him.

4. One of the jobless warriors of once sees it.

This place is swell, no getting away from that,

The walls so white and tall and clean.

The place is so big, I’d be scared to sleep in it.

I guess May and I will be moving soon,

Whether we like it or not.

Our three rooms could get in a corner of this,

And the plaster is falling off in places.

But they were pretty comfortable.

I was in one of those French places mentioned on the wall,

And I was glad to get back.

Now I’m not so glad.

I wish I could live in a place I’d like and could pay for.

Those three rooms of ours aren’t anything fancy at all,

But they cost too much for me now,

Who isn’t working.

It’s all right for people to have this hall, to remember the war by,

But I wish they’d remember all about it.