The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Courage, Cowardice, & the Profit System

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue our serialization of the great lecture They Go Away from Something, which Eli Siegel gave on January 22, 1971. It is one of his Goodbye Profit System talks, in which he explained that economics based on contempt for people and the world—on seeing them as things to be utilized for one’s fiscal aggrandizement—can no longer work efficiently. He gave evidence for the fact that this profit way could proceed only with increasing difficulty—and more and more hardship for people. That is what has happened. He said that while people have gone along with the profit system, seeing it as “how things are,” everyone has been deeply against it. That is because we were born to know the world, be just to what’s not ourselves—not defeat it, exploit it, grab it, manipulate it.

We print too an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Jeffrey Carduner. It’s from a paper he gave last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “What Is True Courage in a Man?” Mr. Carduner speaks about the fight which Aesthetic Realism shows is central in both the personal life of everyone and in the history of economics. It’s the fight between the desire to have contempt for the world, for things and people not ourselves, and the desire to respect these. The fight is present intensely now as to how American jobs should be had, who should be taxed and how much, how government money should be spent, who should really own our beautiful America with all its wealth.

As to the subject of Mr. Carduner’s article, courage—I may as well say straight that the profit system is cowardice. A great deal has been made of “risk”; the “entrepreneurial spirit” has been presented as daring. But the chief matter in human courage is this: Do you have the courage to see what’s not yourself as fully real? Do you want to be fair to another human being—see his or her depths, hopes, worries, thoughts as being as vivid as your own, mattering as much as yours? Do you feel that knowing with honesty and imagination makes you important? Or do you have to get your “glory” through lessening something or someone else?

Art is courage, because in it a person is just to something not oneself, with no holds barred. The profit motive, on the other hand, is the feeling, “The one way for me to take care of myself is through getting some advantage over somebody else—squeezing what I can out of him.” And so, however much a person impelled by this motive may swagger, he is really a trembling thing—scared to be fair, not big enough to see, know, be affected by, think about another person with full justice.

Something of what the profit motive is can be seen in two articles. They’re about the owners of the Japanese nuclear power reactors which, as I write, are spewing forth radiation, poisoning people, crops, animals, water. There is the Wall Street Journal of March 20. It reports on its front page that when the earthquake and tsunami crippled the Fukushima Daiichi complex, the Tokyo Electric Power Company refused, in the crucial early days, to use seawater to cool the reactors and thereby stop or mitigate a disaster. Why? Doing so would interfere with profits:

Tepco “hesitated because it tried to protect its assets,” said Akira Omoto, a former Tepco executive....[It] worried about hurting its long-term investment....“This disaster is 60% manmade,” said one government official.

A New York Times article of March 22 tells how, before the earthquake, government regulators found dangerously damaged equipment throughout the plant, and simply told Tepco to take care of the matter—which Tepco did not do. For a decade the company “attempt[ed] to cover [such problems] up.”

These articles show that the profit motive is contempt. It is against what’s just, what’s kind, against life itself. America and the world want economics to be based as Mr. Siegel described: “on good will, rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

As People Go to Work

By Eli Siegel

I’m going to read a news story that appeared in the Washington Post yesterday. It illustrates something I spoke about: that people not necessarily left are against the profit system, and the present going for drugs is one of the ways that shows. The article is about a young man’s “3 Years of Drug Involvement” and his death.

It’s written by Kirk Scharfenberg, and I don’t know of a more important story. Within it is a novel. It is the neatest and clearest novel of our time that I know. The writer is conscious that he’s not only writing a news story, he’s writing literature. However, I think the facts are there. If this is written with a touch of Flaubert and Maupassant and even James Baldwin, well, let it be. It is an instance of the fact that a person cannot go into the world and make money with the same freedom within that a person once could.

The reason I’ve called this talk “They Go Away from Something” is: we go away either from an outward situation, or from our sensitivity or conscience—from something outside of ourselves we don’t like or from that in us which dislikes it. There is a going backward and forward from two things not wholly liked and not wholly disliked.

No one dislikes the idea of making money. No one wholly likes the way sometimes it has to be made. So there is a hither-and-yon-ing. And the hither-and-yon-ing is more intense than ever.

This news story is so much of our time. The person written of, Herbie Akers, was born in 1949.

Monday morning Herbie Akers told his mother that he didn’t feel too well and wouldn’t be able to get up and go to work.

