The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Lives, Feelings, & the Profit Motive

Dear Unknown Friends:

We have been serializing the great lecture Shame Goes with It All, which Eli Siegel gave in October 1970. It is one of his landmark Goodbye Profit System talks. And in it he is showing that economics based on the profit motive has always been accompanied by shame. That is because the seeing of other human beings in terms of how much money one can get out of them is a phase of contempt.

Contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” has thousands of forms. It is the motive that people think will take care of them, make them important; but it weakens the mind and life of the person having it, and it is the source of every instance of cruelty. Contempt makes us ashamed, because we were not born to lessen, weaken, manipulate, look down on what’s not us. We were born to see meaning in the world, know it, value it; and very much of the world is our fellow humans.

In his lecture Mr. Siegel gives instances—diverse, surprising, some subtle, all vivid—of the profit way of seeing and using people, with its ensuing shame. And by way of prelude, I’ll mention a very current instance.

On March 26, in New York City’s East Village, an explosion destroyed three buildings. There had been many apartments in those buildings, and the residents lost their possessions, their homes. Two people lost their lives. Twenty-two others were injured. The full cause of the conflagration that leveled the buildings is still being studied, but some things seem clear. New York Magazine wrote on April 1, “Authorities now believe [the explosion] was caused by an illegally tapped gas line.” That is: it seems the landlord of two of the buildings arranged a system for siphoning gas and getting it to the apartments in her building—either to avoid paying for the gas, or to keep the apartments usable and rents coming in even though utility workers had “determin[ed] that the building was not ready to receive gas on the upper floors.” The owner had been caught engaging in the same technique several months before.

Aspects of Profit Intertwine

Contempt-as-the-profit-motive is throughout this situation. First, there’s the energy company—which did not specifically cause the disaster. Yet it and companies like it across America are permitted to make private profit from a natural resource, which should belong to everyone, and which everyone needs. The companies are permitted to sell the nation’s gas and electricity to people who can’t live without it, at prices that will financially aggrandize certain individuals connected with the company. The situation is fundamentally crazy and ugly, and will be seen that way in the future. All over America, people look at their gas and electric bills, and their hearts sink at the money they must pay. Many Americans see they’ll have to cut down on food in order to keep the electricity on and have sufficient gas to heat their homes and cook with.

Then, there is the landlord-tenant matter. I know little about this particular landlord. However, we do have, with profit economics, a situation that is fundamentally ugly: millions of people cannot have a home, a place to live, a roof over their heads, unless they can supply someone else, a landlord, with the profit he or she desires. The idea of using someone’s need for a home as an opportunity to make oneself rich will be seen as barbaric. It is. And with this barbarism there has always been shame.

Just as, in the profit system, a boss wants to get for himself as much money as possible from someone’s labor, while spending as little as possible on wages and workplace safety—so a landlord wants to get as high rent as possible, while spending as little as possible to keep the building functional. And so, it seems a New York landlord felt: Why should I pay Con Ed—or be unable to collect rent until a system deemed safe is established—when I can get gas another way? Her purpose, the profit motive, apparently took a form that was illegal; had a result that was terrible. Meanwhile, does the motive as such have shame all around it: to see one’s fellow humans, and the circumstances under which they live, as means of getting money for oneself, and as much of it as one can?

In 1959 Eli Siegel wrote a poem which describes that motive: “Heaven for the Landlord; or, Forthwith Understands,” which appears in his book Hail, American Development and is very funny, yet also serious. The first four lines are:

The landlord’s Heaven is where

There’s a constant coming in of rent

And nothing at all is spent

On any repair.

That state of mind, so common, and told of musically here, made for catastrophe on Second Avenue.

A Purpose—& People’s Feelings & Safety

Our purpose with another person is either 1) to see him justly, and understand ourselves and reality better through understanding him; or 2) it is to make ourselves more through lessening him. The second purpose is contempt, and may take that monetary form which is the profit motive. The two purposes are mutually exclusive: while we’re after increasing ourselves through lessening another, aggrandizing ourselves through his weakness or his need, we cannot see that person justly. That fact is fundamental to the profit system: to see a person as an instrument for our pecuniary increase, in our minds we have to rob that person of fullness, not see him as having feelings as real as our own. In the process, we make the person’s need for safety unimportant, and unreal. Such a need is something we, the profit-maker, don’t like thinking about—because expenditures for safety cut into one’s profits. If authorities’ surmises are right, so it was recently in the East Village: the landlord made safety rather unreal, because the need for it interfered with what she was after.

