Art versus Racism
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are serializing the great lecture Hail, Relation; or, A Study in Poetry, which Eli Siegel gave in 1972. And I will comment on a matter that has to do centrally with relation, and is a horrible mis-seeing of relation. That matter is racism. Since June 17, when 21-year-old Dylann Roof entered a historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, sat among the men and women there, then opened fire, murdering nine people—racism has been talked of in the media with somewhat more urgency. The need to end it has always been vitally, utterly urgent.
Aesthetic Realism explains the cause of racism. And, I say soberly and passionately: the study of
Aesthetic Realism can end racism. I have written about this fact before; others have. I do so freshly
For America to understand racial prejudice, and stop it, there are two Aesthetic Realism principles that our nation needs to study.
The first is this, stated by Mr. Siegel: “The greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself; which lessening is Contempt.” Contempt, he showed, “is a continuous, unseen desire” in everyone. This desire to be more by making other things and persons less, is the source of all injustice, from the ordinary to the gigantic. Contempt can be a person’s inner sneer of pleasure in feeling that somebody has bad taste in clothes—because the other’s tasteless outfit shows that we are superior. Contempt is the quiet assumption in millions of households that other families are simply inferior to ours. All over America, family members are eagerly looking down on the neighbors together (even though the same family members can fight among themselves and resent each other).
Contempt makes for things other than racism, but racism always begins with contempt and is contempt. And it won’t be understood until contempt itself—including that which is one’s very own—is looked at and criticized.
Through feeling that millions of human beings with a different skin tone are inferior, a person gives himself an automatic supremacy. He doesn’t have to know anything, work to learn anything, question himself: he’s superior, and therefore just fine. As he looks with intense scorn at a man or woman with darker skin, as he utters a sleazy epithet, he seems to rid himself (for the moment) of his self-dislike and deep unsureness. He has instead a vicious triumph. Of course, the triumph does not last, because it is fake, and his self-dislike comes back, and increases.
Always: Sameness & Difference
America needs to study too this central principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The principal opposites in reality are sameness and difference. And they are terribly awry in all prejudice. Racism, bigotry, ethnic or religious bias, is the seeing of what seems different from oneself as only different, and inferior.
Relation, the subject of the lecture we’re serializing, is the oneness of sameness and difference. Relation is the fact that different things—perhaps an apple and a tablecloth; a shout and a murmur; a 12th-century manuscript and a bird with a red bill seen yesterday—are not just apart but have to do with each other. In his lecture, Mr. Siegel is showing that art is always the honoring of relation. And we need to see as art sees.
Racism, Aesthetic Realism explains, does not begin with race. It begins with sameness and difference, and with how we see the world itself. The most fundamental situation of sameness and difference in our lives is that between our particular, distinct self and everything else: the world as not us. Do we see that outside world as deeply completing us, as akin to us? Or do we see it as an inimical mess, from which we may pick out a few things that please us, and despise the rest?
The prerequisite for racism is dislike of the world, that big source of difference. Most people do not like the world very much. But let us look at some of the descriptions of Dylann Roof, from a Washington Post article of June 20.
First, this sentence: “According to friends and relatives, Roof in his youth was a quiet, shy boy who mostly kept to himself.” Ever so many murderers have been described this way. The big questions about a child who “ke[eps] to himself” and says very little are: Does he do this out of respect for the world different from him—the world of people and skies and knowledge and happenings? The thoughts he doesn’t express—are they about how interesting reality is and how fair he wants to be to things? Or does he have one thought after another making things and people seem disgusting? Does the child keep to himself because he sees meaning in people and wants to understand them—or because he feels they’re not good enough for him? Is he “shy” because he wants to value what’s not him—or because he feels the world, which confuses him, does not deserve to have him take part in it? These are questions about respect versus contempt; and about how to see difference. They’re not about racism as such, or murder. But contempt for the world as different—whether that contempt is quiet or flailing—is the beginning of both racism and murder.
Contempt for the World Builds Up
The Washington Post has this about the now adult Roof: people around him in recent months
described a mostly-silent character who...occasionally used cocaine, often drank whiskey and vodka to the point of passing out, and kept a gun in the trunk of his Hyundai....Roof had an apparent affinity for firearms.
Drugs and alcohol are a means of contemptuously putting the world in its place—feeling victoriously that you’re running it, or getting rid of it. And there is the matter of guns. Whether one fires it or not, the very presence of a gun near one can be a means of feeling: “All that scum around me—I can level you 1-2-3!” A gun can be a way of reassuring yourself of others’ inferiority, your superiority, and your ability to show both—explosively and utterly. One doesn’t have to feel this in having a gun, but thousands of people have felt it, and Dylann Roof was one of them.
Racism, the article indicates, seems to have been increasing in him. There can be a very big desire to make certain people stand for a world you see as your enemy. Persons looking different from you, or people of a different religion or background, can embody that world-as-different which you’ve seen as mean, ugly, unappreciative of you. If you can feel immensely superior to such persons, humiliate and punish them, you feel you’re having a victory over not only them but the world itself.
We’re told Roof said about the people he gunned down, that he “almost didn’t go through with it because they were so nice” to him. But,“I knew I had to complete my mission.” That means: he would not let his contempt be interfered with by the facts. Kindness is a fact—including the kindness of people one is trying to hate.
I am going to quote a very short poem by Eli Siegel. It expresses the true opposition to racism, because it gives the true alternative to contempt. It is about the seeing of a person, in all his or her difference, as related to oneself, and to the whole world:
When You Meet Someone
When you meet someone, say:
I want to learn about what’s real,
And about all people,
And about you,
And about myself,
All at once—