War versus Respect
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the conclusion of Contempt & World War I, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on November 28, 1975. He has been using four texts, very different from each other but all concerned with the First World War: Vachel Lindsay's 1914 poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight”; Woodrow Wilson's 1917 war address to Congress; Sigmund Freud's 1915 “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death”; and an account by German historian Hermann Pinnow. Through them Mr. Siegel illustrates that which he would state in writing six months later, in issue 165 of this journal:
It is necessary to see that while the contempt which is in every one of us may make ordinary life more painful than it should be, this contempt is also the main cause of wars. It was contempt that made for the trenches of France in 1915....
It is clear that a person who has identified the fundamental cause of war has accomplished something great. Eli Siegel has done this. It is one of the accomplishments of Aesthetic Realism.
Contempt, the feeling I am more through lessening you, goes on in people’s lives in thousands of ways. It can be a smug, quiet triumph in thinking somebody is stupid or ill-dressed or insensitive and therefore oneself is ever so superior. Yet contempt, Aesthetic Realism explains, is that from which every brutality comes. In all of us, contempt is fighting with our deepest desire—the desire which makes for intelligence, kindness, and art: the desire to respect what’s not ourselves, to like the world honestly.
What Must Precede War
As we conclude our serialization, I’ll outline swiftly aspects of that thing which the last four issues have been describing: the contempt that gives rise to war, and permits war.
1) In order for war to take place, you have to see people different from yourself as less real than you are. If you saw them as having feelings, hopes, pain like yours, you would find it exceedingly hard to blow them up.
2) The pleasure of looking down on people is a prerequisite for war. The people of your country are far superior to those foreigners—and how gratifying to make that clear with the fullness, the utterness, that weapons provide! This way of mind is behind all fake, gung-ho patriotism and nationalism.
3) There is a desire to have the achievement of contempt for the world itself. Such a desire, unarticulated, unconscious, is in people, and has been present in enlisted soldiers and officers: If I can humiliate and defeat this person—who stands for the world different from me—I’ll settle a score with the world which confuses me and doesn’t appreciate me.
4) Contempt is the basis of all imperialism. European nations thought they had the right to grab lands in Africa and use the people and resources of those lands for profit. By 1914, European nations had become fierce rivals in this contemptuous thievery and exploitation.
5) The fifth form of contempt I’ll mention is one I’ll comment on here a little more fully. It is the huge, ubiquitous desire not to think.
Said by Robert Graves
As I wrote when we published the first part of his lecture, Eli Siegel was not a pacifist, and neither am I. Sometimes armed cruelty has to be stopped with force; Hitler had to be stopped. But the terrific inclination of citizens not to think, not to ask what is so, to have their narrowness and scorn appealed to by politicians and made to look patriotic, is contempt itself and has made wars possible. One of the true poets of World War I has a couplet on the subject; it’s crude, but authentic poetry: “So hold your nose against the stink / And never stop too long to think.”
Robert Graves (1895-1985) fought in the British army as a captain with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He fought at the Somme and at the Battle of Loos. He was wounded and nearly died. The poem I just quoted from appears in his 1918 book, Fairies and Fusiliers. It is called “The Next War,” and is about British boys playing at war, not seeing what war really is. These boys, growing up, he says, wanting to see war as heroic and not think about it deeply, will soon find themselves in a real war. Graves himself enlisted rapidly, without much thought. Then, as months passed, he began to question the war’s purpose, what it was really for. In the poem, with lightness and irony and intensity, he is critical—including, I believe, of his own lack of desire to know. Here are the lines I quoted with some of what precedes them, and then the closing lines of the poem:
...Another War soon gets begun,
A dirtier, a more glorious one;
Then, boys, you’ll have to play, all in;
It’s the cruellest team will win.
So hold your nose against the stink
And never stop too long to think.
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
By the million men will die
In some new horrible agony;
And children here will thrust and poke,
Shoot and die, and laugh at the joke,
With bows and arrows and wooden spears,
Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers.
In World War I soldiers did die “by the million”—9.7 million were killed. And Graves saw that British young men—who gave their lives, often bravely, in behalf of a very questionable cause, and who made others die—had not wanted to think. However humble we may appear, if we don’t want to think it’s because we see ourselves as too good to waste our time trying to be fair to the facts. And we prefer a version of the facts that makes us feel important and superior.
Injustice, Retaliation, Freud
In the final section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks mainly about the contempt that is in retaliation: you had contempt for me; well, I’ll have it for you. How one should meet an injustice (or perceived injustice) to oneself is a huge matter. But the desire for contempt makes getting to the right answer impossible. And ill will escalates.
Mr. Siegel continues looking at two works he began discussing earlier: the Wilson address and the Freud essay.
With the war, he pointed out, Freud felt that the psychoanalytic, essentially sexual explanation of self he’d put forth could not account for what was happening. Yet Freud did not say so straight; in his 1915 essay he simply talked differently. And his not stating that he’d been wrong was contempt for truth. Commented Mr. Siegel—with compassion in his important criticism: “If Freud had said, ‘My psychoanalysis is not large enough to explain why this [war] is going on,’ I think his life would have been happier” (TRO 1785).
The Real Opposition to War
The real opposition to war, Aesthetic Realism explains, is the way of seeing that is in art. All art is the seeing of something with so much justice that the structure of the world, the oneness of opposites, is seen there. Take the poem of Graves from which I quoted. It’s not his best; it hardly has the greatness of what I consider his best poem, “In the Wilderness.” Yet “The Next War” is true poetry. In the sound, for instance, of those last four lines, about children playing at war, we hear simultaneously a poking, jarring, discomfort, and lightness, freedom, ease. Because of the fullness of respect with which Graves is trying to see, we hear the world that’s brutal and the world that’s lovely as one world, become music.
In TRO 165, Mr. Siegel writes:
The next war has to be against ugliness in self. And the greatest ugliness in self is the seeing of contempt as personal achievement. Contempt must be had for contempt before squabbles grow less, terror diminishes. Respect for what is real must be seen as the great success of man.
Respect for what is real is what art has. It is what Aesthetic Realism itself is, and teaches.