The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

For and Against in America

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue our serialization of the great 1970 lecture Ownership, Strikes, Unions, by Eli Siegel—the tenth of his Goodbye Profit System lectures. In them he described history as it was taking place, and explained something that is affecting vitally every aspect of life today. He showed that economics based on contempt for human beings—on seeing and using people as means for one’s personal profit—had failed as the 20th century neared a close. It would never work well again. “The purpose of profit,” he explained, “is no longer able to produce well and to keep Americans contented…. It is the culmination of years of world history.” And he said, with immense carefulness and feeling:

Man should not make money from man! That was justice five thousand years ago, but it didn’t have a chance to show its power until now....Ethics is a force like electricity, steam, the atom—and will have its way. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, Definition Press, pp. 160, 35, 82]

He explained that for the American and world economies to fare well, a contemptuous way of using people and owning the earth would have to be replaced—and not by anything regimented and graceless certainly. It would have to be replaced by ethics, by good will. Economics has to be based on bringing out the strength of every man, woman, and child, and on the right of every person to own this earth. This right should be as obvious as one’s right to breathe. But most of the world’s people are deprived of it from the moment they are born.

I have described various ways in which those persons whose sense of self is linked to the profit system have tried intensively these years to keep big profits for a few individuals coming in. What has taken place is an effort to turn back the clock: to have people work under the more profit-supplying conditions of, say, 100 years ago—when bosses’ profits didn’t have to be wasted by paying wages that were somewhat decent, frittered away so that workers could live with some dignity.

To save profit economics, Americans today are being made to work for lower wages. Benefits once taken for granted are gone, and many millions of Americans have no health insurance. A “secure” job is a rarity—something to marvel at. People are in constant fear of losing the job they have—despite the fact that they likely hate that job. Millions are working two and three jobs. Child labor has returned. Sweatshops have multiplied. The US standard of living has worsened. The American middle class has diminished. The rich-poor gap is wider and wider. And all the while the media, which consist of corporations, tell the nation the economy is “robust”—hoping that if Americans hear this enough they’ll think it’s true, despite the daily evidence of their worried lives.

In the section of Ownership, Strikes, Unions printed here, Mr. Siegel does something tremendous: he shows that the American people have always had a deep objection to profit economics. And he uses literature, not of the “grand” or “classic” kind, but popular works, things people liked, to show this. He was, in my opinion, the greatest scholar of American literature—along with being, himself, so important a part of that literature.

As this TRO is being prepared, our nation continues its bombing of the earth, cities, people of Yugoslavia. One does not have to praise the Yugoslav government to find our bombing shameful, horrific, against everything decent in America, from the beauty of our Bill of Rights to the grandeur and loveliness of the Rocky Mountains.

I wrote about the US and NATO attack on Yugoslavia in issue 1360 of this journal. Here, in the present issue, are some Bulletins on the subject. If—as I hope—by the time this TRO is published the bombing has stopped, the Bulletins will still be about an emergency: to understand and end the purposes which have impelled the US-NATO attack and so much other cruelty.

During the Vietnam War, Mr. Siegel wrote Bulletins, read at Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations, which had in them opposition to that war of the clearest, most passionate kind, and at the same time had humor, true lightness, authentic charm. A phrase he once used, to represent a goal people should have, described him: he was a “Fearless Fighter for Truth.” While he opposed injustice with unstinting courage, his love for the world, people, and America was always vivid. And his conviction enabled him to be at ease, graceful, lightsome too. The way he fought and loved, opposed and respected, was an embodiment of this definition of beauty at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

Let us say the following Bulletins were written by a friend of ours, who some people think is a distant relative of Walt Whitman.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


1. Grateful Pilot

In a conversation between two of the pilots who day after day drop bombs on the cities of Yugoslavia, the following was recently overheard.

pete: You know, Mike, one of the things I like most about this job is that there are no people in Yugoslavia. I know that’s so, because the Pentagon is having me fly so high that I can’t see what my bombs are hitting; and since I can’t see people, I feel they don’t exist.

Also, when I see American newspapers, if they do show a photo of a hospital, maybe, that my bombs hit, there are no people in the photo—only some damaged walls. And if there were people in that hospital, I’m sure the New York Times would want to show them.

So I’m grateful to the Pentagon and the press for making it clear there are no people in Yugoslavia—because if I thought there were, I would feel so awful about what I’m doing that I couldn’t continue. What a country—hospitals with no people, bridges with no one on them, factories, office buildings, houses with no people in them killed and maimed by the bombs I drop!

I’m going to write letters to the Pentagon and the New York Times thanking them for making this fact clear for me and America so I can continue my fine work.

2. Clinton Disproves Freud

Though some persons find it hard to see Bill Clinton, Our Bomber, as useful in any way at this time, we disagree. We feel he is useful because he disproves Freud. Freud, as people know, felt that about every activity of a person, including military, was really a sublimation of sex. Clinton has proved that a person can bomb, murder, maim, even though he has had sex rather plentifully. Clinton has proved that what Freud called the aggressive-sadistic component is not connected with repressed sex. Clinton’s aggressive, murderous ill will is going on with his libido being repressed not a bit! He is evidence for what Eli Siegel explained: the biggest repression is not of sex, but of good will.

3. No Hypocrisy

There are many people in America who think there is something disgustingly insincere in President Clinton’s visiting Littleton, Colorado, speaking against violence and lamenting the shootings in our schools, when he is bombing massively men, women, and children in Yugoslavia every day.

