The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Profits & Feeling in America

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are proud to publish, from notes taken at the time, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on April 17, 1947, at Steinway Hall. In The Unconscious of America, he explains what people now, six decades later, need to know: what is the biggest question in the life of each of us, and also the biggest question America as nation needs to answer.

“The unconscious” is not talked about as much as it used to be. In 1947, when this lecture was given, the Freudian picture of the unconscious was everywhere one turned. It was a baleful, sexual, scary, quite weird unconscious. In fact, the unconscious as Freudian psychology presented it, simply does not exist. It doesn’t correspond to what a person is or has.

Meanwhile, today most people would grant that there are things in them they don’t know, that they’re affected in ways they don’t understand. In the 1940s, Mr. Siegel gave this description of the unconscious—so clear, and so different from the murky cauldron Freud depicted: “The unconscious is, most deeply, what we want which we don’t know we want” (Self and World, p.112).

What every person wants, Aesthetic Realism shows, is to do what art does: we want to put together opposites, beginning with the most fundamental opposites—care for the self which is ours, and justice to the unlimited world different from us. The interference in us with our doing this well is something we mostly don’t see; yet we can learn to see it clearly. It’s contempt, the desire to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is the ugly thing in everyone; it’s that from which every cruelty comes.

The Growing Awareness

There is no bigger matter concerning consciousness in America than the increasing awareness of Americans that they hate the profit motive. For example, more and more people of this land are conscious of something which once persons felt much more inchoately: that they resent, terrifically, being seen and used as a means of somebody else’s profit.

In the 1970s, Eli Siegel explained that economics based on that contemptuous way of using people had failed after hundreds of years. The present financial crisis of America and so many nations is part of the profit system’s failure. And, Mr. Siegel explained, the only way now for an economy to be efficient is for it to be based on ethics, the conscious asking, “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Inseparable from that question is another, which we need to ask consciously: On whose behalf should the earth of America, and her resources, be used?—which means, by whom should America be owned?

Weeks ago I wrote about the explosion and ensuing oil spill off Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico. It’s clear to millions of Americans that this spill, which is really a continuous gushing, was caused by the profit motive. Millions of people are conscious that the company, BP, did not take the needed precautions, and for only one reason: to do so would have cut into BP’s profits, which mattered much more to it than people’s lives. There is fury in America about this fact.

People see, on television and online, oil constantly surging into our waters; pristine beaches defiled with oil; magnificent birds, covered in black oil, dead or suffering. They hear anguished fellow citizens tell how they’ve lost their livelihoods. Seeing and hearing this, Americans feel nauseous. It’s a nausea with consciousness: a disgust at the profit motive and what it does.

Coincidentally, in his 1947 lecture Mr. Siegel mentions another terrible explosion in the Gulf. It had occurred the previous day, and was to be known as the Texas City Disaster. In the harbor a fire began in a ship, which was carrying about 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate as well as sisal twine and small arms ammunition. The massive explosion that took place ignited other ships, oil refineries, and chemical plants. At least 581 people died and over 5,000 were injured. It has been called the worst industrial accident in US history.

According to the website of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1259, when flame was first spotted on the ship the Captain said “he did not want to put out the fire with water because it would ruin the cargo.” So in order not to jeopardize profits, less reliable methods were used—which did not work. Again, we see a choice in behalf of profit rather than people’s lives, and the horrific results of that choice.

In 2010, more than ever before, there is a widespread conscious association of the profit motive with unfeelingness and cruelty. To be sure, there can still be a glamorizing of the go-getting entrepreneur, but such a character is not seen as the ideal he once was; indeed, he’s more often presented as a villain. There is much propaganda in the media from persons with power who have made the profit system equivalent to their self-importance: they’re working hard to stop Americans’ growing consciousness that the profit motive is against our lives. This truly patriotic consciousness is increasing nevertheless.

There Are Emerson & Oil

In his 1847 poem “Hamatreya,” Ralph Waldo Emerson criticizes the greed of some early settlers of Massachusetts. He says earth itself objects to their desire to grab more and more of the land, make many acres of it belong only to them and their offspring. Emerson has earth make fun of this profit system greed—the land, he felt, was not meant to be owned in this contemptuous way. He writes:

Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys

Earth proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs.

