|NUMBER 1719.—May 28 , 2008|
Dear Unknown Friends:
e begin here to serialize the 1974 lecture Poetry Is of Man, by Eli Siegel. And it's my opinion that this great lecture contains what needs to be seen in order for that horrible thing which is racism to be no more. I'll say why later in my commentary.
First, about a central word. In the title and throughout the talk, Mr. Siegel uses the term used for so many centuries, man. The effort in behalf of gender-neutral, “politically correct” terminology did not exist 34 years ago; and even so, we find him saying, somewhat jocularly, “It is a pity that the word man is still used for both sexes, but I guess some persons can bear it.” We have retained the term in the present serialization, for authenticity, and also because nothing else seems able fully to take its place.
Aesthetic Realism is based on the idea that every individual person, and humanity—man as such, himself and herself—is a situation of aesthetics. That is: we are, all the time, trying to put opposites together in ourselves, and making opposites one is what every instance of art does. Freedom and order, stir and calm, intensity and ease, seriousness and lightness, self-expression and justice to what's not oneself—these opposites which can be so at odds and confusing in us, are beautifully one in every good poem, dance, drama, song, painting, every instance of art.
We Are Cultivated & Primitive
r. Siegel begins Poetry Is of Man with a prelude: a discussion of lines from Francis Thompson's “An Anthem of Earth.” He is showing that those lines, which are a terrific joining of the ornate and the primal, say something about what the human self is. Aesthetic Realism explains that there's nothing more primal than poetry, because what's most elemental in the world, what earth itself consists of, the opposites, is what we feel and hear in the music of every true poem.
All over the world right now, people are troubled about the cultivated and the earthy in themselves. We want to be learned, sophisticated, sensitive. And we're also driven to have that tremendous phase of ourselves which is matter or flesh, be given its due. We are body and intellect.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the desire for knowledge is as much a drive, as elemental an impulsion, as the desire for sex. Yet a man interested, say, in science, does not feel he's the same person studying physics as he is embracing a woman. A woman may be both a careful attorney and someone longing to be in a man's arms. She's entitled to both—but she doesn't feel she's the same person. And the division can be a quiet, ongoing torment.
There's much pretense on the subject. Scholarly people, for instance, can go to a party and show how earthy they are. But pretending to be casual with these opposites is not the same as having inward ease about them.
I love Aesthetic Realism on this subject. And I'm moved to quote here something Mr. Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism lesson years ago. I've quoted it before. He was speaking to me and the man whom I was then seeing, and showing that the questions of men and women are the same. He said to my gentleman friend:
A beginning for the solving of this problem is in Mr. Siegel's first discussion in the lecture we're serializing. We need to see how our opposites of earthiness and intellect, the primal and the cultivated, are one in reality itself and in art.
We also need to understand what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the central fight going on in us all the time. It's the fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it. We can use anything for contempt—whether it's sex, or eating, or knowledge of ancient Greek (all of which in themselves are wonderful). We can use anything, “somatic” or “cerebral,” to make ourselves feel falsely big; to look down on other persons and things; to feel they exist for us to do what we please with. But contempt, being a fake victory, always makes us feel fragmented. It makes the aspects of ourselves disunited and at war with each other. In art, both intellect and earthiness are used for the same, unifying purpose: to see the world justly. And that is how we need, indeed long, to use them in ourselves.
Aesthetics versus Racism
n the main part of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about the following questions—and they are urgent for us: Do all the people of the world come from one source? Is the way humanity is varied and one, like the relation of manyness and oneness, sameness and difference, to be found in a good poem? These questions are part of the big question, What is the relation among people, with all our differing ethnicities and skin tones? Aesthetic Realism is the means of answering it, scientifically and grandly.
Aesthetic Realism shows that racism arises from that ugly thing which is in everyone: contempt. Every instance of ethnic prejudice, from the most subtle to the most horrifically virulent, comes from the feeling, “I'm more—I'm Somebody—if I can look down on what's different from me!” In 1997 I wrote in this journal:
The lecture we're serializing is a powerful means for people to have that way of seeing which is the real alternative to racism. Mr. Siegel is showing that the structure of humanity, with its simultaneous diversity and oneness, is literally beautiful.
Race in America Today
he feeling about race has been changing in America, and that is enormously important and good. I'm writing at a time when it appears that Barack Obama will win the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. Whether or not he wins the nomination and election, the fact that millions of white Americans are saying a black man represents them and should lead the nation, is one of the great ethical achievements in our history, and should make the American people proud. I'm not speaking politically, in behalf of any candidate, but as a commentator on ethics.
Meanwhile, racism goes on, and other cruelty does—because contempt goes on. The people of America and the world urgently need to understand contempt. And we need to see that there's something more truly self-enhancing than contempt: a respect, thrilling and aesthetic, for reality. That is why the people of America and the world need Aesthetic Realism.
Poetry Is of Man
By Eli Siegel
here is a feeling that poetry has a great deal to do with man. Poetry has a great deal to do with tribal chants, with primitive songs, with the uncultivated. At the same time, it should be seen that the iron that makes a train wheel is also the iron that, as steel, can be used in a wristwatch. That subtlety is of earth too. In a way, the poem I'll begin with, by Francis Thompson, shows earth more fully than many of the primitive poems. You can go wrong in the bush as much as in a classroom.
