|NUMBER 1834.—October 24, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue our serialization of Instinct: Beginning with Shelley, by Eli Siegel. It is one of the many lectures he gave on the subject of instinct in 1964 and ’5. These were wide-ranging and great: definitive, scholarly, even as they also had informality, charm, immediacy, humor. In the present lecture, of March 1965, he uses as text Percy Bysshe Shelley’s essay “On Love,” as a means of looking at an instinct which seems to have with it so much confusion, variety, beauty, ecstasy, pain: the instinct to love. His purpose, he says, is to relate love to all the other instincts. And as he does, we see in motion this principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
As a prelude, I am going to comment on lines from two poems Shelley wrote in 1819. They are not about love, but about a matter insisting in America now, however much politicians try to evade it: To whom should our nation belong? To whom should our world belong? Here are four stanzas of Shelley’s “Song to the Men of England”:
Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?
Wherefore feed, and clothe, and save,
From the cradle to the grave,
Those ungrateful drones who would
Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood?
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
Have ye leisure, comfort, calm,
Shelter, food, love’s gentle balm?
Or what is it ye buy so dear
With your pain and with your fear?
The seed ye sow, another reaps;
The wealth ye find, another keeps;
The robes ye weave, another wears;
The arms ye forge, another bears....
The Profit System & Instinct
It is nearly 200 years since Shelley wrote these lines. They are about the profit system: economics based on seeing other human beings in terms of how much money you can extract from them and their labor. Shelley hated it. He saw men, women, and children hungry in England, with terrible, wasted lives, because the basis of jobs, whether in the fields or in factories, was the profit system: you work; and the employer takes the wealth you produce and gives you, in pay, as little as he can. That is the basis, still, in America now.
In the section of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel speaks about the fact that all instinct has to do with ourselves and what’s not ourselves. These are opposites. “Instinct,” he says, “goes toward oneself and goes toward something else; all instinct does.” The central matter in our lives is how we relate our treasured self to “something else”: the world outside us—including other people. There are two big instincts which Aesthetic Realism shows to be fighting in us all the time, and each involves those opposites of self and world. One is the instinct to respect: to see meaning and value in what’s not us, with the sense that doing so makes us more ourselves. This instinct is the deepest, most beautiful, most practical we have. But it’s at war with a second instinct, for contempt: to lessen, look down on, manipulate what’s not us, as a means of falsely making ourselves important.
Contempt is the stupidest and cruelest of instincts. It has thousands of forms and is gigantically popular. People feel their contempt is not only practical but a sign of their smartness. Contempt can be a wife’s smug inward triumph in finding her husband once again foolish. It can be a husband’s taking his wife for granted: I married her; she’s mine; she no longer has mystery. And the using of people as mechanisms for one’s financial aggrandizement is sheer contempt. It has caused tremendous suffering. And every person who has taken part in using people that way has been profoundly ashamed, no matter how much the person may bluster or act smooth or put himself forth as having “entrepreneurial spirit.”
Shelley calls the employers of England “drones”—in keeping with the meaning given in Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and merriam-webster.com: a drone is “one that lives on the labor of others: PARASITE.” When your financial comfort arises from taking the wealth that others produce, you have a state of mind that says: I want to get as much as I can out of you while giving you the least I can get away with. And so, as Shelley saw, people were made to work for barely enough—often not enough—to keep themselves and their children alive.
He saw that to use another human being for profit was robbery. He put it this way: “The seed ye sow, another reaps; / The wealth ye find, another keeps.” Find here means “obtain by effort” (Webster’s). Shelley said to the people of England: The bosses engaged in robbing you, and the persons in government who support them, are extinguishing your very life: they “Drain your sweat—nay, drink your blood.”
Then & Now
A great deal has happened to the world since 1819. Of those happenings, none is more important than what Eli Siegel described in 1970: economics based on using human beings and the earth itself for the financial profit of some private individuals, no longer works. He explained:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
In his Goodbye Profit System lectures, he gave the historical reasons for the profit system’s failure. The fact that contempt no longer works as a basis for economics is, he said, a victory of ethics—ethics as a force in reality.
The present economic anguish in America and elsewhere arises from efforts, huge and cruel, to keep profit economics going when it simply is no longer able to prosper. As I’ve written in this journal: the only way now that certain private individuals can make big profits is for more and more people to become poorer and poorer—for people to live increasingly as they did in 1819. Another poem Shelley wrote that year is “The Mask of Anarchy.” In it he speaks about freedom, and says something exceedingly important: economic justice is fundamental to freedom. To say there’s freedom when people don’t have what they need in order to live, is a travesty. Shelley writes—again, to the people of England:
What is Freedom? —Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.
’Tis to work, and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs.
Then, addressing Freedom itself, he says, You will exist only when people have the money they need:
For the laborer thou art bread
And a comely table spread,
From his daily labor come
In a neat and happy home.
Thou art clothes, and fire, and food
For the trampled multitude;
No—in countries that are free
Such starvation cannot be
As in England now we see.
“The Mask of Anarchy” concludes with Shelley saying to his countrymen:
Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth, like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many, they are few!
Those lines have to do with the fact that there is an instinct in people against the profit system. One may be, as Shelley puts it, asleep to that true instinct for many years. The outrage at profit economics is closer to the surface, much more part of everyday life, than it was in 1819, or 1909, or 1969. It is an aspect of our instinct to be treated justly. It has nothing to do with political parties. Millions of people throughout America feel they are being used contemptuously, to enrich some boss or corporation, and they’re furious.
There are various persons in business and politics who are trying to have Americans not see what our own instinct and increasingly conscious objection are really about. These persons are trying to fool us into thinking we resent something else: maybe immigrants; or teachers; or that which will really enable us to get the economic justice we deserve—unions.
Nevertheless, there is an instinct for justice. Shelley had it and tried beautifully to be true to it—as Eli Siegel did even more greatly. That is the instinct, also the world force, which is insisting now.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Instinct Is about Self & World
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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