Ethics, Beauty, & the Civil War
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the great lecture Poetry and Space, by Eli Siegel. And accompanying this third section is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Bennett Cooperman, from the recent public seminar “A Man’s Big Question: Can I Be Strong and Kind at Once—and Do I Want to Be?”
We have come, in the lecture, to Mr. Siegel’s discussion of a poem that is also a famous Civil War song. He is reading it to show some of the feeling people have had about space, that tremendous thing in reality. Meanwhile, what he says very swiftly here about the Civil War and the racial injustice that has continued after it, is so vivid and deep, has such a oneness of perspective and passion, is so eloquent in its sincerity, that I want to comment on it. Though brief, it stands for how he always spoke and wrote on the subject.
Here, Mr. Siegel is speaking in August 1949. That is before the civil rights movement is generally seen as beginning.
I am grateful to have written about the Civil War in issues of this journal, with what I learned from Mr. Siegel as my basis. And during the 150th anniversary of the war (2011-15), the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company presented, at labor union conferences in both the North and South, its great show The Civil War, Unions, & Our Lives! An Event of Song & Education. The Aesthetic Realism understanding of the Civil War—what it was about—is needed mightily by America today. And so I am going to quote some statements from that Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company event, and have them meet and continue what Mr. Siegel says in the 1949 lecture we’re serializing.
The Question Then—& Now
For example, the performers said:
Central to the Civil War was the question To whom should America belong—to all people or just some people? That question is raging in our nation now in another form.
The Company sang, magnificently, many songs, including “John Brown’s Body,” “Hold the Fort,” and “No More Auction Block for Me.” There was tremendous emotion in the audiences—and also clarity about this: Aesthetic Realism is the education that identifies the source of all injustice. The source is contempt, the feeling, I’ll take care of myself and be important by looking down on and lessening what’s different from me. Racism is a hideous embodiment of contempt. Then there is slavery; the idea that a human being should be owned by oneself and dealt with any way one pleases is contempt so massive its size is hard to describe. Yet the contempt it begins with is had by people every day. Bennett Cooperman writes about this ordinary contempt in the article published here: the notion that our strength, significance, and glory depend on our ability to feel superior to other people and that we should use them to get our way.
Mr. Cooperman is an actor and singer with the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company and took part in its Civil War production. Early in it, the Company quoted the following, from my commentary in an issue of this journal:
The Civil War was about these questions, given form by Aesthetic Realism...: What does a person deserve by being alive? Should people see people with contempt or with respect?
...The Civil War, with all its deaths, uncertainties, emotions, was essentially a fight between contempt and respect. And “Shall I see the world and people with contempt or respect?” is the fight within every individual right now; it is our constant, inward, personal civil war.
For racism finally to end people need to learn from Aesthetic Realism about two things: 1) They need to learn about that fight between respect and contempt in themselves, so they can be against what racism begins with, the contempt in everyone. 2) They need to learn about the oneness of opposites which is in all art: the seeing that justice to oneself, expression of oneself, is the same as wanting to honor what’s different from oneself. Because millions of people do not have this Aesthetic Realism education, racism and other cruelties continue today. How ordinary contempt can become brutality is explained in a landmark statement of Eli Siegel, which the Theatre Company quoted:
As soon as you have contempt, 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.
What the “Lost Cause” Was
Here is another statement from the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company’s event on the Civil War. It originally appeared in a commentary of mine, and it illustrates the beautiful clarity of Eli Siegel as historian, arising from his love of truth:
[Though certain people claim the issue was “states’ rights,”] the Civil War was fought over one thing—slavery. The “states’ right” in question was the right to own a person....
I have written before about how passionate Mr. Siegel was on this subject. He said that the much romanticized “lost cause” of the South was slavery, period—and that the only good thing about it was that it was lost!
The Oneness of Sameness & Difference
There is nothing more important in our lives, in history, and in art than the opposites of sameness and difference. Racial and ethnic injustice has obviously to do with pitting sameness and difference against each other. There is a statement by Eli Siegel on this subject, musical in kindness and exactitude. It is quoted by Ken Kimmelman in his Emmy Award-winning anti-prejudice film The Heart Knows Better, and is the basis of that film. In a class in 1970, Mr. Siegel said:
It will be found that black and white man have the same goodnesses, the same temptations, and can be criticized in the same way. The skin may be different, but the aorta is quite the same.
All art, Aesthetic Realism makes clear, is the showing of how things different from each other are also related to each other, of each other—that is, they’re the same too. And Aesthetic Realism explains: we need to see how a person different from us, whether someone in our family, or from another country, or with a different skin tone, is like us too. When Americans are learning this—in keeping with what Mr. Siegel says in the paragraphs you’ll soon read, the Civil War will be completed at last.