The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Attention, Hamlet, and the Economy

Dear Unknown Friends:

In the present section of the crucial, kind 1949 lecture we are serializing—Mind and Attention—Eli Siegel speaks about Hamlet. And what he explains here predates one of the greatest critical works of all time: his Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited, 13 “critical plays from the play,” written in the early 1960s and first presented in its entirety in 1963 by the Hamlet Revisited Company. 

Mr. Siegel loved Hamlet, and spoke on it many times in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism—always with complete freshness. His scholarship on the subject, like his scholarship as such, was unparalleled. And in Hamlet Revisited, as he discusses the whole play, he relates Hamlet to so much in culture and in life: for instance, to Samuel Johnson and to Proust, to Walt Whitman and to Thackeray’s Becky Sharp, to Racine and to people in families now. It would take many paragraphs to describe Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited—with its humor and its might, its complete originality and its complete exactitude, and the tremendous beauty of its prose. But the largest thing about it is that it contains the definitive understanding of Hamlet. Eli Siegel saw and explained the meaning of the play, why Hamlet could not avenge the murder of his father. 

At the time of the lecture we are serializing, March 1949, Mr. Siegel’s understanding of Hamlet was in process. He did not yet see what he was to explain later. He was doing the preliminary seeing that would have him able to show what he states in the Prologue to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited: “It is a new Hamlet because it is a Hamlet who does not care for his father entirely.” It is immensely affecting to see, in the paragraphs printed here, the largeness of what he already was able to explain—and to see his beautiful thought in motion. 

The basis of Aesthetic Realism’s understanding of Hamlet, and of tumultuous human beings throughout America now, is this great principle, stated by Mr. Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The biggest opposites in our lives are Self and World. Mr. Siegel explained that every human being, including Hamlet and us, was born into the whole world, and our deepest desire is “to like the world on an honest or accurate basis” (Self and World, Definition Press, p. 1). That means we have a cardinal need to use the particular matters in our lives—love, career, our desire for certain foods and clothing—to see the world itself justly, to be fair to human beings known and unknown, to words, to knowledge. 

People usually do not fulfil this preeminent need. In fact, we intricately though unconsciously try to evade it. The reason is, we have a huge desire to have contempt for the world: to look down on it and get away from it as a means of feeling important and superior. Mr. Siegel showed that contempt, while very ordinary, is the ugliest thing in the human self. It is “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” and is the source of all cruelty. A person’s contempt for the world is what makes that person dislike himself, feel nervous and lonely, and—if the contempt goes far enough—have mental trouble. 

What Hamlet Wanted

Mr. Siegel showed that Hamlet is beautiful and extraordinary because he wanted to use himself to see the world fairly: he wanted to be in an accurate relation to reality itself—wide, diverse, puzzling, interesting reality. He could not do what his father, as ghost, demanded of him because he did not “care for his father entirely”; and avenging him in the customary way—by killing the person responsible for his death—did not seem beautiful enough to him, fair to everything, just to that large world Hamlet wanted to be true to. Hamlet did not know what was stopping him—how good it was, how proud he should be of it. In the Prologue to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited, there are these sentences, about Hamlet’s allegiance to something bigger than convention and the demands of a family member: 

Hamlet is thoughtful. What the world is like matters to him. He sees what is strange in the world. He thinks of himself in the world, this world. The world is in him hour after hour. He must say something of it.

And in issue 11 of the journal Definition, where the Prologue is published, Mr. Siegel writes: 

Hamlet was not just pleased or reverent about his father. He was displeased and irreverent, too. He had to make sense of this. Making sense of what he felt did not make for “sweeping” to “revenge.”

A Huge Disinclination Now

There is throughout America now something which, with all its difference, is related to Hamlet’s inability to act on what his father asked of him. This matter is the low productivity present for over two decades in America’s economy. 

Most people do not have, with Hamlet’s fullness and grandeur, the desire to see ourselves and the world truly, and to act only in a way that makes the world look good to us. Nevertheless, the desire to like the world can stop us too, in a way we don’t fully understand, from doing something, from acting. Ten months ago, in TRO 1292, I quoted this from a New York Times article that appeared last Christmas day: “Economists don’t have a clue to why productivity is apparently in the doldrums.” And in a review published this June 28 in the New York Times Book Review, there are the following statements: 

The economy’s long-term health and the nation’s standard of living require the revitalization of labor productivity—the output of goods and services per hour of work....[Since] the early 1970’s, the rate of productivity growth has slowed to about 1 percent a year....If there really is a new, fast-growing, computer-driven has yet to show itself.

Why, despite people’s desperation to have and keep jobs, are Americans, as I once put it, “not produc[ing] devotedly”? Why are they so non-devoted in their work that even with new, time-saving technology, productivity is growing at such a feeble rate? The reason is like the reason Hamlet was so non-devoted in accomplishing the task his regal, ghostly father assigned to him. Not only do Americans “not care for” the profit system “entirely": they resent it terrifically, and increasingly. 