In chapter 10 of his Self and World, “Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics,” one of the people Mr. Siegel writes about is Nathaniel Dresser, an “energetic purveyor of real estate.” Dresser is imaginary, but he is also real. Eli Siegel, writing in 1943, describes Dresser in the midst of the profit system: others are out to beat him—and he will try to beat them. I am quoting a few sentences because, with all the difference of time and selves, they stand for a landlord in today’s New York, trying perhaps to circumvent a gas company:

Dresser felt that he was either to outsmart or to be outsmarted….[He] resolved that he would not be holding the bag while [someone else] took a happy, profitable trip….The feeling of commercial battle grew in him. He made of selfishness a crusade. [P. 300]

If, again, officials are correct as to what occurred on Second Avenue, I am sure the landlord felt: “Here’s this gas company, Con Ed—they’re out to get as much money from me as they can. Well, I can outsmart them, and those snooping city officials too. Besides, the city’s regulations about safety are excessive anyway—the government’s just trying to stop people like me from making a living.”

The profit motive always has with it the feeling that other persons exist to be beaten; they are possible buyers, employees, or competitors. And there’s a contempt triumph in beating them. A landlord can feel, triumphantly, that she put one over on Con Ed, outsmarted them, beat them, as well as beating possible tenants. When you’re after beating out people, you cannot be fair to them.

I’ll mention another aspect of the shame present amid those now-destroyed East Village buildings. This phase of shame goes on in a quiet way throughout America and certainly in New York. If those three buildings were like other housing in the area, some persons in them were paying much lower rents than others, because, as longtime tenants, their apartments were rent-regulated. Newer tenants were paying gigantic rents—perhaps ten times higher. There is shame when someone can afford a very high rent and others cannot. Both resent the landlord: the higher-paying tenants feel they’re being rooked, though they can feel superiority at their ability to afford being rooked. The lower-paying tenants have a sense, sometimes with terrific and cruel evidence, that the landlord is trying to make them so uncomfortable they’ll move. (Meanwhile, even “regulated” rent can become so high that longtime tenants can no longer afford it.) Painful human emotions are entangled in profit-driven situations of real estate. These emotions are fierce and delicate. One of them is shame.

For economics to make for pride and kindness, it is necessary that it be based on that oneness of opposites which is aesthetics. A citizen needs to feel what an artist feels when he or she is making art: my own importance comes from justice—from seeing what’s not me with all the fullness, and exactitude, and good will I can!

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


A Way of Seeing People

By Eli Siegel

Another example of shame that has to do with money is in the more arrantly psychological field. The work I’ll read from has in it quite a few outlines for novels. It has more cases having to do with ill-doing children than almost any other work I know, though I’m sure there are some that have just as many. It’s Clinical Psychology of Children’s Behavior Problems, by C.M. Louttit. I’m going to read about one case that is such an inextricable mingling of vanity and money and delinquency and evil and uncertainty. But shame is there.

Case Number 24 is by Esther L. Richards, and the bibliographical reference is to her article “Formulating the Problem in Social Case Work with Children” (Mental Hygiene, 1927, 2:688-702).* The child told of is like other children in the book, but she got herself into a world with money, profit, and vanity. The writer says:

A.B. was a girl of nine years when she was brought to us by her foster parents because of persistent lying, petty stealing…, aggressive indifference, Bolshevistic attitude in school, and auto-eroticism.

One reason I’m reading this has to do with the phrase “petty stealing.” A phrase that is amazing is “Bolshevistic attitude in school.” That is so unscientific: this girl of nine was already studying Marx!

The patient was an illegitimate child who was given for adoption at two years by a child-placing agency to Mr. and Mrs. B., who were childless.

The profit system is still around the child placement business. There have been some scandalous articles about where the adopted children come from. They made one convinced more than ever that wherever human beings are and whatever they do, profit can be.

At four the foster parents began to notice the above complaints and took her to various doctors without improvement.

So these foster parents likely bought the girl somewhat, and at this time they didn’t like what they got.

