The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

There Are Self, Truth, & War

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the lecture that Eli Siegel gave on November 28, 1975: Contempt & World War I. Definitive and scholarly, it also has informality, a great ease, and humor.

There are many valuable studies of Europe in 1914, detailing the resentments and rivalries among its nations. But it is Eli Siegel who has explained the fundamental reason young men of England and Germany (for instance) were sent to kill each other, and were so often eager to don a uniform and do so.

Aesthetic Realism has identified that in the human self from which all cruelty comes—including the cruelty that is war. This ugly thing is contempt: the feeling we are more through lessening what’s not ourselves. It is very ordinary. It is present in all of us. And the big fight in each of our lives is between our desire for contempt and our deepest desire: to be truly ourselves, expressed and original, through being just to what’s different from us.

In his lecture, Mr. Siegel approaches World War I from various angles: a poem of Vachel Lindsay, an essay by Freud, Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 war address to Congress. In the present section he looks at a passage by a German historian. Throughout, he points to aspects of contempt, and we get a sense of their intricacy and intertwinings. Contempt is ever so diverse, yet it is one thing. It is the principal cause of war—including, he shows, that war of 1914-18, which shocked Europe and through which millions of people died.

Contempt: Ordinary & Terrible

A work Mr. Siegel mentions for its relation to war is George Bernard Shaw’s early play Arms and the Man, of 1894. It is set in Bulgaria, and has the Shavian humor and keenness. I am going to quote two passages that are a means of seeing what contempt is. The first is a stage direction in Act I. It precedes a statement by the heroine, Raina, and reads:

(staring at him rather superciliously as she conceives a poorer and poorer opinion of him, and feels proportionately more and more at her ease)

That’s a description of a woman looking at and thinking about a man. It’s not about war. But the basis of contempt is in it. Every day, people feel, as Raina does, that the more they can look down on someone the more they’ll feel sure of themselves, important, at ease. How ordinary this feeling is. How neatly Shaw describes it. Yet this same way of mind is behind all racism, ethnic prejudice, bad nationalism: if I can see those others, those foreigners, as lowly and worthless, I can get to an ease I’d otherwise lack; I can feel I and those associated with me are far superior!

In Act II, Raina’s father, Petkoff, a Bulgarian army major, expresses another aspect of contempt. It’s the feeling, ever so frequent, that if people see things differently from how I see, or behave differently, they’re obviously wrong and stupid. In this instance the subject is washing oneself, and Shaw has a good time making fun of the narrowness and illogic of contempt. He has Petkoff say:

Washing can’t be good for the health; it’s not natural. There was an Englishman at Philippopolis who used to wet himself all over with cold water every morning when he got up. Disgusting! It all comes from the English: their climate makes them so dirty that they have to be perpetually washing themselves. Look at my father! He never had a bath in his life.

Recent History—& Contempt for Truth

On December 2 there appeared in the New York Times an article about the “brief Russian-Georgian war” of 2008. It’s a means of looking at a form of contempt which is elemental, inclusive, and limitlessly dangerous, though engaged in by people every day: contempt for truth.

The article is based on documents made public by WikiLeaks. And what it comes to is: the United States gave unquestioning credence to statements put forth by the Georgian government—statements which accused Russia of military aggression, and which were lies.

Georgia wanted to take over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, described by the Times as “two breakaway enclaves out of Georgian control that received Russian support.” The newly released documents show that American diplomats and government officials consistently chose to ignore all information and facts which contradicted the version presented by the Georgian government. The Times writer, C.J. Chivers, is delicate in his critical descriptions. He says:

Sources outside the Georgian government were played down....Official Georgian versions of events were...largely unchallenged. The last cables before the eruption of the brief Russian-Georgian war showed an [American] embassy relaying statements that would with time be proved wrong.

In one instance, even when U.S. Embassy personnel saw with their own eyes Georgian troops “heading north,” the embassy underwrote the Georgian version and maintained that Georgian troops were not deployed but were merely in a “state of alertness.”

Georgia launched “a heavy artillery-and-rocket attack on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.” It falsely claimed that it was only trying to protect Georgian villages fired on by the pro-Russian South Ossetians. There actually had been no such South Ossetian artillery fire. Nevertheless, writes Chivers, the Georgian lie “would be publicly echoed throughout the Bush administration, which strongly backed Georgia on the world’s stage.”

