The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Trains, Beauty, Profit, & Shame

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the third part of Shame Goes with It All, by Eli Siegel. This great 1970 lecture is from his Goodbye Profit System series, begun in May of that year. In those landmark classes he described what other historians had not seen: economics based on the profit motive had failed and would never recover.

The profit way, he made clear, was always unethical, always ugly. After all, the profit motive is the looking on a fellow human being not for the purpose of understanding him, wanting him to fare well, to get what he deserves, wanting to relate him to oneself and use him to know oneself. Rather, it is the seeing of another with the motive of aggrandizing oneself through this person: you hope the person is so desperate that you can pay him very little for his work—or charge him very much for something he needs.

That (despite all that’s been done to glamorize it) is the profit motive. It has made for sweatshops, child labor, thousands of industrial accidents (because safety measures cost money and cut into profits). It has made for poverty, and hunger. And Mr. Siegel explained that this motive which for centuries was unethical and cruel now is also inefficient: it is a victory for humanity and ethics that the immoral is now also the impractical.

It is nearly 45 years later, and he was right. Today, in order to keep that sick thing, a profit-motivated economy, on life support—to force it to bring in wealth for a few—millions of Americans are being made poorer and poorer.

What Is Shame?

In the Goodbye Profit System talks, Mr. Siegel gave historic and immediate evidence for his statement that economics based on ill will could no longer work—and explained the causes. In the lecture we’re now serializing, he is commenting on an emotion that has always been with profit economics: shame.

The section included here has in it two subjects that are very different: Dante Alighieri, writing and worried about money around 1302; and a war between 19th-century railroad magnates. Mr. Siegel, swiftly, deeply, shows that what’s in common is the shame that the profit way makes for.

Shame is a huge thing in human life and certainly has to do with things other than economics. What is shame, and what causes it? In his Definitions, and Comment, Mr. Siegel defines shame as “pain coming from the self’s feeling that it is not as it wants to be, or is not doing what it wants to do.”

Shame exists because of the aesthetic nature of the human self. The aesthetics which is as much of us as our bones is described in this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” And the two biggest opposites for us are our intimate self and the wide world we have to do with all the time. “When we are unfair to the world,” Mr. Siegel writes, “it can be shown that something in us which is the world itself, doesn’t like it.” This not liking it, is shame. Shame is a tribute to the aesthetics, which is also the ethics, of ourselves. And so every American is ashamed that there is poverty in this beautiful country we associate with ourselves. We may try to put aside the shame, because we have other fish to fry, but it is there—and it can come forth if someone on the street asks us for money. To have an economy based on some few people being very rich and millions of others poor, makes everyone ashamed. Then, as Mr. Siegel described, there can also be a false shame: it is a terrible thing that people have felt being poor must mean there is something wrong with them and so have felt ashamed.

Motives, People, Railroads

In this section of his talk Mr. Siegel speaks about a particular occurrence in the history of American railroads—a history that has the profit motive and its ensuing cruelty and shame all through it. There was, for example, the brutal use of “cheap Chinese labor” to build the first transcontinental railroad. Chinese immigrants were worked to literal exhaustion and sometimes death; were maimed and crippled; were blown up through the hazardous use of explosives—all to make building the railroad as lucrative for a few persons as possible. This way of dealing with people arose from the very basis of profit economics: the less you can pay a person and the more work you can wring out of him, the more profit you can make.

Then, later, there were the workers on the trains themselves, and the tracks. In 1877, the terrible working conditions and the cutting of their already meager wages impelled the Great Railroad Strike. It was put down violently by state militias and federal troops.

There was the Pullman Strike of 1894. President Cleveland, backing the Pullman Company and railroad owners, deployed federal troops to crush that strike. So Americans demanding a wage on which they could feed their children were fired on and killed by fellow Americans in army uniforms. The Pullman Strike has been described as the first national strike in US history: workers in other industries and across the nation struck in sympathy with the Pullman workers. And though the strike was broken by guns and soldiers, it gave working Americans the sense that if they joined together they had Power, and could increasingly get justice. That is true. That is what unions are based on. And that’s why those who want to save the profit system are trying to destroy unions and fool Americans about what unions are.

