The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Gods Are Lessened


Dear Unknown Friends:

Contempt spares nothing. An important portion of history is how man has wanted to have contempt for the gods he has made and thought he needed. We see from history itself and from the history of religion that there is a desire in man to own and manipulate whatever he might respect. This feeling or possibility is in that important poem of Baudelaire, “Au Lecteur,” from which I have already quoted:

Et dans un bâillement avalerait le monde.

I have translated this line of Baudelaire:

And with a yawn swallow the world.

There is something, we think, that makes gods of ourselves if we can either dismiss the world or find it tedious. And certainly, if along with dismissing the world or finding it tedious, we can swallow it—as Baudelaire intimates—our god—like possibilities are more than ever asserted. There is, at least, a relation between boredom and self-divinity.

The history of religion—or non-religion—tells a great deal about contempt and how it has been in man. It can be said safely that religion, the history of all of it, is as much about how man has lessened his gods as it is about how man has respected or worshipped his gods. This, of course, should be seen.

1. Gods Had to Make Good

There were two books I looked into, or if one wishes, I read, years ago which strangely and dimly affected me—for they showed that human beings early had a desire to manipulate their divinities. The books I have in mind were both about the discovery of America by Columbus; and they both were published in some relation to the four-hundredth anniversary of the reaching of America by the eminent discoverer. One book is John Fiske’s Discovery of America (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892) and the other is History of the New World Called America by Edward John Payne (Oxford, 1892). The Fiske work doesn’t say so much, as I remember, of the gods cared for in Mexico, Central America, and Peru. But the Payne work is one of the valuable, enthralling descriptions of man’s desire to own his gods and to tell them what to do.

On page 439 of the first volume of his History of the New World, Edward John Payne writes:

In this case the god is ultimately established as a member of the community by assigning him a piece of land and building him a dwelling: sometimes several gods are installed in a single house. In early stages, these apartments in which the gods are lodged often appear as appendages to the houses of the chiefs: usually they are placed at the entrance, forming a species of portico.

The deep relation between worship and contempt can be felt in the lines from Payne I have quoted. Such a relation exists in love, too, as it is known by human beings.

Payne, a little later, tells us of fetish-worship in South America; particularly in Peru. Fetish-worship is the giving of divinity to any object whatsoever. Fetish-worship, then, can show respect for the world and God through, as with poets, seeing the whole world in a leaf, in a stone; or as with Tennyson, in a “flower in the crannied wall.” Yet when one finds divinity in a physical instance of the world, respect must be the large thing. And we can hardly be sure that fetishes were used for respect. They were rather parts of that most spuriously-extolling-of-self procedure man is capable of—that is, of indirectly making himself a god through giving divinity to something he owns.

Payne writes of vicissitudes among the fetishes or gods:

Only the fittest survive: if the god proves useless for the purpose for which he exists, whether of securing success in the chase, abundant crops, or fortune in war, he is forthwith abandoned.

2. What Is the Religious Mind?

Religious people have often denied that they see their God as obligated to help them; to solace them in their need. Yet it is rather clear that there is a desire in man to have the unknown serve him. In the field of the unknown, there is that trembling contest between the giving of respect and love, and the giving of contempt and depreciation. Man strongly feels that what he loves should do his bidding, even while that bidding is not clearly seen. It may seem funny, then, to have the gods “sacked” in ancient America; but it is understandable. In human beings, there is a large tendency to have the world go along with our hopes; and our hopes. are often our requests, even our commands.

In a note on page 440 of his first volume, E.J. Payne quotes from Bosman’s Description of Guinea, Letter XIX:

We make and break our gods daily, and consequentially are the masters and inventors of what we sacrifice to.

The religious mind, like a person’s love, would like to be steady; but steadiness, sadly, is an attribute of neither love nor religion. It is hard for a person to maintain an attitude of respect or love unless respect and love are fed by favorable empirical occurrences or signs. We can love something because of what it is and because we are sure of this. But as the world goes, people venerate and love because of what takes place which they like. We hope to love because of what a thing is; but we love in our actual hours because of how a thing deals with us.

It is lovely to see the religious mind deep, continuous, larger. In the history of the secular and sacred, this is not seen often.

3. Employment Makes for Contempt

We certainly can employ something to respect it more. But as soon as something gives a sign that it is ready to do as we wish, the secret engines of contempt get into motion. Subservience to self in the life of man has generally made the self contemptuous. Once a cloud is seen as doing our bidding, it is likely the cloud is respected less.

Therefore, in the following sentence from Payne’s History of the New World (I. 434), we can see contempt in process. It is unfortunate that as soon as a person finds that someone needs him or her, contempt is encouraged in that person. Payne writes:

Man seeks to keep the good or benevolent spirits alive, to satisfy their wants, and to give them pleasure, in the hope of interesting them by this means in the success of his own enterprises: and for this purpose he provides them with food and drink.

