Difference & Sameness: The Human Question
Dear Unknown Friends:
The discussion we begin to serialize in this issue is philosophic. But it’s also about the most immediate matters in people’s lives, the most intimate, the loveliest, the most terrible, the most urgent. Aesthetic Realism makes clear that in order to understand what distresses us and what we hope for, in order for people to stop being cruel, we have to see what aesthetics is: what every instance of beauty contains. “All beauty,” Eli Siegel showed, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
We’re publishing the transcript of a class he taught 53 years ago, on December 4, 1952. It is a discussion of the second definition in his Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World: the definition of aesthetics. In Definitions, and Comment Mr. Siegel has defined 134 terms—including reality, individuality, romance, labor, everydayness, history, number, grammar, emotion—and has commented with logical clarity and richness on each, so that this work does indeed describe what the world itself fundamentally is.¹
We Come to Sameness & Difference
As you will see, central to the definition of aesthetics are the opposites Sameness and Difference. In the discussion, Mr. Siegel speaks of how these opposites are in everyday life, in our feelings, and in art. And I will comment here on one of the ugliest things humanity has had, something which people despair about, and which Aesthetic Realism explains and provides the means of ending. That is: racism, in all its brutality, is a certain dealing with the opposites of sameness and difference—the same opposites that are one in every instance of beauty.
To understand racism, we have to understand how those opposites are with us all the time.
What We Begin With
We are in a relation of sameness and difference with every other person and object in the world. There is a difference we feel constantly, mainly unconsciously: it is that between ourselves and what’s not ourselves.
A baby, right now, is being born into a world other than herself. The arms that will hold her are not her arms. The milk she will drink is not herself . The crib her body will lie in is not her body. The words she’ll hear are not herself; nor is the sky she’ll see, the wood she’ll touch, the pussycat who will come into her room and look at her. All these are the world different from the baby, Corinna.
The biggest matter in Corinna’s life and ours is: Will we see the world different from ourselves as something not just different but like us too? Will we see that it is as real as we are—that we have reality in common? Will we feel that through those different objects and people we can learn about ourselves, and therefore we should value them? —Or will we see the world different from us as composed of things and people we should conquer or get away from; will we see what’s not ourselves as to be looked down on, managed, made to succumb to us; will we see it as something that doesn’t have the same fulness we give ourselves?
That is the principal question in everyone’s life: Should I see the world different from me as like me too? People don’t know they have it, but the way they answer it affects how they are about everything, from love to education.
And they don’t know that the cause of the great trouble they have with sameness and difference is their desire for contempt. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” And in issue 225 of this journal, titled “We Build Up Ourselves,” he writes:
All we need to have the most hurtful contempt is sameness and difference unfortunately placed. We are disposed to think less of others because they are not ourselves; and that’s enough. We are disposed to think more of ourselves because we are ourselves; and that’s enough. And from these two likelihoods of difference and equivalence, the most frightening and painful things can ensue. “You are not me,” the unconscious says, “and so I have the right to think less of you and to place you as I want to."
Two Desires in Corinna
The deepest desire of the little girl Corinna is to feel that the things different from her are of her too. In fact, she’ll become herself through them. The sight of sky will be part of her mind, and she’ll come to recognize it. The words she didn’t create, which people centuries ago made up and used, will become so much herself that she will think with them. And food, so different from her, will become Corinna and enable her to grow.
Meanwhile, there is a something in Corinna which says: the way to be herself is to see herself as completely different from everything else, and if she has to see what’s not her as equally real she’ll no longer be important or safe. This something is in everyone: it’s contempt.
It’s the thing that right now is making a person unable to learn. Aesthetic Realism explains that behind learning difficulties is the unarticulated feeling, “Those letters, those numbers, those facts are part of an unfriendly world from which I have to protect myself. I’m not going to take them into me: they’re not like me and I don’t need them. I’m enough unto myself—I don’t want those foreign things that are so different from me interfering with who I am.”
