A New Perspective for American Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel
How Much Feeling--and What Kind--Should a Man Have?
Discussing the Life of Fusiwe, Head Man of the Yanomami People

By Arnold Perey
Part 2

This paper was first presented at a seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City on October 23, 2003.
Image for webpage placing Eli Siegel's contribution to anthropology

Aesthetic Realism Explains: Men Are Mixed Up about Hard and Soft

Men of the Yanomami, like men of Manhattan or Michigan, want to show they don't have feelings: they're hard, they can't be intimidated, and they can defeat other men. In Yanomami, the word for this is waitiri. In Spanish--and now English has adopted the word--it is macho. But, writes Mr. Siegel in Self and World, the self does not want to be strong by the weakness of others....Power is not just the ability to affect or change others; it is likewise the ability to be affected or changed by others. It is immensely affecting to see how a man of the Yanomami--an ancient Native American culture where people live by hunting with bow and arrow and forest agriculture--had the dilemma I had. In my first Aesthetic Realism lesson Mr. Siegel he put this dilemma in this rhymed couplet: I have been troubled oft
By the problem of hard and soft.
The problem of hard and soft is in a notable custom of Yanomami culture, described by a number of male anthropologists, including Napolean Chagnon, with fascination and some horror, because in my opinion every man sees himself in this custom. Helena Valero describes it (pp. 144-5) and I summarize: Men, or a group of men, who get in a quarrel and are angry at each other, and yet see themselves as friends--stand facing one another formally, in the sight of all the people of the community. Each is armed with a heavy wood club called a nabrushi. The first man lowers his head and shows a shaved part and the second man hits him there with the wooden nabrushi. The first man returns the blow. They continue. Each tries to be as indifferent to the staggering blows as possible. There is blood. Valero writes,  While they struck they said to each other, 'I...call you to see whether you are a real man. If you are a man, let us now see if we become friends again and our anger passes....' The other replied, 'hit me, and we'll be friends again.'" [p. 144] Fusiwe, the tushaua was able to withstand more blows than nearly anyone else, and give heavier ones, and it is clear that his authority depended, in part, on the ability to win these contests. One sees the equivalent in American business, in politics, in war, in the academic world. Contempt is little feeling about the world and big feeling about one's own personal victory.

But a Man Doesn't Just Want to Be Hard

Even as I went after trying to win out over my classmates whenever I thought I could-I also longed to have larger feelings, tender feelings. Even as men think what they most want is power, victory, prestige, hardness, it isn't. "The fact that you had to be hard to get your way, you pitied yourself for that," said Eli Siegel to me in my first lesson. [P. 39] And in "The Aesthetic Method in Self-Conflict," in Self and World, he writes of "Louis Robinson...of Syracuse, New York," who like all people, talks to, with, and about himself. Sometimes, in these thoroughly intimate conversations, Louis Robinson asserts: "To hell with other people. I'm out of Number One." On other occasions, the somewhat civilized Mr. Robinson says: "This is too bad, thinking of myself all the time; why don't I forget myself and become interested in other things?" [P. 100] Fusiwe was like Robinson--and me. Helena Valero describes Fusiwe, when their child was sick, staying up night after night to watch over him; praying hard and asking help of the forest and mountain spirits to heal the child. There is tenderness, and a respect for the forces of reality.

And Helena Valero herself, a white child inducted the hard way into native American culture, describes how Fusiwe would tell her stories--and we feel he had love for these, and the desire for her to know something beautiful the way a father might have. 

In an Aesthetic Realism Lesson Eli Siegel early in my study Eli Siegel asked a woman about whom I was confused, "Do you think Mr. Perey is cruel?" [pp. 28-29, Lesson of 10/3/68]

Miss V. Sometimes I've thought he was cruel.

ES [to Arnold Perey]. You would admit that, wouldn't you?

AP. Yes.

ES. Do you believe at times also he is too imploring?

Miss V. Yes, at times he's been. But I've thought him more as hard.

ES. Do you believe that the woman Fanny Brice, who sang "Mon Homme," really loved the man because he threw her around?

Miss V. Yes, that's what it says.

ES. Oh no, because at a certain time he was so yielding and appreciative. 

Helena Valero describes a story Fusiwe told her, how the hummingbirds taught the Yanoáma to plant cotton and spins it into thread.  Once hummingbirds were men and had cotton hammocks; to this day humming-birds steal cotton to make their nests. The Yanoáma saw those hammocks and asked Tensho (hummingbird) how they had [made] them. Hummingbird took them to his garden....[and instructs them in the agriculture of cotton] [P. 130-131] Fusiwe, caring for this story, shows he wants to have deep feelings of respect for delicacy and patience, represented by the little jewel-like hummingbird which is seen as a professor. The Hummingbird stands for the world as kind, as it patiently teaches the Yanoáma how to make one of their few necessities--this ingenious product invented by the Amazon Indians, the hammock.

For me to stop feeling horrible because I was cold and hard, Eli Siegel explained I needed to "honor delicacy, softness, kindness, the subtlety of things because they're part of reality." [Aesthetic Realism Lesson, 3 October, 1968, P. 29] 

The lesson I am quoting from, discussing extensively the relation of hard and soft in art, in oneself, in history, in the elemental structure of reality,  was the turning point in my being able to care for a woman and laid the groundwork for my marriage, some years later, to Barbara Allen--Aesthetic Realism consultant, flutist, teacher, and deep friend. 

Continued in Part 3, "Aesthetic Realism Shows the Toughest Man Wants to Be Ethical" 
The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel--which was founded in 1941--is taught in classes and in public seminars and presentations at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City.  I am proud to be on the Foundation's faculty, teaching anthropology, education, and in seminars and consultations.
Home Page
Aesthetic Realism Foundation
(c) Copyright 2003 by Arnold Perey
Image for Webpage

Copyright © 2001-2009 by Arnold Perey. All rights reserved