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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1720.—June 11 , 2008
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

How Should We See a Person?

Dear Unknown Friends: 

he lecture by Eli Siegel that we are serializing, Poetry Is of Man, is vivid, scholarly, casual, exact, sometimes humorous, and urgent for us now. It's urgent because the question How should we see a person different from ourselves? is urgent. Because people—however unclearly and unconsciously—have answered that question wrongly, we have an abundance of human pain and cruelty, from trouble between husband and wife to racism and war.

     Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy that explains what's wrong with people's seeing of other people. The source of all the wrongness is contempt, the feeling in every person that we'll get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

There Is South Africa

recent instance of contempt as the cause of cruelty concerns South Africa. The apartheid that went on there for so many years was sheer contempt. It was the making into national law of the feeling: “I, a white person, am important because I can look down on someone different from me, a black person. If I couldn't look down on black people, see them as inferior and treat them any way I please, I would be less.” Apartheid, in its hideousness, was at last defeated in South Africa. But in recent days, many people who themselves endured its brutality, have brutalized others.

     A New York Times article of May 23 has the headline “Immigrants Fleeing Fury of South African Mobs.” It tells about South Africans attacking, torturing, and murdering immigrants from Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and other African nations. The profit economy is part of the horror. While South Africa no longer has a racist government, its wealth is still not owned by all its people. It still has the profit system—and the inequity, poverty, suffering that come with it. Millions of South Africans see the immigrants as taking jobs that they themselves might have had, and driving wages even further down. “Destitute foreigners,” the Times article notes, “are usually willing to work for lower wages.”

     Yet the violence taking place around Johannesburg would not exist without contempt—that feeling “I'm more if I can lessen someone different from me.” “Different” here does not involve skin tone but nationality and the simple sense of not us. The beginning of contempt, which pervades human beings throughout the world, is the sense that a person not you isn't as real as you are, doesn't have the feelings, the depths, the hopes that you have. “As soon as you have contempt,” Mr. Siegel explained in one of the great statements of literature and thought, “as soon as you don't want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.” 1

     I'm not equating the present attacks in South Africa with apartheid. They're certainly not governmental policy, or as encompassing. But the source within the human self is alike.

     Many South Africans are appalled by what is happening, and are trying to help the terrified immigrants. The Times quotes Rev. Desmond Tutu as writing:

We human beings, ever since the Garden of Eden, are looking for scapegoats....We remain children of Adam and Eve, and have the genes for looking for excuses.

Though I admire Rev. Tutu, the trouble is not our genes. It is the desire for contempt. Wrote Mr. Siegel: “Contempt must be defeated if man is to be kind.”2  It's through the study of Aesthetic Realism that we can understand contempt at last.

The Aesthetic Opposition

he lecture we're serializing presents the real opposition to contempt. In order for human beings to be just to each other, deeply and steadily, we need to see that the way humanity is constructed, the way people are related to other people, is aesthetic, is nothing less than beautiful—in keeping with this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the section of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel is commenting on such opposites as one and many, rest and motion, continuity and discontinuity, sameness and difference.

     Two notes: 1) As I mentioned in the last issue, he is speaking in 1974, before our time of gender-neutral terminology. And so through the lecture he uses that historic, rich, perhaps irreplaceable word man. We have retained it in this serialization.

     2) As Mr. Siegel speaks about evolution and the idea of divine creation, he is not implying that they have equal scientific validity. He's showing that through both ideas we can see humanity as having that oneness of opposites which we need to see if we are to respect people.

Was Walt Whitman Scientific?

alt Whitman is the poet who most continually and intensely said: I am an individual; I am also like every other person. He was passionate that there was no one, of any nation, any position in life, to whom he, Walt Whitman, was not related. There are the lines at the beginning of his “Song of Myself”:

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

     The question is, was Whitman right? He didn't know that he was describing the aesthetic structure of humanity—that we are simultaneously individual and related, different and the same—but was he right? The answer, Mr. Siegel is showing in the present lecture, is Yes.

