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.
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.