Aesthetic Realism and People
By Eli Siegel
The most distressing thing about people is that they are not interested sufficiently in themselves and in others, and do not know, in an organized way, that the only way to be interested in themselves is to be interested in other people and other things. The chief cause of the misery that people have about people is, there is something which keeps them from knowing them.
There can be no such thing as love without knowledge. Where there isn’t knowledge, you are really loving somebody else—somebody you made up. Even after someone has died, the job of knowing that person goes on. But there is a deep feeling that if we know another person adequately, we are going to lose something of ourselves.
No one is going to know another person simply by saying, “Well, from now on I’m going to know the other person.” You cannot know a person, just as you cannot know yourself, until you are interested in what is different from yourself generally.
The chief tragedy of people is that they haven’t been interested in people, and haven’t known people in general and some persons in particular whom they have thought they loved. One of the many instances of this fact is to be seen in a letter of a pretty important man of thought, a professor of fine arts at Harvard: Charles Eliot Norton, who lived from 1827 to 1908. Part of his letter of November 26, 1886 to J .R. Lowell goes this way: “How pleasant the world would be if we were all…a grain more sympathetic with natures different from our own, and if we could but succeed in so expressing our real selves as to make ourselves intelligible!…How rarely are we conscious of a true image of ourselves in another’s heart!”
How rarely are we conscious of a true image of another in our heart—that could also be said. Two people can quarrel with each other, caress each other, cause each other worry, be close to each other as far as body permits—and not take the trouble of really finding out who the other person is. If that doesn’t occur, all the other things are so much scratchings and shame, because sex is for the purpose of knowing people through knowing one person, and if we don’t use it that way we are going to punish ourselves and feel bad.
Love for a person cannot be dissociated from love for people in general. To dismiss the rest of the human race and say, “I’m going to love Marie” or “I’m going to love Montgomery”—that can never be. Any man who thinks that he is loving his wife by depreciating other people, and any woman who thinks she’s loving her husband by depreciating other people and things, is in the field of self-fraud and fraud.
The purpose of loving one person is to love people and things in general. This doesn’t occur very often, and there is a great deal of trouble. What happens most often is that through loving one person, we get to be less interested in people. We have a notion that since we’ve caged a person, our job of understanding other persons is over: we’ve got our choice, so why trouble ourselves any more? And so the function of love—which is the understanding of people and reality as a whole through the close, musical, complete seeing of one person—is not kept to.
To know what people are is very necessary, because through knowing what other people are we know about ourselves. There is not a person who has ever lived who can’t tell us something about ourselves. For that matter, there isn’t a thing. People are simply things, more complete than other things. The difference between a person and a lamp post is that the lamp post is a person who is incomplete because the lamp post is not conscious of itself. In other words, when that which is in the lamp post is in such a form that the reality becomes aware of itself and aware of things that can be called purposes—a certain attitude to everything else—the lamp post would be a person. It is necessary to see that between things and people there is continuity; between people and ourselves, our very selves, there is also continuity; and at no point is the continuity broken.
People are simply reality when most complete; reality when aware of itself. The importance of people is that they are reality in the richest form. Through seeing that reality can be people, we see what reality can do. And so our attitude to plants and animals and to rocks and the skies can become richer.
We Want to Be Everyone
I quote a very good sentence by Alfred Tennyson from Victorian and Later English Poets (ed. Stephens, Beck, and Snow): “People do not consider that every human being is a vanful of human beings, of those who have gone before him, and of those who form part of his life.” We carry, in other words, history and sociology in us: we are a result; we are a relation. There is nothing we don’t have to do with. All the past is in us, and at any one moment there are lots of things and lots of other people working in us. Whenever we see a person we should try to apprehend that relation. In the same way as coffee isn’t just the coffee that we have right in the bag—it was in Brazil and likely on a boat—so we shouldn’t look at people as just what is in front of our eyes. There are things that stretch forth and go out into all time and all space. When we understand a person we see that person as having all kinds of unexplainable relations, and explainable, too; and yet as a point, something definite.
We have to like people before we can love any one person. We have to like the world before we can love any one person. People have tried to use one person as against all other people, just as in the beginning they used themselves as against all other people.
