War—What Is the Fundamental Cause?
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize Contempt & World War I, a lecture Eli Siegel gave in November 1975. It is about the fundamental cause of war. This cause, he explained, is contempt: the feeling, had by everyone, that we are more if we can lessen what’s not ourselves. Mr. Siegel identified contempt, in all its ordinariness, as the hurtful principle in the human self. It is behind all cruelty. And while having contempt can make a person feel temporarily important, even mighty, it is the thing that makes us pervasively ashamed, depressed, agitated, lonely—because it’s against the deepest desire we have: to express ourselves through being beautifully just to the outside world.
There is in this landmark lecture a leisureliness, and also humor, as Mr. Siegel looks at his subject. Meanwhile, something of the utmost magnitude and urgency is being presented. He intermingles various texts, which look at the First World War from different angles. He began with Vachel Lindsay’s poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight in Springfield, Illinois,” and his discussion of it is in our last issue, TRO 1783. Next, he speaks about Woodrow Wilson’s 1917 request for a congressional declaration of war, then about a 1915 essay of Freud, then a passage by a German historian, and then he goes back to Wilson and to Freud again. Through that almost symphonic intermingling, we have a sense of the huge, horrified, international puzzlement: how did all this killing across Europe come to be?
Mr. Siegel once said that humanity still hasn’t gotten over the shock of World War I. It had seemed to people in England, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, that they were in a civilized time, that things were generally peaceful and quiet. Then suddenly there came to be the trenches, gas warfare, burning towns, young men maiming and killing each other. In his Outline of History H.G. Wells, writing in 1920, describes the feeling in 1914 as war began:
On the night of August 2nd, while most of Europe, still under the tranquil inertias of half a century of peace, still in the habitual enjoyment of...a widely diffused plenty..., was thinking about its summer holidays, the little Belgian village of Visé was ablaze....
All Europe still remembers the strange atmosphere of those eventful sunny August days....It was like a man still walking about the world unaware that he has contracted a fatal disease which will alter every routine and habit in his life.
Was Contempt There?
Various “causes” of the war are listed in textbooks, but they haven’t seemed to account sufficiently for the butchery at the Marne, Verdun, the Somme, and, as Mr. Siegel said, “what would make an American bookkeeper want to kill a German bookkeeper.”
One of the causes given for the war is imperialism: there was a rivalry among European nations as to who should own various parts of Africa. That is so. But imperialism is an aspect of something larger and more determinative. Imperialism is a form of contempt. For persons in Europe to see the continent of Africa, with its wealth and its living, breathing, hoping human beings, as existing to be owned by one’s nation and to supply profit for industrialists, is sheer contempt.
Another cause given for World War I is the growth of nationalism. But pride in one’s nation is dangerous only if it is also a desire to show that other nations are inferior—to look down on them and humble them. In other words, “nationalism” is very often contempt. And so it was in 1914.
In the part of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel quotes from Woodrow Wilson’s speech to Congress calling for a declaration of war. He contrasts it with, for instance, America’s waging of the Vietnam War without a congressional declaration. This contrast is about contempt too. Whatever Wilson can be criticized for, he had at least a respect for the U.S. Constitution. Those responsible for the Vietnam War had contempt for the principal law of the land, and in their disobedience of it were, strictly speaking, criminals.
In this lecture Mr. Siegel looks at the first two paragraphs of Freud’s “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.” To help place what Mr. Siegel says here, I’ll quote a statement that appears later in Freud’s essay. In the midst of writing which can seem impressive even as it’s often unclear and illogical, Freud slips in an admission: he says he does not know what causes the enmity that culminates in war:
Actually why the national units should disdain, detest, abhor one another, and that even when they are at peace, is indeed a mystery. I cannot tell why it is.
A Poem on the Subject
“The War Song of Dinas Vawr” is a humorous poem written in 1829 by Thomas Love Peacock. It is part of his satiric novel The Misfortunes of Elphin. Dinas Vawr is the castle of a fictitious medieval Welsh king, and the warriors who conquer it are the speakers, or singers, of the poem. In the novel, Peacock says this chorus “is here put upon record as being the quintessence of all the war-songs that ever were written, and the sum and substance of all the appetencies...of military glory.” Though he is being jocular, we can see in it instances of the cause of war—explained, for the first time in history, by Eli Siegel. Here are the first and third stanzas:
The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met an host and quelled it;
We forced a strong position
And killed the men who held it.
As we drove our prize at leisure,
The king marched forth to catch us:
His rage surpassed all measure,
But his people could not match us.
He fled to his hall-pillars;
And, ere our force we led off,
Some sacked his house and cellars,
While others cut his head off.
In Self and World, Eli Siegel writes this about the basis of contempt:
The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please.... The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world. It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form.
The warriors in Peacock’s poem represent millions of soldiers who have agreed to fight in unjust wars. They simply feel, as “most people have felt,” that they have “the right to see...pretty much as they please.” They feel, There are things we want, my country and I, (for instance those sheep) and we don’t have to think about what other people deserve. From this “contempt in its first universal, hideous form” arise other forms of contempt, including what’s celebrated in the following lines:
We there, in strife bewildering,
Spilt blood enough to swim in:
We orphaned many children
And widowed many women.
For thousands of years, soldiers have done this kind of thing, and gotten some of the satisfaction in these lines. Later they feel awful. They have “post-traumatic stress disorder.” But what impelled them?
A Way of Seeing the World
There is a feeling in people, before they become soldiers, that the world itself is an enemy. It confuses you. It doesn’t bow to you, give you what you want, permit you to feel smugly and confidently superior to it. And so a person is looking for a chance to punish that world, make it humiliate itself before him. He is looking to have the world show at last that he is running things. This is contempt. In ordinary life, a “well-behaved” citizen may go after a retaliatory victory over what’s not himself through mocking another person, through uttering some racial or sexual epithet, through thoughts in which personal enemies are humiliated at last. But the same drive has also impelled war, and happenings in war.
Peacock’s celebrating warriors did not see the people whose blood they spilt as having the full reality they, the warriors, had. Further, they saw those people as standing for a disliked world they could rule, beat, and look down on utterly at last. This contempt is the cause of massacres. It is the cause of Nazi atrocities. It is the cause of My Lai. It is the cause of Abu Ghraib. It is the cause too of planes leveling the World Trade Center towers in New York.
Peacock’s poem is art—the opposite of contempt. It presents a crude, ugly state of mind with a matter-of-factness that also is poetic music. We hear in the vowels and consonants and the deft rhyme and meter, a oneness of the world’s sameness and difference, force and delicacy, terror and humor. And so we feel both the ugliness of the warriors’ state of mind and the beauty of reality.
It is an understatement to say that Aesthetic Realism’s explanation of contempt is great. Because of it, people can finally be just to each other. And finally war can end.