|NUMBER 1815.—February 1, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the second section of the 1970 lecture New York Begins Poetically, by Eli Siegel. In it Mr. Siegel comments, chronologically, on particular aspects of New York City—sometimes historical events, sometimes instances of literature, not necessarily the most noted. Through these he presents New York as no one did before: we feel New York as a oneness of opposites. And, Aesthetic Realism explains, opposites as one is what poetry has, what all art and beauty have.
In the first section he spoke about the purchase of Manhattan by Peter Minuit; about Peter Stuyvesant; about an early rebellion, led by Jacob Leisler. Now he speaks about the meaning New York had for Jonathan Edwards, the passionate and logical New England theologian. What he says is new in the understanding of Edwards, and of New York.
Continuity & Point—in a City & Us
As Mr. Siegel talks about New York—with leisureliness, depth, and his richness of knowledge—he shows the city to be a tremendous relation of continuity and point, relation and individuality. It is New York, the same continuing city, through all the days, months, centuries; and yet how particular Peter Stuyvesant is, and the emotion of Leisler is, and the feeling and thought of Jonathan Edwards.
These opposites are an emergency for everyone. That’s because people have, with horrible everyday wrongness, felt the way to be an individual is not to see oneself as continuous with other people, connected with them, related to them. They’ve felt the way to be an individual is to see oneself as apart and superior. That feeling is contempt. And, Aesthetic Realism explains, from contempt come the loneliness, emptiness, shame, also cruelty, of people.
Seeing New York as at once richly continuous and grandly particular is a means of feeling what we need urgently to feel: that we are individual through our relation to the world and millions of other people—not through our ability to beat them out, look down on them, put them aside.
What Three Poems Have
Eli Siegel wrote many poems about New York, and we print three here. “Photography Includes Time and History, and New York,” was written around 1965, and it is very much about the opposites we’re looking at. It presents the city, with its things, places, people, as continuous in time, yet says each of these at any moment is so particular that it could be photographed as itself.
Mr. Siegel wrote the second poem,“Sights,” in 1934. There is tremendous music in its four lines. We hear the dimness and brightness of things—New York things. The words reach, spread, yet are definite. The sounds murmur and state. They are about that clattering, weighty thing, the subway; and that quiet, untouchable thing, light.
The third poem, “Tea Transforms Lecture and Snow,” is of 1966. It’s from a series of poems on tea that Mr. Siegel wrote at the request of Ian Hamilton Finlay, editor of the Scottish journal Poor Old Tired Horse. In this poem, indoors and outdoors meet; intellect and appetite meet; warmth and coldness meet; flow and accuracy meet. And we hear these opposites in the lines’ music too. It is all happening in a New York place, at a New York moment.
The Fight in New York Now
In the second part of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about the good effect Jonathan Edwards says New York had on him. The big fight raging in New York right now is about the question: Does New York exist to have a good effect on the people living in it, or does it exist to be used for the financial profit of some persons while others struggle? The fight is mostly unstated, but it is taking place in hundreds of ways.
As part of the ongoing failure of the profit system—which Mr. Siegel described in the 1970s—industries once vibrant in New York exist here no longer. In the last years there has been an effort, as there has been elsewhere in America, to use public monies—billions of dollars of them—to enrich various private companies and individuals. There has been the “outsourcing” of public work into private hands, so that decent-paying public sector jobs can be done away with and replaced by miserable-paying non-union jobs at private companies.
There has been the effort to privatize our education system—and to remove funding from public education, for the purpose of making public schools seem to fail. Though they won’t admit it, the basis of this drive to put education increasingly in private hands is the privatizers’ view that schools should exist first of all so certain persons can accrue a lot of money from them—not so that New York’s children can learn about the world, with its letters, science, mathematics, literature, history.
There is the giving of tax breaks and other financial subsidies to corporations while saying that the city lacks funds and must cut back on services to its citizens. For instance it must, we’re told, close firehouses, lay off teachers, cut free meals for children in the summer months. And of course, there is the effort to weaken and kill unions, so that the people of New York can be paid less and less.
The Other Trend: Ethics as a Force
At the same time there is another trend. It began decades ago, and has persisted and grown despite all the efforts to undo it. It is the seeing of the city’s purpose as being to strengthen and bring out the true expression and happiness of the people in it. That trend includes various services for children and the elderly. It also includes the fact that in the last 20 years there have come to be many green places in Manhattan. Trees have been planted along streets, and the notion of New York as essentially leafless and flowerless is no longer true.
There is the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which is deeply against the profit system. The landmarking of New York City places and buildings is a saying that New York belongs to the people of the city, that her history should be taken care of, and that this fact supersedes the using of real estate for someone’s financial aggrandizement.
The trend in behalf of people’s well-being and New York’s beauty and meaning, is part of what Mr. Siegel called ethics as a force. Ethics, he showed, is not some abstract thing. It has been working in thousands of ways through history and has made profit economics increasingly untenable.
An aspect of ethics as a force is the fact that the river which Jonathan Edwards called “Hudson’s River” and cared for so much in 1723, is today more accessible to New Yorkers than it was for over a century. Hudson River Park, which is still developing, is a fine and lovely thing. And (even while there’s the desire to outsource various projects in it to private companies) Hudson River Park, like Central Park, makes for a feeling that’s completely anti-profit system. It’s a feeling that should and can and will be had about all of New York and all of America: “This beautiful land and the waters near it, truly belong to me and to my fellow citizens! Through them, I can like more the world I’m in.”
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Three Poems by Eli Siegel
Photography Includes Time and History,
New York went on, approaching the 18th century, which had things in it, including the formation of a Jewish synagogue on what was called Mill Street, about 1709. And there were things called “conspiracies,” which were revolts. There was the so-called “Negro Conspiracy” of 1741, which had white people in it too, and an earlier uprising of slaves, in 1712.