The more we like people, the more we’ll be proud of ourselves. No person has ever disliked people and been proud of it. It isn’t because people are people; it is because they are reality. We cannot afford to despise reality. If we do, we are giving ourselves poison. The important thing about people—with all their weaknesses, hypocrisies, mistakes, meannesses, lazinesses, grudgingnesses, inertias, pretenses—is, they are real. If, after much fuss and evolution, reality took the form of people, we have to respect that happening.
There is something in us that doesn’t want to like people, that doesn’t want to like anything. There is something in us that says if we respect something or like something, we have taken away from ourselves. There is that in us which wants to like nothing but ourselves, and any time we consent to like something else we think we are giving up some of the love pie, the approval pie. A training in the love of reality would mean a training in the honest like of people. Those persons who are backslappers and who go around saying cheery things about people don’t necessarily like them. It isn’t that easy.
A person who had the problem of liking people and took it very courageously is Walt Whitman. There is not a person in the world, with whom, if we were in the same room, we would not be aware of an important relation. It is likely we’ll never meet that person, know the name of that person, but we should accept the general truth: every person who has ever lived can mean something to us. It is better to see it that way than not think about it at all or peevishly deny it. Whitman is one of the very few persons who wanted to embrace the universe. I read this rhapsody of love for people from “Salut au Monde!,” Salute to the World:
I see the Brazilian vaquero,
I see the Bolivian ascending mount Sorata.
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I see the porpoise-hunters, I see the whale-crews of the south Pacific and the north Atlantic.
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I see the cities of the earth and make myself at random a part of them,
I am a real Parisian,
I am a habitan of Vienna, St. Petersburg, Berlin, Constantinople,
I am of Adelaide, Sidney, Melbourne,
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I am of Madrid, Cadiz, Barcelona, Oporto, Lyons, Brussels, Berne, Frankfort, Stuttgart, Turin, Florence ….
The question is, what’s he doing all this for? Why does he want to be everywhere? Why does he want to be everybody? I can say that Whitman expresses the deepest feelings of everyone. Everyone wants to be everybody; not just, let us say, Betty Grable, not just Clark Gable—everyone.
To See a Person from Within
I see African and Asiatic towns,
I see Algiers, Tripoli, Derne, Mogadore, Timbuctoo, Monrovia,
I see the swarms of Pekin, Canton, Benares, Delhi, Calcutta, Tokio,
I see the Kruman in his hut, and the Dahoman and Ashantee-man in their huts,
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I look on the fall’n Theban, the large-ball’d eyes, the side-drooping neck, the hands folded across the breast.
The word sympathy has somewhat degenerated. It means, most often, pity; but the real meaning is feeling with. It means the ability to feel what another person feels, to see that person from within. That happens to be one of the most necessary abilities that anyone could ever go after. And it should be taught. Before any mother has a child, the mother should be able to say, “I shall never stop thinking about you and trying to know you.” No people should marry unless they say, “I’ll never decide I know everything about you or sum you up. I’ll never get tired of thinking about who you are, and if I do, it will be grounds for separation.” The tendency is, “If I have this person’s love, I’m under no obligation to keep on thinking about her. I can worry but not think.”
I see all the menials of the earth, laboring.
I see all the prisoners in the prisons,
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The pirates, thieves, betrayers, murderers, slave-makers of the earth.
Whitman is trying to show his feeling for all the persons who most ordinarily would not be liked. How is it that Shakespeare was able to see Iago; Edmund in King Lear; the fairly villainous creatures in Hamlet; those very bad people that we find in a lesser known play, Pericles; the murderer Macbeth; the murderess Lady Macbeth—unless he had that deep quality of being able to see from within even something one doesn’t like? If reality consents to be bad—as it does—it is still to be known.
You whoever you are!
You daughter or son of England!
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You neighbor of the Danube!
You working-man of the Rhine, the Elbe, or the Weser! you working-woman too!
You Sardinian! you Bavarian! Swabian! Saxon! Wallachian! Bulgarian!
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And you each and everywhere who I specify not, but include just the same!
Health to you! good will to you all, from me and America sent!
The fact is that everything that exists in Teheran and the people there have some relation to us, and it is sensible to recognize it.
“Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” is the other side of knowing people: Whitman sees a bird that has lost its mate, and he thinks of people trying to know others, missing them, separating from them, and he feels the feelings of this bird as his. Separation can exist very much while people are together. We get aware of the separation that has been all the time if a person dies or goes away. Only through knowledge, seeing the other person from within, can the separation be met. People feel apart even at the same table or in the same bed. The trying of people to get close to each other, the frantic trying, is part of the emotional history of man. This poem is the counterpart of “Salut au Monde!” But one couldn’t have been written without the other. Whitman could not have felt the poignancy of this bird missing another bird on eastern Long Island, had he not had the feeling for otherness in general.
