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What Makes a Man's Life Large or Small? 

Looking at the Life of Charles Darwin and Men Today

By Arnold Perey 
Part 1
This paper was first presented at a seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation in New York City on September 19, 2002.
"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:  

    Aesthetic Realism shows that how big we are depends on the size of meaning we see in what is not ourselves: we are big because of how much authentic respect for the outside world we have. [TRO 1204]
If I had not learned this, my feeling of being empty and of living a piddling existence, which I had so much, would never have stopped. But it did, and for that no gratitude is large enough! 

The Fight in Me about Large and Small

In high school English, the poetry of Keats and Shelley thrilled me - Shelley's poem "To a Skylark" made me SEE and HEAR the skylark's song, and I felt I was part of something large. And I also remember when, in freshman math, Professor Bohnenblust wrote on the board numerous complicated trigonometric formulas that students had had to memorize - and then showed how they are all derived from one simple equation. When he finally wrote that equation on the board - with a knowing smile - it took my breath away and left me sitting in awe after the class was over. At times like these, I felt my life was large.  

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.  

    For a self to be large [Mr. Siegel wrote] is that self's being able to become another self, to have other feeling; to identify itself with whatever is real. [TRO 218]
Not knowing this, I looked for victories that made me feel big, which resulted in my being essentially small, including as to girls and women. There was a young woman, Jane, an excellent anthropology student, who was very pretty, and whom I respected for her knowledge. Meanwhile, I was uncomfortable feeling that I had to look up to a woman. At the Anthropology Department Spring Equinox Party, we felt a spark of attraction; and though she was reluctant, that night we went to my apartment and were close. After that, I didn't want to talk to her. I had had my victory with this woman, thought myself quite the rake, but I felt horrible, and looked not at all large to myself but very cheap and low. By my late 20s I felt jaded and tired, and my relations with women repeatedly failed. Whenever we have contempt, I was to learn, we make ourselves ugly and small. "The self suffers," Mr. Siegel would say to me in a class some years later, "because it's hoggish with what is outside itself." [8-27-68]  

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, 1859. 

Darwin Wanted to See Large, New Meaning in Living Things - Some of Them Exceedingly Small

Darwin, like every man, was impelled toward a large life and a small one. He is important because he made choices which - even when opposed by a viciousness unparalleled in his time, and his own desire to have a quiet, conventional life - were in behalf of largeness: a life used to "authentically respect the outside world." Darwin's physician father wanted his son to have "respectability" - enrolled him first in a medical education, and then, in study for "a comfortable position as a country clergyman." But Charles Darwin's heart was in being a naturalist. There, I think, his capacity for largeness came into its own - he was to write about the sense of beauty in an Argus pheasant, the struggles of seedlings of the fir tree, the planet earth "cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity."  

"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."  

    ES  In a grasshopper?  

    AP  Yes!

And the reason is that the grasshopper, with its quick leap, and the lizard, with its undulating motion, represent the jumpy and smooth, two opposites of reality which were in me.  

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:  

    An accurate observer, Mr. Lonsdale, informs me that he placed a pair of landsnails (Helix pomatia), one of which was weakly, into a small and ill-provided garden. After a short time the strong and healthy individual disappeared, and was traced by its track of slime over a wall into an adjoining well-stocked garden. Mr. Lonsdale concluded that it had deserted its sickly mate; but after an absence of twenty-four hours it returned, and apparently communicated the result of its successful exploration, for both then started along the same track and disappeared over the wall. [The Descent of Man (1870), Chapter IX, first section. P. 396, Great Books of the Western World edition]
This small animal showed a large kindness, and Darwin was thrilled.  

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:  

Darwin's Finches

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 are:  

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:  

    One might almost fancy that from an original paucity of birds [on the islands], one species had been taken and modified for different ends. [p. 328, The Voyage of the Beagle]
This is the first sentence in the world saying that from one species of actually observed living beings, many different species have evolved! It was 1835. As he studied the physical similarities living things have, over the years to come, Darwin saw how the body of a human being clearly arose from the more primitive structure of apes; and he described, amazingly, how we evolved from a "furry" progenitor. He published this in 1870 (Descent of Man, p. 280), and the world was shocked!  

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. 

Next: Click here for Part 2

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