Keenness, America, and the Economy
Dear Unknown Friends:
We begin our serialization of the great lecture Poetry and Keenness, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. In it he explains what keenness is—in reality itself, and as a quality of mind: "Keenness is the world coming to a point....It always means a destruction of the world as meaningless, as having nothing but surface and flatness, dullness, or sameness." To see with full, true keenness is really equivalent to what Aesthetic Realism shows is the purpose of our lives: to like the world honestly, to have respect for it.
The way we want our minds to be is described in this Aesthetic Realism principle: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Every person wants a mind that is keen and at the same time wide, comprehensive, kind. But people have the pain of feeling that when they are "keen" they are not kind; and when they are deeply moved they are no longer acute.
The big difficulty is that there is a false notion people have of keenness. This false notion arises from the thing in us which Mr. Siegel identified as humanity’s largest danger: contempt, the "disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." The desire for contempt has people feel that keenness is the ability to spot the weakness in anybody, and also find the way to beat that person out. We should be able to cut through a surface and see weakness or evil where it is. But we’re not keen unless we want intensely to see what may be meaningful and good, and care for it with fulness.
Contempt uses the opposites, and falsifies them. While our contempt "keenly" focuses on the cheapness and imperfections in things (and makes up some that don’t exist), our contempt also makes the world flat, dull, gray, fuzzy—a world in which we are unstirred, disgusted royalty.
There is in America now insufficient keenness about a huge matter: the economy. The result of this non-keenness is a continental distress and agony where there could be beauty and happiness. As I have described in previous TROs, all over America people are being told by the media that the economy is "booming"—and yet the people of America do not feel their economy is booming. They are working longer hours, often at more than one job, and getting paid less; millions lack benefits; they worry every day about whether they’ll be able to buy food and clothes for their children, and pay the rent; more Americans than ever are declaring bankruptcy; they are perpetual temporary workers with the constant humiliation and torment of not knowing whether they’ll have a job next week. What is present in people all across this land is a mingling of enormous anger about money and work —and something like tepidity, flatness, blur, morass.
Profit Economics Has Failed
In 1970, Eli Siegel explained what is true: a way of economics based on contempt has failed. That is, profit economics is based on seeing a person, not in terms of what he deserves and needs, but as a source of profit for oneself. This failure of an unjust way of using human beings, Mr. Siegel explained, is a victory for humanity. It is a result of the force of ethics working in history. Various press persons, economists, and others whose self-importance is tied up with profit-making want Americans not to see keenly that this profit economy is a non-recovering thing. The fact is, the profit system everywhere in the world can now go on at all only if more and more people become poorer and poorer. And that is what is happening—most people have less, so that a few people can make a lot of money.
So we have an atmosphere in America of people furious about having to work so much for so little and be so worried—yet around that fury, and often muffling it, is a kind of dimness and thickness and blur. The dimness arises essentially from two things: 1) When you’re told constantly that the economy is flourishing, you can feel that you’re not really seeing what you’re seeing. 2) Though people feel more intensely that they hate being used as some tool for someone’s profit, they don’t see any attractive alternative to the way of economics they’re so angry at; so they deeply try to make their objection blunter, softer, less fierce, less urgent.
Tepidity and Outburst
When you’re against something very much, yet you don’t want to see keenly and clearly what you’re against, you can be in an awful state. And that state is throughout America. It takes the form of a terrific, inexact, encompassing grouchiness, a bad temper and general soreness in workplaces, stores, homes, and on the roads. While there is a kind of torpor, murk, mutedness with which millions of individual Americans seem to take the economic brutality to which they’ve been subjected, there is also within those individuals a desire to explode, to let loose with rage. This is a bad relation of dullness and keenness.
A just anger that one does not try to see clearly, can take an unjust and terrible form. And that is going on. While anger about economics in America, which people are not trying to be exact about, is, as I said, taking the form of daily ill nature, there are also violent outbursts—in homes, at jobs, on highways. This rage about economics, which people have muted and haven’t tried to give accurate form to, is one of the reasons violence in films and on television is so popular. We will either want to see what we feel clearly, keenly —or we’ll have both dullness and a relish for some contemptuous release through which we can feel we’ve swiftly annulled an unfriendly world.
What Has Been Encouraged?
Here I say too, with brevity but carefulness: the atmosphere in America I have been describing is one of the causes of the horrible murders in American schools—the shootings by students in Oregon, Pennsylvania, Arkansas, Tennessee, and elsewhere.