“Low hangs the moon, it rose late, / It is lagging—O I think it is heavy with love, with love.” This is the sentimental part of the desire for closeness: the almost unendurable feeling that some thing is away from us that we are looking for. This poignant feeling of absence, of vacancy, will never be completed until we welcome that otherness we are looking for, and welcome it in its general form, in all its forms. Otherwise, even when we think that our poignant desire has been granted, something in us will know that it hasn’t. People clutch at each other and tear each other and bite each other trying to be close. They want to meet their love and don’t want to show themselves; they don’t want to be known and don’t want to know. Therefore, there is an instinct without completion. There is an instinct, in fact, that hopes not to succeed.
“With this just-sustain’d note I announce myself to you, / This gentle call is for you my love, for you.” Is it by chance only that Whitman could write this poignant thing of the bird missing another bird, its mate, and also write the poem of cosmopolitan love, universal love, geographical love? No. Whitman could not have had this almost unendurable poignancy if he did not have the other feeling: this love for the world, which Whitman was trying to have all through his life. I cannot say he completely succeeded in it, but the fact that he tried so wonderfully makes him important.
What It Means to Like People
The purpose of loving a person is to feel that what is different from us can be on our side. If we change that person into a special find of our own, disconnected from everything else, then the very purpose of love has been degraded, interfered with, falsified, and we go stumbling and fumbling and hesitating and stuttering with our unconscious.
The love for people is in all fiction: no one would read about bad people in fiction if he weren’t interested in people, and no person would honestly write about them. If we like anything that concerns people, whether it’s a movie or a radio script, that much we are interested in people—if we could see what we do like. The important thing about liking people, as I said, is that through people we can like reality. Through liking reality we can like people; which simply means that we accept the idea that knowing what people feel—what makes them feel as they do, what goes on within them—is good for us. That is the essential thing in liking people: that the more we know people, the more we feel what goes on within them, the more we feel why they do as they do, the better it is for us. That is not the same thing as approving of them. You might as well say that if a person studies various plants, he has to like them. He has to see what they are. If through knowing anybody we know ourselves better, there is a kind of like which is not the ordinary like.
About twenty-six years ago Aesthetic Realism began in a fashion, with “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana.” That poem put various things about people in a way that I think is still true. So I read some lines from “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana”:
Indians, Indians went through Montana,
Thinking, feeling, trying pleasurably to live.
This land, shone on by the sun now, green, quiet now,
Was under their feet, this time; we live now and it is hundreds of years after.
The reason I wrote these lines was a partly humorous reason. Many persons have thought of Indians, and they saw them on horses and saw them go through their war dances and wear their feathers—but they did not see that what went on in Indians was pretty much like what went on in themselves: that is, that they were trying to have a happy life.
Many people who are now worried about others should be told this: “So you don’t like Bill; so you don’t like Henrik; so you don’t like Juanita—are they trying to bother you, or are they trying to be happy? They are trying to be happy, and in trying to be happy they incidentally bother you. They are trying to be happy; you are trying to be happy; so you got tangled, like two people in a rush for the same pineapple.” We don’t want to see this elementary fact. We think they are against us. People are trying to be happy, and if they could do it by being for us they’d just as soon be for us, but they don’t see that they could do it by being for us. I put this simple fact, “Indians, Indians, went through Montana,” (we could say, “Shooting at the white man, riding on their pony.” I say,) “Thinking, feeling, trying pleasurably to live.” Not a critic in America saw the humor in it.
One of the first things necessary in liking people is to grant them the same purposes we have. But to grant other people the same purposes as we—that would be giving them so much credit! Let us rather sneer at them and sniff at them and forget about them. So I felt that it was important to say, “Indians, Indians went through Montana, / Thinking, feeling, trying pleasurably to live.”
“This land, shone on by the sun now, green, quiet now, / Was under their feet, this time; we live now and it is hundreds of years after.” And we have to do with them. A Pawnee or a Comanche or an Apache had a different way of being happy, but what he tried to do really was to get himself so in relation with the grass he rode over, and horses, and rituals, and war dances, that he would have approval from the Great Spirit, and go, maybe, to the happy hunting ground where he would have a quiet life and still ride.
