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
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
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
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.
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.
ES [to Arnold Perey]. You would
admit that, wouldn't you?
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
ES. Oh no, because at a certain
time he was so yielding and appreciative.
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.