|NUMBER 1820.—April 11, 2012||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the conclusion, published here, of his 1970 lecture New York Begins Poetically, Eli Siegel comments on three passages, in verse and prose, by Walt Whitman.
It was my good fortune to hear Mr. Siegel speak on Whitman many times. I consider him the greatest critic of that poet, the person who placed truly Whitman’s value. Over the years he described, with detail, Whitman’s might and importance—but also showed where his writing was uncertain, and why. And Eli Siegel is the critic who understood the self of Whitman. He understood Walt Whitman the human being.
Like the other texts he uses in this talk, the passages from Whitman that Mr. Siegel quotes here are about Manhattan. So as a prelude to the final section, I am going to look at some lines of Whitman that are not specifically about New York yet have to do centrally with the situation that this city and all of us are in right now.
A Beautiful Emergency
Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” begins with lines that are quite famous. But it hasn’t been seen that they embody a beautiful emergency for every person, and every municipality:
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
Much suffering has come to be in people’s lives because they sever the tremendous opposites that Whitman joins in these lines: glorification of self—and justice to the world not oneself; one’s strutting individuality—and one’s full relatedness to other people and things. People have felt that the way to celebrate themselves is to feel superior to other people. If you have to see yourself as really related to others, all others—ugh, what a comedown! Mr. Siegel has described that feeling as humanity’s “greatest danger or temptation”: it’s contempt, the getting “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.”
In the field of economics, this severing of opposites, this making much of self through lessening others, has taken the form of the profit system. The profit motive, after all, is the motive to aggrandize yourself through seeing your fellow humans in terms of how much money you can extract from them, their labor, their needs. That is not the way Walt Whitman saw people.
In New York City and elsewhere, the failure of profit-motivated economics is with us. Our city is having much fiscal trouble. The one answer for New York and America is that our economy be based on what is in those opening lines of “Song of Myself.”
What does that mean? Whitman starts right off by saying—with firmness, tenderness, depth, and conviction—that a person is important through relation: he celebrates himself through seeing others, all others, as of him. This statement is the contrary of all contempt, including the profit motive. And there are two words in it that have to do intensely with economics. Assume, as Whitman uses it in the second line, means take to oneself. And in the third line there is (in two forms) the word belong. Economics won’t fare well in this land until it is based on the fact that the city, the nation, should belong as much to other people as to oneself. New York should belong as much to a child in the Bronx as to a real estate mogul. Eli Siegel wrote in the 1940s: “The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs” (Self and World, p. 270).
“Whoever Degrades Another Degrades Me”
In section 24 of “Song of Myself,” there are these lines:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them.
· · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · · ·
Whoever degrades another degrades me.
That last statement is not theoretical. It’s not, as Whitman says, “sentimental.” It is factual. We are of the same reality as other people. And if we’re too conceited and stupid to want to see this fact, we will suffer. Unless we feel that we have, livingly, to do with other people and things, we will be locked in ourselves—as most people really are. We will feel apart, empty, agitated. I remember Mr. Siegel’s describing Whitman as wanting passionately not to be locked in himself. That beautiful desire, Mr. Siegel said, had to do with why Whitman was “tactually impelled.” For instance, “Mine is no callous shell, / I have instant conductors all over me whether I pass or stop,” Whitman wrote in section 27; “I merely stir, press, feel with my fingers, and am happy.”
But getting back to the passage from section 24 and this courageous, sensible, and musical line: “Whoever degrades another degrades me.” While not, of course, being only about economics, it is certainly about that. In lectures during the 1970s, Mr. Siegel showed that economics could no longer succeed through the degrading of people—through using them as instruments for others’ wealth. That is true in New York. And the solution to our fiscal troubles is not to degrade people further by undoing their hard-earned pensions, lessening their wages, making them jobless, and giving public money in the form of subsidies to corporate owners. If New York needs more income it should be taken, not from hardworking New Yorkers, but from those very persons and companies who have been using others’ labor to enrich themselves.
The Power of Good Will
What Whitman expresses in hundreds of ways throughout “Song of Myself” is good will, which Aesthetic Realism describes as “the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful.” In every person, good will is at war with contempt. One of the greatest passages in world poetry occurs toward the end of section 33 of “Song of Myself.” In it good will is present as we need to feel it: as something original, powerful, proud. I’ll quote only two lines of the passage. Whitman has been telling how he is not apart from people but becomes them, in their hopes and pain. He says:
All this I swallow, it tastes good, I like it well, it becomes mine,
I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.
Is there such a thing as the economic equivalent of these lines? Can the state of mind in them take the form of economics? The answer is not only it can, but it must. The economy of the New York and America that Whitman loved must be based on the feeling: another person is as real as I am—I take care of myself by being fair to him; I won’t get what I deserve unless he gets what he deserves!
This good will was what Eli Siegel had: toward everyone and everything. It was, in him, passionate, but also learned. It was imaginative, sophisticated, vastly intelligent. And from it came Aesthetic Realism itself.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
New York & Whitman
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
Subscriptions: 26 issues, US $18; 12 issues, US $9, Canada and Mexico $14, elsewhere $20. Make check or money order payable to Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
© Copyright 2012 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation • A not–for–profit educational foundation