The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

The Opposition

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—

From you.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

They Honor Relation

By Eli Siegel

An ever so well-known poem of Blake uses something impersonal, but with the idea that something human is also present. Blake is saying: Once more, Spring, have a good relation to England and to man. The music is lovely, and is different from that of the poems I have so far read. “To Spring” begins:

O thou with dewy locks, who lookest down

Through the clear windows of the morning, turn

Thine angel eyes upon our western isle,

Which in full choir hails thy approach, O Spring!

In this poem, a general thing, a season, is made personal. Spring is beseeched and approached, requested, and is definitely made like a person.

This is one of the large matters in poetry: we can make a general thing a person, or make a person a general thing—as in the famous phrase of Hegel about Napoleon, “the world-spirit on horseback.”

“Turn / Thine angel eyes upon our western isle.” Spring is given eyes, and is asked to be thoughtful about “our western isle”—that is, England. And Blake says there’s music going along, a choir: “Which in full choir hails thy approach.” When persons say, We’ll give you a red carpet reception, relation is anticipated, hinted at.

Then the next stanza. To say the hills speak to each other is to say they have a certain kind of relation:

The hills tell one another, and the listening

Valleys hear; all our longing eyes are turn’d

Up to thy bright pavilions: issue forth

And let thy holy feet visit our clime.

If the prosody of this is looked at, it will be seen as different from that of the Shakespeare sonnets I discussed. First of all, there isn’t rhyme. And the way the syllables fall is different: they’re related differently. The words are related differently. “Up to thy” is a dactyl (an accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables). A dactyl has a relation different from the relation in an anapest (which is two unaccented syllables followed by an accented syllable). Interfere (an anapest) is different from fearlessly (a dactyl) because the strong syllable is last in interfere, and is first in fearlessly. Impetus is different from in the sun.

One question we can ask about the poem is: What is the relation of Blake to spring that he should talk this way? Well, Blake says, I’m fit to ask something of spring. And his being able to say things to spring has been ratified: the poem has been much reprinted.

“Come o’er the eastern hills.” I can see spring answering, For you, yes. But for some of the people you’ve been writing about, I don’t know.

Come o’er the eastern hills, and let our winds

Kiss thy perfumed garments; let us taste

Thy morn and evening breath; scatter thy pearls

Upon our lovesick land that mourns for thee.

I guess spring would say, Well, you understand me. I think it’s all right. And: I’m so glad that you’re concerned with England, and I can be helpful by scattering what you call my pearls. Dew, perhaps you mean?

Blake could answer: Yes, Spring, I mean dew. But I also mean much value in a small spherical volume. A pearl is something of great value and is a mingling of brightness and dignity. And you have that. Then Blake says—and “her” is England:

O deck her forth with thy fair fingers; pour

Thy soft kisses on her bosom; and put

The golden crown upon her languish’d head,

Whose modest tresses are bound up for thee.

We have something hard to see clearly, something called “Spring” having requests made of it. They are visual, and are made musically. And sounds, as I said, are related. So are the visual things.

How Are We Related to Nature?

There is a very short poem of Wordsworth in which he says that if he can remember a rainbow and its meaning, if he can be related to it, he can be strong and be how he wants to be:

My heart leaps up when I behold

A rainbow in the sky;

So was it when my life began,

So is it now I am a man,

So be it when I shall grow old,

Or let me die!

The Child is father of the Man;

And I could wish my days to be

Bound each to each by natural piety.

The word piety is important to Wordsworth. We see in his poems his feeling that there is a relation between man and earth, or nature, growing things—and that it is for him to say what it is. The relation of man and the earth he walks on, the sky he looks at, and the water he may see (for Wordsworth it would usually be in a river, the River Duddon or Wye): that should be seen.

The poem has that bravura business of nature, a rainbow—that being able to get color out of uncertain water on high. There is the mingling of dazzle and showing off. A rainbow, with its half-circle, is a very ostentatious business—along with mist and grieving. Those are opposites: grieving and ostentation.

The meaning of things has been seen by Wordsworth in the rainbow, and so he doesn’t want to forget it. He wants his like for the rainbow to bring together all his days. And so there will be “natural piety.”

Something Represents the World

There are quite a few bravura poems of relation. What we find indispensable in the world, we want to be related to; and there is a very assertive poem of relation by Swinburne.

About the only thing Swinburne was sure of was the sea. And as the poem implies, he’d rather have the sea as a mother than the mother he had. A section of his poem “The Triumph of Time” has sometimes been printed separately under the title “The Sea.” And this can be called relation with a great deal of sureness, showiness, and something like a brass band. “The Sea” begins:

I will go back to the great sweet mother—

Mother and lover of men, the Sea.

I will go down to her, I and none other,

Close with her, kiss her, and mix her with me;

Cling to her, strive with her, hold her fast.

O fair white mother, in days long past

Born without sister, born without brother,

Set free my soul as thy soul is free.

This has a relation to the Shakespeare sonnet I began with, to the Campion poem, and many others. There is something about the world that is taken to represent it. And the largeness and rhythm of the sea has been seen by various persons as representing the world. There is something about change and motion in the sea, something about rising and falling. Hugo and Lautréamont are among the persons who saw the sea as representing what they looked for. In many poems on the subject, one wanted, as with Wordsworth and the rainbow, to be in relation to the sea because the impurities that one saw elsewhere were not seen in it. Swinburne saw ordinary existence as made up of slag, the superfluous, the confusing, and he wanted to be related to the sea. Byron also saw the sea as having the meaning he looked for. There is some of that in Marlowe’s “Hero and Leander.” And it is in Homer, and in Aeschylus. There’s something about the sea that says it’s an answer.

“I will go back to the great sweet mother.” Since it is the source of things, it’s one’s mother. “Mother and lover of men, the Sea.” The way the sea is talked about in Synge’s Riders to the Sea, with all the terror, goes along with this.

“I will go down to her, I and none other, / Close with her, kiss her, and mix her with me.” Well, that’s pretty much relation, I think.

O fair green-girdled mother of mine,

Sea, that art clothed with the sun and the rain,

Thy sweet hard kisses are strong like wine,

Thy large embraces are keen like pain.

For Swinburne, there were freedom and discipline in being in the water. He swam; the sea tossed him about and also seemed to be kind to him.

I shall sleep, and move with the moving ships,

Change as the winds change, veer in the tide;

My lips will feast on the foam of thy lips,

I shall rise with thy rising, with thee subside.

What can be called organic rhythm is found here: a certain motion that is seen as having horizontal and curve and depth and rising. This is felt through the sea. Swinburne is saying, You have motion and rest, and I believe in you. I want to be related to you.

There is a desire to be of the sea and be like it. These two words have very much to do with the meaning of relation: being of something and being like something. Another word of relation is having something. This poem quite clearly is about the desire of an important person in English literature to be related to a permanent thing of earth: the sea, or ocean.