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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 
A PERIODICAL OF HOPE AND INFORMATION
 NUMBER 1816.—February 15, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

To Whom Should New York Belong?

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 3 of New York Begins Poetically, the lecture Eli Siegel gave on October 11, 1970. As he comments on various documents of history and literature, mostly not so famous, we see, we feel, the city in a new way. With all its variousness and confusion, it is described by 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 the present section, we have New York as a oneness of time and place: it is human happenings and feelings, which take place in time, joined with a particular instance of earth called Manhattan, with its rivers and land, its inclines and flatnesses, its buildings and growing things.

Mr. Siegel’s manner in this lecture is informal. One sees, even through the printed words, his great ease, permeated with and arising from deep, exact scholarship. He loved history, and said it was the subject he loved most as a child. Something of how he saw history is in the following sentences on the Middle Ages, from a 1923 essay in The Modern Quarterly. He wrote, at age 21:

There were people who lived in the Middle Ages and, who, so, suffered and enjoyed; the one difference between us and them is that their pains and pleasures are over and ours are not. These people are our fellowmen over the years....We should look on the past passionately; we should see all reality passionately.

I think those sentences are beautiful. And Mr. Siegel was always true to them.

The Fight Then & Now

Arising from the opposites of human lives and earth is the fight that has been throughout New York’s history. I described it in the last issue: To whom should this city, this nation, belong? Should it belong truly to all of us? Should a little girl living in Washington Heights be able to say about Manhattan and America, “This is really mine, as much as it is anyone’s”? Or should it belong to a few persons, who will use the land’s wealth and people to get financial profit for themselves?

That fight is what the American Revolution was really about. And in the section of his lecture printed here, Mr. Siegel speaks about the British evacuation from New York at the Revolution’s end.

The profit system, Aesthetic Realism explains, is one form of human contempt. Its basis is the profit motive—the seeing of people in terms of how much money you can get out of them. That is how the British royalty and aristocrats saw America and her people: as existing to serve, obey, and enrich England. The Revolution came to be because of the pain inflicted on Americans by England’s contempt-as-profit-motive. That pain included financial hardship and also a sense of great insult. And Americans today—as Mr. Siegel explained—are furious at being seen as mechanisms for somebody else’s profit. They feel, as people did in 1775, that they’re being royally robbed, bilked, fleeced, disrespected—though not by England now but by certain moneyed Americans.

In the draft of his First Inaugural Address, there is a statement by George Washington expressing something he thought, and fervently hoped, would be. Though most people don’t know this statement, the desire in it is alive, fiercely alive, in New York and America now. “I rejoice in a belief,” said Washington, “that...mankind will reverse the absurd position that the many were made for the few.” To get rid of that “absurd position” was deep within the cause of the American Revolution. That is why Washington could say truly, in a 1779 letter: “Our cause is noble; it is the cause of mankind!”

When we see the obstacles Washington had to face—how untrained was his army, how ill-clothed, often how hungry, how it was up against the best trained and equipped and most powerful army in the world; how many battles the Continental Army lost; how many “patriots,” when things looked bad, lost their enthusiasm and even defected to the other side—when we see all this and more, we are amazed that the Americans won. And we can understand more that great and accurate love which people had and should have still for George Washington—even while, yes, he was a person and could be criticized. To supplement a little what Mr. Siegel speaks about here, I am going to quote from the 1999 book Gotham, by Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace.

Who Is the Oppressor?

One of the oldest tricks used by persons who want to exploit and rook others is to describe themselves as representing “freedom,” and label those trying to bring justice to people “tyrants” and “oppressors.” So the British told Americans that Washington and the Continental Congress were dictatorial brutes bent on destroying the colonists’ freedom, stripping them of their right to be part of England. On pages 233-4 of Gotham there is this:

At a moment’s notice, [British propagandists] said, thousands more [colonists] were ready to rise against the tyranny of Congress; Washington’s army, they said, was disintegrating.