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Ah! the hot owner sees not Death, who adds

Him to his land, a lump of mould the more.

One can find in the BP oil spill a symbolism that is in keeping with Emerson’s view. One can feel the relentlessly erupting earth saying, “You profit boys thought you could manage me, control me, take my resources not to benefit people but to aggrandize yourself. I’ll show you who’s more powerful. I’ll have oil pour forth in a way you can’t control.”

The trouble with that symbolism is, it doesn’t allow for the fact that the spewing oil is punishing not just the profit boys but so many others. Therefore I offer another instance of symbolism. The spewing, spreading oil, with its toxicity, its bringing disease and death and misery to living things, stands for the profit system itself, which has damaged the lives of people century after century. The profit motive is the foul thing which had little children work in mines. And an economy based on it is why so many people are jobless now: though they could be useful, they’re able to work only if someone can make profit from their labor.

Deep in the American people is the feeling: “Human beings and the American earth do not exist to be used for someone’s private profit. America’s earth and waters belong to all of us.” This is the feeling that—despite the effort to stop it—is increasingly conscious. It is true Americanism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Unconscious of America

By Eli Siegel

The unconscious as seen by Aesthetic Realism isn’t the same as what’s talked about glibly by psychoanalysts in Park Avenue offices, or in psychosomatic medicine. The unconscious is that in ourselves which affects us, which we don’t know.

The unconscious of America would consist of what is in common in every person, past and present, in America, which he hasn’t known. The Puritan of 1650 was a person. What had he in common with a New Yorker of 1940? He had a cause and a purpose. A Puritan, even in his strange way, was out for a good time.

Every aspect of the unconscious goes after one thing: the completion of a person by what is not himself. We can be sure that existed too in a person of ancient Rome.

Every person in America has unconscious drives. What are they about? Are they for other people or against them? We come to this important fact about the unconscious: Since it is in an individual, it must have to do with individuality. And since it must be either for other people or against them, it also has to do with others. Every discovery about the unconscious would involve something about an individual in relation to what is not himself.

Is there something in common between the unconscious of President Truman and that of a lady in Albany? Between the unconscious of Henry Wallace and that of Senator Taft? Is there anything in common between what is unknown by one person and what is unknown by another? Yes.

The Source of Good & Bad

Everyone is much better than he knows and also much worse than he knows. For example, in Texas City, people are being more courageous, more noble, than they ever knew they could be—and yet at another time, some of those same people may have taken part in a lynching. The reservoir of both this goodness to others and this badness to others is in the unconscious.

Every person’s unconscious has definitely been a battle between two things: that he exists, is a person, seems to be a community under his skin; and also that he seems to have to do with everything. Offhand, you may not think you have anything to do with coins of Alexandria, or the lost books of Livy. But as soon as anything is mentioned, you have to do with it. The self is an infinite having-to-do-with situation. The having to do, by selves, with other things, is part of the unconscious. Meanwhile, we should see that while people each day are meeting things that had to do with them even before they heard of them, each person is also affirming himself.

The biggest conscious problem is also the biggest unconscious problem: how can the individual have power and glory and completion without skimping in any way the desire of other individuals to be as much as possible?

The unconscious, as defined, is present as soon as a child is born. And it always has to do with how a child will have power, happiness, definiteness. When an American child grows aggressive and starts using a knife, we should see this as meaning that the child feels the only way he can have his individuality is to start cutting into a person who represents the inimical outside world.

The Problem of America & a Person

How can we have individuality without having it in a bad way? How can we have individuality be also relation, justice to others?

No human being should be made less than he can be. And at the same time, there should be a feeling for the country as a whole. There needs to be a putting together of a like for oneself and a like for America as a whole—the America of the past, the most encyclopedic country in the world in terms of the people who have come here.

The unconscious of each person begins with a point, and goes out to a circumference including all America. The unconscious of America has the problem in reverse: the problem of how, with all its geography, it cannot be unfair to a single individual. We can look on a country as having an unconscious problem: how can a country take care of itself and not be unfair to anyone in it? This has been the problem of law.

Another question America has to face is how to have freedom and also law. We want to do as we please, and we also want order in our lives. People who say children don’t want order haven’t seen how children can play with dolls in a very symmetrical fashion. Ritual comes if one isn’t at ease with order.

