The Mississippi Link
All over America men are in a mix-up about power: what is it?—how can we have it?—how can we look good to ourselves as we have it? I learned from Aesthetic Realism—the philosophy founded in 1941 by America’s great poet and educator, Eli Siegel—that power is both good and bad. Good power strengthens you and other people, because it is based on respect for the world; bad power weakens you and others, because it is based on contempt. The difference between them is the difference between hell and happiness, and I am very glad that people can now learn from Aesthetic Realism to have the power that makes for self-respect.
Early in life, I saw I had a big power through anger, and I remember the thrill of beating the toughest boy on the block. At the same time, I was very much affected by music and painting, and the art I cared for most: photography. It had the power to preserve a changing scene forever. I loved seeing how people on New York’s 14th Street lived and worked, and I felt there was nothing more important than documenting it with my camera. But the pleasure of art was in a different world from the quick thrill of a fight.
Years later Mr. Siegel was to ask me in an Aesthetic Realism class: “Is there anything you don’t want to hit or never could?” There was hardly anything. I didn’t know my ability to be moved by art was also power, and I associated the emotion it made for with weakness and being a “sissy.”
At 17, as I attended photography school in California and lived at Bixby’s Guest House, I had the pleasure of studying chemical formulas and the science of composition; but in daily life I got agitated when I had to give sustained thought to something. I felt the swift way I showed my dislike of anything false was a sign of my honesty. Later, in another class, Eli Siegel described this tendency with kind humor when he said I saw myself as the town marshal, putting everyone under arrest. At Bixby’s one morning, when another student said something insulting about New York, I jumped up from the table, threw oatmeal at him, and pushed him into the china closet. I felt horribly ashamed; but I didn’t know how to be another way.
Then I met the beautiful power of good will in Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism. In a lesson, Mr. Siegel explained: “Power can be defined socially as the feeling that one deserves to affect people on one’s own terms …. Do you think that when you want to affect people and they don’t go along with you, you get angry?” I answered, “Yes.” And he said: “There is the art way, where we get a certain good power from seeing something different from ourselves, being within that thing with respect. Then there is the other, which wants to manipulate and see other people as external puppets for our own inclinations.” This knowledge saved me from a life of manipulating people.
A notion of power begins early
I was the firstborn son, and my father, Herbert Bernstein, praised me a lot. Yet he could assert his authority physically and order people around, and I saw him as powerful: a “real man,” handsome, strong, successful in business. We were in a battle about power with each other. I often got into a rage when my father didn’t do things exactly the way I wanted; and his excessive gifts and approval usually overcame my anger. I knew he wanted to impress people, and I calculated to ask him for money when he was with friends, because then he gave me more than I asked for.
I developed a manner of bellowing commands. And with women, I frantically shuttled between arrogance and timidity, and felt hopeless about love. The idea of trying to know a woman’s thoughts was nowhere in my mind. Then, in the classes I attended with him, as I heard Mr. Siegel speak to women, I began to see women’s feelings as real—to see the depths of their feelings, including the way they questioned themselves. It was like discovering a new world in which men and women could have the true power of kindness towards each other! Alice Bernstein attended these classes, and I was tremendously affected as I saw her learn and become kinder. The next year, on June 1, 1963, we were married.
Power in domesticity and thought
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson that Alice and I had after three months of marriage, Mr. Siegel explained a fight in me that interfered with our lives. For instance, I loved living with Alice—yet I also would take off to photograph in Harriman forest by myself anytime I wanted to. Mr. Siegel asked me: “Is Alice as such an interference or an impetus to you?” I answered, “Oh, I have to say she’s an impetus.” And he continued: “Do you think it’s possible for a husband to yearn for a wife’s company at 7 o’clock and at 9:30 be fed up with her? … It happens that you see the world in two ways. In one way you’re exceedingly domestic, pardon the expression …. Do you believe in coziness?”
I answered, “I could sleep on top of a glacier all night, and on the other hand want to be in my nice apartment.” Said Mr. Siegel: “I welcome you to the Great Order of the Simultaneously Primitive and Comfortable.” He also explained: “David Bernstein thinks that his sense of delicacy or tenderness is not at one with his desire to denounce things and be against them. It causes trouble. We can have differing emotions, but the question is, how well have we organized them?”
I learned that the purpose of both the primitive and the domestic is honestly to know and like the world. One reason I love Alice so much is the way these opposites are in her. I saw she liked to do Afro-Cuban dancing, liked having her hands deep in the earth planting, and at the same time liked the coziness of sewing crafts and preparing new and good things in the kitchen. As I saw Alice as having both the primitive and cozy in her, just as I do, I saw her more and more powerfully as an impetus to my life. And when I saw that Alice’s thought could be a real impetus to me the more I knew it—that her way of seeing was related to the depth and expansiveness of a mountain range, the subtlety and brightness of a cornflower—I felt that life made sense!
I have gone from a person who wanted to beat up the world, to a man who wants to see things with respect. I love Aesthetic Realism for bringing this power of seeing into my life. I am so glad that everyone can learn this now.
December 17, 1998