Whatever else we can gather from the passages in Payne’s History of the New World which I have quoted, we can gather this: the likelihood of having contempt for the forces of the outside world, whatever these may be, existed early. Greek tragedy is largely about unseen contempt for the gods. I hope later to look at Greek tragedies more closely and show the place of contempt in these works—and never were Greek tragedies and their meaning so pondered over as now.

4. The Famous Golden Calf

As notable an instance as any of man’s desire to have contempt for the gods he has chosen or for the gods which somehow have been assigned to him, is the history of the golden calf. That history is chiefly seen in Exodus, Chapter 32. This chapter of Holy Writ shows a wavering belief in an unseen God and also a distrust of Moses as leader of his people. This passage from the Bible evinces contempt for a divine cause of the world and also contempt for someone much applauded, much revered, earlier:

And when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down out of the mount, the people gathered themselves together unto Aaron, and said unto him, Up, make us gods, which shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him.

This sentence from the Old Testament, perhaps as strongly as any sentence whatsoever, shows how living and deep contempt is in the mind of man. The sentence also shows how, if any gods are to be worshipped, we prefer these gods to be our own; of our own making. The sentence is so important that I think it is wise and useful to present it in a recent, more everyday translation. I quote from The Children’s Living Bible, Paraphrased (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House). Some words are added to the earlier quotation:

When Moses didn’t come back down the mountain right away, the people went to Aaron. “Look,” they said, “make us a god to lead us, for this fellow Moses who brought us here from Egypt has disappeared; something must have happened to him.”

"Give me your golden earrings,” Aaron replied.

So they all did—men and women, boys and girls. Aaron melted the gold, then molded and tooled it into the form of a calf. The people exclaimed, “O Israel, this is the god that brought you out of Egypt!"

I have quoted from the Bible to make clearer what Aesthetic Realism means by contempt for the world: that contempt which in time leads to contempt for persons, for the arts, for the sciences, for growing things, for animals, for colors. Contempt for the world leads to contempt for an everyday situation in which we find ourselves. Contempt for the world leads to an invisible, tireless contempt for ourselves.

5. Ovid Sustains the Scriptures

The first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses tells of how a world was made and how it was given form. God is presented early in the work of Ovid as having a dislike for flatness, emptiness, chaos. Here the deus of Ovid is like the Lord of Genesis. John Dryden, who translated the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, shows God giving form to reality. Dryden describes existence before the hand of God moved rightly:

One was the face of Nature, if a face;

Rather a rude and undigested mass:

A lifeless lump, unfashion 'd, and unfram'd;

Of jarring seeds; and justly chaos nam’d.

Both in Genesis and in Ovid, the world begins with dark formlessness, blankness; and creation takes place when nothing and shapelessness are affected by the diversifying and materializing hand of God.

In Ovid we have a golden age corresponding to Adam and Eve’s best days in Eden. Then there is a silver age; there is a brass age and an iron age. Jupiter is displeased with what goes on in the iron age and, like God in Genesis, causes a flood in order to submerge and extinguish those men of earth, disrespectful of the gods. The persons in Ovid corresponding delightfully and significantly to Noah and his wife are Deucalion and Pyrrha. Here we have the ethical imagination of man brooding fruitfully on possibility.

And in Ovid, there is a relation to the New Testament, likewise. Jove or Jupiter has a tendency to take on the appearance of a simple human being. In the first book of the Metamorphoses, Jupiter is an ordinary person who shows himself to the wicked Lycaon. Lycaon is insulting. Men and women seem generally insulting; and Jupiter explains to the gods why life on earth should end. The first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses can hardly be called orderly, for as soon as the world is nearly destroyed, then saved, we somehow are being told of Apollo’s difficulties with Daphne.

There are two lines or so in Metamorphoses, Book One (160-163), which mention contempt as the cause of cruelty and killing in the world; contempt, at least, is mentioned as accompanying these. The lines in the Latin are:

Sed et ilia propago

Contemptrix superum, saevaeque avidissima caedis,

Et violenta fuit.

I have translated these words in this manner:

That Generation Too

But that generation too

Was contemptuous of the high powers of the world,

Was fond of cruelty and killing;

Was violent.

These Ovidian words say something, too, of the contempt in man, once in South America, for the fetishes of his own making and worshipping. Likewise, in what Ovid says, we can see that mental instability and inconsiderateness which made for the golden calf, so renowned in the Old Testament. Greek and Roman writers, like others, show man as adoring and vilifying; as worshipping and spitting.

We are told by the ancient classics to see the relation of respect and contempt. Aesthetic Realism, dear unknown friends, carries on this monition of Homer, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Pindar; of Lucretius, Virgil, Ovid, and Horace. Perhaps I shall be more particular later as to what I have just said.

The ancient classics show how ubiquitous, deep, and cunning contempt is. The ancient classics encourage us to see contempt rightly. When contempt is rightly seen, we are nearer to seeing the loveliness still unseen.

With love,

Eli Siegel