This is related to the Ernest Hemingway story I discussed, “Soldier’s Home,” from In Our Time—about Harold Krebs, who had just come back from the war. His mother brings him up breakfast, and there’s something like: “Won’t you get up? Won’t you get up?” “I don’t feel like it. I don’t see any use in getting up. It’s mighty good of you, Mother, to bring the stuff, but I don’t think I’d like to eat it just yet.”

There are quite a few stories that have the distaste of people as to work. In 1930 (when the second edition of In Our Time appeared), the distaste had both aspects: it was external, because there was a feeling that a job shouldn’t be so hard to get; and there was a distaste for the awful way one could feel. There was castigation of inward situation and outward presence. The difference from today is that in 1930 most people just loved the idea of having a job: if they could get a job, they felt it was ever so fortunate. That feeling isn’t had in 1971.

In the novels of the 1920s you see that there was a tumult—there still is—about going to work in the morning. Domestic life for a while was turbulent and quarrelsome as people went on their way to school or work. You find that in Sinclair Lewis’s novels, and it’s still possible. No matter what the job, going to work is still a distressful epic. But the inner state about work is different from what it was in the past.

Monday morning Herbie Akers told his mother that he didn’t feel too well and wouldn’t be able to get up and go to work.

“I thought to myself that maybe I should stay home,” his mother recalled. “I wondered if he was really sick.”

It’s likely that something like this had occurred before, and the mother was worried. We’ll learn that in this family the mother and father were working and the oldest son was not. The other two children were admirably conforming, respectable. The oldest child was the one who had the trouble. Sometimes that’s the way it happens.

“Then I thought, well, he’s 21 and he needs to be on his own. So I left. When I came home at 4 p.m. the rescue squad was already there.”

Scharfenberg is aware of the dramatic way in which he’s telling this.

Herbert W. Akers III, who, in the words of his younger brother, “wasn’t any all-American boy, but wasn’t any hippie either,” had...shot himself in the head following an LSD trip.

What you find is that he didn’t like the way the world seemed. He didn’t like the way he had to make a living. He had to be arrogant and show he was somebody, but he didn’t like that either. So he sought peace in the lotus of our time, spelled L-S-D, not l-o-t-u-s. There are other spellings.

As the State of the Union Address takes place tonight, the large question is this: Will whatever is done by the conclave of manufacturers and legislators, the Chamber of Commerce and law—will that change the distaste present in every state for the conditions of making a living?

“Everything we did,” Mrs. Akers said, recalling the rearing of her first child, “we thought was right at the time.”

It seems that Mr. and Mrs. Akers were a very sensible pair. They did all they could to establish a place in the world. They tried to make the child into somebody sensible who would say, “This is the world as I find it, and I’ll go along with it.” There are many who did that. All the persons who made money, not liking the world in which they made it, if they were ever gathered together would fill a very important part of the financial telephone book or something.

The shot...ended three years of sporadic, but at times intensive, involvement with drugs.

There is a relation between our profit system and drugs. You don’t have to get away from a world the financial basis of which you like, and the basis in general.

What Is True Courage in a Man?

By Jeffrey Carduner

In the high school locker room after football practice, I heard Paul Simms regaling a crowd of teammates with a story about how he’d gotten his way with Susan Johnson, one of the cheerleaders. I’d known Sue since first grade, and once I’d even carried her books home for her. But I didn’t say anything in her defense because I was worried my teammates would make fun of me: “Oh, here comes Jeff, Mr. Goody Two Shoes.” When I saw her in the hall the next day, I crossed to the opposite side: I felt ashamed that I’d been such a coward. I hadn’t stood up for a friend because I’d wanted to be liked.

An Early Mix-up about Courage

As a boy, I loved reading about the 300 Spartans who gave their lives at the Battle of Thermopylae. I thrilled to read about the courageous citizens of Boston who defended Bunker Hill. But in everyday life, my notion of courage was riding a motorcycle on the Long Island Expressway at 80 miles per hour with my friends, three abreast. Increasingly, I felt that life was dull and essentially meaningless.

Eli Siegel has defined courage as “the belief that the way things are is not against oneself, and therefore that these things should not be gone away from.” And he explains that courage is “an organic like of the facts, making for a wish to know them.”

I did not have such a like of the facts, including facts about girls and women. Through discussions with the men in my family—my father and uncles—I came to feel that the world was something inimical, which you had to beat out and use for yourself. And women were spoken about disrespectfully, in a way that was deeply cowardly: they existed to serve and console men.

