People, Literature, & Evolution
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is section 5 of Poetry Is of Man, by Eli Siegel. In this 1974 lecture, informally, sometimes playfully, yet always carefully, he shows that humanity and evolution itself have an aesthetic structure. He is illustrating this Aesthetic Realism principle: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” He does this through discussion of an article written nine years before Darwin’s Origin of Species.
We also print an article by actress Carol McCluer. It’s part of a paper she presented last month at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Why Are People So ‘Difficult’—& Could It Have Anything to Do with Me?” She describes some of the everyday forms and results of that way of mind which Aesthetic Realism identifies as “the greatest danger or temptation” of every person: contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
In households across America, contempt is what has a sister find her brother boring; a son sum up his father; a child see his mother as existing to make him important; a girl feel she has the right to boss around her sister; a boy feel triumphant calling his little brother “you jerk!”; and the whole family feel they’re far superior to the family next door, whom they often mock at dinner together.
Meanwhile, contempt is also the cause of the largest cruelties in human history. It is the cause of slavery and genocide. These take to its fulness that same feeling “I am more through lessening you.”
The one effective opponent to the having of contempt for people is aesthetics. It is to see that reality’s opposites—such as rest and motion, high and low, mystery and everydayness, hope and fear, wildness and containment, complexity and simplicity, history and the moment—are richly, vibrantly, inevitably in every person we may meet or hear of, from our uncle, to a stranger on the street, to a person with a different skin tone a continent away.
In Aesthetic Realism consultations, a person angry with or scornful of a parent might be asked, “How do you think a novelist would see your mother? Do you think Henry James could spend many pages describing her feelings, and readers would be gripped, and moved?”
I am going to give three swift instances of novelists presenting reality’s opposites in a character. Usually we don’t see those opposites neatly and overtly described. We feel them, though we may not be conscious of them, as the story unfolds and the character acts and speaks and responds. For example, all through Pride and Prejudice we feel Elizabeth Bennet is both sharp and yearning. These opposites help make her charming, help make her big; they can fight in her and mix her up, and she longs to make them one. —But the instances I’ll give are succinct. I take them from The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (1983).
There Are Sinking & Rising
We can begin with Dickens, and this description from David Copperfield of the unemployed Mr. Micawber:
I have known him come home to supper with a flood of tears, and a declaration that nothing was now left but a jail; and go to bed making a calculation of the expense of putting bow-windows to the house, “in case anything turned up,” which was his favorite expression.
Every person is a mingling of hopelessness and optimism. Every person’s spirits, like Micawber’s, droop and rise. The lowness and height of the world, its heaviness and lightness, are in everyone.
When you see reality’s opposites in a person, you can’t have contempt for him or her. You may be critical; you may object to the person, intensely. But there won’t be the scorn, the making someone meaningless, the triumphant looking down.
Self-Justification & Self-Doubt
Here is Jane Austen, from chapter 31 of Sense and Sensibility. The speaker is the admirable Col. Brandon:
Where so many hours have been spent in convincing myself that I am right, is there not some reason to fear I may be wrong?
Every person is a relation of confidence and uncertainty. Every person is impelled to justify himself and doubt himself, as Brandon does. A person may not do a good job with these opposites, but he has them. They are an aspect of the world in him—as a tree in its firm-rootedness seems to say “Yes, I am I!” while its leaves tremble in a breeze.
Forethought & Just Going Ahead
This is the opening sentence of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1760):
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me.
The novel, written in Sterne’s famous chatty manner, begins with its narrator telling how his parents conceived him. This first sentence points to the fact that the opposites of carefulness, mindfulness, forethought, and just being driven, going ahead, are in people—including as to sex. They’re in the mind of Tristram Shandy. And he indicates that they were aspects of his parents, which they didn’t deal with too well the night he was conceived.
Those opposites mix people up. But when we see that both are in a person, even if he or she is wrong about them, we feel the person has to do with something large. And it happens that the opposites of thoughtfulness and just going ahead are central to the prose style of Sterne: it is notable for its rambling, but its exact rambling.
A good novelist sees a person, a character, so deeply and widely that one feels the structure of the world itself—the opposites—has to do intimately with that person. Seeing this way makes for art. It makes for style. Now we can learn from Aesthetic Realism how to see our fellow humans aesthetically—which means truly—so that that necessary art which is justice can prevail at last.