How Should We Use Ourselves?
Dear Unknown Friends:
The great 1948 lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing, Poetry and Technique, and the article by Aesthetic Realism associate Kevin Fennell printed here and presented at a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar—“Mistakes about Ambition”—bring up a question intensely insistent in America now. That question is: How do we want to use ourselves and the world?—what is the self for?
Eli Siegel is the critic, philosopher, historian who explained that the fierce fight within every person is, should we use ourselves to like the world, to see meaning in it; or should we use ourselves to have contempt—a “false importance or glory from the lessening of things not [one]self.” This intimate fight within each individual is also behind the events of history: contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, is the source of every unkindness, including racism and the feeling of the people of one nation that others are less real than oneself and one has the right not only to look down on them but bomb them.
Mr. Siegel also showed the following—his doing so is great in the history of criticism, and I love him unboundedly for it: the distinction between using oneself with fullness to like the world, and using oneself with some or much contempt, makes the difference between real poetry and an arrangement of words that is not poetry. That is, many instances of what literary journals put forth as “poems” are really a person’s using words, things, feelings as material with which to make himself or herself impressive. But a real poem comes from a person’s seeing a subject and his or her own feeling with such passionate honesty and accuracy and width that, Mr. Siegel writes, “the words then take on a music, which is the poetic music.” That music—arising from a great like of the world—is a oneness of reality’s opposites: activity and calm, rightness and surprise, power and grace. “The world, art, and self explain each other,” Eli Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
There is nothing I consider more beautiful or crucial than Mr. Siegel’s explaining that the question a writer has in using words is the same as the central question for our nation’s economy. The question is: Do things, the world, other human beings exist as material to make somebody important-or do they deserve to be seen justly?
For centuries, Mr. Siegel explained, economics, like false poetry, has been based on contempt: it has been based on some few persons using the needs and labor of many others to make profit. And he showed that at this time in history, profit economics, economics based on the seeing of people in terms of how much money can be made from them, has failed—forever!
It is because of this failure of contempt as the basis for an economy that businesses are ferociously “downsizing.” They are trying to save their ability to squeeze profits out of human beings by throwing people out of work and forcing those who remain to do more work at longer hours for less pay. The announcement early this month that AT&T, concerned about future profitability, will fire 40,000 men and women—13% of its work force—is a tremendous sign that something has failed. For AT&T seemed once to stand for the U.S. economy at its most solid, steady, unshakeable. “AT&T,” Mr. Siegel said in a 1975 lecture, “is seen as the store window for all of America.”
Meanwhile, amid all the anguish about jobs, amid the terrible worry about how one will pay for clothes for one’s children—I think as deep a matter as ever occurred in the minds of the American people is now taking place. Americans are questioning what their lives should be used for. The profit system encouraged people to use themselves to beat out other people, to get that more impressive position, larger salary, all those possessions. Now people are feeling more and more that this acquisitive way of dealing with the world and people is not only no longer so possible, but is ugly. Every week Americans have a sharper, angrier sense that the way they are made to work—or not work—the amount of money they get, their need to worry about health care payments, is all hideously unfair to them.
And so people are more ready to see that there could be another better ambition for them and America than the feeling, “My power consists of acquiring what I can and being superior to somebody, and if possible making him serve me.” In 1996—with an election coming up in which Americans will feel their hopes are not represented by any candidate—I think people are more ready than they ever were to ask truly: “What should the basis, the purpose of our economy be? What should the purpose of my life be?”
It is from Aesthetic Realism that they will learn the purpose of both, and how to have it. That purpose, Mr. Siegel explained, is ethics—kind, practical, magnificent: “the giv[ing] oneself what is corning to one by giving what is corning to other things.”