The greatest compliment—and pointing this out is, I have to say, a first—was paid to New York by the writer who, from a philosophic or theological point of view, is seen as the most important American writer of the 18th century, Jonathan Edwards. The other important American writer of the time is Benjamin Franklin. There are writers later in the century, like Jefferson and Hamilton, and Washington is seen as a writer. There are novels too. But these, Edwards and Franklin, stand out for, let’s say, the first part of the 18th century.
The mind of Jonathan Edwards is to be thought about. There was the mind of Leisler, and Minuit, and for that matter Stuyvesant, van der Donck, other people. There’s a strange person, Cornelis van Tienhoven; he seems to be very much worth knowing. But the mind of Jonathan Edwards is now a staple American literature subject. He is seen also as having poetry within him. A writing of his published a good deal after his death is called Personal Narrative, and you very often meet it in collections of American literature.
The reason I present Jonathan Edwards as complimenting New York is that he says New York deepened his spirit, made him see God better, made him see himself better. Edwards is not associated with New York and didn’t stay here long, but those years (1722-3) seem to have been very important. He lived from 1703 to 1758. I’m reading this section of Edwards’ Personal Narrative from The Roots of National Culture: American Literature to 1830, edited by Robert E. Spiller (1933). In a note, Spiller says Personal Narrative
was written about 1740 and was found among Edwards’ manuscripts at his death. It was published in the [Samuel] Hopkins “Memoir”  as, “An Account of his Conversion, Experiences, and Religious Exercises, given by himself.”
So we are in New York after Leisler and Sloughter and Nicollson, and after many other people and things I’m not mentioning.
All through the section that I’m reading from Edwards’ narrative there is a praise of New York, really—and what I called a “first” is this saying that it is a praise of New York. Edwards has left New England. He is about 19 or 20, and he has a pastorate in New York.
While at New York, I sometimes was much affected with reflections on my past life, considering how late it was before I began to be truly religious; and how wickedly I had lived till then: and once so as to weep abundantly, and for a considerable time together.
This seems to have occurred in New York. One of the things we can be sure of is that, along with Peter Minuit’s using of trinkets to get New York, there was some weeping here.
On January 12, 1723, I made a solemn dedication of myself to God, and wrote it down; giving up myself, and all that I had to God....I had, then, abundance of sweet, religious conversation, in the family where I lived, with Mr. John Smith, and his pious mother.
—Which means these persons were of New York then.
If I heard the least hint, of any thing that happened, in any part of the world, that appeared, in some respect or other, to have a favourable aspect, on the interests of Christ’s kingdom, my soul eagerly catched at it; and it would much animate and refresh me. I used to be eager to read public news-letters, mainly for that end; to see if I could not find some news, favourable to the interest of religion in the world.
Edwards goes to the Hudson River, which must have been fairly lonely then.
I very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, on the banks of Hudson’s River, at some distance from the city, for contemplation... and had many sweet hours there.
The city was still very much downtown. A great fight in New York City is between downtown and uptown. When people talked of 155th Street, New York had changed—and not only talked about it but acted as if people actually lived there. An early New York phrase that gives some feeling for the city is “a grotto near Bloomingdale.”*
Sometimes Mr. Smith and I walked there together, to converse on the things of God....I had...the greatest delight in the holy scriptures, of any book whatsoever. Oftentimes in reading it, every word seemed to touch my heart. I felt a harmony between something in my heart, and those sweet and powerful words....I came away from New York in the month of April, 1723, and had a most bitter parting with Madam Smith and her son.
It’s this sense of loss about New York which is the compliment. The fact is that Edwards seemed to have done worse when he left New York, at least for a while.
My heart seemed to sink within me, at leaving the family and city, where I had enjoyed so many sweet and pleasant days.
So New York is not only a good place to visit but a good place to stay awhile.
I went from New York to Wethersfield, by water; and as I sailed away, I kept sight of the city as long as I could.
That is the greatest compliment New York received, at least in this part of its history: “I kept sight of the city as long as I could.” There are many statements about how good New York looked from the water.
However, that night after this sorrowful parting, I was greatly comforted in God at Westchester, where we went ashore to lodge.
At that time Westchester was noted for its trim Episcopalianism, not because Wall Street magnificos found repose there. Also, Westchester during the 18th century came to be noted because it was a place where the British and Colonials met. That is, the British were in New York City and the Colonials had to be rather to the north, so Westchester was a good place to quarrel in. You can find that in Cooper’s The Spy.
At Saybrook we went ashore to lodge on Saturday, and there kept the Sabbath; where I had a sweet and refreshing season, walking alone in the fields.
A difference between Edwards and Franklin is, if Franklin were traveling in America he would be looking for something scientific to send to his friends in England. He also didn’t walk in the fields—he was too busy.
After I came home to Windsor, I remained much in a like frame of mind, as when at New York; only sometimes I felt my heart ready to sink, with the thoughts of my friends at New York. My support was in contemplations on the heavenly state.
This makes New York seem so pleasing. The heavenly state and New York get so mingled here, for a while you don’t know which is which.
The publication date of this Personal Narrative is given as 1808. Well, that is a passage, important in literature, important also in religion, and important in the possibility of New York. We are, then, rather quickly at 1723, which is about 100 years after Peter Minuit’s lasting transaction.
The 18th century went on. I could talk of John Peter Zenger, and almost did—the fight for a free press in the 1730s. But in meditating on what points should be presented as part of New York Begins Poetically, that seemed not to be the thing at this time.
*Bloomingdale was an area on the Upper West Side, called by the Dutch Bloemendaal, valley of flowers.
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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