The years just referred to, the late 1800s—also the early 1900s—represent the successful time of profit economics: the time when the profit-makers could flourish. The people now trying to resuscitate the profit way know that to do so they must bring back the situation of that time: when a person was forced to work for whatever pittance and under whatever conditions the employer chose. They know that for this situation to be, unions must be wiped out—because unions are the force that has enabled Americans to work under dignified conditions and earn wages placing a person in that disappearing thing, the middle class.

Meanwhile, Beauty

Meanwhile, there is the train itself, which is wonderful and has not been fully supplanted by the automobile or plane. It seems right to include here Eli Siegel’s 1926 poem about a train in an American autumn, “Red and Yellow and Hills.” The poem has in it the oneness of quietude and sound, gentleness and force, eternity and the mechanical moment, which happens as a train joins the American earth. The poem is from his book Hail, American Development, and we also print the note that accompanies it there.

The profit motive is one form of what Aesthetic Realism identifies as the hurtful motive in everyone: contempt. But we have another, opposed motive: to be ourselves through wanting other things and people to get all they deserve. America now is asking for an economy based on that deeper motive, which is justice and true self-expression.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Dante & Railroads

By Eli Siegel

I think it well to mention, as illustrating our subject, one of the famous passages in world literature. It is in Canto 17 of Dante’s Paradiso. A person with light around him, Cacciaguida, talks about how Dante’s life will be. I’m going to read two translations; the first seems to be by Rossetti:

Yea, thou shalt learn how salt his food who fares

Upon another’s bread,—how steep his path

Who treadeth up and down another’s stairs.

That is ever so famous. It’s one of the fifty most famous passages in world literature. This is the translation by H.F. Cary:

Thou shalt prove

How salt the savour is of other’s bread,

How hard the passage to descend and climb

By other’s stairs.

When Dante was banished from Florence, one of the things that happened to him was that he found it hard to make a living. In fact, it can be said he didn’t make one. It’s hard to think Dante was worried about where he was going to eat, and under what conditions. But he had this concern. He also had a concern about whom he had to be deferential to and what company he had. That comes into the next lines of the canto. There’s something mysterious about those.

Since this is such an important passage, I’m going to read the Italian. The two terza rima stanzas (the one I quoted and the next) in Italian are:

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale

lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle

lo scendere e ’l salir per l’altrui scale.

E quel che più ti graverà le spalle,

sarà la compagnia malvagia e scempia

con la qual tu cadrai in questa valle.

The translation in prose is as follows:

Thou shalt make trial of how salt of taste is another’s bread and how hard the path to descend and mount upon another’s stair. And that which most shall weigh thy shoulders down shall be the vicious and ill company with which thou shalt fall down into this vale.

Dante can be used, likely will be used some more, in relation to the profit system of the 13th and 14th centuries. He says it bitterly, but there was something like shame that he had to be deferential to Cangrande della Scala and some other people. In biographies, you feel that. And in the 19th century, Coleridge also went through such things.

Centuries Later

There is shame in so many ways. As I have said, when people are unlucky they feel ashamed. If they don’t get a train, it may not be their fault, but they still feel unlucky and ashamed. Shame can come in such bizarre ways that it seems fate itself must be bizarre.

So after Dante and the being at other people’s tables, I go to something quite different: a book about the railroad in America. It’s To Hell in a Day Coach: An Exasperated Look at American Railroads, by Peter Lyon (1968). There are many passages in it concerned with profits and also the glories of the choo-choo in a continent. But I’m going to read about Vanderbilt and Drew, and one of the greatest scandals in American railroad history: the Erie dickering.

Cornelius Vanderbilt has the New York Central, and Mr. Lyon says: “With the Central under his belt—” It’s something having the Central under your belt.

—Vanderbilt concluded that he had best control the Erie, too. Here...he ran smack dab into the private preserve of his old friend Daniel Drew...and so precipitated the great Erie War.

This is also dealt with in Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization, in most astringent terms.

[It was] a public spectacle of greed....The newspapers reported the whole sordid affair: the deceptions and betrayals of the two chief combatants, Vanderbilt’s attempt to seize the Erie..., Drew’s sly use of fishy securities, the corruption of the Supreme Court of the State of New York,...the quite open bribery of legislators in Albany....The Erie War lasted about seven months, late April,1868.

