|NUMBER 1741. —April 1, 2009|
|Dear Unknown Friends:
ere is the second half of a lecture by Eli Siegel, “Pleasure, Desire, & Frustration,” of August 29, 1946. It is one of the talks he gave at Steinway Hall, presenting the basis of the new American philosophy Aesthetic Realism. We're now serializing, from notes taken at the time, those early lectures.
The last word in the title, frustration, was much in use then, because it was a term central to Freudian psychology. Freud presented frustration as being essentially a sexual matter: he said you became neurotic because your sexual desires were frustrated. Mr. Siegel shows what neither Freud nor the therapists of now have understood: what the central question and desires of the self really are. He explains what pleasure really is; and that pleasure is of two kinds. The big question of everyone—the big fight in everyone's life—is: will I be myself through having the pleasure of respect for the world or the pleasure of contempt?
I am going to relate what Aesthetic Realism, in this 1946 lecture, explains about people, to what it has explained about economics. There is the current economic situation of the world, about which economists and the press have used such words as dire, meltdown, depression. What does it have to do with the two pleasures that have fought throughout history? What does it have to do with the biggest way people frustrate themselves? In the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel told a 1946 audience: “Every time we choose a lesser desire as against a bigger desire, there is frustration.”
Bernard Madoff & Contempt
et's begin with a person much in the news, about whom I wrote briefly this January: Bernard Madoff. As the New York Times describes it, on March 12 in a federal courtroom Madoff “admit[ted] that he had run a vast Ponzi scheme that robbed thousands of investors of their life savings.” The Times calls it “Wall Street's biggest and longest fraud,” which, when exposed, amounted to “as much as $65 billion that his customers thought they had” but really didn't.
In trying to enrich himself at the expense of others, Madoff was going after the pleasure of contempt. He was getting what Mr. Siegel defined contempt as being: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is immensely popular; is always ugly, stupid, and hurtful, though it can appear clever; it has thousands of forms, and is gone after by people every day. In this instance, contempt was also illegal: Madoff pled guilty to “11 counts of fraud, money laundering, perjury and theft.”
Meanwhile, Bernard Madoff is a person. When he was born 70 years ago, the purpose he was born for was not to be a massive con man. It was—as a baby's is right now—to see meaning in this world he came into, to respect reality. The other possibility, contempt, was there too, nestling in the basinet, amid the baby blankets. So it has been with all of us.
Did Bernard Madoff, along with rooking many people, also frustrate himself deeply? Did he stop himself from being the person he was born to be, from having the feelings and perceptions he was born to have? That is not a federal offense, but it is an offense within the human self. And it is one which millions of people in various ways, not only monetary, commit every day.
Take a woman we can call Loretta, who likes to manage her husband and is scornful of men, viewing them alternately as foolish little boys and sexual predators. In having this contempt, she is frustrating a desire that's an aspect of the largest desire she has: she's frustrating the desire to see men justly, as a means of knowing and respecting the world. Loretta annoys men, but she has also offended the person she was meant to be. That's why she can feel agitated and terrifically unsure, for all her display of sarcastic superiority.
Racketeers & Profits
hat is Bernard Madoff's relation to profit economics as such? A poem Eli Siegel wrote in 1936 about another criminal, the gangster Dutch Schultz, stands for that relation. I quote the poem, and part of Mr. Siegel's note to it in his book Hail, American Development. Here is “Ode on the Death of a Racketeer”:
In his note Mr. Siegel writes:
The profit system itself is based on contempt: on seeing people not in terms of “How can I be just to you?” but in terms of “How can I make money from you?” In the Times article a Madoff investor is described as saying “her family's devastating losses have left elderly relatives ‘sick with fear.'” But throughout history, profit economics itself has made people “sick with fear” and with diseases too. It's no justification of Madoff, but it is a fact that the profit system as such, legally, has hurt people's lives day after day more intensely than he did.
Persons engaged in free enterprise had little children work in mines and women wear their lives away in sweatshops; made people labor in conditions that caused devastating ailments; have paid wages that people could not live on and so caused poverty with all the suffering and degradation that goes with it. That's because the profit motive is the motive to get as much as possible out of a worker while paying him or her as little as possible. It's the motive to sell your product for as much as possible—with the desire for people to need it desperately so they'll pay a high price whether it hurts them to do so or not.
