Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the final section of The Known & Unknown Are Kind in Poetry by Eli Siegel, a great lecture of 1972. We print, as well, an article by Matthew D’Amico, who is an Aesthetic Realism associate and a political coordinator for a large union. The article is part of a paper he presented this month at a public seminar titled “Cynicism: Does It Make a Man Stronger or Weaken Him?” Mr. D’Amico speaks about an aspect of what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the big fight raging in everyone: the fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it.
A Point in History
It was 43 years ago today that Eli Siegel gave the first of his landmark Goodbye Profit System lectures. In them he described a huge, irreversible occurrence in economic history. He showed that an economy based on contempt—on seeing human beings in terms of how much profit you can make from them—could no longer continue successfully. He wrote:
There will be no economic recovery in the world until economics itself, the making of money, the having of jobs, becomes ethical; is based on good will rather than on the ill will which has been predominant for centuries.
What Mr. Siegel was the economist to describe—that profit economics had had its day and was, in terms of humanity’s future, over—can be related to something else in history. It is a bit like the fact that, by the end of the 18th century, one could say monarchy was done for. There might be kings for a while longer—in some places for many years; and there might be attempts to restore monarchical power. But by the end of the 18th century, history and ethics had reached a certain point. There had been the American and French Revolutions; and one could say that monarchy (at least monarchy with real power) was an irrevocably dying thing. So it was with the profit system in 1970. And today the profit system has not recovered, though the effort to make it grind on is tremendous.
I’m going to comment on a New York Times article about the recent factory building collapse in Bangladesh. That collapse is an instance of what Mr. Siegel once called a “horror story of free enterprise.” It killed more than 1,000 people. The April 25th article begins:
As rescuers struggled on Thursday to reach survivors in one of the worst manufacturing disasters in history, pointed questions were being raised about why a Bangladesh factory building was not padlocked after terrified workers notified the police, government officials and a powerful garment industry group about cracks in the walls.
I’m commenting on this because, with all the horror (and, really, murderousness) of what occurred, the factories in that building are emblematic of the one way the profit system can now go on. The happening, the deaths, the maimings are real; but they are also symbolic of what is needed for profit economics to be at all in 2013.
The article’s headline is “Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh.” The firms are companies like Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Benetton—which arranged for garments of theirs to be produced in the shoddily built factories, by workers who are abysmally paid. These companies and others will resist the “pressure” to make working conditions better in Bangladesh—because such hideous conditions are part of the companies’ ability to make profit.
To What Were They Faithful?
The building collapse arose from a fidelity to the profit system all the way down the line. 1) The “Western firms,” impelled by the profit motive, want to pay workers as little as possible. That’s why they’re producing in Bangladesh (via foreign factory owners), and not in America—or Italy. 2) The Bangladeshi factory owners also want to make profit, so they pay workers as little as possible and don’t waste money on safety measures. It costs money to make workplaces safe, and every penny an owner spends on safety lessens his profits. 3) The builders of that factory edifice built sleazily because doing so is cheaper, which means more profitable.
This way of seeing has always been central to the profit system. It made mine owners not care if workers got black lung disease; it made owners of factories use, and prefer, child labor. It is the sheer contempt of the profit motive: you exist to provide money for me. And the unspoken consensus of the various bosses has been: “Whatever happens to these workers, it’s worth it. They’re not like us anyway. So what if sometimes people die—they’re expendable.” There has been calculation: “Say someone loses his legs or becomes paralyzed. Even if I have to pay damages, it still won’t cost me as much as all the money I’ve saved by not fussing about safety.”
The opposites that Mr. Siegel speaks of in the lecture we’ve been serializing—known and unknown—are in a hideous relation in profit economics. One’s purpose with a person is not to understand him; that is, know him, see him as real. It’s to get as much money as you can through him. The profit motive makes another person horribly unknown: you barely think about him at all, except “How can I pay that guy less?” Yet the profit way also does not grant people their true unknownness: the wonder and mystery every human being has. If you want to know a person deeply, you can’t use him as a mechanism for your profit. Nor can you do so if you see him as having un-sum-up-able meaning.
The Times article notes that “Western companies... had promised after a deadly fire in November to take steps to ensure the safety of Bangladeshi factories.” It seems they didn’t take those steps. And the reason is: Today, if people work under safe conditions, and if they get paid decently, the desired profits won’t come in; the profit system won’t be able to continue.
