|NUMBER 1722.—July 9, 2008|
Dear Unknown Friends:
e continue to serialize Poetry Is of Man, by Eli Siegel. In this 1974 lecture his manner is informal, sometimes humorous, while he is, as always, careful and exact. He looks at an article that appeared nine years before Darwin's Origin of Species—a review of five books having to do with aspects of evolution. And we see the central principle of Aesthetic Realism—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves” —illustrated through questions concerning the coming to be of species, including that being who (before our gender-neutral time) was called Man.
Is evolution a oneness of continuity and change, sameness and difference? Does that make evolution like (for instance) a good symphony, where each musical phrase arises in some way from those that came before, even as each is different and new?
We also print an article by Aesthetic Realism associate Steve Weiner. It's part of a paper that he presented last month at a public seminar titled “Why Are People So ‘Difficult'—& Could It Have Anything to Do with Me?”
The Protoplasm of Injustice
r. Weiner's article is a means of seeing an exceedingly important fact: Just as scientists in the 19th century came to know that there is something in common among all instances of life, protoplasm, so there is a Something-in-Common among all injustices, from the most everyday to the most massive. Eli Siegel has identified that common source and presence, that essential thing needed for injustice and cruelty to be. It is contempt, the desire, present in every person, “to get a false importance or glory through the lessening of things not oneself.”
Let's take that ordinary way of seeing which Mr. Weiner writes about. All over America people are finding other people “difficult,” annoying—pains in the neck; also bores. And certainly there are things to object to, sometimes intensely, in our fellow humans (and ourselves). But we don't see that we have a preference to feel people don't measure up—because if they're unworthy, then we can feel superior to them. Indeed, we can feel superior to the world itself, which is infested with such inferior and irritating creatures.
What's more, our readiness to be exasperated with a person close to us or a stranger, has, in all its everydayness, the same source as something as ugly as racism. Racism too arises from and embodies contempt: it's the desire to see a whole race as not measuring up to oneself; it's the making of oneself large by finding what's different from oneself unworthy and inferior.
What protoplasm is in the beautiful field of life, contempt is in the field of injustice. Mr. Siegel explained:
I regard that statement as not only immensely kind but scientifically historic. Again, contempt, the false sense that we're more through lessening something or someone not us, is what injustice could not exist without. That's so whether the injustice is an everyday coldness to the feelings of a person, or a bombing of a person's home.
Unless we study and criticize our contempt, we ourselves will be unjust, including in ways we don't see or understand. Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which explains contempt, and this is one reason why it's so mightily needed by the world.
Our Fundamental Purpose
esthetic Realism explains too the thing in us that opposes contempt, the purpose utterly contrary to it. Much in fashion these days is “evolutionary psychology,” the attempt to show that the various choices we make arise from evolution. Yet often this approach is a seeing of evolution too narrowly, and distortedly: as essentially a series of efforts by living beings to succeed by beating out opposition. Evolution, as the lecture we're serializing shows, is much more.
For example, I wrote in the last issue that evolution is a tribute to the relatedness of all things in the world. And the opponent of contempt in everyone is the drive to see ourselves as joined to the unlimited, multitudinous world not ourselves. Aesthetic Realism explains that the desire to like the world, find meaning in it, is the most fundamental thing in us. It is what art comes from; what the desire for education comes from; what love comes from; what kindness comes from; what science comes from. This desire authentically to like the world—to see ourselves as having to do with everything—is, as human purpose, an embodiment of that relation which evolution stands for.
I quote, then, as prelude to the current installment of Poetry Is of Man, sentences Eli Siegel wrote early in the history of Aesthetic Realism. This is the opening paragraph of “The World, Guilt and Self-Conflict,” of 1942, the second chapter of Self and World. The prose is at once ringing and quietly factual. The statement is great in its comprehension of humanity, and is, as I said, in keeping with evolution itself:
Why Are People So “Difficult”?
By Steve Weiner
y my teens, I pretty much saw everyone I knew as “difficult.” If only other people weren't so bothersome, I thought, I wouldn't have so many problems with them.
In Self and World, Eli Siegel explains my state of mind and that of many persons when he writes:
My desire to be comfortable was very large, and (though of course I didn't state this to myself clearly) I felt I'd be made uncomfortable if I gave anything beyond a bare minimum of thought to other people. About my father, who often was irritated after working overnight shifts to support our family, I'd ask annoyedly, “Why is he so ill-natured all the time?” And about my mother, who went from praising me a lot to getting angry—“How come she's so moody?”
But I wasn't interested in trying to answer those questions. I was too busy seeing myself as the “good” son in our family. After all, wasn't I well-behaved? Didn't I do errands for Mom and excel in school, while Fred, my older brother, who was very rebellious, was the “difficult” son? And even as I made new friends with some ease, as soon as there was a disagreement, they were added to my long list of “difficult” people in my life.
The False Criterion
see now that at an early age I came to an unconscious criterion for judging humanity: those people who gave me a lot of approval, let me have my way, or allowed me to manage them, were “nice”; nearly everyone else was “difficult.”
A large reason, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, why I was so intent on finding people oppressive, was to prove that the only person worthy of care was myself. By age 18, I'd pretty much succeeded in having little feeling, and justified myself by thinking I'd been wounded by nearly everyone.
I appeared energetic and sure of myself, but I was very worried about how empty I felt. It never occurred to me that there was any relation between my attitude to people and how bad I felt.
Then, in the first class taught by Eli Siegel that I attended, I learned something entirely new. About my trouble with people, he asked, “Would your problems be solved if you were less selfish?” Did my pain come chiefly from my “insufficiency of seeing, or because people are so mean to you?” And he described a desire in me to feel that “experience has been too much for you and you should huddle in the coal bin.”
That was what I felt. I immediately had a sense of relief—that there was something in me I needed to and could change. And I began to learn a way of seeing humanity that had me like myself so much more. It's in these sentences from Mr. Siegel's lecture Aesthetic Realism and People:
The Hope to See a Person as “Difficult”
s my study of Aesthetic Realism continued, I learned that I had such a hope. In one class I spoke about my father, Sam Weiner, and described him as tyrannical and also aloof. Mr. Siegel asked: “So because he was not interested in you, you paid him back by not being interested in him?”
I began to see that what I'd done wasn't wise; the effect on me wasn't good. In my desire to retaliate, I made myself smaller and meaner. I also robbed myself of the experience of trying to understand my father and learn about myself through seeing another human being deeply.
When I told Mr. Siegel that there had been much pain between my parents, he asked: “Do you think that when your father quarreled with your mother, he felt his knowledge of women was insufficient?” “He must have,” I answered. Before this, it had never occurred to me that my father could be unsure about anything.
Mr. Siegel was encouraging me to be fair to the depths of Sam Weiner, and to see that they were like mine.
I'll never forget the day I asked Sam questions about his life—and how pleased he was to see the son who had been so scornful, now really interested in him! He told me later that this was the first time “you treated me like I was a human being.” After so many years of tension between us and ill will on my part, there was now ease.
And this man, who I once so smugly felt sure was unreasonable and would never change, began to have Aesthetic Realism consultations. He loved the logic of what he was hearing and welcomed questions about himself, and was happier and lighter than I had ever seen him.
Aesthetic Realism can teach us how to be proud of how we think about other people. This is a greatly hopeful and urgent fact!
1James and the Children (Definition Press, 1968), p. 55.
2James C. Prichard, two of whose books this article reviews
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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