     The great hope of everyone, at war with our hope for contempt, is to respect what's not ourselves. It's to feel proud, feel we're Somebody, not through looking down on persons different from us, but through seeing that they stand for us. So I'll conclude this commentary with lines from sections 16 and 24 of “Song of Myself.” They go toward that seeing of oneself and others which Aesthetic Realism shows to be both poetic and scientific:

Of every hue and caste am I, of every rank and religion,
A farmer, mechanic, artist, gentleman, sailor, quaker,
Prisoner, fancy-man, rowdy, lawyer, physician, priest.
I resist any thing better than my own diversity.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Whoever degrades another degrades me.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Humanity Has the Opposites

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing an 1850 Quarterly Review article. The passages quoted are from a consideration of James Prichard's Researches into the Physical History of Mankind.

here has not been a full portrayal of man. We still don't know what he can do. The question we're looking at—How did we get man, in all his diversity, from a few “elementary states”?—I see as a subtle question but also primitive, because the fight between good will and ill will has been with humanity from the very beginning. We find it in Gulliver's Travels: in the various places Swift has Gulliver go to, there are tendencies on the part of living beings to be gentle and also to be very fierce. The difference between the Yahoo and the Houyhnhnm, the horse-man, is the difference between the bad self and the good self.

     The human being is still developing. Whatever created the world hasn't stopped. There is a phrase which is part of the religion of now, continuous creation. Whether it's evolution that's continuous or creation that's continuous, there is something continuing. The notion of continuing, with sameness and difference, is aesthetic, because when we like poetry or like a painting or music, we feel something stops and continues at the same time. We've reached a certain happy point when we can rest but also we go on.

     The writer of this article says, talking about ways man has been portrayed:

But these portraitures which have severally presented him as “The glory, jest, and riddle of the world,” are partial and subordinate.

     The line quoted is from Pope's Essay on Man. First, we have man as a “glory.” Persons can feel that when somebody graduates from college and can talk to you about calculus and French literature, he thinks he's “the glory...of the world.” And to a degree he's right. A diploma shows that you can cultivate the field of glory. How much you're convinced is something else.

     Next, he's the “jest.” Man can be laughed at, and was laughed at during the 19th century because some being, not then called a virus, could strike him down. Also, man gloriously doesn't know what he's doing. “The glory, jest, and riddle of the world”: the writer says the line of Pope doesn't cover the subject. It would seem it might. However that may be, it's still a fine line, one of the finest lines in poetry.

Rest & Motion

hen there is a comparison between vegetable life and the life of a human being, or biological life.

     What we see falls into three great divisions. One includes some things like a large boulder, or the brick that has fallen into the backyard: if they're going to move, somebody else will have to do it. No brick ever moved unless, as Newton would say, there was something strong enough to put the brick in motion. That goes for boulders, walls, and all minerals. Even gold and diamonds can't move by themselves. So the first thing we have is: things that exist but can't move unless somebody else does the job for them. All inorganic things are helpless when it comes to motion.

     Next is plant life. There is such a thing as convolvulus, which winds. Ivy has a way of moving. But there is something in all plants that enables them to move from a power within themselves. That makes a plant different from plaster. Plants move in ever so many ways. The vegetable life, plant life, botanical life, is in motion. That's the difference between a rose and a gem, even a precious gem, or a precious stone.

     Then there is biological life, and what is in this passage is well put:

Vegetable life, individually fixed to one spot—generically distributed into different regions so as to form an especial science of botanical geography—limited by climate, soil, and other circumstances, though capable of vast changes by culture—all this, while furnishing much of curious illustration and analogy, can only slightly represent to us what pertains to the physical history of the human race.

     When one is very sick, one becomes like a vegetable. There are persons now in various beds in the United States who go on with the biological functions. They even can gain some weight. But it would be hard for them to take a walk to the neighboring block. Yet they're in motion. And it is quite clear that if a person dies, he gets back to the primitive geological state in which, if he is to move, somebody else will have to help him.

One Beginning

he writer quotes James Cowles Prichard on the matter of whether all races had one beginning. Even Hitler never said that races had different beginnings. He simply said that there was one race that was superior and, by some good chance, he was of it. Many people tend to feel that way. —This is Prichard:

It will be the principal object of the following work to collect data for elucidating the inquiry, whether all the races of men scattered over the surface of the earth, distinguished as they are from each other in structure of body, in features, and in color, and differing in languages and manners, are the offspring of a single stock, or have descended respectively from several original families.