The British were like the persons today who are trying to destroy unions, so as to force Americans to work for as little as possible. The ridiculous and disgusting use of the phrase “Right to Work,” the presenting of unions as somehow oppressive, is as much an attempt to fool people as was the British attempt to make Americans turn their backs on Washington and the Revolution. In both instances the purpose was and is to have, as Washington said, “the many” exist to line the pockets of “the few.” And such a lie can appeal, because there is in people the desire to associate oneself with the well-heeled, to be with those who look down on others, even as one is suffering oneself. That is why (along, of course, with the opportunism of placing oneself on the “winning” side), after the British took New York in 1776—

Hundreds of people thronged City Hall in October to sign a memorial congratulating [British] General Howe and his brother on their victory. Another crowd turned out in November to sign a “declaration of dependence,” reaffirming their “loyalty to our Sovereign, against the strong tide of oppression and tyranny, which had almost overwhelmed this Land.” [P. 245]

Later, Burrows and Wallace describe Evacuation Day, November 25, 1783. The Revolution having been won, the British at last evacuate New York, and Washington and his soldiers march in. It is a picture, not only of military defeat and victory, but of ethics. We see the forces of conceit and contempt, so seemingly impressive in their spiffy red uniforms, furious that they’re defeated at last—and by people they looked down on. And we see the forces of justice to humanity prevail in their true power:

On the morning of November 25...the last redcoats in New York paraded glumly down the Bowery to the East River wharves, from where they were rowed out to the fleet in the harbor. When a certain Mrs. Day prematurely ran up the American flag over her boardinghouse on Murray Street, [British] Provost Marshal Cunningham, resplendent in his scarlet coat and wig, ordered her to take it down. She bloodied his nose with her broom, however, and drove him off....

“The troops just leaving us were as if equipped for show,” one eyewitness recalled, “and with their scarlet uniforms...made a brilliant display. The troops that marched in, on the contrary, were ill-clad and weather-beaten, and made a forlorn appearance. But...as I looked at them, and thought upon all they had done for us, my heart and my eyes were full, and I admired and gloried in them the more.” [Pp. 259-260]

Similarly, Mr. Siegel explained in the 1970s: economics based on using people for profit can put on a fancy show, but it has failed! And its failure is good news for humanity.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

History & Topography
By Eli Siegel

There are quite a few matters in the 18th century that I’m not including. For example, the Revolution showed itself in New York in the 1760s with feelings about the Stamp Act, and there were the Liberty Boys, and the taking down of King George’s statue later. There were great doings around Chambers Street, also around the beginnings of Third Avenue, and near the East River, and near the Hudson, and very much so near Bowling Green. Bowling Green was then a place for incendiaries—that statue of George III was there. Every one of these places has with it the history of topography, or geography, as something to build on, something to have human doings on. This mingling of history and topography was in the 18th century in New York.

The Revolution took place. There was a battle at White Plains, and on Harlem Heights. And the British, after the Battle of Long Island, took New York. Washington left New York and didn’t get it back until the very end of the war, in November 1783, with November 25 called Evacuation Day for that reason. There is a work by Wilbur C. Abbott on New York City during the Revolution, describing life under British control—a little bit like Amsterdam under Nazi control, only the British had the same language and seemed to have been “nicer.” They didn’t expect that all the people there were for them. A good many had left and gone further north, gone into the wilds of Westchester. Some had even reached Ulster. Ulster is where the New York Constitution of 1777 had birth. And there were some sad things at Fort Lee, New Jersey, which now one doesn’t see the sadness of, but a sad happening took place there.*

New York Changes Hands

I’m not quoting from writings about the American Revolution itself. I thought of reading the poem of Freneau about the British prison ship, and other poems. But the poem that I felt would be good to use is about Evacuation Day. It is included in Burton Egbert Stevenson’s Poems of American History (1929).

Cornwallis had surrendered in 1781, October 19th or so. There were some doings for two more years; then in 1783 there was peace. A story having to do with the British evacuation is in Charles Carleton Coffin’s The Boys of ’76, which, next to Aeschylus, was my favorite work for a long time. It had an illustration of a boy climbing a greased pole in order to put the American flag there. The British wanted to make it difficult for the Colonials to replace the British flag with the American, so they greased the pole. But the boy got up anyway.

Stevenson has this note:

November 25 was fixed upon as the date for the evacuation of New York. Early on that day, Carleton [the British general] got his troops on shipboard, and by the middle of the afternoon the city was in the hands of the Americans. The song which is given below was composed for and sung upon this occasion.

With this song I’m able to go to poetry straight, poetry as customarily recognized—not, as previously in this talk, reality’s material for poetry—but poetry as actually designed, finished, prepared, elaborated, though sometimes not so good in the elaboration. The poem begins:

They come!—they come!—the heroes come

With sounding fife, with thundering drum;

Their ranks advance in bright array,—

The heroes of America!

 

He comes!—’t is mighty Washington

(Words fail to tell all he has done),

Our hero, guardian, father, friend!

