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.