|NUMBER 1814.—January 18, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to serialize the lecture New York Begins Poetically, which Eli Siegel gave in October 1970. Relating aspects of history, literature, and the feelings of people, it is a deep, leisurely, surprising, often humorous discussion. In it, this Aesthetic Realism principle is inseparable from New York—her earth, years, lives: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
Eli Siegel loved New York, and the city is present in many of his poems. Despite all the injustice, and the suffering too, that have taken place here, New York is beautiful, and one of the reasons is the way suffering and injustice have been fought.
In New York Begins Poetically, it is principally Manhattan that Mr. Siegel speaks of and presents as having that oneness of opposites which makes for poetry. In this first section, beginning with 1626 and Peter Minuit, he comments on three pairs of opposites. And so, by means of introduction, I’ll say a little about ways those opposites can be in us, in all people, very often confusingly and troublingly.
Much & Little
There are, first, those opposites which are about both mathematics and our feelings: much and little. They are sheerly quantitative. Yet everybody has felt troubled by having too little emotion—about something, someone, things as such. And we have also felt that things—including our own emotions—were too much for us.
“So much is going on in me that I’m spinning,” a person has thought. And the same person can tell herself meekly, belittlingly, “There’s not much to me.”
Much and little—which Mr. Siegel describes as poetically one in a very early instance of New York history—are also opposites central to all the cruelty that has ever been. That is because they are central to contempt—that way of seeing from which, Aesthetic Realism explains, every unkindness, injustice, cruelty has arisen. Contempt is the feeling, The more I can see you as little, unimportant, beneath me, the bigger, grander, mightier I am. We can see an ugly relation of much and little in this Aesthetic Realism definition of contempt: “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.”
In New York, as elsewhere, there is the horrible fact that some people have tremendously much while others have very little. This awful rift of much and little, with the suffering that attends it, exists because our economy has been based on contempt: on the seeing of human beings and the possibilities of this world in terms, not of what they deserve, but of how much private profit one can wring from them.
Before I leave the opposites of much and little for now, I’ll mention an instance of their being one in people. Whenever we truly respect a person, it is because we feel the person is large: he or she wants to give so much justice to things, see them with depth and fullness. And the more things the person wants to be fair to—and the more deeply and widely—the more we respect him or her. Yet also, in order to respect a person, we have to feel there is a subtlety to the person’s seeing: he or she wants to be fair to those “littler” things, the details, the delicate aspects of facts, reality, people’s feelings. Eli Siegel himself had that big justice and delicate justice in his seeing and expression all the time, on all subjects, and I love him for it. He had these so mightily that it has made, I believe, for the greatest feeling of respect ever earned by a human being.
These Opposites Are Ours Too
Mr. Siegel speaks also about wildness and order in New York. How mixed up people are about these opposites! A person—we’ll call him Bruno—feels his life is too regulated by obligations and the demands of others. He wants to let go, be free, untamed. So at times, especially on weekends, he shows how wild he can be. But the way he gets to be untrammeled makes him later feel ashamed. He also feels—whether he’s disciplined or rowdy—that there is no deep composition in his life, that inwardly he is confused, disorderly, even a mess. The times Bruno feels best are when he’s listening to music, rock or classical. And the reason (though he doesn’t know it) is: in the music that he loves, structure and wildness, organization and letting go, are one.
Other opposites Mr. Siegel comments on here in relation to New York are resistance and yielding. About these opposites, everyone is, in some fashion, like a woman I’ll call Jeanette, who shuttles between two ways. She has condemned herself, saying, “Why am I so stubborn? Why do I have to put up a fight so much when someone gives an opinion?” Yet the same Jeanette can also say, “Why did I let this person walk all over me? Why did I give in when I really didn’t want to?”
To Whom Should New York Belong?
In this first section of his lecture Mr. Siegel speaks briefly about Leisler’s Rebellion (1689-91). He doesn’t give details about it, nor will I extensively. But it had to do with the two constant opposites of land, geography, place, and human beings, human feelings. These are aspects of the biggest opposites we have: self and world.
Leisler and his supporters, like the revolutionaries of 1775, felt that the British were treating the colonists with cruel contempt. They were furious that the New York colonists were not permitted to take part in their own government and were being robbed—used to provide profit for persons in England. The Columbia Encyclopedia (2nd ed., 1950) tells us:
The Leislerians generally set up certain ideals of popular rights as part of their goal....[Leisler] was bitterly opposed by the wealthy and aristocratic faction.
Well, the Leislerians actually “gained control of S New York with the aid of militia” and governed it for nearly two years. Not only was the rebellion, as the Columbia Encyclopedia notes, “an early stage in the revolt against autocratic government of the colonies”: it stands for feeling in New York, America, and the world now, including the feeling of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It stands for what Mr. Siegel described in his book Self and World in 1946:
The world should be owned by the people living in it.... All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.
“Run, Clouds, Across the Sky”
A short poem by Mr. Siegel has to do with the same New York he discusses in relation to Leisler, Minuit, and more. It appears in his Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems, with the following note:
The clouds were seen across Washington Square, Sunday in summer, 1926—to the west. Washington Square, or no, it seemed sunset and time and west were just that.
In different ways, both his lecture and this poem by Mr. Siegel have the opposites of a New York moment and all time; intensity and delicacy; earth (here sky) and feeling. This, then, with its beautiful verbal music, is a prelude to New York Begins Poetically:
Run, Clouds, Across the Sky
Clouds going across the sky.
Run, clouds, there is time.
O sun, make clouds red.
Run, clouds, across the sky.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
New York Begins Poetically
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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