     Some people have found it hard to think that a Bushman or Hottentot came from the same source as Basil Rathbone or Gary Cooper. But present anthropology says that, and Prichard has been sustained. This matter has a long history. In the meantime, either way there's something poetic. If man started sporadically at different places, different times in the world, and people came from some of these sporadic sources and different places, there would still be some poetic confusion in that. And if all people came from one source, the Hottentot and Basil Rathbone, it is poetic too.

     I'm not talking fully about evolution now. I've thought of presenting the history of evolution in as diverse a way as possible, and showing that the way living beings change is aesthetic. That's so, whatever makes them change—whether it's a force in themselves; whether characteristics are inherited in the way Lamarck described; or whether, because a living being has to survive, he cultivates new tricks or new ways of coping. Pardon me— Darwin didn't use the word tricks, but a living being does cope and find means of surviving; and coping and getting to means of surviving are a little like getting new tricks.

Anything of Divinity?

ilton is quoted in the next passage, and we have the matter of whether man has anything of divinity in him. There are various biologists who, going back to the older idea that God created man to represent him, have said that evolution is true but that God exists. Biologists like Edmund Ware Sinnott may be mentioned here. He says there is something of the divine in evolutionary procedure, or in the coming to be of life. And a good deal can be said for it. If we think of a person like Milton himself, or Beethoven, Racine, Corneille, even Rabelais—the energy that these persons represent has been associated with divinity. That is what Shelley says in the “Defence of Poetry.”

     Meanwhile, whatever else the human being can say, he can say, “I looked at the universe; I don't like the way it works.” At least you can have that wonderful feeling in saying the universe is a mess—which I recommend should be done with a little restraint. But the universe has given human beings the right to say that it is a flop, essentially—that there are a few good things in it, like daisies, children's smiles, kittens, but essentially it's a flop. That man can feel that, is his greatest sorrow and his greatest privilege. And he still has a debate as to whether it is a sorrow or a privilege.

     So if man is related somewhat to creation, and if that means divinity, he's also related to creation as inefficient. Persons have pointed to the way shad roe come to be in the water: few ever come to life; they are only there. Biology is very often wasteful. It's been pointed out that to have an appendix in one's body is no great help—you have to pay money to get rid of it.

Matter & Divinity

he reviewer writes: “But beyond and above this comes in the peculiar condition of Man as an intellectual being....”

     A person may be compelled to fall into your lap, and you feel something weighty and somewhat uncomfortable. Even if it were Samuel Johnson, you would still feel that the writer of the Dictionary fell into your lap in such a plump way. Divinity can be associated with plumpness and adiposity, or, as the common word is, obesity.

But beyond and above this comes in the peculiar condition of Man as an intellectual being, richly provided by his Maker with those endowments which...have bequeathed to the admiration of all ages names made immortal by their genius and attainments—Homer, Aristotle, Dante, Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, Newton, Leibnitz, Pascal, Laplace...—and gifted yet further with that moral sense, those faculties and sensibilities of feeling and passion, to which...we owe our understanding of virtue and conscience, and of all that is beautiful and sublime in the world around—forming what Milton has well called “a piece of divinity within us; something that was before the elements, and owing no homage to the sun.”

     There are the theories of some biologists, that man is essentially made by something that preceded evolution but used evolution, that one can see a direct relation between a formative divine principle in the world and man himself. This matter of divinity is sometimes put in colloquial language: “This has the spark in it!”; “It's got something!” When we say “It's got something!” we're approaching, not quite there but approaching, the idea of something different present.

     Also, if, as Aesthetic Realism says, the greatest impulse in man is good will, the desire to make the world more beautiful and to have a good effect on everybody one meets, the desire to think that there is no one whom you have met on whom you had a lessening effect—if this is true, then man is a certain kind of being.

     There are perhaps eight hundred crimes in the penal codes of various states, and there are at least eight hundred diseases a human being can get. Man has diseases, and he's likely fond of some crimes, but also, he can see something. That fact has been allied to divinity. This is in the passage that I'm reading of 1850. 

1 James and the Children, p. 55.
2 Self and World, p. 8.

Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:

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.

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Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies

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The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
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Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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