THE AESTHETIC REALISM OF ELI SIEGEL AS
Aesthetic Realism is the new philosophy of education founded in 1941 by Eli Siegel, American critic and poet. It is exceedingly comprehensive because its purpose is to make it possible for people to like the world on an educated basis; that is, on honest terms. Since I have been studying Aesthetic Realism beginning in the fall of 1968, I have come to see the world more exactly and like it far more than I knew was possible. In my teaching of anthropology, I use the Aesthetic Realism method so that my students also can use anthropology to like the world more, not less. There is no subject that cannot be taught from this point of view.
The principles of Aesthetic Realism are true about anthropology. I do not believe it is possible to understand humanity adequately without understanding the import of these four statements by Eli Siegel: (1) Every person is always trying to put together opposites in himself. (2) Every person in order to respect himself has to see the world as beautiful or good or acceptable. (3) There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world. (4) All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
My opinion of Aesthetic Realism is sustained by very careful observation of myself and people I teach both in college and in Aesthetic Realism consultations, seminars, and workshops. It is also sustained by my anthropological research in New Guinea.
Anthropology, the study of mankind, should include the study of oneself but it does not, so anthropologists may know a great deal about the Paiute Indians and very little about themselves. That was the situation I found myself in when I first encountered Aesthetic Realism in 1968. Through what I have learned, anthropology has taken on a new dimension for me.
As Eli Siegel has explained in Aesthetic Realism classes, how true the opposites are in terms of explanation, beauty and precept is a question of knowledge. We can look at all fields anew as we consider this question, but will begin with cultural anthropology.
Consider the native people of 0kapmin, New Guinea, where I conducted field research in 1967. How true are the opposites as explanation? Like myself, and yourselves, they are trying to like the world. At the same time, the world—the environment—is resistant and they have to work hard and people aren't too helpful. Do they have two opposite attitudes to the world—that it has been kind to them and the gods have been good, and also that it has rooked them? Have they hundreds of possibilities of being pleased and angry?
There are central questions in anthropology as to warfare, religion, art, mythology, dance, and kinship that can be explained clearly and taught through the opposites. "The basic questions of anthropology," Eli Siegel explained in a lecture on anthropology in 1969, "have to do with the possibilities of human beings being angry and being pleased, feeling one is just and one is guilty, being at rest and being in motion, being bored and being interested."
These are opposites. Through study, it can be seen how people in all cultures are trying to put them together; as one sees this, an unexpected beauty in anthropology comes forth. For example, in a recent class I taught on American Indian culture, a question was raised about the structure of tribal government. I was asked what are war chiefs and peace chiefs. I asked students whether they felt more important getting along with people or fighting with them—for instance, their parents. The human mind has a debate whether to declare war on the world, or get along, and the Indians had this debate. Pugnacious war chiefs, equivalent to the Pentagon, would debate with quieter civilian chiefs, giving outward form to opposites in oneself. When explained this way, it is not forgotten. It rings true.
Two questions raised in prefaces to introductory anthropology texts but not dealt with adequately, I feel, are answered by the Siegel Theory of Opposites. They are (a) How can knowledge of yourself help you to understand the Indian—or any culture—better? and (b) How can knowledge about the Indian increase your self- knowledge—or knowledge of any culture increase it? One example in terms of war and peace has been cited. Another example, in terms of feeling one is just and one is guilty can be found in Patterns of Culture by Ruth Benedict (1934). She writes:
Some questions were: Did the Zuñi Indians have a triumph and then feel bad? Have you ever gotten pleasure you were not proud of later? Did you ever go off alone for a time? or lose your appetite? or not want to move for some time?
I explain that, as Eli Siegel writes in the second of the Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism (1960), if we have a triumph from despising the world, we will not think well of ourselves. This is not grasped immediately but it is thought about, and there are results when a teacher can apply the principle with some consistency. One of the most affecting things written to me, resulting from this, was a Vietnam War veteran's note:
This question has to be answered when we study race. I began to notice most textbooks accentuate differences among human beings in a way that makes them somewhat gross: nose width, hair texture, thickness of lips, and the like. I saw nothing wrong in this until I began to understand sameness more deeply. The following questions arise from what I learned from Aesthetic Realism; I believe they help answer more deeply than before the question, "How should people see each other?" (1) Do you feel you are more like other people or more different from them? (2) When you meet a person of another color, what do you notice first—their difference from you or their likeness? (3) Do you have contempt for what is different from you? (4) Can you learn more from a person who is different from you or a person who is just like you? (5) Does the way keys and locks are different help them work?