The Elemental & the Subtle
ake Virgil. He lived about two thousand years ago. And he writes about legends that have to do with when Rome was founded. While his work has in it some sense of earth strangely caused, Virgil is one of the most subtle people, and what he does with syllables can still be studied. Also, grammatically, he's very subtle. I think he knows the Latin use of the dative better than anybody here, and I have a notion that also goes for the ablative. The relation of subtlety and elementalness is one of the things that have to be gone after, and Aesthetic Realism believes in that search very much.
I shall deal with an 1850 Quarterly Review article, which I regard as one of the most important articles that ever appeared in any journal. But as a prelude, I shall read one of the highpoints of English poetry—exceedingly difficult, and also tearful. It is elemental, but it is hard to follow and it has some of that true music which comes straight from the earth and shows that earth can be subtle. We should remember that when we say “earthy” we are speaking about the same subject as when we say “atomic” or even “electronic.”
So I'll read part of Francis Thompson's “An Anthem of Earth.” And I can say that you'll be listening to a highpoint of the mind of man. There's music there. It's a pity that Thompson saw fit to use words that were too ornate. But in the meantime, sadness and triumph are in the poem as a whole. They mingle in a way that still hasn't been explained.
How earth is not at one with man is in these lines. It's implied here that earth may be too old for man. And what is in the phrase that Wordsworth uses, “moving about in worlds not realized,” that sense of man not knowing where he is, not knowing what he'll be—that is here. But the large thing is some of the music. And the first question is: How did earth become Francis Thompson, Catholic, though here and there showing some unorthodox Catholicism? Then, how did it have Francis Thompson write about earth so subtly, and with such a wilderness, an orderly wilderness, of consciousness?—In these lines he's addressing Earth:
As I said, this is difficult to follow, and it belongs to a certain kind of poetry, to which Hart Crane belongs, some of Wallace Stevens, and Valéry, and Mallarmé. The language is ornate but it's essentially honest and shows that the ornate, the splendid, can be as honest as a child in his or her most honest moment before the age of two. The subtle splendor, and the splendid depth of this, should be known. It asks the question which is the title of one of Mark Twain's pessimistic works, “What Is Man?” It could be a title for many works.
This question has not been wholly answered. It's always being answered, and the last answer of note is Existentialism, which says that man should decide he is his own kingdom, and if anybody's going to rule it, he should and does. Well, that's a long story. Also, it must be said that Aesthetic Realism is always trying to answer that question. When it says that good will is a deep thing in man, his greatest energy, his least dispensable energy, and good will is also that which has made for the poetry of the world—that should be considered an answer to the question What is man?, What am I? It is a pity that the word man is still used for both sexes, but I guess some persons can bear it.
An Article Has This
e get now to some of what I call the important prose of the matter. The Quarterly Review article, which apparently is of January 1850, is printed in Littell's Living Age of March 13, 1850. And when one knows the history of ethnology, biology, anthropology, or even sociology, one sees something about this year, 1850. It is nine years before Darwin 's Origin of Species, of 1859.
In the article, five books are reviewed. Perhaps the best known of the authors is Charles Lyell, who, somewhat before Darwin, presented geology as illustrating evolution. He affected Darwin, and is important otherwise. He is the most noted English geologist of the 19th century. His Elements of Geology, chapters 34 to 40, are reviewed here.
There is also Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, by James C. Prichard. He should be known. He was a physician and wrote most interestingly on insanity, and he was most interested in seeing what man was, his relation to animals. The large question that affected him is whether the Chinese, the African, the Polynesian, the Indian—the Sioux Indian, the Iroquois Indian—and the Caucasian, all came from the same source; whether the Hottentot and the Zulu came from the same source as next year's student at Oxford. Prichard was one of the first who said definitely: all people come from one source. That meant a good deal in 1850, because there were attempts to show that some people should be slaves.
The article begins by reviewing some of the work of Prichard . He had died in 1848. The reviewer writes:
One & Many
omething important in logic—statement and variation, or unity and differentiation—is also in poetry. If all the people now in the world come from one source, it is poetic. That's so if God created the source at a very benevolent moment, and man started when at some time or other a living being got a glimpse of himself and also the world and began talking in some strange way and there was a new consciousness. And it's so if there was, at any time, a change from what used to be called “the missing link.”
The missing link is that living being we don't know for sure—he was once thought to be pithecanthropus erectus, Java man, Peking man—some being who combined successfully the lack of consciousness or at least not-entire-presence of consciousness which one can say safely is in all living beings outside of man, with something more. And there was some transition. The other theory would be that God created man, and gave him speech. It is said in Genesis that Adam and Eve wandered around and gave names to all the living beings. And apparently, as Milton tells us, they talked to each other, so they didn't have to learn any verbs. Well, it happens that both of these notions are poetic. It is poetic if, at a certain time, some animal—it could be a member of the ape family, somebody who already had a tendency to walk on two feet—changed. It happens that gorillas, chimpanzees, apes have such a disarming tendency. They don't like to topple entirely, and in that sense they are different from the lion. The lion, it seems, is contented to go on four feet and stay that way, and doesn't want to read books on lecterns.
Somewhere, man began. Perhaps he began in a hundred places simultaneously. And what's in common in early writing on the origin of man is that language is accented: that without continual trying to talk, man could not be; he needs speech.
How did we get man, in all his diversity, from a few “elementary states”? That is a poetic question, because everything that has to do with having oneness from manyness, or manyness from oneness, is both logic and poetry.
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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