Then in the midst of this, the thing happened which has happened with railroads, with planes, with every means of transportation. Lately, the bus has looked bad, through that accident some weeks ago and what happened to children. Lyon quotes a report by the Erie general superintendent, March 3,1868, “on the condition of the road”:

“The iron rails had broken...and worn out... until there is scarce a mile...between Jersey City and...Buffalo, where it is safe to run a train at the ordinary...speed....Broken wheels, rails, engines, and trains off the track, have been a daily, almost hourly, occurrence for the last two months....The condition of the iron at the present time is such as to give me much anxiety and apprehension for the safety of trains.”

And Lyon writes:

On April 15 the Erie’s Buffalo Express was crawling around a curve at thirty miles an hour, in hilly country northwest of New York City, when four of its nine cars snapped their couplings and plunged into a gorge below. Forty persons were killed, seventy-five were injured.

Then he quotes from the diary of George Templeton Strong. (I may mention that there are two famous diaries dealing with life in New York City: there’s one by Mayor Hone, and the other by Strong—if you’re interested in diaries about New York.) Lyon says, “George Templeton Strong, a New York lawyer, made an entry in his diary:”

“Another railroad accident (so-called) on the Erie Road. Scores of people smashed, burned to death, or maimed for life. We shall never travel safely till some pious, wealthy, and much beloved railroad director has been hanged for murder....Drew or Vanderbilt would do to begin with.”

And Lyon goes on:

In these circumstances, the principals of the Erie War met to sign their peace treaty.

Vanderbilt got one million dollars in cash, three and one half million dollars for fifty thousand shares of the suspicious Erie stock he had bought from Drew,...and two seats on the Erie’s board of directors.

Vanderbilt’s brokers got $429,250 in cash....

Drew got his enormous profits, less $550,000, the fee he had to pay to the Erie Railway Company for discharge of all claims against him.

Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, two young men who had been Drew’s lieutenants in the Erie War, got control of the Erie Railway Company, and God help it....

The next of kin in the wreck of the Buffalo Express got nothing.

Jay Gould and Jim Fisk are both famous, and it would be well to talk about them. Jim Fisk got into ballads because he was shot outside the 8th Avenue and 23rd Street Grand Opera House, as it was then.

This account of Lyon is written I think pretty accurately and in a lively fashion.

What Did They Feel?

The question is, what did Vanderbilt feel? With all that occurred, he did feel ashamed. So did Drew, with that accident. Whenever there is an accident in a means of transportation, the directors meet their maker for a while, are deeply ashamed, and ask how it could have been avoided. There is shame, because it has been felt that if there hadn’t been such a desire to make money, maybe it could have been avoided.

I am trying to accent, in this talk, the feeling of shame. There was the shame in the people described by Lamb in the essay I read, “Poor Relations.” There’s the possibility of shame in the Dante passage. And I think there was shame in Drew and Vanderbilt and all the persons who had stocks in the company that had an accident on the road.

Red and Yellow and Hills

by Eli Siegel

Author’s note. Autumn came to American hills unaccompanied by trains. Leaves fell on hills, and hills languidly seemed to welcome the falling. The presence of trains introduced something new to autumn, hills, leaves. Speed arrived and sound—and a rival to the hills as that on which leaves fall, for occasionally leaves fell on trains. The red and yellow of leaves and autumn were not affected at all. And with all the speed and sharp announcing of themselves by the trains, there was much drifting along lazily by leaves. Haze and goings-down of sun, autumnal way, still were. The main thing, then, with all the interruption by trains, was a friendship in color, might, and time of autumn and quiet; of red and yellow and hills.


Often, you know, when trains in autumn,

Pass near hills full of dead leaves, gone long from trees,

The trains move the leaves, and winds help the trains.

By hills in autumn, in smoky autumn, smoking trains go,

Fast; and leaves drift listlessly down hills near speedy, dashing trains.

The hills are red and yellow; and the speedy, dashing train is black; and white smoke comes from the train; and the train whistles wildly, piercingly, and leaves, dead, autumn leaves drift listlessly down old hills.

Cry, train, cry, leaves, cry, hills.

Train, dash wildly.

Leaves, die.

Autumn’s here and the hills are.

Autumn’s here, and haze and smoke in sky, and sultrily, faintly red sun goings-down in autumn.

Smoke’s in the sky, quietly, lazily.

Trains and trains go by, whistling wildly, piercingly.

Dead leaves drift along lazily.

Autumn’s here and quiet, and red and yellow and hills.