A 15-year-old who opens fire in a high school cafeteria does so, Aesthetic Realism explains, because he dislikes intensely the world itself. All those people who can be mowed down with a gun stand for a world he sees as unfair to him and as an ugly mess. Every day, people put the world contemptuously in its place—make themselves annihilatingly superior—by closing their eyes and having everything disappear; by using some swift obscenity; by kicking the world out through drugs or alcohol. Then, one can do it with utterness, through a gun.
The principal cause of the killings was dislike of the world and a desire to punish it triumphantly, with a thorough contempt. But it happens that young people in America see a murky, inaccurate anger all around them: the anger about economics I have been describing, which people, adults, have changed into messy dislike of the world instead of trying to be clear about it. The boys who committed those murders felt deeply, "Other people don’t respect the world much either. They want me to behave, but they’re grouchy, angry people themselves pretending to be nice and polite. They don’t have the guts to do what I’m going to do."
The dangerous fury of young people is abetted by violent films and games, yes; but it is also abetted by a mood of murky displeasure in this nation. I am quite sure that the recent dyings of high school students through other students’ weapons would not have occurred, had there not been the massive fakery by press and others—the saying that a failed, inhuman economic way is flourishing and is "American." I say too, very swiftly: the murders would not have occurred had Aesthetic Realism been known throughout this nation and had the magnificently kind and successful Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method been in use in all America’s schools.
The True Keenness about the Economy
The true keenness Americans want to meet and have about what they are enduring economically, exists in the work of Eli Siegel. There are, for example, these words of his, passionate and exact:
Man should not make money from man! That was justice five thousand years ago, but it didn’t have a chance to show its power until now....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. [Goodbye Profit System: Update (Definition Press, 1982), pp. 82, xxxiii]
Americans will be proud when they see keenly what Mr. Siegel explained: what needs to replace an economy based on ill will is something that has not been before in history—economics based on ethics and aesthetics. That means: producing, buying, selling need to be (and can so gracefully be) a oneness of the opposites Self and World, One and Many—care for one’s own precious individual self and the desire to be vividly just to men, women, and children not oneself.
What Americans need to see keenly is this huge feeling in them: "I want to like myself for how I think about someone not myself. I’m ashamed of hoping that fellow, Fred, would lose his job so I could get it—the job I now have at this roofing company. I hate this profit system that has me want someone to flop, be weak. And I hate the way the boss wants to do ‘well’ through making me weak—paying me as little as possible, and trying to take as much as he can of the money he didn’t earn—the money my and the other workers’ hard labor produces. (One guy, Mike, has worked here for 20 years, and he’s only making $7 an hour.)
"Because we have the profit system the boss looks at people in terms of how much he can get from them, so I see him charging folks as much as he can for roofing products, even though a lot of them can’t really afford the price. But they need a decent roof, so maybe they won’t eat such good meals in the future, in order to pay for it. That’s the money my boss goes after! He has to make sure he doesn’t think about how these folks live and what they feel; just like he can’t think about who I am and my kids and my trouble paying the rent, if he’s going to use me to make money for himself. I’m furious at him—but I see that the profit system hurts him too: he can’t stand himself for thinking about people the way he does. I guess that’s why he has such problems with his stomach and is so nervous all the time.
"I love America, and I think it deserves something much better and more American than this awful way people have to work and go without things we need, and hope to beat out somebody, and feel we’re being rooked ourselves. I want to work—maybe making these shingles for people’s roofs—not in order to increase someone’s profit, but because this is a product that could strengthen people’s lives. I want to be paid in a way that’s respectful of who I am. I can feel expressed making people’s lives stronger. I want people in this country to think about each other proudly—you know, like the way Abraham Lincoln wrote in the Gettysburg Address, and the way that’s in the Declaration of Independence, and the way Eli Siegel wrote and spoke all the time. (I heard he once said, ‘Jobs for usefulness, not for profit!’) I want a really American economic system—where the money people earn isn’t stolen from them by some stockholder or boss.
"I want an American economic system—where a woman in New Jersey, packaging the milk my children need, can feel strong and expressed on her job because she owns that job; because her arms don’t ache; because she works in a way that’s not tedious and miserable since no one’s trying to squeeze as much profit from her as they can; because she feels the purpose of her work is to make children like mine stronger, even though she doesn’t know my children; because she feels I and other Americans want her to be all she can be, even though she never met me!"
This, expressed by a person we can call Jeff Stevens of Pennsylvania, is real American keenness. It is necessary.
In my opinion, Eli Siegel was the most truly, kindly, powerfully, gracefully, humorously, comprehensively keen person in history. And his lifework, Aesthetic Realism, is the education Americans long for now—with fervent keenness.