In one place Chivers euphemistically calls our government’s welcoming of the Georgian lies a “misread[ing of] the signs.” In another place he calls it a “reliance on one-sided information.” However, what it really is, is contempt for truth: a feeling that facts can be expunged or twisted to suit oneself. The United States, we’re told, “had helped arm and train” the Georgian military. After all, the government of Georgia was friendly—even cozy—with American businesses and wanted the region owned in a way those businesses desired (regardless of what the people living in the region hoped for).

Not mentioned in the article is that the American press, including the Times, essentially did the same thing our administration did. The press presented as fact the lies that Georgia put forth.

The Ego’s War with Fact

My purpose is not to discuss the relations of Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, the United States, and U.S. companies. I am pointing out, through documents made available this very month, an instance of contempt as the cause of war—for clearly the cables cited by the Times document both Georgia’s and our own embassy’s contempt for the facts. Again, how ordinary such contempt is! Mr. Siegel writes in issue 148 of this journal:

Having one’s way...is equivalent often to having contempt for the facts not consonant with having one’s way. The most frequent material for a person’s contempt is the facts or the reality opposed to one’s pleasing oneself.

There is a famous expression, often attributed to U.S. Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, who said something like it in a less snappy form in 1918: “The first casualty of war is truth.” The expression is valuable and affecting. But what is even more important is: there would not be war if people liked truth to begin with. The changing of the facts to suit one’s ego precedes war and makes it possible. And truth is a casualty of ego in people’s conversations and thoughts to themselves every day.

Nevertheless, contempt for truth—the feeling that no matter how clear the facts are, if you don’t like them you can make them not exist—is the ugliest, most dangerous thing in the human self. Aesthetic Realism is the great study of how caring for truth is the having one’s own way. This love of truth is what Eli Siegel himself lived by. And through it he came to what I consider the kindest, most comprehensive, most beautiful, most needed body of knowledge in the world.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Contempt Is Present

By Eli Siegel

Now I go to a history of Germany that was published first in Berlin in 1929, then in English translation in 1933—before Hitler had power completely, although he had a great deal of it at that time. It is the History of Germany, by Hermann Pinnow, and I’m reading from the Everyman Library revised edition, 1939. Pinnow tells how the First World War came to be:

On the 28th June 1914, the Austrian heir-apparent with his consort was murdered by Austrian Serbs in the capital of Bosnia....Serbian officers and officials had co-operated in the preparations for the murder....In order to make Serbia, which was Russia’s most active and powerful ally in the Balkans, “harmless for ever,” the Austrian Government prepared an extraordinarily sharp ultimatum for Belgrade....The Austrian statesmen were informed by the [German] Imperial Chancellor, von Bethmann-Hollweg, that they...need not doubt Germany’s faith as an ally. Thus Germany delivered itself over, with bound hands, to Austrian leadership....Serbia could rely upon the help of Russia, and the Russian war-party were urged on by the certainty of French support. When the Serbian Government handed in their reply to the ultimatum, they foresaw its rejection by Austria; the order for Serbian mobilization had been given a few hours previously....

We have here some of the confusion that man can have. To read about what happened in the summer months of 1914 is to feel that twenty people are playing chess at ten tables and none of them like each other. And occasionally they switch tables. A popular history is The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman. It is informative, and goes along generally with what Pinnow is saying. In every account there is some accent: the accent here is that Germany had given itself up to Austria and was ready to do what Austria said—something other historians have seen differently. But the large matter is that contempt is very much present, including the contempt for consequence.

Ethnicity & Contempt

There is the contempt of the Magyar for the Slav. Hungary is Magyar, and we have the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, while the Serbs are more Slav. That word, Slav, is in Yugoslavia, and it’s the same word we see in the “March Slav” of Tchaikovsky.

“On the 28th June 1914, the Austrian heir-apparent with his consort was murdered by Austrian Serbs in the capital of Bosnia.” There was a feeling that the Austrians had dealt with the Slavs unkindly and unjustly—and Bosnia and Herzegovina are both part of Yugoslavia.

As the inquiry showed, the actors belonged to a Nationalist Association, which was working for the union of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Serbia, the Serbian Government not daring to oppose them; Serbian officers and officials had co-operated in the preparations for the murder, which threatened the continuance of the Danube monarchy.

Nationalism is a little like the frats of colleges. A big reason you join a college fraternity is to have people who twenty years later will assist you in your work, help you as an executive, perhaps. But there is something else: As soon as you start protecting yourself, you begin disliking and having contempt for all who are not in the lodge. So a fraternity, along with being a cheering section for those belonging to it, has been a bit of a hissing section for those not belonging to it. Nationalism is like that. If you are a nationalist—whether a Serbian or Irish or Israeli nationalist—in being for your team, you can’t help being a little contemptuous of anyone who is not on it. That is the way of both frats and nationalities. So these Austrian Serbs, in the capital of Bosnia—Sarajevo—could be contemptuous towards the people in Austria with their mingling of Magyar and German, and contemptuous for other reasons.

