|NUMBER 1290.—December 24, 1997||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In 1953 Eli Siegel brought together, under the title "The Persistence of Fabric," eight of his poems, all on the tremendous and deep subject of fabric and emotion, clothing and human feeling. We are honored to publish them here. He wrote six of these poems that year, the other two in 1926. They are beautiful. They have the factual immediacy of cloth one can touch—and also the mystery that can be in the feelings of people: the emotions that whirl within us, or rustle in us, even as we put on a well-fitting garment.
The word fabric comes from the Latin word faber, to make or construct. And in the history of those made things, fabrics and clothing, we see, big and persistent, the opposites Aesthetic Realism shows to be at the basis of reality. "All beauty," Mr. Siegel wrote, "is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." The fact that human beings have been able to get cotton or flax from plants, wool from sheep, silk from worms, lycra from chemicals; and have made reality—things become something to enhance one's very personal body: this is a magnificent oneness of the great opposites of Self and World, human lives and earth.
The way earth meets human self in the making of clothing stands for the aesthetics in all production. However intricate the making of any product is, it is sheerly a matter of those fundamental opposites, Selves and Earth. Mr. Siegel describes this fact, with grandeur and clarity:
The most important thing in industry is the person who does the industry, which is the worker. That is still true. It never can change. Labor is the only source of wealth. There is no other source, except land, the raw material. [Goodbye Profit System: Update, Definition Press, p. 39]
Meanwhile, the agony of millions of people has accompanied the manufacture of garments—has accompanied labor as such through the centuries. This agony includes children working at looms; young women jumping to their deaths during the Triangle fire because exit doors were locked; sweatshops; bodies sickened from horrible working conditions; lives spent in poverty. All this horror has arisen solely because that beautiful, kind oneness of selves and earth which is production has been forced to have as its basis the supplying of profit to some individuals.
The women about whom Thomas Hood wrote his "Song of the Shirt" in 1843 were working, as people are working now, in keeping with the nature of profit economics: They were paid as little as possible and made to work as many hours as possible. The wealth created by the garments they made with their tired bodies came not to them but to an employer, who did not do the work. And so we have these famous first lines:
With fingers weary and worn,
With eyelids heavy and red,
A woman sat in unwomanly rags,
Plying her needle and thread.
Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!
In poverty, hunger, and dirt...
The Cause Was Contempt
Profit economics, Mr. Siegel showed, is one of the things in human history which have arisen from humanity's contempt. He defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else." Contempt is the thing in every person that has us hope someone fails so we look better; that has us prefer being "important" and comfortable to being just. It is infinitely ordinary and infinitely ugly. To see another's need for warm, good clothing in terms of how much profit oneself can make from that life-need, is contempt. It is shameful. And "only contempt," Mr. Siegel wrote, "could permit a man to make money from the work of another—as man has done these hundreds of years."
Beginning in 1970, he explained that at the end of our century profit economics had failed, and would never recover. By the 1970s in America, wages and working conditions had become much better because men and women, organized in unions, had fought together, had sometimes laid down their very lives, so that people be able to live with more dignity. As a result of not being permitted to rob workers as massively, by the 1970s and 80s owners and stockholders could not make the profits of once. And today, in order to use people successfully for profit—as the woman of 1843 "with fingers weary and worn" was used—manufacturers are trying to bring back those conditions of a century and a half ago. Clothing is being manufactured in sweatshops again; and by brutalized "cheap" foreign labor; even by children.
In this cry of Hood, we have fabric and selves:
O! men with sisters dear!
O! men with mothers and wives,
It is not linen you're wearing out,
But human creatures' lives!
The Only Way
The only way, Mr. Siegel showed, for economics to fare well in America and the world now, including the economics connected with garments, is for economics to be based on what it was never based on before: ethics and aesthetics. Jobs, production, the ability to buy a product, have to be based on the real oneness of those opposites human beings and earth. The people who make the fabric or garment by joining their hours, thought, bodies, lives to the materials that arise from earth—should get the wealth their work produces. They should own the earth, along with every other human being. The U.S. economy can no longer afford to be brutalized and to brutalize "human creatures' lives" with that thievery which is profit for persons who do not work for it.
Two Kinds of Justice
There are two kinds of justice human beings urgently need. One is economic justice. The second is that the depths of us be comprehended, and we be able to understand the world we are in. No person in history was more passionate about both kinds of justice than Eli Siegel; and in Aesthetic Realism he provided the means for that beautiful second form of justice to take place. He himself embodied it. His desire to know was so complete, and his knowledge so full, that he was the person of thought who understood the human self as such, and also understood the deep, delicate, tumultuous particularity of individuals—including, I say with unlimited gratitude, my own. I am grateful to comment (though necessarily briefly) on the poems that follow, in which that thing of texture which is fabric and the texture of human feeling are seen together musically; and the feeling is so kindly understood.
1. In the first poem, "Not Muslin," the bewilderment of a woman both rustles delicately and is presented with brisk clarity. Muslin can stand for femininity as airy, innocent, hopeful—and a woman doesn't understand how she got from that to something so bitterly different. The three adjectives in the last line, with their assonance, make for a music that brings together sharp distress and poignant wonder.
2. "Taffeta" is published in Eli Siegel's Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems. If something primitive and apparently free, like grasses in wind, can change into a fabric associated with a certain sophistication—can that help us (who may be Alexander) make sense of the primal and cultivated in ourselves?
3. History is in the third poem, "Gingham." And Eli Siegel saw gingham and women who wore it as being as much of history as Washington crossing the Delaware. The hominess of gingham can seem to be opposed in different ways by three things mentioned in the poem: Indians, mystery, silk. Mr. Siegel shows the deep friendliness among them. And he wants fairness to the Indians; and sees that British soldiers had inner lives and puzzlement. Look at the beautiful music of (for instance) the second line, with its recurrence of the in sound; and the seventh, where the short i is delicately resolute.
4. "Child with Fabric" describes a great change in a woman, in musical lines that have comprehending subtlety, yet bigness, and caress.
5. "Putting on a Glove Did Something for You, Anyway," is published in Mr. Siegel's Hail, American Development, where his note to the poem includes these sentences: "A woman, like everyone else, needs to be assured in a world not lavish with assurance. That we can wear something that goes with us, covers us with trim appropriateness, makes us think better of ourselves." In this poem we hear, as music and structure, the hopes and uncertainties of a woman—through the writer's justice to them.
6. "Matter Moves on the Avenue" (1926) is in Hail, American Development too. This short poem is philosophic and funny: it is concerned with the relation of something and nothing, surface and depth. And it has suspense.
7. 1 think "When Gossamer" is about sincerity, which has the qualities of the two things mentioned in the poem. Sincerity has sheerness, like gossamer (it is against cover-ups); and it represents the depths of self, the heartbeat. And when there is sincerity, the poem says, we should celebrate!
8. In "Moreover, Buttons," what is so touchable and contained joins with, assists, the sometimes painful unboundedness of people's feelings. And with tremendous quiet music, this short poem says that possibility—"the might have been"—is never over for us.
Though the education Eli Siegel founded, Aesthetic Realism, has been boycotted by persons of the press furious at its comprehensiveness, grandeur, and honesty, this knowledge is becoming better known every week. And through Eli Siegel's beautiful work, the good possibilities of people—the kindness, intelligence, justice, art—can come alive and flourish at last.
The Persistence of Fabric
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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