|Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we publish the conclusion of the great 1950 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Nature, by Eli Siegel. And I comment a little on an aspect of nature that has been making, these days, for excitement, celebration, and worry: the human genome, and the fact that scientists have now mapped nearly its entire structure.
The principles of Aesthetic Realism are true about reality, and so every new discovery ratifies them and is clarified by them. I think that fact is magnificent. "The world, art, and self explain each other," Mr. Siegel saw: "each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." That principle is true about the genome. Aesthetic Realism explains too (and I’ll comment on this later) what it is in the human self that makes current information about the genome a cause of authentic concern — though knowledge as such is always a fine, to-be-loved thing.
On the front page of the June 27 New York Times, we find the following definition of the genome: "the sum of all genetic material encased in nearly every cell of the human body"; it "consists of two sets of 23 giant DNA molecules, or chromosomes, with each set — one inherited from each parent — containing more than three billion chemical units." Only 4 chemical compounds are involved in these units or "bases" — adenine (designated as a), cytosine (c), guanine (g), and thymine (t) — and each unit is composed of some combination of two of them. It is the sequence of these 3 billion base pairs that has, for the most part, been at last ascertained.
Times writer Natalie Angier describes the genome as "exult[ing] in contradictions." Yet what she is seeing, and doesn’t know she is seeing, are not contradictions at all: they are aspects of what Eli Siegel showed to be the aesthetic nature of the world and of the human self. The genome is a oneness of opposites — opposites that all art puts together; opposites that each of us is thirsty to make one in our own intimate, often bewildered lives. I mention three examples.
Simplicity and Complexity
The genome, then, is a oneness of simplicity and complexity — as all art is. For example, the anonymous ballad "Sir Patrick Spens," written perhaps in the 15th century, accents simplicity. Yet it would not be beautiful if the simplicity were not inextricable from, deeply equivalent to, a richness, a wonder. The first quatrain —
— is so straightforward as to be almost abrupt in its simplicity. Yet we have sounds that spread (as in town, sailor, mine); we have the intensity of "blood-red"; we have tumult and unknownness in the last two lines. And through all this and more, comes a sense of the vast, the intricate, even the infinite — not "contradicting" the simple, but of it.
Then, a work that accents the complex has, if it is beautiful, a simplicity too. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is an important novel because we feel that all its wealth of narrative and details arose from one purpose. All came from a single, deeply simple, source: the honesty of Tolstoy.
These opposites of Tolstoy, Patrick Spens, and the genome are ours too. People have suffered about them. A person can feel the complexity of her life is so much that she is whirling. She can feel she is so complicated and confusing that she’s afraid of herself, and angry. Yet this same person, Colleen, can also feel there’s something badly simple about her: she feels she’s not deep enough, not rich enough in her feelings and thought; she feels her life, while confusing, isn’t full — there is a thinness to it.
What Colleen and we long for is to be stirred, enlivened by the manyness of the world, and at the same time have that simplicity which is sincerity and a clear, continuous purpose with all we meet. Aesthetic Realism explains what that purpose is, which, if we have it clearly, will make complexity and simplicity friends within us. It is "to like the world through knowing it." That, Mr. Siegel has shown, is the deepest purpose of our life.
Practicality and Superfluity
And we want in our lives a oneness of practicality and flare, necessity and luxury. We certainly want to be practical; but we also want decoration, and entertainment, and to do something as "not functional" as what Whitman describes: "I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." Every person has felt ashamed of how he or she has gone after luxuries, "extras." Every person also has found the "practical" too grim and dull. We will be proud when we can truly see them as coherent — as they are in art, and, it seems, in our very genetic material.
Sameness and Difference
All through his life Mr. Siegel fought, with passionate logic, to have the fact that people are centrally akin be seen, understood, and honored. His "The Equality of Man" appeared in the Modern Quarterly in 1923, when he was 21. It has this sentence, ringing and careful: "This writing will aim to show that Men Are Equal — in the clear and full meaning of the words."