Beginning in 1970, Eli Siegel explained that economics based on seeing human beings in terms of how much profit one can make from them, had failed after hundreds of years. He explained: “It is hard to be productive in America right now. The cause is that the state of mind in which people go to work is no good.” Hamlet found it hard to be productive in obeying his father because, without being fully clear about it, he did not want to do something that would make his relation to the whole world uglier. Similarly, Americans feel that the way they are being used—to make money for some boss or stockholders—is ugly. They do not like what is asking something from them: profit economics, with its contempt for who they are. And though they do not put it this way, they feel that what they are being asked to do—work long hours at low wages, often without medical benefits—makes their relation to the whole world uglier. (It is hard, for example, to like the world when you hate how you’re used at work yet you worry about losing that job, and about having enough food for your family.) 

Americans need be proud of the reason they are so non-productive, as Hamlet needed to be proud. Americans need to see what is impelling them: their deep feeling that work should be a means of their liking the world, and their profound disinclination to work on an economic basis of contempt and ill will. They need to see that this ethical disinclination is causing the longest job action in American history: the unconscious, semi-conscious, and conscious slowdown which has gone on across this nation for over 25 years. 

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Attention and Hamlet

By Eli Siegel

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is about attention. And a prelude to its meaning is in a line from Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” That means to see the general in the specific. If we can do that, things can go profoundly and merrily. However, we have a counter world in ourselves, and we want to say ourselves are the world and the other world is only an incident. We cannot do that very agreeably. 

The Blake line concerns the problem of Hamlet. Hamlet is told by his father to avenge him. At the same time, Hamlet has such an attitude to the world in general that he feels to do as his father tells him would be a lessening of himself. Hamlet is saying constantly: Here am I—my father has come as a ghost. He’s taken the trouble to be a ghost to tell me this. He’s shown me what awful things are going on, and I don’t do a thing. Why can’t I be attentive to my own desires? 

I’m not discussing the whole play—Hamlet is trying to be attentive to everything in himself—but I am discussing how it stands for the problem of attention gone wrong for the while. In the first act, the father—who is now a ghost that walks, talks, and complains—has appeared. He says: “Mark me.” That’s a word of attention. 

Hamlet. I will. 

Ghost.       My hour is almost come 

When I to sulphurous and tormenting flames 

Must render up myself.

He knows he’s been bad. 

Hamlet.      Alas, poor Ghost! 

Ghost. Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing 

To what I shall unfold.

That’s the second time he’s told him to listen. Hamlet says: “Speak; I am bound to hear.” And the Ghost says: “So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear.” Once more a slight warning. 

As the Ghost continues, he works very hard and poetically to have Hamlet attentive. He asks him to listen: “List, list, O list!” The rest of the scene has more warnings: Now, you be attentive!; I’m not going to be around as a ghost very often—be attentive! Hamlet takes notes. Oh, does he say he’ll remember! 

Things that show attention at its highest or most intense are present as the Ghost speaks: 

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word 

Would harrow up thy soul; freeze thy young blood; 

Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres; 

Thy knotted and combined locks to part, 

And each particular hair to stand on end.

When we’re most attentive, we can be frightened, astonished; we have to look; we’re fascinated—we feel this has us. When that happens, things like those the Ghost mentions occur: our blood gets cold; our eyes can bulge. If we can’t give attention in a good way, we may punish ourselves by giving attention to the wrong things in the wrong way, and that may help our eyes to bulge. When we give attention unwillingly, we can have our hair standing up, as it does in the comics. 

A Common Phrase

“List, list, O list.” A common phrase when people are quarreling is, Listen to me!—you don’t listen to me; you interrupt me; listen to me, Joe, let me finish! How much that goes on—people telling each other not to interrupt, to listen! It shows that attention is having a bad time in America. 

Hamlet says, sure he’ll remember, oh sure. Never was there such a ghost insistent on attention. And I may say that, though I think this is great writing, there is something of the comic—which I think the critics have left out. One of these days I’m going to talk on the whole play Hamlet, but this is a preliminary. After the Ghost leaves, Hamlet says: 

Remember thee! 

Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat 

In this distracted globe. Remember thee! 

Yea, from the table of my memory 

I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records, 

All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, 

That youth and observation copied there; 

And thy commandment all alone shall live 

Within the book and volume of my brain.

We see that Hamlet does everything to remember—he says he won’t think of anything else. But does he? He does not. He has the problem of concentration and expansion. You cannot get to attention without seeing what is the deepest source: your attitude to a specific thing and everything else at the same time. And the whole point of the play is that, though in a way Hamlet does see there’s something to be done, he cannot be very excited about it. He says: “The time is out of joint:—O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”—as if there were more concerned than the death of his father. It’s as if the whole world were to be made right. 

Related to Us

The problem of the play happens to be how Hamlet seems to be attentive and seems to think so much that he has to avenge his father, yet underneath there’s something that stops him. That is related to how, in wanting to be attentive to something—our job, what a person is saying, our husband, our wife—we still can be inattentive, because there is something that stops us from giving our attention. The problem of the play—with many divagations, facets—is a problem of attention and inattention, and how something unconscious in us can interfere with the attention that we seem to want to give. 

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