The garment industry in Bangladesh, we’re told, “depends on a low wage formula.” It’s obvious the government helps “keep wages low and workers in line. Labor unions are almost nonexistent...; one labor organizer... was brutally killed last year in a case that is still unsolved.”
Again, the reason is something we need to be clear about: without this viciously contemptuous way of employing people, the profit system will be done for. What’s going on now, in Bangladesh and in America too, is the attempt to make the profit way survive by making people work in a way that impoverishes them. There are persons in the United States who would like to deal with unions the way Bangladesh does—because unions are the biggest force for having justice come to people at the workplace and in their economic lives.
On this date 43 years ago Eli Siegel explained: “What is being shown today is that without good will, the toughest, most inconsiderate of activities—economics—cannot do so well.”
With all the brutality used to keep the profit way going, the fact that economic contempt can no longer succeed speaks in behalf of the goodness of the world. Mr. Siegel said: “This warning is now going all through the world: Let good will be the cause of production!... This is the greatest victory of good will in history.”
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Known & Unknown in Homer’s Lines
By Eli Siegel
The unknown is present in Homer. I can’t read much from The Iliad now, but I’ll read a sentence or two from the Lang, Leaf, and Myers translation, which I’ve been using. We have reached the part in book 1 where Achilles speaks angrily to Agamemnon and says:
Not by reason of the Trojan spearmen came I hither to fight, for they have not wronged me; never did they harry mine oxen nor my horses, nor ever waste my harvest in deep-soiled Phthia, the nurse of men; seeing there lieth between us long space of shadowy mountains and sounding sea.
That is: I didn’t come to Troy because of the Trojan spearmen; I wasn’t angry with them; they never did anything against me; they didn’t bother my oxen or my horses; they didn’t waste my harvest in the place I came from, “deep-soiled Phthia.” In order to have things known, Homer uses an adjective for a place: deepsoiled. It means this place had soil that was rich. And he says, There’s a great distance between where I came from and here. Then, to Agamemnon:
But thee, thou shameless one, followed we hither to make thee glad, by earning recompense at the Trojans’ hands for Menelaos and for thee, thou dog-face!
That phrase “dog-face” doesn’t seem to be too great. However there is something different in “space of shadowy mountains and sounding sea”—which has largeness, a sense of the strange, the unknown.
All this thou reckonest not nor takest thought thereof; and now thou threatenest thyself to take my meed of honour, wherefore I travailed much, and the sons of the Achaians gave it me.
The “meed of honour” is a lady, Briseis. She is going to be taken away from Achilles by Agamemnon.
However, the large matter is that this writing is caparisoned, clothed richly. It is symmetrical in the Greek, and the relation of the order of the Greek words, the order of the Greek sounds, and what is being said, is in the field of the unknown; there is mystery. Something is known—the Greek has been translated. It is not like the Rosetta Stone, where you can be a little uncertain of the meaning. One is quite certain that one knows what those Greek lines mean. —Achilles continues speaking angrily to Agamemnon:
Never win I meed like unto thine, when the Achaians sack any populous citadel of Trojan men; my hands bear the brunt of furious war, but when the apportioning cometh then is thy meed far ampler, and I betake me to the ships with some small thing, yet mine own, when I have fought to weariness.
There is a cadence in those lines. Achilles says he gets some small thing, not near as rich as the thing Agamemnon gets, even though he, Achilles, has fought to weariness. A certain gentle sound is there.
I hope to continue looking at this first book of The Iliad. I shall try to relate what Homer has written—or the force which is Homer has written—to what poetry is about, and also to that charming and everlasting thing which is an honest great book, and to how we want to see our feelings.
Cynicism: Does It Strengthen or Weaken Us?
By Matthew D’Amico
“Look at the politicians in Washington—they’re such phonies. You can’t trust anybody nowadays!” “Women are two-faced. They act like they like you, but they’re just looking for reasons to put you down.” Cynicism is ever so easy to have. But I’ve seen that it makes us cold and unable to have large emotions. And rather than making us keen or wise, it makes us less intelligent, because we’re not interested in knowing the facts, including about people. Cynicism is a form of contempt. It weakens us, because instead of seeing the value of something, the cynic mistakenly feels his mind is at its best summing up, finding flaws, looking to disrespect things. In his preface to Self and World, Eli Siegel writes:
There are two means, as Aesthetic Realism sees it, of bringing some satisfaction to ourselves. The first is, the seeing of something like a sunset, a poem, a concerto, which can stand for the world and which pleases us through what it is: its structure in mind, time, and space. This is the aesthetic victory, which is the most sensible of all victories. The other victory is our ability to depreciate anything that exists. To see the world itself as an impossible mess—and this is often not difficult at all—gives a certain triumph to the individual.