And there is his statement of 5 decades later, now the basis of Ken Kimmelman’s Emmy award-winning public service film, The Heart Knows Better. Since 1995, people have been reading these words by Mr. Siegel, which conclude that film, on their television screens, in movie theatres, in professional sports stadiums:
The genome too, we now know, is quite the same. We need to see that the particularity of our irreplaceable self, our distinction, arises out of our enormous likeness to other people and things. Agony, not only racial, has come from people’s feeling that to be an individual I have to see myself as deeply unlike someone else. The genome is tangible evidence that the organic differences of each person are founded on, and could not exist without, the grand sameness of our common DNA.
The Danger Is Contempt
Mr. Siegel identified — a discovery mightier than that of the genome — the thing in the human self responsible for all cruelty; the thing, present in each of us, which interferes with every aspect of life. That thing is contempt, the desire to get an "addition to self through the lessening of something else." In the lecture we have been serializing, Mr. Siegel shows that contempt interferes with how people use nature: the terrible and common mistake is to use ocean, flowers, hills to respect people less, to feel people are messy and not worth thinking about and nature is so much better.
The knowledge of anything can be used in behalf of contempt: to be powerful by lessening things and people. Knowledge of the atom has been used that way, or we wouldn’t be so worried about nuclear weapons. And if the genome is misused, it will be contempt that does it. That is a reason why all people, including scientists, need to study Aesthetic Realism: we need to understand contempt and criticize it in ourselves. Out of contempt, this desire to lessen another for self-aggrandizement, has come racism; and also has come profit economics. And I say simply: for a thing as fundamental to everyone’s life as the genome to be a means for personal profit, as companies plan for it to be, is horrible and bizarre.
The final section of Aesthetic Realism and Nature includes a poem by Mr. Siegel. It is immensely musical as it makes a one of sheer factuality and the largeness, the wonder of a thing of nature: snow. It stands for Eli Siegel — so courageously large in his thought, and so kind.
Nature is the most various thing in the world. And Aesthetic Realism states that if nature is looked on exactly, not for the purpose of running away from anything, the meaning of the world can change into something more continuous and more astonishing.
Suppose nature does make for the wild things — a lynx, a wolf, a lion, an elephant — and also makes a professor of Latin philology. Shall we say that nature can’t? If nature makes the crystal and also makes the jungle, nature is orderly and also disorderly. It is tame; sometimes very tame. There is nothing tamer to watch than a fat cloud unwilling to move. Then, when we see that cloud racing along, we feel that nature is something else.
Nature is a study in variety and unity, as we are. And if we accept our variety in unity, and unity in variety, we are accepting what we are; that is, ourselves. Snow, for example, represents the unity of things. There is the color: white. But white has in it all the colors.
I’ll close this discussion, which has accented the variety of things chiefly, with a poem I wrote a long time ago. "And with Morning White Falls on White" was published in the Modern Quarterly in 1932 (winter number). This deals with snow, and tries to show rest in motion; but it does accent the variety and sameness of things:
So this talk has been for the purpose of seeing nature as a tremendous study in unity and variety, in their fullest meaning. All art is that too. And if we use nature that way, we can come to understand the difficulties, puzzlements, excruciations, unbearabilities that people undergo. Otherwise, we are using nature not to understand, but as a sort of second, soothing, unwise mother. That is not the way nature wants to be.
Nature can soothe, because through it we can like the source of things even when some of the manifestations are pretty horrible. That is the way nature is to be used: by saying that since all of it came from something that is this very great oneness of rest and motion, unity and variety, maybe we can take some of the things we don’t like and understand them better. The purpose of nature is to understand everything, including things in apartments in cities, and subways. If nature is used that way, then a vacation will not only be a vacation, but a happy fulness, a happy addition to a thirsty unconscious.
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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