The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Justice to People—& What's Against It

Dear Unknown Friends:

We have been serializing a lecture I consider historic: the 1974 Poetry Is of Man, by Eli Siegel. His text is an article that would have been lost in time had he not seen its value—he says it is one of the most important articles ever written. First published in the Quarterly Review, January 1850, and reprinted in Littell's Living Age, March 16, 1850, it is—nine years before Darwin 's Origin of Species—a discussion of five books relating to human evolution.

The article, like others in the Quarterly Review, is unsigned. But as Mr. Siegel looks at it, we see the author's courage, and the courage of a scientist whose work this anonymous author is considering and with whom he agrees: James C. Prichard. Early in the lecture, Mr. Siegel says of Prichard, who is little known now:

The large question that affected him is whether the Chinese, the African, the Polynesian, the Indian—the Sioux Indian, the Iroquois Indian—and the Caucasian, all came from the same source; whether the Hottentot and the Zulu came from the same source as next year's student at Oxford. Prichard was one of the first who said definitely: all people come from one source. That meant a good deal in 1850, because there were attempts to show that some people should be slaves.

In the section of the lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel points to passages in which the writer of the article says humanity is one species—not, as various “scientists” of the time were trying to show, composed of different species. And the anonymous writer's prose takes on a might, a beauty, as he gives logic for the fact that all humans, black, white, Asian, are deeply the same.

Explained for the First Time

There is only one reason why people have wanted to see others as of a different species, or as fundamentally apart from and inferior to oneself. That reason is given, for the first time in human history, by Aesthetic Realism: there is a huge, though false, feeling in every person that the way to be oneself is through contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”

Contempt, the feeling we're important if we can look down on somebody else, is the source of all racism. But it's also the source of a sarcastic remark a wife made to her husband this morning, belittling him at the breakfast table. And it's the source of a conversation that same husband and wife had last night, as they cozily reveled in detailing the defects of various acquaintances. Contempt is why they find discussing what's amiss so much more satisfying than discussing, or even seeing, what they might admire.

Contempt—the feeling we're more if we can see another as less—is the cause of anti-Semitism, and that horrendous culmination of it, the Holocaust. Yet I have seen Jews of one background look down on Jews of another background.

And persons from one Latin American country have looked down on persons from another. And black persons with lighter skin have looked down on those with darker.

So I say again what Aesthetic Realism explains. Contempt, including contempt in one's own dear self, has to be understood for racism and cruelty to be understood and effectively opposed. You can't be successfully against an intense form of something if you aren't against the thing itself. The only way to oppose adequately the most horrific results of contempt is to be against contempt as such. We have to see the ordinariness of contempt simultaneously with its horror.

Until we do, we won't understand how brutality can often come from otherwise “nice” people, representative people. I remember a lecture titled It's Been So Long, in which Mr. Siegel quoted from a 1910 article by “the earliest well-known black writer in sociology,” W.E.B. Du Bois. He recounts, Mr. Siegel said, “how many persons who seem courteous and kind want to find someone to look down on.” And Mr. Siegel quoted this sentence of Du Bois: “He who seems to you a gentleman is but his boorish self to me; she who is to you a vision of womanly loveliness may be but selfish vulgarity to me.”

What Is the Real Opponent of Contempt?

The present lecture's title, Poetry Is of Man, is in keeping with this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” In this lecture Mr. Siegel is showing that the very structure of humankind—the way, ethnologically, humanity is constituted—is an aesthetic matter. And in the section printed here we are looking at the opposites of Many and One.

If humanity is at once multitudinous and unified, then humanity is like a poem, in which many lines, many words, many syllables, all arise from one source—the author's deep feeling—and all go to make one unified work. We need to see humankind as constituted aesthetically, with each of the world's billions of people his or her unique self, yet all deeply akin and joined. Seeing this way is the desperately needed opponent of contempt.

I am going to quote three short instances from the work of Eli Siegel which illustrate the aesthetic structure of humanity.

1) The first is a poem he wrote in 1970. Here we see the great opposites, the so misused opposites, of Sameness and Difference, as one:

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.

There is tenderness in the music of this poem. The poem is a oneness of tenderness and strict fact, science.

2) The next instance is a poem from Eli Siegel's book Hail, American Development. “Anonymous Anthropology” has humor, but is serious too. It is about humanity as the aesthetic oneness of Individuality and Generality. Each person is completely specific, while connected with others. I'll quote from the note to the poem, then the poem itself:

Paleolithic man, Neolithic man must have had individuals who chose to lie down on the grass, lean on a rock, or wander by a body of water; but this is not how men of the Old Stone Age or the New Stone Age have come to us: they come to us all at once, with no names, no individual dispositions, no birth marks, no secret hopes, no particular manner of expression, no psychical apartness, blaze or suggestion.

Anonymous Anthropology

Anthropology deals with people anonymously,

None of whom we know individually.

We don't know a specific person as to pottery, textiles, utensils, bronze or stone.

Anthropology, which is in league with prehistory,

Is so anonymous, we don't know how sad we feel about it,

Until we think about it.

Every person has been as individual as every other person. When we see this, along with our relatedness, there will be the real, tangible victory of aesthetics over contempt.

3) The final instance of humanity as aesthetics is from the lecture I mentioned earlier, It's Been So Long. Shortly after quoting the W.E.B. Du Bois sentence, Mr. Siegel said something which, in its quietness, incisiveness, and charm, has stirred millions of people; it is the basis of Ken Kimmelman's award-winning, widely viewed public service film The Heart Knows Better:

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.

