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 3


 
This paper was first presented at a seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City on October 23, 2003.
 
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Aesthetic Realism Makes Clear: The Toughest Man Wants to Be Ethical

The Yanomami are known as a society that values war. One does see the desire to have contempt for an enemy, see him laid low with oneself victorious, impelling revenge and conquest. Helena Valero describes what she saw in the lofty, multi-family tribal dwellings where she lived in the Venezuelan forest: The men were ready to go against the Wakawakateri. They all painted themselves black and gave a shout, which made the shapuno [house] tremble: 'Haw, haw haw!...' They beat their feet on the ground of the compound, shouting very loudly and waving their arrows. It was enough to strike terror into you. [P. 163] The brutality of killing is very well described. You see the arrows flying through the roof of the houses, see people impaled and dying.

"There is such a thing as the ethical unconscious," wrote Mr. Siegel in Self and World. [P. 267] And he describes the reason people feel guilty is "a hurtful glorification of oneself based on an ugly contempt for what is outside oneself." Could this be true for warfare in the tribal world, in which people are demolishing an enemy, paying them back in keeping with what their culture has demanded for hundreds of years? The answer is yes. What society or convention proclaims to be right may still not be right to our ethical unconscious. And so the Yanomami, the "fierce people," who value warfare, find that they suffer fears and strange sensations after they have raided an enemy encampment and killed enemies.

"Do you feel that somewhere you're too unkind?" Mr. Siegel asked me.

AP. Yes.

ES. Could you then try to make yourself soft?

AP. Yes...unsuccessfully.

These warlike people--like myself--felt they had to make up for their hardness. Helena Valero describes expiation rites which they practiced, and which went on for days; including mortification of the flesh: They took many leaves, of the kind which scratch, and rubbed themselves down well...to cleanse themselves...of their crime....Their hair had not been shaved any more and was growing ugly....I remember that their companions then shaved their hair and scraped their heads. [P. 65] As time goes on we see Fusiwe become increasingly tired and dull. The fight in him between softness--kindness, respect--and a hard, dominating superiority seems to have worn him out. He despairs when he kills, in battle, a nephew. He becomes careless. He lets relatives out for revenge creep up on his shelter. Tells Helena Valero, "Suddenly, tak, an arrow arrived" through the roof. Fusiwe is pierced by arrows poisoned with curare and he is going to die. He tells his wife, 'Your people are still alive, go to them for you will not live happily with our sons in this land.' [P. 247] And she leaves the rainforest, to tell the story of her husband and his tribe.

How Much Feeling--and What Kind--Should a Man of Today Have?

Harold Goldstein is a young man of lively disposition. Nevertheless, as much as Fusiwe of the Yanoáma did, he has the problem of hard and soft, being tough and being gentle; though it takes a different form. Mr. Goldstein is studying Aesthetic Realism in consultations; and he is fast with a funny crack. Aesthetic Realism loves a good joke, but we came to see that Mr. Goldstein was using humor to harden himself--stick to the surface rather than have feelings that go deep. 

"A large purpose of Aesthetic Realism," wrote Mr. Siegel, "is to have a person make up his mind as to the value for him of contempt and respect." [Self and World, p. 19] Every consultation is about this, and therefore about the subject of tonight's seminar: "How Much Feeling--and What Kind--Should a Man Have?" Should a man feel respect in a big way or be hard toward what's beautiful in this world and have contempt? Should a man be stirred by the feelings of others, changed by them--which is respect--or should he brush off their inner lives and be the one running the show? 

We studied these opposites with Mr. Goldstein, in depth. He had once wanted to be a rabbi and attended a well-known rabbinical college. He also wanted to be a writer and had written several stories. Now, he was in an accounting firm. His apartment, he told us, was a mess, and he was troubled by it but never could keep things from piling up. He could keep columns of numbers orderly in his job but in his personal life, he told us, "How much I have not respected order!" He said he made fun of himself: 'I call myself the 'reb' and the slob."

We asked him which feeling represented him: his desire to revere a world that has a grand order--or his desire to make fun of it? And he learned that humor, which is respectful in art--like the Marx Brothers--can also be used to mock and evade the feelings about people he wanted most to have. He came to see that he could harden himself by turning every serious situation into a joke. 

At the accounting firm he was popular. His desk was a meeting place where he gave advice and engaged in very fast repartee that left everyone laughing and dazzled. He said, "I like to become the center of attraction, be the one in control." But inside he felt bitter and unloved. He wasn't sure he ever left people better off. "I don't have a good enough hope for people," he told us self-critically. "But I feel if I sound kind people will think I'm too soft." We suggested he write on "Three hopes I have for people I like myself for, and three hopes I have for people I don't like myself for." The question is, can a man like himself, feel confident, if he doesn't want to leave people better off but prefers contempt?

His only lasting relationship had broken up after a long period of mutual suspicion and pain. "I was devastated," he said. "Can you look at this in a way that makes you more sure of yourself?" we asked. We suggested he study how women see. Could a woman be critical of him, even disappointed in him, and not be entirely wrong? "Is your purpose to know a woman," we asked, "or to dazzle with the Goldstein charm?" He told us--"I realize, I don't see their minds deeply enough."

We saw this began with his failing to see depth in his mother. "The members of the family were unkind to her," he said, and added, "I was the worst. She'd go to bed crying." We encouraged him not to skip along the surface but to write about her and honestly try to see her feelings. He spoke to her at length, asking questions--something she pointed out he had never done before. He wrote "My Mother at Age 18" and it moved us very much. It was about her coming from Russia to America. 

It begins, "Sarah, age eighteen, stands at the roadside gazing across newly plowed wheat fields thinking of the future. She hears children playing behind her on the grass..."  And it ends with her seeing members of her family waiting for her on a pier of New York City.

In the fight between respect and mocking, hardening oneself and wanting to be affected by the feelings of others, Aesthetic Realism stands for the beautiful victory of respect. That respect, beginning at any point can widen out like ripples in the sea and take in more and more.

Mr. Goldstein is both more serious and more lighthearted about women as he studies what good will truly is. He told us recently he was cleaning and organizing his apartment area by area. He is, by his own description, "less of a flirt." His study deepens and continues, as our own study does.

Aesthetic Realism has enabled men to see surely and clearly that there is no limit to how much large and accurate feeling we should have in behalf of respect for the world and other people. The Yanomami of the Amazon and Orinoco, living so much as our ancestors did, show how very long men have wanted to know this. The time can be measured in tens of centuries. And now, thankfully, the knowledge exists for the world to learn from. 

To return to Part 1
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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.
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