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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1820.—April 11, 2012

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Walt Whitman, New York, & Our Lives Right Now

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
By Eli Siegel

Now I get back to Walt Whitman, who is, although born in Huntington, Long Island, a New York boy. Is he New York! Earlier, I read a passage from his Specimen Days about Manhattan seen from the bay. This passage is in the section called “Human and Heroic New York”:

The general subjective view of New York and Brooklyn—(will not the time hasten when the two shall be municipally united...?)—what I may call the human interior and exterior of these great seething oceanic to me best of all.

People knew that a bridge was going to be built between New York and Brooklyn. If you lived when it was being constructed, you could watch the people at work, which is a chance we don’t have now. We either ride or walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, or we don’t ride or walk over it. Whitman goes on:

After an absence of many years, (I went away at the outbreak of the secession war, and have never been back to stay since,) again I resume with curiosity the crowds, the streets I knew so well, Broadway, the ferries, the west side of the city, democratic Bowery—human appearances and manners as seen in all these, and along the wharves, and in the perpetual travel of the horse-cars, or the crowded excursion steamers, or in Wall and Nassau streets by day—in the places of amusement at night—bubbling and whirling and moving like its own environment of waters—endless humanity in all phases—Brooklyn also—taken in for the last three weeks.

That is one sentence, and the parsing of it would be a little difficult. Then:

The brief total of the impressions, the human qualities, of these vast cities, is to me comforting, even heroic.

That statement, that New York is “comforting,” is something to see. Later in this section Whitman says:

In old age, lame and sick, pondering for years on many a doubt and danger for this republic of ours...I find in this visit to New York, and the daily contact and rapport with its myriad people,...the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken...—city of superb democracy, amid superb surroundings.

Whitman Tells of a New York Stage-Driver

There are other things about New York in Whitman’s prose, but I’m going to read two instances of his poetry on the subject. The first is part of a poem not so often considered these days. It’s one of the saddest poems of Whitman. He worked hard on it, and revised it. I’m sure he was never wholly pleased with it. But it has a section about the funeral of a stage-driver. The stagecoaches and the drivers are part of Whitman’s life. He just liked going on those horse-driven vehicles, the stagecoaches, omnibuses, horse-cars. He admired the drivers, as De Quincey and Dickens admired them in England. This is from Whitman’s “To Think of Time”:

A gray discouraged sky overhead, the short last daylight of December,

A hearse and stages, the funeral of an old Broadway stage-driver, the cortege mostly drivers.

Steady the trot to the cemetery, duly rattles the death-bell,

The gate is pass’d, the new-dug grave is halted at, the living alight, the hearse uncloses,

The coffin is pass’d out, lower’d and settled, the whip is laid on the coffin, the earth is swiftly shovel’d in.

He was a good fellow, free-mouth’d, quick-temper’d, not bad-looking,

Ready with life or death for a friend, fond of women, gambled, ate hearty, drank hearty,

Had known what it was to be flush, grew low-spirited toward the last, sicken’d, was help’d by a contribution,

Died, aged forty-one years—and that was his funeral.

Good day’s work, bad day’s work, pet stock, mean stock, first out, last out, turning-in at night,

To think that these are so much and so nigh to other drivers, and he there takes no interest in them.

We have, at least, the feeling of the New York stages.

Manhattan Has These

A poem which is not Whitman at his best—hardly—is “Mannahatta” (he has two poems called that). But it’s worth looking at because of the things one can see that are told of in it. He wrote it first in 1860 and revised it; we have it in its form of 1881:

I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city,

Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.


Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient,

I see that the word of my city is that word from of old,

Because I see that word nested in nests of waterbays, superb,

Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded....

Well, there is difficulty in this poem. When Whitman is good he can be as speedy as anything and we have the stability of the world present anyway. But here stability fights mobility. There are times in the poem when the two meet and make for the best lines.

There is difficulty in the first lines: “I was asking for something specific and perfect for my city, / Whereupon lo! upsprang the aboriginal name.” I don’t think that is wholly accurate. I think that Whitman was taken by the speed and substantiality of the name Mannahatta, which sounds almost as if it were from the Sanskrit—almost as good as Bhagavad-Gita or Ramayana and Mahabharata.

“Now I see what there is in a name, a word, liquid, sane, unruly, musical, self-sufficient”: occasionally Whitman didn’t know what to say, and so he let one adjective follow another. “Because I see that word nested in nests of water-bays, superb”: that is not one of the good lines of Whitman.

The next line, though, has a good construction of motion and vertical stability: “Rich, hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships, an island sixteen miles long, solid-founded.” The vertical and horizontal motions meet here. It’s not the greatest line of Whitman, but it’s better than the previous lines. You feel that the line is like an iron column in one of those cotton factor houses on downtown Broadway, the 300 block—and still there’s motion.

“The flowing sea-currents, the little islands, larger adjoining islands, the heights, the villas.” That has motion, but doesn’t have the motion of, say, “Come Up from the Fields Father,” or even “There Was a Child Went Forth,” let alone “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.” And then, the great motion in the last part of “Song of Myself” it doesn’t have.

“The countless masts, the white shore-steamers, the lighters, the ferry-boats, the black sea-steamers, well-model’d.” That’s pretty musical but you get the feeling this is a mingling of painting and sculpture, not poetic enough.

Motion, Difficulty, & Kindness

The down-town streets, the jobbers’ houses of business, the houses of business of the shipmerchants and money-brokers, the river-streets,

Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week,

The carts hauling goods, the manly race of drivers of horses, the brown-faced sailors,

The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft,

The winter snows, the sleigh-bells, the broken ice in the river, passing along up or down with the flood-tide or ebb-tide,

The mechanics of the city, the masters, well-form’d, beautiful-faced, looking you straight in the eyes.

A line that definitely has stoppage and motion is “Immigrants arriving, fifteen or twenty thousand in a week.” Then Whitman gets to a different effect in a line that has more space in it than any other: “The summer air, the bright sun shining, and the sailing clouds aloft.” That is about Manhattan too, because even on Wall Street if you look sharp you can see the clouds above the skyscrapers. There is a certain effect of seeing clouds from narrow streets, and Liberty Street and Cedar Street are damnably narrow (as Mr. Mantolini in Nicholas Nickleby would say).

“The mechanics of the city,...looking you straight in the eyes.” Whitman had a tendency to find a spirit in people. He’d find Christ in a mechanic, and what he felt about it he tried to say.

Then, “Trottoirs throng’d”: we know Whitman liked to use French terms when he could. Trottoirs are about the same as pavements. The word should be used in an advertisement for Best & Co., not here:

Trottoirs throng’d, vehicles, Broadway, the women, the shops and shows,

A million people—manners free and superb—open voices—hospitality—the most courageous and friendly young men,

City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!

City nested in bays! my city!

There is obviously motion and horizontality and the vertical in “City of hurried and sparkling waters! city of spires and masts!” The freest line, or part of a line, is “my city!” with its use of the personal and largeness.

I read “Mannahatta” because there is difficulty in it. There is difficulty in New York. So I close with this poem, which I cannot praise as much as I’d like to. I think it’s not one of the felicitous poems of Whitman. But that is as it should be, because we all know that New York is going through difficulties. Therefore it was well to end with this poem in a talk called New York Begins Poeticallyblack diamond

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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