Possibilities & America
Dear Unknown Friends:
Eli Siegel gave the lecture Possibilities of Aesthetic Realism in his historic Steinway Hall series of 1946 and ’47. It is published here, edited from notes taken at the time—notes that are quite fragmentary. Yet the main ideas and Mr. Siegel’s voice, his style, his large and kind way of seeing come through to us.
By “possibilities of Aesthetic Realism” he means the good that can come to be as Aesthetic Realism is studied. And it moves me very much to say, six decades later, that where and to the extent that Aesthetic Realism has been truly studied, those possibilities have become living beautiful realities.
One of the subjects Mr. Siegel comments on here is economics. Aesthetic Realism explains that every aspect of life is an aesthetic matter: composed of opposites that need to be made one as they are made one in art. And the chief opposites for us all the time are self and world. So let us look awhile at that tumultuous, worrisome thing, the economy, which appears so different now from how it seemed in 1946.
In the 1970s Mr. Siegel showed that history has reached the point at which the only economy that will work is one that is aesthetic and ethical. Our economy, to fare well today, has to be based on the idea that the way to take care of oneself is to want other people to get what they deserve. For centuries, world economics has been based instead on a horrible rift between these opposites. It has been based on the profit motive—that the way for me to get mine is to see others in terms of profit: I’ll extract as much labor from you as I can while paying you as little as possible; I’ll get the highest price from you I can for my product, no matter how desperately you need it and how little you can afford it.
The thing that has made economics ugly through the centuries and a global failure now, is contempt. Mr. Siegel showed this with wide-ranging examples and meticulous detail.
The Economy Today
An article on the website WalletPop.com gives as valuable a picture as any I’ve seen of the US economy today. It’s titled “You’ll Know the Recession Is ‘Really’ Over When…,” and I found it through a link on the aol.com home page. Author Ann Brenoff describes, through ten points, how people are now living and working in America. There is this in point 1:
Corporations [found] they could just dump more work on remaining staff when they axed people. With employees terrified that they might be let go next, everyone just sucks it up. Paying overtime? An antiquated tradition.
In point 2, Ms. Brenoff says many people
are getting by with odd jobs and holding garage sales every weekend for grocery money. There is a whole underground workforce who manage with a string of no-benefit part time freelance jobs. Nurses, lawyers, writers— they cobble together a series of gigs to pay the bills each month....If illness or misfortune should somehow befall the poor serf, there is no health coverage, paid time off, or disability insurance to kick in. And the business will just move on to the next serf.
Ms. Brenoff attributes this behavior to businesses’ “greed,” but the cause is more than greed in the customary sense. This forcing of uncertainty and misery and poverty on Americans is the only way to keep the profit system going. If people who work are paid well and treated respectfully, there will not be big personal profits for owners. It’s a matter of arithmetic. And Americans need to be clear about it. People have to see that either 1) they will have lives that are financially fair to them, and profit-based economics will no longer exist, or 2) they will be sacrificial lambs to maintain the profit system a while longer.
The Campaign against Unions
Those who want to keep the profit system going through the sacrifices of Americans are engaged in a massive lying propaganda campaign against unions. That is because unions have brought increased justice to people, in the form, for instance, of fairer wages, of vacation time, pensions, protection against arbitrary firing. And all these instances of dignity for people have cut into owners’ private profits.
A propaganda technique is to tell people: “Look at those wages, pensions, protections unions have gotten. You don’t have them, so no one should. They’re excessive. They are what’s interfering with the economy!” It’s like encouraging people who have been kept from knowing the alphabet to hate those who can read, when instead they should say “We have a right to read too!” Americans should feel: what unions have brought to people, everyone should have—and more.
But people in this nation have been led to feel that through their living as Ms. Brenoff describes, and worse, somehow profit economics will recover and the sacrifices won’t have to go on. It hasn’t recovered, and it won’t. The true alternative to the current failure is aesthetics and ethics: an economy different from any that has ever been, based on this question asked by Eli Siegel, “What does a person deserve by being a person?”
A Way of Mind
As we look at America now, it’s important to understand the state of mind of persons who are vociferously presenting themselves as against “government.” They’ve been encouraged by various politicians and media personalities and backed financially by wealthy individuals, all of whom want America to exist for the aggrandizement of certain people, not the well-being of all. I’m not talking about political parties but about ethics, and a way of mind that has existed through the centuries.
A means to understand this way of mind is through a man in American literature: Pap Finn, father of the title character of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. In chapter 6, Huck tells about Pap’s anger at the “govment.” The description begins: “Whenever his liquor begun to work, he most always went for the govment. This time he says: ‘Call this a govment!...A man can’t get his rights in a govment like this.’”
Certainly there can be things, sometimes tremendous ones, to oppose in governments. In his great 1951 lecture on Huckleberry Finn, Eli Siegel explained:
There are various ways of being against the government....There are many persons who run the government who are against it—because they are for the government as long as it goes their way.
The one big revolt against the government in America was the Civil War, when the Southern slaveholders didn’t like not having their way, so they decided they wouldn’t let the government go on, and they’d get out of it, and take United States property with them....
Well, Pap Finn—he was against the government in a certain manner. He didn’t have his way, and he didn’t like that.
What Will Make Us Sure?
Pap Finn—along with being a mean person, who beats his son and wants to take his money—is a person who is very unsure of himself. Today in America, the failure of the profit system has made various people intensely unsure. Even if they weren’t rich, they liked associating themselves with the wealth and snobbery that big profit-making has with it. They liked being able to look down on persons worse off than themselves. The uncertainty of the economy makes all that less easy.
When we’re unsure, we’ll try to get sure either through wanting to know, through thought that’s deep and wide, or through contempt. Pap Finn does not like to think—and there’s something of him in everyone.
People have been angry with “govment” because through its actions they cannot feel superior to others as fully as they would like. Pap Finn, in pre-Civil War Missouri, includes in his fury at the government the fact that he saw a black man—unenslaved, from Ohio—who was educated and had confidence:
“And what do you think? They said he was a p’fessor in a college, and could talk all kinds of languages, and knowed everything. And that ain’t the wust. They said he could vote, when he was at home. Well, that let me out. Thinks I, what is the country a-coming to?... And to see the cool way of that... —why, he wouldn’t a give me the road if I hadn’t shoved him out o’ the way.”
Mark Twain is chilling and humorous and courageous. But there is a feeling in people that government should exist to give me my way and have me feel superior; and if in some fashion, even a feeble fashion, it enables people I look down on to get a little justice, I should hate it.
The alternative is the aesthetic way of seeing oneself, people, and the world—which Eli Siegel describes in the following lecture of 1946.