The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


About Space & Justice

By Eli Siegel

The desire to go through space has made for a good deal of popular poetry. The reason people feel good when they walk fast is that they seem to take care of space. That’s where we get the phrase “He’s in his stride”: because it represents space dealt with so definitely. There is the pound of the foot on the pavement and there is also the space dealt with. Man is an assimilator of space.

A Civil War poem that’s also a song is about Sherman’s march to the sea. With the way certain inadequately American people in the South are talking right now, it is felicitous to look at a poem dealing with something the Georgians have never forgotten because their property was dealt with so horribly: Sherman’s march through Georgia. However, that march helped end the war, and it is a pity it wasn’t carried through. It was a beautiful thing. And it was the one big march of the Civil War.

There are a few in history. There is Xenophon’s march across Asia Minor. And there is George Rogers Clark’s march to Illinois from the comparative east in the American Revolution. There are other marches, including some going on in China, where much space is dealt with. Where there is much space and people go through it, we can have poetry and space. But Sherman’s march through Georgia to the sea, with his reaching Savannah and then saying he had a Christmas present—Savannah—for Mr. Lincoln and the American people, has been put in an American poem that the South doesn’t like at all. I don’t think the South has any right not to like it, because the only trouble with the Civil War was that slavery was not completely downed. But the Civil War was a beginning; it is still going on.

History & Space

“While we were marching through Georgia” is a line that has remained. A march through Georgia means that you have to deal with space in an accurate way. This is Henry Clay Work’s poem:

Bring the good old bugle, boys, we’ll sing another song—

Sing it with a spirit that will start the world along—

Sing it as we used to sing it, fifty thousand strong,

While we were marching through Georgia.

“Hurrah! Hurrah! we bring the jubilee!

Hurrah! Hurrah! the flag that makes you free!”

So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,

While we were marching through Georgia.

Yes, and there were Union men who wept with joyful tears,

When they saw the honor’d flag they had not seen for years:

Hardly could they be restrained from breaking forth in cheers,

While we were marching through Georgia.

So we made a thoroughfare for Freedom and her train,—

Sixty miles in latitude, three hundred to the main;

Treason fled before us, for resistance was in vain,

While we were marching through Georgia.

This is the merriest thing in Civil War history. Whatever may be said, there weren’t many losses. Sherman’s army just went through that state and they did show the slaveholders something. Not many of the Union boys were killed—it wasn’t as terrible as what was going on with Grant—and they cut through that state as though it were insidious cheese. Something like that ought to go after the Ku Klux Klan still in Georgia and elsewhere—that is, the same persistence and the same no-monkey-business.

That is a poem, though, which is about space. As to its quality, there are things in the technique I could reprehend. But it is honestly notable, and so the American people have seen it as being, outside of certain people in the South.

A Train Deals with Space

There is a poem of Emily Dickinson which is about how the mind of man wants to eat up space. It is put in terms of a train. This is one of the clearest poems of Emily Dickinson, and is about a train that she observed, even though she was such a recluse. It seems she liked to look at trains.

I like to see it lap the miles,

And lick the valleys up,

And stop to feed itself at tanks;

And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,

And, supercilious, peer

In shanties by the sides of roads;

And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,

Complaining all the while

In horrid, hooting stanza;

Then chase itself down hill....

The train here seems to be an instrument of fate, and also something like a kitten chasing itself downhill. That is an important poem about space.


A Man’s Big Question


By Bennett Cooperman

The question “Can I be strong and kind at once—and do I want to be?” is huge in the life of every man. I wanted to be a kind person, but when push came to shove, I thought being kind was sappy and made you soft: it was a donation that wouldn’t get you much.

To be strong and get what you wanted, I felt you had to be strategic and “smart.” In seventh grade, on the morning of the election for class president, I passed out candy, thinking this would boost my chances for victory. My classmates saw through my obvious scheme and I went down in defeat.

Aesthetic Realism explains the purpose that enables a man to be kind and strong at once. It is good will, “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” When a man has real good will he is at his keenest—he’s using his mind, his intellect, to have a good effect on people. I was thrilled to hear Eli Siegel’s conviction when he said in a lecture that kindness is “the most avant-garde virtue of them all!”

Kindness Is Relation

In his lecture Mind and Kindness Mr. Siegel explained that the idea of kinship is in the word kind. He said:

Deep in the meaning of the word kind is a feeling that through being born there is a relation to everything....To be kind means that you want good things to happen to what is like yourself. The next question is, is there anything that is in no way like ourselves? I would say there isn’t. [TRO 641]

I grew up in Miami, Florida, and used our family’s good fortune to be a terrific snob, to feel unrelated to people, better than them. We had a Cadillac in the driveway; other families had “ordinary” cars. I was convinced that my mother—and our family by extension—had the best taste in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, I had no clue that my father was often in agony about finances and providing for a family of five.

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the thing I felt would make me strong—building myself up through thinking I was better than others—was contempt. That is exactly what makes a man weak, because the purpose of our life is to like the world, know other people and things, see our relation to them, and be fair to them. When a man doesn’t have that purpose, he pays the price, and I did: I often felt separate from people and agitated, and, even as a boy, had a lot of trouble sleeping.

Where I felt at my best was in dancing. Each week, children went to dance classes, where we learned, for instance, the fox trot, the cha-cha, and one of my favorites, the waltz. Holding a girl in my arms, I felt I could have a good effect on her, could be both firm in taking the lead and also thoughtful of her as we turned gracefully around in that beautiful 1-2-3, 1-2-3. Without knowing it, I was trying to be just, not only to my partner but to the world as slowness and speed, freedom and order, time and space—and this was why I had feelings that were large and proud.

My usual notion of strength, though, was different. I thought everybody was out for themselves. And, while trying to appear like a nice guy, I thought that the main thing was to get your way, and that you had to be calculating and shrewd in order to get it. When a man is looking at other people with that purpose, he cannot like himself.

Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss described a central matter holding up my life. She explained, “Your toughness and calculation are not at one with your sense of awe.” And she put in a sentence two things that fought in me and needed to be together: “You are a keen, sharp person but you also want to see a sunrise.”

And There Is Love

In Aesthetic Realism classes I also learned about strength and kindness in love. I was seeing Meryl Nietsch and was very much stirred by this lovely woman from Long Island. The more we talked, the more I wanted to be with Meryl. But then I would focus on what I perceived as a flaw in her. A question Ms. Reiss asked me was: “Where do you feel stronger—being swept by Meryl Nietsch or feeling you can take her or leave her?” And she asked, too: “Do you think your suspicion of Ms. Nietsch is at one with your big feeling about her?”

“No,” I said. And I continued, “An instance of where I was suspicious: the other day we were talking on the phone about Meryl’s budget”—that is, what I saw as her need to make one. “I was sure she didn’t want to see something. Then that night when I went to her house, she opened up the door and handed me the budget all typed up. I couldn’t believe it.”

Ms. Reiss asked this crucial question: “Have you hoped to be suspicious of Ms. Nietsch?” The answer was yes, and I’ve seen that this hope in a man makes him cruel. I’ve learned that while it sometimes may be right to be suspicious, the hope to be is always ugly and wrong. You cannot be kind when you’re on the hunt for something not to like in a person. It makes love impossible, and always ends up making a man feel mean, wobbly, uncertain—anything but strong.

I have gotten an education about strength and kindness from Aesthetic Realism that is real gold, and it has changed my life profoundly. That fact includes my marriage to Meryl, whom I love very deeply. I cherish talking with her, trying to know her, learning from her, holding her in my arms.

Men everywhere deserve to know the education that can make them strong, kind, and happy.