Bernie Madoff, like Dutch Schultz, is “a hero of laissez-faire.” He “was carrying free enterprise to its free-est.”
Frustrated by Its Own Contempt
n 1970, Mr. Siegel explained that profit economics, after centuries, was now no longer able to work successfully. For reasons that he detailed, and which I've discussed in relation to our present fiscal situation, the bad ethics of the profit system has caught up with itself. That is why we have the economic “meltdown” of today.
In keeping with the lecture published here—the economics of America and the world has frustrated itself. It has been based on a lesser desire, an ugly desire, of people, contempt, instead of on our deepest desire: to be ourselves through being just to, and feeling related to, other people. The answer is not to prop up profit economics with trillions of dollars; propping up no longer works. It is to have an economy of—in Eli Siegel's words—Free-and-Just Enterprise.
The Greatest Desire & What Frustrates It
he greatest desire is the desire to look at ourselves—for Harry Wilkins to look at Harry Wilkins—and say, “Good.” It is a very big order. For example, if Harry Wilkins has a very glamorous affair with a most coruscating lady from Germantown and it is a means of his saying to himself unconsciously, “I don't see so much reason for this affair to go on,” then he has frustrated a bigger desire in order to attain a lesser one. Every time we choose a lesser desire as against a bigger desire, there is frustration, because the self wants its biggest desires.
Frustration has to do with everything that we are interested in. If somebody would like to join a union, or meet people he has not met before, or see what might happen to him in a city, and he doesn't do any of these things, he is being frustrated. Frustration is a want representing the self that does not change into a fulness. The biggest frustration occurs when we decide we don't want something which we really do.
To have a want is in itself something the contemptuous unconscious doesn't like, because if we need anything, the self as contemptuous says, “I'm not sufficient, I'm not the whole world, I'm not all the gods and goddesses at once—there is something that I want!” When a person likes something, there may be a feeling in him that this is an interruption to his complacency. In having a desire, we feel that our desire to be perfect is interfered with. It is, therefore, very difficult to affirm a desire completely. And since we do have a pleasure in diminishing what is not ourselves and we also want to have pleasure by respecting it, the battle between the two always makes for some kind of frustration.
Pleasure Is Aesthetics
said earlier that pleasure is ethics, and is knowledge. It is also aesthetics, a oneness of opposites—because whenever we enjoy something we have to respect simultaneously ourselves as enjoying and the object—the thing or person—as enjoyed.
Let's assume that a man has an affair, successfully biological, with a glorious blond from Atlanta, but he hasn't really been interested in finding out what this glorious blond thought about the world. He doesn't, in other words, respect the object. He has enjoyed the object, he has had a successful libido experience with the object, but he doesn't respect it. There is a cleavage between his desire to enjoy and his desire to respect. He has gone through the motion of giving his self to this lady, but something in his mind says, “I have enjoyed this utterly, but I don't respect it.” In doing this he has gone against the aesthetic idea that wherever we enjoy something there should be a fulness of respect given to the object.
In pleasure that is complete, we like the object and we respect it: there is no division between enjoyment and respect. If anyone says he enjoys a tomato but doesn't respect it, that person ought to quit tomatoes. Enjoyment has to be enjoyed in being looked at. All our enjoyments have to be respected.
If thousands of things can please us, it stands to reason they all have something in common. If a union and a rose can please us, there is something in common. There is a unity among all pleasures.
People, though, do play off their pleasures. Let us assume that a person has a pleasure from gratifying his mother. She beams at him and says, “You are a good son, and I hope you don't have to leave me soon.” The son likes it. He is in a state of domestic virtue and warmth. Then he thinks he would like to be with the boys playing pool. He has a pleasure from his mother, which can be a good one, and he also has a pleasure from playing pool. If these two kinds of pleasure are not coordinated in his mind, he is welcoming fission, and he is also frustrating himself—because every one of our pleasures should be seen as having something in common with every other.
What Is in Common?
f a person in ancient Rome was pleased by having a meal or taking a walk, there would be something in common between his pleasures and the pleasures of somebody in Chicago greeting Hester, getting many votes as director of a lodge, and eating a fine meal.
