|NUMBER 1816.—February 15, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
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
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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