Growing up, I had those two victories. As a child I loved listening to Elvis Presley’s “You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog” and dancing to it on top of the living room coffee table. In school I liked learning about ancient history. But I also had a victory feeling that this world was a mess. I used the fact that I was small for my age to feel I’d gotten a raw deal. And while I respected my parents for many things, including their care for art and social justice, I used what I saw as their imperfections to be scornful.
In a lecture Eli Siegel explained: “A cynic never says, ‘I hope something is good.’ There is a certain importance in feeling that nothing could stand up under criticism.” I went after that importance, and told myself I was a keen observer of people. But my false inward superiority came at a cost, and part of that cost was my feeling I was cold inside.
Cynicism Is Not Criticism
I did have a large feeling about government. In high school and college I loved learning about the Founding Fathers and studying how our Constitution came to be. In college I had an internship with a member of the New York City Council. Then I worked for a while in the political department of a union representing New York City employees. As part of my job, I would attend council hearings and meetings with elected officials. I remember, at City Hall, saying to colleagues of mine about politicians we saw there: “Look at these men and women who will say one thing in public and something different behind closed doors. They don’t really care about people.” I felt so superior as I looked down on them—hoping, really, that the seamy side of a person was the main thing.
I was fortunate to have an Aesthetic Realism consultation in which we talked about this. My consultants asked: “Do you think politicians, like most people, have a fight between being useful, kind—and wanting to be liked and important?” I said yes. And then my consultants asked, “Do you have that question? Or do you make yourself too different?” It was the latter. I wasn’t trying to be an accurate critic. I preferred feeling superior. In an issue of TRO, Ellen Reiss writes:
Cynicism is not the same as criticism....Criticism can be the necessary, truly kind though perhaps intense opposing of something ugly because we want the world, or a person, or people, or a nation to be as good and beautiful as possible.
But the cynic in us doesn’t want the world “to be as good and beautiful as possible.” He hopes it’s ugly and unjust, because that way he can feel superior.
As an Aesthetic Realism associate, I have heard recorded lectures given by Eli Siegel on history, politics, love, poetry, and more. I can honestly say that no matter the subject he was discussing, he was never cynical. His desire was to have you see, even as you looked at something ugly, that this world has a structure that is beautiful and makes sense.
Cynicism about Love
In school I had crushes on girls, and a number of girls thought I was cute because of how young I looked for my age. I got pleasure from this kind of attention, but also thought these girls were silly and superficial. Then I’d be unsure around them in a social situation. In time I came to feel the main thing about a woman was that she wanted to have a big effect on a man, get him all stirred up.
In a consultation, when I spoke about my nervousness around women, I was asked: “Are you more ready to be hurt by a woman or to want to know who she is, what she is affected by, what her hopes are, where she wants to do better?” I answered, “To be hurt.” I was learning that this was the reason I felt ill at ease. What I needed in order to be at ease was good will, which Aesthetic Realism defines as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.”
My Education Continues
In an Aesthetic Realism class, when I spoke of seeing a desire in myself to be cynical, Ellen Reiss asked, “Do you think there is some answer you get through cynicism, something that seems to take care of everything?” I said, “Yes, I do.” And she continued: “There are certain things people treasure, like their cynicism, that they don’t see as causing them trouble but instead as a solution to dealing with things. For instance, cynicism is easier than confusion. It’s miserable but at least you think you’re clear.” As a means of my studying the matter, she suggested I write “My Cynicism: A Love Letter,” and said that perhaps I could call my cynicism Cynnie. I did this, and here is some of what I wrote:
Dear Cynnie: I love you because you don’t ask me any questions, or judge my keen observations.... I love you because you make things clear to me and you make sure I don’t have to think too much. Like about women...: women want to be praised and made much of. And of course, I’m wonderful so if love doesn’t fare well for me, it’s their fault, not mine. And there you are, ready to agree....So Cynnie, thanks for always being there for me.
I was excited to see how much I’d hoped the good in people wouldn’t hold up to my scrutiny. I saw that my cynicism stopped me from seeing accurately, made me colder, weakened my mind. Through the study of Aesthetic Realism we can learn a way of seeing that really makes us stronger. This knowledge is needed by humanity.