Through Study of Aesthetic Realism
What Makes a Man's Life Large or Small?
Looking at the Life of Charles Darwin and Men Today
|"Mr. Perey," Eli Siegel
asked me in the first Aesthetic Realism class I attended, "do you believe,
as you talk about yourself there is another thing that should be attended
to?...Are you fair to what's outside yourself?"
I had essentially gone by the feeling that thinking about me was enough of a job - it took so much time and planning for me to get what I thought I deserved, how could I think about what anybody else deserved? I was about to learn that it was this very notion which had made me feel my life getting smaller, duller, and less hopeful as years passed. I was 28. My ambition to make a real discovery in my field, anthropology, or express myself in art or writing, it seemed, was not going to be. I see it as a tremendously important, scientific fact that Aesthetic Realism explains there is a fight in every man between grandeur and smallness, respect and contempt; and it shows that we diminish ourselves when we feel - and I did - that being able to look down on other things makes us big.
Tonight I speak of Charles Robert Darwin, and the fight in himself between a large life, a life of grandeur of thought, and the temptation to live in a small and conventional way without the turmoil that he knew his large, developing ideas about the evolution of species were bound to create. Darwin won that fight in a big way, and because he did, he contributed greatly to knowledge. But many persons wanted him to be wrong, to be unsure of himself, and there was great wear and damage to his life, about which I will also speak.
In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Class Chairman Ellen Reiss wrote this - the central thing in what my colleagues and I are saying tonight:
The Fight in Me about Large and Small
But like millions of boys and men, these larger feelings were in a fight with that other notion of what made me big - "Arnold uber alles" - Arnold above all. I was competitive, and felt driven to excel. I once got into a fist fight with another boy, Mike Margulis, in the back of the classroom at Pennington elementary school, because he could multiply fractions faster than I could. And later I remember gloating in a social anthropology class at Columbia because a professor said he was pleased with my paper on the South African Bushman and didn't mention anybody else's. Right next to feeling the wonder of scholarship and discovery, I felt approval and being superior made for an important life.
I felt if I could study art, something good might happen to me. Then, by the greatest good luck, I began to learn printmaking in the summer school class at the School of Visual Arts taught by Chaim Koppelman, whose basis was, and is, Aesthetic Realism. He brought me to the breakthrough I hoped for.
Aesthetic Realism, in its understanding of the human self, shows that a man's largest desire is to see meaning in the world - in a fact of history, in a culture not our own, in a household object, and so importantly, in the mind of a woman. To go for this seeing is to go for authentic largeness. I am grateful for what I've learned in these years. My life is immeasurably larger and happier than the small, pompous, pained existence that I had. I have a wife I love and respect, Barbara Allen, flutist, educator, Aesthetic Realism consultant; and a career useful to humanity.
I will now give some instances
now from the life and work of that scientist of the 19th century whom I
respect enormously: Charles Robert Darwin, author of Origin of Species,
Darwin Wanted to See Large, New Meaning in Living Things - Some of Them Exceedingly Small
"A human being," said Eli Siegel to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, "needs the whole world to find out who he is. If, then, the whole world is wonderful and a human being needs the whole world to find out who he is, the human being is involved in wonder and is that much wonderful himself." And he asked, "Do you think you could find something about yourself in a lizard?" I saw that I could, and said: "Yes."
Darwin's theory states that all species of animals and plants today arose from earlier ancestors, simpler in form, through the "the struggle for existence" in nature and the survival of "favourable variations" (p. 120, Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow, ed.). It is not true, as many think, that evolution depends entirely upon competition. Survival also depends on the ability to cooperate. And therefore human ethics got its start in lower animals at the snail stage of evolution and earlier. For example, Darwin wrote:
But all this had not yet come to be when Darwin, about 22 years old (1831), was offered the position of Naturalist on a ship of exploration, the Beagle. The voyage was to last from Dec. 27, 1831 to Oct. 2, 1836 (p. 71, Barlow). After 4 years of voyaging, they reached the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the coast of tropical Ecuador (1835). There Darwin saw direct evidence - which he alone recognized - that evolution through natural selection had taken place.
The book of Genesis says, in a beautiful way, that all animals and plants came from one source, rapidly. Then, each living thing reproduces "according to its kind" [Genesis 1:11, 12, 21, 24, 25] - so every generation looks the same. But "Darwin," as Mr. Siegel put it, "said there was another way that living beings could come to be, that perhaps had its beauty just as the way of Genesis did." [TRO 400, 3 December, 1980]
One thing he saw, well known and firmly established now, but then utterly new, concerns a little bird. There are 13 species of a certain bird that have very different beaks. Here are 10:
There is the large ground
finch with a parrot-like beak (a seed eater):
There is the slender beaked
warbler finch adapted for catching insects like warblers on the mainland
There is the woodpecker finch
with a sturdy beak for boring into bark:
They all resemble one particular bird, with a simple beak, in South America, the blue-black grassquit - their ancestor:
Darwin wrote in his journal these astonished words:
Wrote Mr. Siegel, "How present-day living beings came to be is likable as a study in persistence and surprise; or sameness and change. Darwin felt some of this beauty." ["One Needs to Know This," TRO 208, 23 March 1977]
We can ask, How should Charles Darwin have felt about evolution, now, at about age 26, when he was the only one in the world who knew it really existed?
He was a lively and friendly person, by disposition "very affectionate" (p. 45, Barlow) and liked a good dinner with friends, with "jolly singing and playing at cards . . . afterward" (p. 61). Was there a fight in him between this large, new seeing and a desire to be liked by his contemporaries? He knew that if he contradicted the account of creation in Genesis, many, many people would be horrified and he said he would be hated. "[I]t is like confessing murder," he later wrote to a friend (White and Gribbin, p. 142).
He could have let the matter drop, taught at Cambridge, and been - as Eli Siegel said in a lesson I wanted to be - "a nice, learned, intellectual bourgeois."
But he chose to carry on his work in evolution. However, he did it largely in secret, beginning in 1837, fearing very justly that conservative academics and clergy world would try to kill his new concept unless he'd proved in advance everything they might question. In 1839 he married Emma Wedgwood, a lively, well-educated woman of the ceramic manufacturing family. In 1840, fortunately, his travel journal, The Voyage of the Beagle, became a best-seller - and in it, evolution is touched on in one sentence. He and Emma established a residence far from the city - in Down - where he carried on his work. "She has been my wise advisor and comforter through life," he was later to write (1876). [P. 97, Barlow.] Meanwhile, there is evidence that she was not wholly at ease with the large world meaning her husband had, or with his seemingly heretical theory of evolution.
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