Love, Economics, and Ordinary Contempt
Dear Unknown Friends:
We print the conclusion of Eli Siegel’s great 1970 lecture Selves Are in Economics. And with it is part of a paper presented last month at the Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Do Women Have a Fight between Love and Scorn?” It is by New York City elementary school teacher Lauren Phillips.
The thing in us that hampers and kills love; the thing that has made economics a field for ill will, cruelty, and suffering; that which weakens our mind and makes for all unkindness—is, Eli Siegel showed, the desire for contempt. He defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” I comment a little on a very elemental form of contempt, which people don’t know goes on in them day after day. It is the seeing of other things and people as less real than we are, and a concomitant desire not to be affected by them beyond a certain point.
You can be married to a person for 70 years and still not see that person as fully real. In fact, a representative wife does not give her husband a complete life in his own right. She sees him as an adjunct to herself, a supporting player in her drama, is principally interested in how he is as to her—not how he sees the world in all its fulness. Husbands diminish their wives’ reality in the same way. And so in marriages, amid all the devotion, there is an underlying, unarticulated resentment which is the largest resentment really between two people: “He/she doesn’t see me truly, and isn't interested in doing so.”
The seeing of another as less real than oneself is, from one point of view, expected: after all, it is our own skin that we’re under. But the lack of desire to combat it and go beyond it; the getting a satisfaction from seeing oneself as ever so vivid and others as dimmer and to be thought of as one pleases: that is contempt.
It has pervaded economics. The only way a person has ever been able to see others in terms of how much money he can get out of them, or how little he can pay them while pocketing the wealth they produce—is through making them less real than himself. Profit economics for centuries has been founded on this primal contempt: others exist less than you do. To employ children in your factory, you had to make them less real than your children. In the lecture we have been serializing, Mr. Siegel illustrates what he as philosopher and economist explained: that selves—the selves of real people—are the main thing in economics.
A Matter of Aesthetics
Aesthetic Realism shows that the life of everyone—whether president or toddler—is a matter of aesthetics: of two opposites that need to be one, self and world. “We all of us start with a here,” Mr. Siegel wrote,
ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there....We have to be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves. [Self and World, p. 91]
Part of giving things what they deserve is to want to be affected by them. And here there is a big fight in everyone. People want to have an interesting life, which means that things should affect us. But there is also a desire to be untouched within, to be “in oneself,” to have a wall between oneself and other things. People can like feeling they have a self inside that nothing can reach. They can, for instance, get a triumph having their own unseen thoughts in the midst of a conversation, as they nod and smile. They can have a smug satisfaction in spending hours unstirred by anything.
All this is contempt. It is completely opposed to art, which comes from a desire to be affected fully—exactly and fully. Beethoven, as artist, was never aloof. Shakespeare wanted the world to affect him all it could. There was no wall between the inner self of Cézanne and a table with fruit, or Mont Sainte-Victoire.
The ordinary desire to be unaffected has led to the cruelest matters in history. Everyone in the American South who was for slavery—and there were millions—was someone who made black persons unreal and chose to be unaffected by their feelings. But that desire to be unaffected did not begin with seeing persons of another race. It began with an attitude to the “great and diversified there,” reality itself.
In people everywhere, the desire to hold on to oneself and be affected only within limits is making for a deep feeling of “What does it all come to?,” a feeling that life is pretty hollow. People long for meaning. Yet people do go through their lives “in themselves” a good deal. In fact, this state is seen as so necessary for one’s sense of self-importance and supremacy, that a person can be furious when he feels more than he somewhere planned to feel. He can resent terrifically the thing or person who affected him so much.
One of the reasons Aesthetic Realism is great is that it gives the one true answer to this matter—and the answer is aesthetics. We have to see that the way to be ourselves is by wanting to be affected fully and exactly by the outside world: the world of leaves and sidewalks and history and people. That is what happens in art. “Take Whitman’s Song of Myself,” Mr. Siegel writes. “...As [Whitman] gives himself, without interior vanity wriggling, to what is, he feels that he is, and he is proud” (Self and World, p. 97).
This is the most necessary of studies—for everyone’s personal life, and for there to be justice among people. It is the study of Aesthetic Realism. I love Mr. Siegel for it, and for enabling me to have feeling and thought that are rich, wide, alive. He wanted to see the full reality of every person and thing. “All existence is one hundred hundredths,” he wrote. That is what he went by always, and it was beautiful.