The purpose of these questions is to make conscious a process I have found explained nowhere in the literature on prejudice. It is the process of contempt, delineated by Eli Siegel in the third of his four statements: "There is a disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world." Any fear of the unfriendly world will likely turn into contempt, and a person of another nationality can be the target. The only alternative is to see that even much different people have the deepest thing in common: the desire to like the world. And in order to like the world, people want to make one of contrary drives in themselves. Art shows this most clearly.
Showing slides and explaining the opposites in mythology, too, makes sameness clear. Consider the pendant shown of a Bolivian war captive: it is made of shell inlaid with turquoise and gold.
My concluding example in the field of linguistics also points to human universals. I chose phonetics because it is a subject which I found quite boring when I learned it. And it took about two years before I began to have lively classes in teaching it. Aesthetic Realism says that every sound has the structure of the world in it, whatever culture it comes from. This, when understood, makes the sound profoundly interesting and entertaining. All the philosophic reasons why this is so cannot be gone into here, but the fundamental reason is in Eli Siegel's sentence which has the basis of Aesthetic Realism in it: "The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." If sounds have an aesthetic basis, why can't they excite a class the way music does? Well, they can. Take the two classes of consonants—stops and continuants. They are opposites corresponding to rest and motion. A prominent stop is "p" and a prominent continuant is "m." They are opposites.
If you say "puh" to a person telling you about some witty remark, that's disapproval. If you say "mmmm," that's approval, the opposite. The "p" is prominent in many contempt words, including poo, puke, pish. In the Trobriand Islands of the South Pacific, "popu" is insulting. While "mmm" approves, the second nasal continuant disapproves or negates: "nnnn" as in no, never. Again, living opposite emotions are in the sound itself.
After the bilabials and the "n," the consonants go deeper in the mouth one by one—t, d, k, g—until they go deepest of all, the "h": "hhh." The "h" sound, so deep, coming from the center of the body, is the sound that begins the word "heart" and the word "hope."
I believe that the unconscious has made choices so that, as Alexander Pope said of poetry, "the sound must seem an echo to the sense." These are poetic choices, and every student can perceive them and be excited by them. The more I learn about poetry and care for poetic music, the better I teach phonetics. It surprises students and myself to see how sounds in many languages correspond to feelings and word—pictures in oneself.
Perhaps a good conclusion would be lines of English poetry showing what sound can do. First is a picture of the world as caressing, with m's and b's that approve, in Tennyson's "Come Down, 0 Maid," from The Princess:
The greatness of Eli Siegel as educator is apparent in the diversity of subjects Aesthetic Realism is true about, for the structure of the world is in all subject matter.
Arnold, M. "Dover Beach." In Van Doren and Lapolla (eds.) The World's Best Poems. New York: World, 1929.
Benedict, R. Patterns of Culture. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1934.
Pope, A. "Essay on Criticism." In Ward (ed.) The English Poets, Vol. 111. New York: Macmillan, 1903.
Siegel, E. Aesthetic Realism and Anthropology. Lecture, Aesthetic Realism Ethical Study Conference, Society for Aesthetic Realism, New York, 1969.
—. Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism. New York: Terrain Gallery, 1960.
—. "The Equality of Man." In The Modern Quarterly: Beginnings of Aesthetic Realism, 1922-1923. New York: Definition Press, 1969 (reprinted from 1:3 The Modern Quarterly, 1923).
Tennyson, A. "Come Down, 0 Maid." From "The Princess: A Medley." In
The Poetic and Dramatic Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson. Boston: HoughtonMifflin,
Index of Native American Resources on the Internet
Writing by Ellen Reiss in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, which you can read online, includes her "Difference and Sameness: The Human Question" and "Racism Can End." Collected articles by others whom I esteem, printed in newspapers across the country, are also online. See the page titled " How Aesthetic Realism Opposes Racism." These practical and deeply insightful articles include "On Racism & How to End It" by Nancy Huntting; Allan Michael's "It Is In Contempt That the Root of Racism Lies"; Alice Bernstein's "Poems by Eli Siegel about Martin Luther King and America" and the book she edited: Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism. Other articles include, "The Genome & Equality"; "Words, Truth, & the Confederate Flag"; "Fascism, Understood At Last!"; "Aesthetic Realism: The Solution to Racism"; "Contempt, the Cause of Racism"; "Queen's Visit to Amritsar" by Christopher Balchin; and articles by New York teachers who show how the standard curriculum, K-12, can—and must—be used to encourage kindness include: "Prejudice Changes to Respect" and "Students Learn, Prejudice Is Defeated!"
Aesthetic Realism Foundation