This way of seeing is also the big source of trouble in love. Love is a field in which sameness and difference show how deeply and dramatically they are one. We want, we long, to feel that someone different from ourselves is close to us, is of our very lives.
Yet there is that in us which doesn’t want to give full reality to something different—doesn’t want to see, in a living, steady way, large value in something that’s not ourselves . So when we are affected by a person, we want to turn him or her into an adjunct of ourselves: we want to own the person, run the person, also feel superior to the person. From this contempt—tampering with the oneness of sameness and difference in love, come so much of the nervousness, suspicion, and resentment in social life and marriage—and the feeling in people as time passes that they’ll never have true love.
Where Prejudice Begins
What has been called race or ethnicity, the way people are visually alike-and-different, in skin tone, features, perhaps texture of hair—all this is part of the great sameness and difference of reality. We won’t be truly civilized and proud and kind on the subject until we see it as that.
The one thing that has made people see race or ethnic difference sleazily, cruelly, is the desire for contempt. Prejudice and racism come from the feeling, “If I can look down on all these people different from me, if I can see them as beneath me, I’m Somebody, because I’m superior.”
But this horrible contempt as to race starts with, and would not exist without, the more encompassing and perhaps less pointed contempt I have been describing: the contempt people want to have for the world itself as different from them.
I am writing this commentary just after the death of Rosa Parks, whose courageous refusal to give up her seat in a Montgomery bus was pivotal in the civil rights movement. So from an article about her in the New York Times (Oct. 25), I quote a description of segregation. It is sickening. But it is all about sameness and difference-sameness and difference in the service of contempt:
On Montgomery buses, the first four rows were reserved for whites. The rear was for blacks....Blacks could sit in the middle rows until those seats were needed by whites. Then the blacks had to move to seats in the rear, stand or, if there was no room, leave the bus....If whites were already sitting in the front, blacks could board to pay the fare but then they had to disembark and re-enter through the rear door.
The ugliness of this is equaled only by its insanity.
To understand racism we need to understand contempt. If you were white, and a black person had to get up to give you a seat; or if you were sitting in the front and you saw one black person after another forced to behave as though he or she wasn’t good enough even to walk past you after paying the fare, you had a terrific victory. The victory was not just over a person or people; it was over reality itself. You were made important—not because of anything you did to deserve it, but because you could see yourself as utterly different from and better than someone else. The victory has been put in these words by Mr. Siegel: “I can endlessly despise, and the more I despise the more, apparently logically, my own ego is glorified.” ²
Racism will end 1) when people understand and are really against contempt; and 2) when they see what is different from them in the world itself as adding to them, completing them, like them. There is nothing, Aesthetic Realism shows, that doesn’t have a structure in common with ourselves. That structure is the oneness of opposites. A leaf is flexible and firm; and how we yearn to be, in the way we meet things, at once flexible and firm! A sunset puts together brilliance and fading; and we want to understand why we can be so lively and also sink. A good jazz piece is free, wild, yet has order too; the way we let go and our orderliness don’t work well together, but we very much hope they will. And a person in Shanghai longs to make sense of how she’s tender and angry—and so do we.
We won’t have the feeling we want about a person, including a person outwardly quite different from us, until we like the sameness and difference of the world itself. Eight years ago I wrote in this journal that what is needed for racism to end
is not the feeling that the difference of another person is somehow tolerable. What is necessary is the seeing and feeling that the relation of sameness and difference between ourselves and that other person is beautiful. People need to feel...that difference of race is like the difference to be found in music: two notes are different, but they are in behalf of the same melody; they complete each other; each needs the other to be expressed richly, to be fully itself.
Aesthetic Realism is the education that makes this possible.
As we begin to serialize his 1952 discussion of aesthetics, I quote a poem Mr. Siegel wrote in 1970. It is about those great opposites of sameness and difference, in a field that has had such pain and can have kindness and beauty:
Only Later; or, The First Line
I heard a Negro child crying
And it sounded so much like a white child
It was only later
I found out what I said
In my first line.