The Soviet Union has gone at the problem of freedom and order from the direction of having security for everyone first. America has gone at the problem in the opposite way, accenting free enterprise (though ill-smelling things have been done under that name). I’m for real free enterprise, but not the phony kind, which says you can make as much profit as possible off a person while paying him as little as possible.

There is nothing the unconscious does that isn’t a putting together of freedom and order. This problem has come into all history, all painting, all art.

They Stand for What Affects Us

I think it right to comment on several persons important in American history who represent, in various ways, the unconscious of America.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was one of the most sincerely religious persons in America. The religious feeling is part of everyone’s unconscious. A person who says he has no religious feeling doesn’t know what he’s talking about, because the whole past in some way or other made what we are: our eyes, our complexions, our mannerisms. To say we have nothing to do with our cause isn’t even good materialism. Our cause is our unconscious too. One doesn’t have to say what this cause is—God is a pretty useful word, or Reality, Existence, the Absolute. Jonathan Edwards represents that part of the American unconscious related to religion.

Almost contemporary with him is Benjamin Franklin, born three years later, and dying in 1790. I like Benjamin Franklin very much. He represents the desire everyone has of being specific, being immediate, factual. There is a beautiful earthiness to Franklin. We have to look on the world as something which is.

When Aesthetic Realism says that in the unconscious there is a desire to be consciously aware of definite things, it is presenting something different from the unconscious the psychiatrists talk about. After all, where did the conscious come from? There was a time when we were nothing but unconscious, wasn’t there? The process of birth is the unconscious insisting it isn’t complete until it becomes conscious. So the conscious must have been part of the unconscious.

Benjamin Franklin, as a deep person in America, represents part of the unconscious: a desire of the amorphous unknown in the personality to become known, earthy. Aesthetic Realism yields to nothing in its appreciation of the earthy.

Guilt & More

Jonathan Edwards in his writings had a sense of the incompleteness of man, of guilt. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who has been called the most finished artist in America, was interested in guilt, though he didn’t go to church much and wasn’t very interested in Jonathan Edwards. The problem of The Scarlet Letter is how a person can gratify herself and still please other people.

Then, there is Herman Melville. Melville early felt he had to get out of America, and went to the South Seas. He put the problem of what man is going after—his enemy and also his delight—in Moby Dick. There is a feeling of scurrying over oceans to find what one began with. After his travels, Melville settled down in New York, on 26th Street, and stayed there for years.

In all these people, in a way, there has been humor.

In America there is also a desire to condemn— condemn oneself, even. Two of the most popular stories in American literature deal with lack of success. One is “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” by Mark Twain. The other, in verse, is Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat.” The joviality of the unconscious is present in Mark Twain, but it wasn’t put together with the desire to see things as heavy, with his pessimism.

All art shows what the unconscious is about.

Lincoln, Whitman, & James

I should also mention Abraham Lincoln. One reason he has a tremendous appeal for Americans is that he seems to have somehow solved the problem of rest and motion. He seems so meditative in his Gettysburg Address, yet he seems a man of action. He had a deep religious feeling, and yet wrote humorous letters.

Walt Whitman declared that his self was an object. He came to feel this more definitely than others, though all romanticism went towards it—no one had yet written a poem called “Song of Myself.” Whitman decided there was no difference between the self as an object and any other object. He felt in finding out what America is, he’d find out what himself was. He saw America as diverse—made up of Italians, Irish, Germans, etc.—coming to unity.

Later, when the self as an object had been accepted, the self was shown to be intricate, unutterably sensitive, by Henry James. In his novels we find the self looking at itself looking at itself looking at itself. There is a good deal of intricate objectifying of the subjective in James, a going into intricate cellars.

All these people, as writers, showed what their unconscious was in terms of style.

We shouldn’t think of American history as the repeal of the Stamp Act, Valley Forge, the going west, the rise of industry. It is a history of feeling. In the deepest sense, it is a history of the unconscious too. The American Constitution itself represents something of the unconscious. The greatest enemy of the reactionaries right now is the American unconscious.

It is important to know history if one is to understand the unconscious. The relation of people in America can explain all kinds of things working within us.