Here is the truth about humanity's Sameness and Difference, put in the kind, beautiful spoken prose of Eli Siegel.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Humanity Is Many & One

By Eli Siegel

We get, again, to the large matter: what does man come from, and what do all people have in common? There are certain persons deep in Alabama who, when they saw a black man write, were so astonished—they felt the pen had been bewitched. The idea that he could write!

The author of this 1850 article is objecting to the notion that there are different species of human beings:

If man be not a single species, how many species of the human being must we count on the earth? The Negro is the most striking contrast to the European; but the...Mongolian also has characteristics so strongly marked, that we cannot concede the difference of species in the one case without admitting it in the other. How, or where, are we to stop in these admissions, when we find diversities...existing everywhere around us...? The question is further perplexed by the intermixture of races and varieties; rendering it difficult, if not impossible, to define any such primitive separation of origin, as the phrase of different species implies.

And he says:

Multiplicity, then, in this case becomes itself an argument for unity. No lines of demarcation are found sufficiently strong to render the plurality of species natural or probable....All point to a certain common origin—expressing in this what we believe to be the unity of the species over the earth.

With all the failures of the meetings of the United Nations, it is important that so many kinds of people can be in the same building. All the persons come together, and they have language, and in one way or another they can understand each other. The babble, or Babel, has been changed into classroom deportment.

What is most important is that if you take people from anywhere in the world and put them in the same room, they find some means of showing their feelings. And it's effective, and beautiful sometimes.

What Makes a Species

I think the following paragraph should be read:

First, as to the criteria which best determine the identity or diversity of species...we may name the following conditions...: the anatomical structure in all its parts—

That is, no matter how a person looked, his anatomy was pretty much like that of a dweller in Manchester, England; or Chicago, United States; or Constantinople, or Istanbul.

—the anatomical structure in all its parts—the average duration of life—

 They do tell stories of people living to 144 somewhere in Russia, and certainly there has been some variation. There are also persons now living in the South who were slaves in 1854. These stories about people living ever so many years are exceedingly welcome.

—the relation of the sexes and laws of propagation, including the periods of uterogestation and number of progeny—

It happens that every child born anywhere has had to go through his dumb epic of nine months, even the wildest persons.

—the production, or otherwise, of hybrid progeny by mixed breeding—the liability to the same diseases—and the possession of the same instincts, faculties, and habits of action and feeling.

The feeling which man has had to have is that man is one.

It will be readily admitted that wherever individuals or groups of beings concur as to these general conditions, there the proof of identity of species is complete. But we have already alluded to that capacity for variation within certain limits in each species, which may as justly be called a law of nature as the division into species itself; and we are in no instance whatever entitled to expect entire conformity to the several conditions stated above.

If you spend day after day with a camel, you'll likely show it: that's what that means.

Each condition includes a liability to such variations, more or less, for every species.

That's a word, variations, that Darwin uses in his Origin of Species. There is a looking at how things can vary and remain as they are.

In man, this capacity for variation shows itself peculiarly in all that regards the instincts, habits, and mental faculties, as modified by climate, food, culture, and other contingencies. In the phenomena more strictly of physical organization, a lesser amount of change is likely to occur.

The study of how beings live, grow, and change: that is a study of humanity. Man is one species, by himself. As a particular order of mammal, he has a very pretty name. It sounds like a girl's name: Bimana.

Dogs Are Different & the Same

Another quotation. This is about the dog. It's pretty eloquent:

What more different in aspect than the bulldog, the Newfoundland dog, the Cuba dog, the pug-dog, and the greyhound? Yet we cannot reasonably doubt (the dog itself, whatever its race, certainly does not doubt) the entire identity of the species.

This means that a dog can recognize another dog, no matter how different.

Human Emotions

Then there are the emotions of people. What emotion is: that, of course, gets closer to poetry. We can begin with what this writer mentions, laughter and tears; and there are other modes of expression. Darwin wrote about the expression of the emotions.

Emotion can be very subtle. We can get an emotion from stringed instruments, and from syllables used with depth and subtlety. They have a relation to emotion of the simplest kind: the seeing of Niagara for the first time, or having some bulldog approach you, with you yelling. Emotion is exceedingly various. It beats all the department stores put together.

What we have said will be readily understood as applying equally to the moral feelings and character of different races as to their intellectual faculties. The denotation of unity of origin is as strong in the one case as the other. However modified in form and expression by education, the conditions of government and society, or the various necessities of life, the emotions, the desires, the moral feelings of mankind, are essentially the same in all races and in all ages of the world. We have neither room nor need for argument on this subject: all history and all personal experience concur as to the fact. Were we to cite any one instance in particular, it would be the faculty of laughter and tears—those expressions of feeling common to all colors, races, and communities of mankind.

They are close, laughter and tears.

Shakespeare is quoted, from Troilus and Cressida:

One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.” It is this “one touch of nature” testified in tears, which decides the question of unity of species to the common feeling of mankind as entirely as it does to the observations of the naturalist, or the reasonings of the philosopher.

The naturalist studied those things which the anthropologist of now studies.

A Single Source

In a later paragraph, this writer continues to question the attempt to divide humanity into different species:

Fischer, in his Synopsis Animalium, affirms the existence of seven forms or species, wholly distinct. Colonel Hamilton Smith...says that we must necessarily admit the Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negro, as separate in origin, and though calling these typical forms, he goes far towards asserting the distinction of species....But we do not see sufficient grounds....Looking at the many varieties of mankind, and the manner in which they are insensibly interblended—

This phrase, “insensibly interblended,” has the quietness of poetry, the quietness of music from a distant piano.

...we think...that more exact knowledge will tend further to confirm the belief that all these distinctions of races are secondary and subordinate to one single source of human life on the earth.

Then there is the matter of all life. If there is one source of all life, it's a little staggering, but it's still in the field of poetry.