The thing in common in all pleasure is that a self is at one with an object meeting it. If we feel that we are at one with something, we have pleasure from it. If, though, in being at one with something we are tending to disgrace, lessen, despise that which gives us pleasure, then we are having the pleasure of contempt. And in having pleasure that is a means of lessening the source of all pleasure, which is the world, we are also having contempt.
The desire to have the pleasure of contempt makes us forget what our true desire is. Let's say a young man bent on asserting himself is on a corner with a lady who says, when asked for a date, “I'll be busy.” The man says, “Okay, goodbye,” and puts on a scornful show for forty seconds. He is trying to say that the girl he desired is something he can diminish because she is putting up difficulties. Maybe he'll say later, “Dora, I didn't mean what I said last night.” But he doesn't understand the pleasure he got from lessening Dora.
People have done something they deeply didn't like and unconsciously tried to make up for it by doing, with their other hand, something they could like. A famous example is the gangster who spent a good part of his time killing people but on the side kept singing birds and raised flowers.
Contempt is a desire to diminish the world. But if the world is the source of all pleasure, then in contempt, that which we enjoy is that which we don't respect. This makes for an awful state of mind. And if it is what goes on in pleasure, every pleasure we have will be incomplete.
There will be a fear in getting pleasure. A woman can have a fear in sex of getting pleasure with the feeling that something outside herself is causing it. She changes that feeling into a feeling that what's giving the pleasure isn't the person but the fact that the person needs her. That is a way of diminishing the object. The precept that arises is: our respect should never lag behind our enjoyment.
Pleasure & the Purpose of Our Lives
een philosophically, the question of pleasure is as fundamental as any. If the purpose of our lives is to be at one with the whole world, all of space and time, the infinite, even, then our purpose is the same as our pleasure. Pleasure is tremendously deep. I have told persons who felt depressed that while their heart beat, their heart was saying with logic, “It is good to live.”
Pleasure is the same as ethics, because as we are pleased by the world we have to be proud of ourselves. The words shame and unhappiness have always been seen as together: a term of insult in Roman times was “unhappy wretch.” Pleasure is a proud word, a glorious word—because when one can say exactly, “I am pleased with the world,” at that moment one feels proud.
A Good Time
n looking at a good time, it is important that the word good be looked at. Why does the word represent a good steak, a good wife, and a good man? Is it just because Anglo-Saxons ran out of words? Hardly. It's because there is a feeling in the plain person that there should be a junction between a good steak and a good man. Persons have said there is no such thing as good. But there is such an idea. And the word good shows there is a relation among art, ethics, and a good time.
True Individuality vs. Contempt
ontempt exists because every one of us likes to have pleasure in thinking we are an invincible castle in our own right. Every one of us can have a pleasure in despising, in thinking other things are ugly or weak. The reason we do that is: when we think other things are small, we that much become big. I am reminded of a person who liked to meet someone he despised, because he came back so refreshed.
The pleasure of individuality, the pleasure of feeling that we are, is inevitable. Persons may say, “I want to be like nothing—anonymous, like the sands on the shore,” but the fact remains that we want to be. This desire to be is a philosophic desire, an ethical one, also associated with a good time. It is working in everything we do. In every party we go to, with every book we read, there is a desire to be. We read a book in order to have a greater definition of ourselves. Contempt, not seeing that individuality comes from welcoming the impersonal completely, takes the easiest way: getting to individuality by disliking, by being bored.
The getting of pleasure from the existence of self as a specific thing, has to be. Now the question arises: how can we put together the pleasure from being just ourselves and the pleasure from meeting things? The person with a bent for contempt says, “The only way I can be myself is to despise and dislike and not be affected.” The other way would be to feel that as we expand, we concentrate; as we meet new things, we become more ourselves. The desire to see that the new is the old is an aesthetic desire.
The purpose of Aesthetic Realism in terms of pleasure is to say that there isn't a pleasure in contempt which cannot be had through respect. The only way that can be seen is to feel that the self is concentrated and expansive, alone and in relation, one thing and ever so many, personal and impersonal, itself and not itself. That is aesthetics. So if a person really wants to have a good time, I must say that aesthetics ought to be around.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
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