The End of Prejudice, the Victory of Poetry
Dear Unknown Friends:
As we continue to serialize the great 1948 lecture Poetry and Technique, by Eli Siegel, I comment on an article—historic—in the New York Amsterdam News of December 23, 1995. The Amsterdam News is probably the nation’s best-known African-American newspaper; and that issue has, in news articles, opinion columns, letters, a great deal about the horrible results of racist anger. There is, for instance, much about the recent burning, shooting, and deaths in a Harlem clothing store. Then, on page 33, there appears a news article with the headline “The Heart Knows Better: Anti-Prejudice Film Has Finger on Pulse of Racism” and with the byline “By Alice Bernstein, Special to the AmNews.” Ms. Bernstein writes about
the Emmy award-winning anti-prejudice public service film...produced by Ken Kimmelman of Imagery Film Ltd., “The Heart Knows Better[,]” ...based on this powerful, kind statement by Eli Siegel, American poet and founder of the education Aesthetic Realism: "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.”
She writes, and no newspaper ever printed words more important:
All prejudice, Eli Siegel explained, arises from contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else."...Aesthetic Realism can end prejudice because it criticizes contempt—as nothing else can—enabling people to see that feelings and hopes of others are as real as our own.
Yes, Aesthetic Realism, which explains what the human self is; Aesthetic Realism, through which people have felt the depths of them were at last comprehended; Aesthetic Realism, which explains, after all the centuries, what beauty is—Aesthetic Realism is that which explains that hideous and so agonizingly current thing, prejudice, and can really end it. The Bernstein article certainly does not say all that might be said about that enormous fact. Yet it states it plainly. And, really, there is no more crucial fact in the world today.
Poetry Is Justice
The lecture Poetry and Technique is an illustration of this principle, the basis of Aesthetic Realism: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” While racism can seem and is an urgent matter, and what makes a poem good can seem hardly urgent—I love Aesthetic Realism for showing that the difference between a good line of poetry and one that is not good is, blazingly and gloriously, as urgent as anything in this world: for it is the means of knowing about and having a just way of seeing another human being.
Let us take a poem by Mr. Siegel himself, from which he quotes two lines in Poetry and Technique: “Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later,” from Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana: Poems (Definition Press). These are the first 12 of its 64 lines:
Know you him, O, him,
Who lived in those days?
He wore a gay coat,
And he stepped along, jauntily, jauntily,
The streets of London town;
Where he is buried, who knows?
Who was his father, who knows?
Who are his children, who knows?
But, oh! on sunny mornings
How gayly he tripped along
The bright streets of London.
Eli Siegel wrote these beautiful lines in 1925. And in them there are the immediacy, vividness, definiteness of a human being—Ralph Isham—and also his unknownness, wide mystery. These are opposites, reality’s opposites. We feel them here in the various statements and questions about Ralph Isham; but we also feel them in the structure of the lines. In the first line, the im sound in him—two times—is immediate, rather contained, like the definite presence of someone standing in front of you this morning; while the two large o sounds, in know and O, have mystery and scope. “Know you him, O, him” is an interchange of vastness and specificity. And as such it, and the other lines, are a guide to how we should see a stranger on the street or someone close to us.
That is: every person, Aesthetic Realism shows, has the opposites of reality itself: every person has the definite, vivid reality of Ralph Isham stepping along a London street; and every person has also the expansive mystery, the great unknownness that is in the wide lines “Where he is buried, who knows? / Who was his father, who knows?” We may know a person’s father, but that person’s inner life is as mysterious to him or her as ours may be to us.
The civilized, kind, only practical way of seeing another human being of any race is in every good poem, whatever its subject. For poetry, Mr. Siegel showed, “is the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual”; and when we see a person embodying the opposites of the world, 1) we are seeing the person accurately; 2) we are seeing that he or she is deeply like us, for we have these opposites too; 3) we are seeing grandeur in another human being—and cannot be prejudiced against that person.
Prejudice: A False Sureness
We are all trying to be sure of ourselves. And Aesthetic Realism explains that we will either be sure of ourselves because we are trying to see justly (that is the only kind of sureness that holds up); or we will get to a momentary “confidence” through feeling we are better than what is different from us—through contempt. In America of now, the economy has very much added to people’s unsureness about themselves. As millions of people are jobless, or working long hours and getting paid much too little, as they worry about being able to feed their families and pay their rent, there is within people a terrific anger. That is why prejudice in America is, in many ways, more intense and overt than once: having contempt for someone different from you; feeling you’re Somebody because you’re better than someone else; tidily defeating what is other than yourself through inner scorn or some racial expletive or even a gunshot, has a person feel he has gotten swift sureness and put in its place a world he can’t make sense of and sees as an enemy. “Contempt,” Mr. Siegel wrote in Self and World, “...is so much the repose that the tossed-about human mind is looking for.”
In 1970 Mr. Siegel explained what is happening to the economy now. Economics based on contempt—on the using of human beings to provide big profits for someone else—had failed, he said, after hundreds of years, and would never succeed again. It is not succeeding: that is why people are being thrown out of jobs and salaries are less. And increasingly, people are feeling the contempt for them in how they are made to work—or kept from working. As people of every race throughout America feel they are seen with contempt, they have a desire they don’t understand to make up for contempt toward them by having contempt for someone else, looking down on someone else; and so prejudice, racism, and general ill-nature and meanness intensify. There is an alternative to this false and horrible solution—and Aesthetic Realism, with beauty and clearness, provides it. Part of the true, kind solution is, as Alice Bernstein writes, to be able to learn at last what contempt is—including in economics and in ourselves.
Then, in the middle of “Ralph Isham, 1753 and Later,” there are two lines about that person of 200 years ago which have within them the great alternative to prejudice. They are: “What was he to himself? / There, there is something.” As soon as we see that every person has feelings about himself, puzzlement about himself, an opinion of himself, we are at the beginning of justice to that person, and we are proud. Aesthetic Realism has shown successfully for decades that the way of seeing in these lines can be learned! This question and statement, with their urgency and kind thoughtfulness, were written by Eli Siegel at age 23. He was utterly true to them always—as he spoke about or to any person. He was completely unprejudiced and completely, passionately kind.