People come to think that they have to fight others. They cannot see that their fight is with what is different from themselves, and that in them which is different, so they fight:
Indians killed each other here,
With the moon over them.
Indians killed each other near Cap Cod, near Boston, in Louisiana, too.
It was before white men came from England, to see them; the white men were seen by them.
A couple of hundred thousand Indians killing each other while the white men were taking more and more of their land, is very silly—that they should waste their time killing each other. But they did. And it’s sad. If they could have found excitement otherwise, they wouldn’t have done it. There is no doubt that people come to think they are going to be important by beating another. It has been so in history.
Man, Cheap and Dear
People have been good and bad—everybody has been. They can be very noble. The same man who can help to build a bridge or put a railroad up a mountain can have a very two-for-a-cent quarrel with his wife and be quite cheap. People are cheap and dear:
Men work, suffer, are little, ugly, too.
O, mountains are in Montana,
The Rocky Mountains are in California, Utah, Colorado, Montana.
What I imply here is that men have been sniveling and weak, but they have also done things with mountains; they have crossed mountains. When we see how much men can endure, and we read about some of the goings over the west (the Donner Party expedition, for example), we think of man as very brave. Then we see how he can quarrel with a waiter because he doesn’t get his soup in the right way; we think, What a wretch! But that’s the way man is. And any person who doesn’t want to accept the contradictions in people, their weakness and their strength, just wants to sum up people in order to have his own notions.
God, what is it man can do?
There are millions of men in the world, and each is one man,
Each is one man by himself, taking care of himself all the time, and changing other men and being changed by them;
The quiet of this afternoon is strange, haunting, awful;
Hear that buzzing in the hot grass, coming from live things; and those crows’ cries from somewhere;
There is a sluggish, sad brook near here, too.
I remember once, about 1920, reading something by Gorki in which he said that men were lonely on this planet, that this planet was lonely. I was taken by the idea that with so many men in the world, somehow they are lonely together and lonely on earth. It is so. From what we know, earth is the only planet of its kind; man, as man, is isolated, and compared to other things he is very few. Then, when we think of how each person carries his own world in himself, how very seldom that world is entered into, how each man is in a lonely cage—it is taking. One predominant thing all through history is the loneliness of man, even when he’s married and has grandchildren. Somehow he still thinks he’s in himself. That is what I’m getting at here: “God, what is it man can do?” Man can do wonderful things—and yet he is so weak.
“There are millions of men in the world, and each is one man.” Each person thinks himself to be one self, and he’s looking at you just as you’re looking at him, and when you bump him in the bus, he’s also hurt, not just you. He has the same desires in general as you have, and he can be lonely, and thinks he’s aggrieved and hasn’t got the breaks. People cower, they huddle in themselves, they’re lonely; and it’s only our desire to think that we have all the trouble in the world that makes us unable to see that, just call them nuisances and superficial and pretentious—that is so, but it’s not the whole story. The only thing that is more than the bad things in people is the good things, or at least the things that should make us think.
“There are millions of men in the world, and each is one man, / Each is one man by himself, taking care of himself all the time, and changing other men and being changed by them.” Everybody is in a swirl of space and time, being affected by others and wondering what it all means. Every person has been afraid of death and sickness. Every person has felt at times that other people are against him. Every person has felt lonely and not understood, and every person has wondered what it is all about. The way we wonder and the way we are discontent certainly can be criticized; but every man is a lonely, wondering, discontented animal.
“The quiet of this afternoon is strange, haunting, awful; / Hear that buzzing in the hot grass, coming from live things; and those crows’ cries from somewhere.” What I meant was that as we see this from a certain point of view—say a hundred years ago—all the sufferings and yearnings and the loneliness and the pinings and the peevishness and the wretchedness takes on a quality of insects buzzing in the hot grass. Yet we know as we look even at an insect closely that there is an individuality about the insect.
The difference between Aesthetic Realism and one famous religious phrase, “Brethren, love one another,” is this: Aesthetic Realism says, Brethren, love one another, and the one way you will love one another is to know each other by knowing the world. The history of man consists of his quarrels, his fights, domestic, sociological, political. And so I say that the Indians fought each other:
O, the cry of the Indian in battle, hundreds of years ago, in woods, in plains, in mountains;
War might have been seen once in this meadow, now in green, now hot.