We wish to reassure the people objecting that this seeming doubleness does not arise from any hypocrisy on the part of Clinton. His speaking against violence in Colorado and his killing people in Yugoslavia go together perfectly. Clinton simply wants to be liked by the citizens of America while hoping to destroy any nation that doesn’t welcome the profit system or won’t use itself to provide profits for American corporations. We hope the straightforward and irreproachable logic of our Chief Executive is now clear to everyone.

4. Military Target

This bulletin arises from a statement by a Yugoslav citizen quoted in the New York Times, May 21, 1999.

NATO is quite sincere in saying it is trying to hit only military targets in Yugoslavia. Of course NATO bombed a Belgrade hospital, in which, among many other people, there were mothers giving birth to babies. Everyone knows that these babies, if they have the nerve to live, will grow up; and 20 years from now they may be in the Yugoslav army. Therefore, it is clear that a hospital in which a Yugoslav baby is being born is a military target.

Bombs away, NATO! Sorry we doubted you for a minute!

What Is Protest?

By Eli Siegel

The matter of what is deep in the labor situation, deep in the human situation, is to be seen. The consciousness of people is in literature in many ways; and that consciousness is to be related to labor.

I’ll read a few items from Writer’s Year Book of 1953. “The Story of the Paperback Novel,” by Arnold Hano, has an illustration of the first paperback. It’s by a very energetic lady, Ann S. Stephens: Malaeska; The Indian Wife of the White Hunter [1860]. We have here some feeling about labor, because the West was settled largely by persons who did not like labor in the East — did not like what work went on in the East, the conditions of it — and also had the desire to protest. The Indian Wife of the White Hunter: that has protest, and protest is a big thing now.

The second item is the description of one of the Cap Collier novels. It shows the desire for freedom, which is the opposite of work: we look to work for freedom, and for freedom to work. One of the things that happen in this 1880 novel is that the hero, Cap Collier, “hurls through the air twenty-one others, including one heavy set fellow a mere thirty feet!” There is a desire to get rid of burdens, a desire for motion that expresses one.

The great interest in the western is continuing, and the western has a going away from that life associated with profit system work. Arnold Hano says publishers of now “are looking for good manful westerns.” There’s a desire to get to something which is away from the grime and hurry of assembly line production.

Hundreds of Years

My point is that the protest against the profit system has gone on for hundreds of years. Mention any year in the last ever so many hundreds and it can be found. What is protest certainly has to be discerned. There is protest in a poem which apparently was liked by declaimers in the 1880s.

It’s interesting to see how in The Old Homestead and plays that were very popular, the notion of the money-haver was never liked. And if people went by what they applauded in the theatre — lines like “Money may be important, but love, oh God, is ever so much more important"! The house went wild. What did that mean? “You may have the shekels, but real manhood is not the same as shekels” — the house went wild.

This is “The Stage Driver’s Story,” by a writer called Wyoming Kit. He is not a virtuoso of versification, but he knows his business somewhat. I am reading from Dick’s Recitations and Readings, Number 12.

[Note. A stage coach driver is answering questions that his passenger, a lady, has asked him. Yes, he says, he has a wife, “a wife that was noble and true."]

...When I lived in the States

Somehow I were all outen luck,

And I stood in with nothin’ but cussed hard times

No matter what racket I struck.

So at last I got up and concluded to leave,

And Mary approved of the plan,

And said, “Go along, Tom, and when you get rich,

You’ll find your companion on hand.”

But the same cussed luck followed right on my trail,

So I just quit a-writin’ back home,

For I wanted the folks there to think White were dead,

And continued as usual to roam.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

— Do I love Mary yit? — Why,...

...many’s the night

I lay thinkin’ of Mary in tears.

Her picture I carry right hyar in my heart.

Just the thought of her fills me with bliss.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 

If ever I get just a small stake ahead,

I’m a-goin to toddle back thar,

And I’ll ask Mary’s pardon and settle right down,

And be decent — I will, ma’am, I’ll swear!

What’s that? Lookee hyar, ma’am —  great heavens! — just turn

Yer face more around to this light.

Hist yer veil — Great Lord of all mercy above!

Why Mary Elizabeth White!

This is a love poem. But at the same time, what is its tendency? What is its drift? That is what we should look at. The drift is against money in a certain way. The stage driver is a person who helped to make America, and he objected to some of the things often that were in the East. This driver also has a feeling that he’s a plain person; he sees the lady and doesn’t know it’s his wife (if he did, the poem wouldn’t be what it is), and he has a feeling of his own lowness. The poem begins: “I know it’s presumin’ for one sich as me / For to talk to a lady so grand.”

Whose Fault?

The purpose of a good deal of American literature is to show that if you don’t make money, it’s not because you’re not a good person. It’s because of something else. And when that is said and believed, it means that the profit system as such is questioned.

"And then I tried minin’ and went through my pile / In a manner most deucedly flat.” He’s not good at holding on to money. But in the meantime, he gets all our sympathy. Why? SEC, answer that! In literature, a person who failed to make money was often loved, as Rip Van Winkle was loved. This stage driver felt, because he wasn’t making money he wasn’t respected by his wife; but deeply she did respect him. That’s the moral of this poem.

She says to him: I know, John, that you were never made for the profit system. Maybe God too doesn’t like the profit system. I understand that. It wasn’t any weakness in you—you were just against something which deeply is abhorrent to every decent mind.

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