The Foster Parents’ “Vanity”

Examination…showed a physically satisfactory girl, with an I.Q. of 125. She admitted all the accusations against her with an attitude of almost abstract indifference….The child was placed for a period of study in the neutral environment of a boarding home,…the parents agreeing not to visit her for a month. Two months here revealed the real facts of the case. The parents insisted on coming once a week…; they sided with the child against the boarding mother, who was attempting to carry out therapeutic suggestions given by us. For example, in an effort to interest the child in active play,…she was dressed in simple clothes….A.B. rebelled in favor of her former dainty dresses….She refused to walk half a mile to school with the other children….One day the foster mother arrived, and finding the child disheveled in a rough-and-tumble outdoor game, rebuked her for so forgetting her parents as to behave in such an unladylike manner.

I had a long talk with these foster parents of A.B., frankly telling them that they must choose between the health of this child and their own standards of foolish vanity which they wished to have exemplified in her.

So a foster mother can use a child to show off with.

They…finally took A.B. to Atlantic City…to make up to her for what they construed as “ridiculous punishment.”…A few months later the child-placing organization…wrote me that these foster parents were trying to take legal measures to return her to the organization as a “degenerate.” Meanwhile these same parents had been given by the child-placing organization another little girl, “to try for a few years.”…Last summer they returned this child, now eight years old, to the child-placing organization, saying that she had developed all the distressing behavior traits of the unlucky A.B.

There’s evil here, and vanity. But, as I said, there’s also a certain kind of profit, if you look deeply.

So, this is another instance of shame. Everybody involved had shame, including the therapeutic agency, the boarding home, the two parents, the two children, and others who are not mentioned. There is shame. And one can see it everywhere in the world. Shame is a persistent and immeasurably enveloping and permeating thing.

An Important Novel

I deal now with an example that is of the 18th century. The army draft system right now is going its way; it isn’t so flourishing. And it has been the using of people for certain purposes. One of these days there will be an accurate study of why the draft has existed at all.

Profit sometimes uses people indirectly; then, there is a direct use (and the profit may be gone after by government). For the moment I am talking about the pressing system in the 18th century: somebody walking in the seaport could suddenly have a group of persons about him saying “You have to come with us,” and, whether he wanted to or not, he would be put onboard a ship. There are sad stories about that. It was felt the navy needed the personnel: the king wants his navies manned.

These pressings occur in novels. And Smollett, in his first novel, in the 1740s, describes the pressing of Roderick Random into the navy. So Roderick Random became the first novel about the sea, of much note. It isn’t really very salty, but there is the sea in it. It’s not like Marryat and it isn’t like Forester. And it isn’t like Melville or Cooper. But it has something like the sea. It’s an 18th-century sea, but it’s the sea.

In reading this passage, I’m reading about the government profiting; there are people who profit through the government. If there is a disrespect for people, there is shame. And the profit system thrives on disrespect for people. This is from Roderick Random:

As I crossed Tower Wharf, a squat tawny fellow with a hanger by his side and a cudgel in his hand came up to me, calling, “Yo ho! brother, you must come along with me.”…I quickened my pace, in hope of ridding myself of his company; upon which he whistled aloud, and immediately another sailor…laid hold of me by the collar, and began to drag me along….I disengaged myself of the assailant, and, with one blow of my cudgel, laid him motionless on the ground; and perceiving myself surrounded in a trice by ten or a dozen more, exerted myself with such dexterity and success, that some of my opponents were fain to attack me with drawn cutlasses; and after an obstinate engagement, in which I received a large wound on my head, and another on my left cheek, I was disarmed, taken prisoner, and carried on board a pressing tender, where, after being pinioned like a malefactor, I was thrust down into the hold among a parcel of miserable wretches….

As the commanding officer had not humanity enough to order my wounds to be dressed, and I could not use my own hands, I desired one of my fellow captives who was unfettered to take a handkerchief out of my pocket, and tie it round my head, to stop the bleeding. He pulled out my handkerchief, ’tis true, but…went to the grating of the hatchway, and, with astonishing composure, sold it before my face to a bumboat woman then on board, for a quart of gin, with which he treated his companions, regardless of my circumstances and entreaties.

An Attitude to Man

This was an attitude of man to man, and it isn’t very good. The 18th century has much of it. The 18th Century is the first century to be aware of possibilities of greater kindness to man. And the 19th century followed. But we’re still not there. Burns said, “Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!” There should be countless thousands asking why, but there are not yet.

*Dr. Richards was associated with the Phipps Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore.