There Are Self, Truth, & War
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the lecture that Eli Siegel gave on November 28, 1975: Contempt & World War I. Definitive and scholarly, it also has informality, a great ease, and humor.
There are many valuable studies of Europe in 1914, detailing the resentments and rivalries among its nations. But it is Eli Siegel who has explained the fundamental reason young men of England and Germany (for instance) were sent to kill each other, and were so often eager to don a uniform and do so.
Aesthetic Realism has identified that in the human self from which all cruelty comes—including the cruelty that is war. This ugly thing is contempt: the feeling we are more through lessening what’s not ourselves. It is very ordinary. It is present in all of us. And the big fight in each of our lives is between our desire for contempt and our deepest desire: to be truly ourselves, expressed and original, through being just to what’s different from us.
In his lecture, Mr. Siegel approaches World War I from various angles: a poem of Vachel Lindsay, an essay by Freud, Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 war address to Congress. In the present section he looks at a passage by a German historian. Throughout, he points to aspects of contempt, and we get a sense of their intricacy and intertwinings. Contempt is ever so diverse, yet it is one thing. It is the principal cause of war—including, he shows, that war of 1914-18, which shocked Europe and through which millions of people died.
Contempt: Ordinary & Terrible
A work Mr. Siegel mentions for its relation to war is George Bernard Shaw’s early play Arms and the Man, of 1894. It is set in Bulgaria, and has the Shavian humor and keenness. I am going to quote two passages that are a means of seeing what contempt is. The first is a stage direction in Act I. It precedes a statement by the heroine, Raina, and reads:
(staring at him rather superciliously as she conceives a poorer and poorer opinion of him, and feels proportionately more and more at her ease)
That’s a description of a woman looking at and thinking about a man. It’s not about war. But the basis of contempt is in it. Every day, people feel, as Raina does, that the more they can look down on someone the more they’ll feel sure of themselves, important, at ease. How ordinary this feeling is. How neatly Shaw describes it. Yet this same way of mind is behind all racism, ethnic prejudice, bad nationalism: if I can see those others, those foreigners, as lowly and worthless, I can get to an ease I’d otherwise lack; I can feel I and those associated with me are far superior!
In Act II, Raina’s father, Petkoff, a Bulgarian army major, expresses another aspect of contempt. It’s the feeling, ever so frequent, that if people see things differently from how I see, or behave differently, they’re obviously wrong and stupid. In this instance the subject is washing oneself, and Shaw has a good time making fun of the narrowness and illogic of contempt. He has Petkoff say:
Washing can’t be good for the health; it’s not natural. There was an Englishman at Philippopolis who used to wet himself all over with cold water every morning when he got up. Disgusting! It all comes from the English: their climate makes them so dirty that they have to be perpetually washing themselves. Look at my father! He never had a bath in his life.
Recent History—& Contempt for Truth
On December 2 there appeared in the New York Times an article about the “brief Russian-Georgian war” of 2008. It’s a means of looking at a form of contempt which is elemental, inclusive, and limitlessly dangerous, though engaged in by people every day: contempt for truth.
The article is based on documents made public by WikiLeaks. And what it comes to is: the United States gave unquestioning credence to statements put forth by the Georgian government—statements which accused Russia of military aggression, and which were lies.
Georgia wanted to take over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, described by the Times as “two breakaway enclaves out of Georgian control that received Russian support.” The newly released documents show that American diplomats and government officials consistently chose to ignore all information and facts which contradicted the version presented by the Georgian government. The Times writer, C.J. Chivers, is delicate in his critical descriptions. He says:
Sources outside the Georgian government were played down....Official Georgian versions of events were...largely unchallenged. The last cables before the eruption of the brief Russian-Georgian war showed an [American] embassy relaying statements that would with time be proved wrong.
In one instance, even when U.S. Embassy personnel saw with their own eyes Georgian troops “heading north,” the embassy underwrote the Georgian version and maintained that Georgian troops were not deployed but were merely in a “state of alertness.”
Georgia launched “a heavy artillery-and-rocket attack on Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital.” It falsely claimed that it was only trying to protect Georgian villages fired on by the pro-Russian South Ossetians. There actually had been no such South Ossetian artillery fire. Nevertheless, writes Chivers, the Georgian lie “would be publicly echoed throughout the Bush administration, which strongly backed Georgia on the world’s stage.”
In one place Chivers euphemistically calls our government’s welcoming of the Georgian lies a “misread[ing of] the signs.” In another place he calls it a “reliance on one-sided information.” However, what it really is, is contempt for truth: a feeling that facts can be expunged or twisted to suit oneself. The United States, we’re told, “had helped arm and train” the Georgian military. After all, the government of Georgia was friendly—even cozy—with American businesses and wanted the region owned in a way those businesses desired (regardless of what the people living in the region hoped for).
Not mentioned in the article is that the American press, including the Times, essentially did the same thing our administration did. The press presented as fact the lies that Georgia put forth.
The Ego’s War with Fact
My purpose is not to discuss the relations of Georgia, Russia, South Ossetia, the United States, and U.S. companies. I am pointing out, through documents made available this very month, an instance of contempt as the cause of war—for clearly the cables cited by the Times document both Georgia’s and our own embassy’s contempt for the facts. Again, how ordinary such contempt is! Mr. Siegel writes in issue 148 of this journal:
Having one’s way...is equivalent often to having contempt for the facts not consonant with having one’s way. The most frequent material for a person’s contempt is the facts or the reality opposed to one’s pleasing oneself.
There is a famous expression, often attributed to U.S. Senator Hiram Warren Johnson, who said something like it in a less snappy form in 1918: “The first casualty of war is truth.” The expression is valuable and affecting. But what is even more important is: there would not be war if people liked truth to begin with. The changing of the facts to suit one’s ego precedes war and makes it possible. And truth is a casualty of ego in people’s conversations and thoughts to themselves every day.
Nevertheless, contempt for truth—the feeling that no matter how clear the facts are, if you don’t like them you can make them not exist—is the ugliest, most dangerous thing in the human self. Aesthetic Realism is the great study of how caring for truth is the having one’s own way. This love of truth is what Eli Siegel himself lived by. And through it he came to what I consider the kindest, most comprehensive, most beautiful, most needed body of knowledge in the world.