The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Contempt & Retaliation

By Eli Siegel

Now I go back to Woodrow Wilson and his address to Congress calling for a declaration of war:

...On the third of February last I officially laid before you the extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that on and after the first day of February it was its purpose to put aside all restraints of law or of humanity and use its submarines to sink every vessel that sought to approach either the ports of Great Britain and Ireland or the western coasts of Europe or any of the ports controlled by the enemies of Germany within the Mediterranean.

...Since April of last year the Imperial Government had somewhat restrained the commanders of its undersea craft in conformity with its promise then given to us that passenger boats should not be sunk and that due warning would be given to all other vessels which its submarines might seek to destroy....

The precautions taken were meager and haphazard enough, as was proved in distressing instance after instance in the progress of the cruel and unmanly business, but a certain degree of restraint was observed.

In those earlier months people were nervous, but there was a traveling by sea. The most important illustration of what could happen was the sinking of the Lusitania—about which a book was published sometime ago. There had been previous books. The Lusitania had on it people like Charles Frohman and Elbert Hubbard.¹ Well, the loss was great. Documents were found showing that the Lusitania was carrying arms—that it wasn’t just a passenger ship—and the Germans made a great deal of that. But the meaning of the Lusitania is there. There used to be meetings in America, all over the country, at which people would say, “Remember the Lusitania!” The sinking of the Lusitania was on May 7, 1915. So it’s almost two years before the matter comes to a head with Mr. Wilson’s talk.

As I mentioned before, the other event was the torpedoing of the Sussex.² Meanwhile, there was the boarding of ships, or telling of merchant ships to leave, and there was something like search. And then there were sinkings with very little notice. The Lusitania wasn’t given much notice. In the years since, it has been written of, and it will be written of.

The German people felt that America was shipping arms to England. Later in his address, Mr. Wilson complains about German spies in Mexico and in South America, and there were German spies. The espionage had to do with why Count Bernstorff (the German ambassador to the US) was told to leave. Meanwhile, what was seen as the best propaganda outfit in the world was the English, which had a few poets in it. One can get a sense of the English spy system in Maugham’s Ashenden; or, The British Agent.

“...the extraordinary announcement of the Imperial German Government that...it was its purpose to put aside all restraints of law or of humanity...” There was what was called Schrecklichkeit

“...and use its submarines to sink every vessel...” We have this unimpeded dealing with ships that were helping the English or French. Seamen would get more money to be on one of those ships, because at any moment they could be in danger.

Submarines & Contempt

“That had seemed to be the object of the German submarine warfare earlier in the war.” It wasn’t seen at the time that the submarine warfare would be the immediate cause of America’s entrance into the war. I remember there was a submarine that came to Baltimore and was viewed by the puzzled population. It had gone all across the Atlantic.

“Since April of last year the Imperial Government had somewhat restrained the commanders of its undersea craft....” The Germans saw the British sharpening their blockade, seeing to it that no food from the outside world came to Germany. All the German people were angry. And since there was this tremendous stoppage or interdict by the English sea powers, they felt the unrestrained use of submarines was justified—just as in the South there was a great anger that Mr. Lincoln had put on the blockade, which meant that many a Southern girl pined for something she’d never get. A related dispute went on in Napoleonic times, when Napoleon, through the Berlin Decree, retaliated against the blockade imposed by the English Orders in Council.

“...in conformity with its promise then given to us that passenger boats should not be sunk...” The German statement was that many ships were disguised as passenger boats but carried other things.

...and that due warning would be given to all other vessels which its submarines might seek to destroy...and care taken that their crews were given at least a fair chance to save their lives in their open boats.

No one liked to be told, “Get off your ship. Go into your open boat, and in a short while we’ll send one of the submarine’s missiles into the boat and you won’t see it anymore.” I don’t think anybody could feel very good about that. But it happened pretty frequently.

“The precautions taken were meager and haphazard enough, as was proved in distressing instance after instance in the progress of the cruel and unmanly business.” There wasn’t enough time given for people to get into the lifeboats, because submarines, it happens, were usually in a hurry. The English government was trying to perfect the destroyer system, which didn’t work too well. It didn’t work too well in the Second World War either. An essay that could be written is “Submarines & Contempt.” It has never been tackled by anyone. It’s a theme completely new, whatever else it is.

War & Mental Distress

We go now to the second paragraph of Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” In it, Dr. Freud talks with himself. It’s very good to see him talk with himself as if he were bewildered. To see Dr. Freud bewildered is charming. If he had known he was bewildered elsewhere, I think he would have been more useful.

The individual who is not himself a combatant—and so a wheel in the gigantic machinery of war—feels conscious of disorientation, and of an inhibition in his powers and activities. I believe that he will welcome any indication, however slight, which may enable him to find out what is wrong with himself at least....

“The individual who is not himself a combatant...feels conscious of disorientation.” I have a notion the doctor feels this about himself, that since he’s not a combatant he has a right to feel disoriented. —I don’t know that the German army, or the Austrian army, used psychoanalysis in relation to the war. I don’t think they cared; but the documentation there is scanty. Meanwhile, we have Dr. Freud feeling he’s disoriented. If he’d felt that at least once a year, he’d have been very useful.

“...which may enable him to find out what is wrong with himself at least.” It seems that Dr. Freud felt, with this war, that there were things he didn’t know. He says, “what is wrong with himself at least.”

Then he mentions two things: disillusionment, and a different attitude to death:

...I propose to distinguish two among the most potent factors in the mental distress felt by noncombatants, against which it is such a heavy task to struggle, and to treat of them here: the disillusionment which this war has evoked; and the altered attitude towards death which this—like every other war—imposes on us.

Well, that’s a big order. And Freud did think about death for the rest of his life. I don’t know of anything by Sigmund Freud more human than this essay, so I shall try to discuss more of it. It’s so good to see the phrase “mental distress” without the word “libido” being used. This second paragraph is, in a way, very likable.

Still with Us

I hope to go on with this discussion of World War I. And, while saying that all of it came from one source, I shall try to present the history, and what was said at the time, somewhat richly, so that what seems to be a rash abstraction, at least in the beginning, can take on more and more of the life that goes on in the grass in summer. We’ll try to get that.

In the meantime, the cause that Lindsay talks of in the poem which I read entirely, the cause that Mr. Wilson talks of in his fashion as President of the United States, the cause that Dr. Freud talks of, the cause that Herr Pinnow talks of in his book, is still with us. And we should ask as deeply as we can, What is this cause that is still with us?

¹Frohman was a famous theatrical producer. Hubbard was a writer and publisher, and founder of the Roycroft Arts and Crafts community.

²The Sussex was a French steamer, used as a cross-channel ferry. Mistaken for a mine-layer, it was attacked on March 24, 1916. There were a number of American casualties.

³The term means “terror,” and was used to describe the German occupiers’ methods of reprisal for acts of civilian resistance.