What Men Are Most Cowardly About

Like many firstborn male children in a Jewish family, I was treated like a prince. My grandmother Ida had helped support my grandfather and father during the Depression, through teaching. She’d traveled around the world and was a well-read person who recited poetry to me. But I didn’t see her this way. She was “Gram,” whose job was to supply me with pistachio nuts and grape juice when I stopped at her house after school. She had five sisters, all of whom I later learned had very full lives. I saw them only as the great-aunts who welled up with gratitude at the sight of me.

I had little desire to know the facts about a woman: what she hoped for, what she had against herself, how she saw the world. This small and craven attitude affected how I saw every woman I was close to. For instance, there was Caroline Spencer. Caroline was a social worker and during the day met difficult situations, which she’d talk about. But I never liked hearing about them, and felt uneasy when she spoke of the people she met who were in bad economic circumstances. I’d always change the subject.

One night, after we were physically close, she began to cry. I thought we’d had such a good time: I’d taken her to dinner, we’d seen a Broadway show, and then we’d been intimate. But she cried out in pain and rage, “You don’t know me! You don’t want to know who I am! Get away from me—I’m through with you!” I was stunned, and felt, “What is she getting so overwrought about? Haven’t I done all these things for her? Why isn’t she happy with me?” Yet as I looked at her pained face, I couldn’t avoid it—I felt, “Maybe there’s something very wrong with me.”

Two years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, I was able to hear questions from Eli Siegel. He asked me: “When you conquered a woman, did you respect her more?”

JC. No, I don’t think so.

ES. Do you believe it made for not liking yourself?

JC. I don’t know.

ES. This is what men are most cowardly about—they cannot say, “The way I am with a woman makes me not like myself.” It happens with most males: you have great pleasure and use it to have less respect for things, and somewhere you feel this is not good.

Mr. Carduner, the more you don’t respect the world, the more you feel cheap. Not to respect the world is, to oneself, the same as being cheap. I know that’s an ugly word, but it happens to be a vivid one.

As he said this, I recognized the feeling I’d experienced so often: I had felt cheap but lacked the courage to say it. What I’d had was contempt, the feeling I’d make more of myself by making less of the outside world. I hadn’t wanted to have careful thought about a woman’s feeling.

Through this criticism, I began to think about women more deeply. I saw that a woman and I have a great deal more in common than I’d thought. We both want to put together opposites, such as sureness and unsureness, heaviness and lightness, our depths and what we show on the surface. It was a new—and far more exact—way of seeing.

And for the first time, I consciously wanted to have a good effect on people. This included Devorah Tarrow, a sociology student who studied Aesthetic Realism, and who affected me, mind and body. She was, and is today, a serious, intellectual person who has deep thought about people and what they deserve, and I loved talking with her. Devorah had a desire to know what I felt, what I’d seen and was hoping for, and I fell in love with her.

Meanwhile, I began to feel that all this talk was getting in the way of having a good time with her as to body. I found myself yearning to take part in a three-day sailboat race to get away from her and teach her a lesson. When Devorah mentioned the situation in a class after I’d returned, Mr. Siegel said he wasn’t against sailboats but was interested in my intensity about going. And he said:

ES. There are two opposites in everybody’s life: courage and prudence. Anytime those two are not made closer, we are not comfortable. We all want to take care of ourselves, to be prudent; and we all want to be less of a coward. But courage is not seen to be the same as taking care of oneself. What would be best for you?

JC. I’m not sure.

ES. Every person has a desire to settle questions through body. Men can feel one takes up too much time by being intellectual and talking—grab the woman! I say, nobody can be comfortable until they are sure they have good will. Ask, “Am I looking for what is best for another person, or am I after some purpose of my own?”

A Different Motive

I began to see that the way I would take care of myself, be “prudent,” was through the courage of trying to have good will—the desire to strengthen Devorah, and people as such.

There’s no more important thing for a man than to see where he’s wrong and say so honestly, fully, happily. I thank Aesthetic Realism for enabling me to have more courage: to look at what’s not good in myself so I can change for the better. This has enabled me to have an effect I’m proud of on people, including men I teach in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and on Devorah.

Mr. Siegel himself was the most courageous person I ever met. He had an unlimited desire to know and to have good will; and so he fearlessly went into, and brought clearness to, difficult places in a person, as he did with me. You felt you could trust him because his motive was always beautiful.