His fame can never, never end....

Before commenting on the Evacuation Day song, I’ll read Stevenson’s note about the next poem, because he mentions as well known a topographical manifestation in New York as any. Three buildings many persons in New York know are City Hall, which isn’t so old, but very old considering it’s still being used; Fraunces Tavern, which is in this note; and the Morris-Jumel Mansion. The Morris-Jumel Mansion is the most romantic; that’s really got a story with it. Stevenson writes:

On Thursday, December 4, the principal officers of the army assembled at Fraunce’s Tavern to take a final leave of their beloved chief. A few days later, at Annapolis, Washington resigned his commission, and betook himself to the quiet of his estate at Mount Vernon.

So Washington is going to leave New York on his way to Virginia, and there’s a poem about it. But that doesn’t seem to be the thing for today.

George Washington & Poetic Technique

The Evacuation Day song or poem is rather good. It’s lively. It also has a very interesting melody. I’ve read a good many poems arising out of history, some written for the occasion. Apparently, this author was asked: Will you write a poem?—the British are going to evacuate; you’d better get this into a song. No one asked Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner”: he just did it at his own request. But it’s still an occasional poem—a poem written for a particular occasion.

“Their ranks advance in bright array,—/ The heroes of America!” It must have been a scene for all the secret sympathizers with the Colonial cause—to see the American troops come in!

“He comes!—’t is mighty Washington.” Washington was fortunate. He was execrated; the Battle of Long Island didn’t look so good; and there were a good many delays. He was called Cincinnatus, but many people thought he took too long a time. If Washington hadn’t succeeded, he would have gone down in history as like McClellan in the Civil War, who is the Great Delayer.

“(Words fail to tell all he has done.)” They still have somewhat failed. “Our hero, guardian, father, friend! / His fame can never, never end.” It can be said to this writer, “You said it!” The fame hasn’t ended. Washington is on the dollar bill, and whether you like it or not you have to look at him sometimes. It is a compulsory visual datum. The line “His fame can never, never end” is naïve and metrical. Then:

He comes!—he comes!—our Clinton comes!

Justice her ancient seat resumes;

From shore to shore let shouts resound,

For Justice comes, with Freedom crown’d.

There were two Clintons: one (Henry) who was on the side of the British, and this one (George), on the side of the Colonials, or America. Clintons are very much of the history of New York State.

Lively & Thoughtful

The stanza is taking, because after the brio, the vivacity of “He comes!—he comes!—our Clinton comes!” you’d think the next line would also be lively. But instead, it’s very meditative: “Justice her ancient seat resumes.” All the people came in a dash into the room, and what happened?—they listened to stringed instruments. Contemplation seems to follow speed.

She comes!—the angelic virgin—Peace,

And bids stern War his horrors cease;

Oh! blooming virgin, with us stay,

And bless, oh! bless America.

That is a mingling of speed and meditation. It’s like the ancient idea of the goddess Diana, the huntress: you don’t know whether Diana is being very slow or very speedy. The charm of this poem is its mingling of the sedate and the lively.

“Oh! blooming virgin, with us stay.” To call a virgin “blooming” is a little bold. This is, nevertheless, a good tetrameter. “And bless, oh! bless America.” It’s been pointed out that “Americay” is the way it was said at that time.

Since Freedom has our efforts crown’d,

Let flowing bumpers pass around:

The toast is, “Freedom’s favorite son,

Health, peace, and joy to Washington!”

“Since Freedom has our efforts crown’d” seems so thoughtful. Then we get to that liveliness which, after all, is part of celebration: “Let flowing bumpers pass around.” There is motion: the bumpers are flowing but also passing around, which means there is a great deal of liquid mobility.

“The toast is, ‘Freedom’s favorite son.’” That, too, has stoppage and motion. “‘Health, peace, and joy to Washington!’”

This is one of the most likable and, in the best sense of the word, charming bits of poesy of the 18th century in America. I know the others, and I can say that most often the others don’t have this likable deep something. It is almost so good as to be poetry sans phrase, without question.

That is 1783. It is the year Washington Irving was born. And shortly, Washington Irving is going to be patted on the head by Washington—“You had good judgment, boy, in getting your name.” Well, I made that up. black diamond


*Burrows and Wallace write that George Washington “watched in horror from Fort Lee as the last American forces on Manhattan were marched off into captivity. He wouldn’t set foot on Manhattan again for seven years.”

Aesthetic Realism is based on these
principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
 

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.

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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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