“The Danube monarchy” is Austria-Hungary. The Danube is one of the most unfortunately confused rivers ever—it goes through various countries—but it’s a noble river anyway. Hungary and Austria would both be against Serbia. Hungarians were against the Austrian part of Austria-Hungary, but when something else threatened Austria they could be with Austria. I’ve not presented all the possibilities of contempt in this matter, because contempt very often has an intricate field to work in.

Pinnow says: “Serbian officers and officials had cooperated in the preparations for the murder, which threatened the continuance of the Danube monarchy.” That was denied. But the Austro-Hungarian government felt that the persons who had killed the crown prince, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife were assisted, if not instigated, by the Serbian government. So the Austrian government is very angry—“That these Slavs should kill our crown prince!”—and there’s also contempt.

An Ultimatum

In order to make Serbia, which was Russia’s most active and powerful ally in the Balkans, “harmless for ever,” the Austrian Government prepared an extraordinarily sharp ultimatum for Belgrade.

When you’re given to contempt, your ultimatum may show it. Meanwhile, the documents exist. You can get a copy of the ultimatum and enjoy it if you want to. There are various histories that include all the documents: the white paper, the orange paper, the purple paper, the magenta paper. More ultimatums came in August 1914 than at any other time in history. At that time, if you didn’t like somebody, you didn’t hide it.

Then Bethmann-Hollweg, according to Pinnow, says that whatever the Austrian government does, Germany will stick with it. And that is unfortunate, as Pinnow sees it. He says, writing quite strongly:

Thus Germany delivered itself over, with bound hands, to Austrian leadership: even the wording of the ultimatum was learnt by the German Government when it was too late for any alteration.

Impatience & a Desire to Show Strength

It seems that Austria is impatient. Austria has had a history. There was the sadness of Vienna during the time that Beethoven was getting to his great music. Vienna was taken by Napoleon about three times. Then, we have the famous alliterative poem: “An Austrian army, awfully arrayed, / Boldly by battery besieged Belgrade.” (Those are the first two lines of Alaric Alexander Watts’ “The Siege of Belgrade.” In the third line all the words begin with c, in the next with d, and so on.) Well, in 1914 the Austrians are getting too energetic and want to show how strong they are. They should have given themselves more to music than psychoanalysis.

The Austrian government does some quick work. They send the ultimatum. They don’t show it to the German chancellor, and meantime he says, “I’ll be with you”—which is a situation that occurs in life. You say something and the person who is supposed to be with you doesn’t know anything about it, or doesn’t know what to do. So there are anger and contempt.

“Serbia could rely upon the help of Russia, and the Russian war-party were urged on by the certainty of French support.” There had been a treaty. There was the Triple Entente: England, France, and Russia—and Russia was uncertain for a while. The Triple Alliance was Germany, Austria, and Italy. Meanwhile, Japan was looking on.

“When the Serbian Government handed in their reply to the ultimatum, they foresaw its rejection by Austria; the order for Serbian mobilization had been given a few hours previously.” Shaw’s Arms and the Man, of 1894, is about this feeling for war. It’s of course a funny play, but something of the Balkan state is there. And there was contempt in Belgrade for the people in Vienna and, for that matter, the people in Budapest. One can see that in a biography of the opponent of Tito, Milovan Djilas (born in 1911). Serbia has never forgotten the victory of the Turks over them in the 14th century, in Kosovo. But my purpose is not to go into the centuries. In 1914, the Serbs felt they were maltreated by the Magyars and Germans.

Was Any Nation Fully Against War?

The Austrian counter-move was followed by preparations for war throughout the whole of European Russia. Although England and Germany were endeavouring to keep the peace, Austria would not consent to be restrained from declaring war upon Serbia on the 28th July.

That’s when things begin, terribly. About the attitude of England and Germany, many statements are made. It’s quite clear that if Germany had wanted to stop Serbia and Austria-Hungary, it most likely could have. England also could have done more. And France could have.

This was followed in Russia, on the 30th, by an order for general mobilization—and thus the “European complication” was created.

It is so complicated, historians can’t make sense of it yet. We know that some bad human attitudes were going on. And we should see the human states, feelings, attitudes that were present.