The feeling here is the feeling that many persons have when their wife or husband dies and they go to the funeral: “Gee, if I had known, I would have been nicer to her. I wouldn’t have had so many quarrels. I wouldn’t have called her so many names. I would have talked to her more. I’d have asked her questions.” People have regretted that again and again. But there is something in them which they have to understand that makes them feel more important when they’re fighting and contemptuous, when they’re not trying to know.
A Symphony of Good and Bad
Man cannot put his desire to fight and his desire to love together, because he doesn’t see either completely:
War might have been seen once in this meadow, now in green, now hot;
Hundreds of years ago it might have been seen, and tens of years, and a thousand.
There was love among Indians; there is love in Paris, Moscow, London, and New York.
If people want to fight and also want to love, won’t there be confusion and blurriness? Certainly, and that’s what I mean by the next two lines: “Men have been in war, ever, / And men have thought, and written books, about war, love, and mind.” They have fought, and they’ve tried to understand what made them want to fight, and a thing like love, and what their mind was. Then the confusion: “Mist comes in this earth, / And there have been sad, empty, pained, longing souls going through mist.”
Before you start hating anybody, try to understand what makes him confused, and you will find, perhaps, that there is more confusion than just animosity. Very few people are given to animosity and nothing else. They’re trying to be happy, and somewhere they meet confusion. The things that are bad in them should be fought; but in the same way as a surgeon, trying to get something out of a person’s body that is not good, tries to keep the rest of the body, so it is important that what we’re against in a person not be seen as the person himself. Otherwise, we’re not fair. If it means fighting a lot of the person in order to fight what is bad in the person, we have to do that—but we’re always fighting the bad things. If the best way of fighting the bad things is to fight the person, then that’s the one way; but most often it isn’t.
This represents some of the crisscrossing and confusion of people:
Clear air is healthful; men go to Colorado, near Wyoming, near Montana in the mountains, sick men go to the mountains where Indians once lived, fought and killed each other.
O, the love of bodies, O, the pains of bodies on hot, quiet afternoons, everywhere in the world.
Men work in factories on hot afternoons, now in Montana, and now in New Hampshire; walk the streets of Boston on hot afternoons;
Novels, stupid and forgot, have been written in afternoons;
Matinées of witty comedies in London and New York are in afternoons;
Indians roamed here, in this green field, on quiet, hot afternoons, in years now followed by hundreds of years.
Where Indians once fought—in Colorado, let us say—there are sanitariums where people go for tuberculosis. Such is the interchange of the world. People have bodies—and love, of course, has to do with the body—and there are pains of all kinds. They have worked, and been abused in their work. The persons who have exploited them have suffered from their wives and from themselves too, which doesn’t mean that their exploitation is good. In the meantime, Indians who were like us roamed the green fields also trying to be happy. Out of it all comes this great symphony of good and bad, which, if we are to like ourselves, we have to try to make sense of.
The difficulty of making sense of the world is equalled only by the necessity for trying. Once we give it up as a bad job, we are saying we were born for no good purpose. So I say that the big thing is—through knowing people, to know the world; and through knowing the world, to know people:
The world is waiting to be known; Earth, what it has in it! The past is in it;
All words, feelings, movements, words, bodies, clothes, girls, trees, stones, things of beauty, books, desires are in it; and all are to be known;
Afternoons have to do with the whole world;
And the beauty of mind, feeling knowingly the world!
The world of girls’ beautiful faces, bodies and clothes, quiet afternoons, graceful birds, great words, tearful music, mind-joying poetry, beautiful livings, loved things, known things: a to-be-used and known and pleasure-to-be giving world.
What is the best way of our showing our respect of ourselves and of other people? Through honest knowledge. I have never yet seen a person regret that he had honest knowledge about anybody. Even knowing a skunk is good. The knowing is the understanding of what the skunk is—which doesn’t mean we have to welcome it. Only in this way can we respect ourselves.
Every person who lives, whether in Greenpoint or Persia, gives us a chance of knowing ourselves better. People are a means of finding out what we want. People are midway between the unexpressed part of reality—the rocks, the skies, the rivers, the things that don’t have life—and completely knowing life. We have them now; they are confused; they confuse us. But Aesthetic Realism says, Once you have a chance to know somebody close or far and you don’t take it, please try to see yourself clearly and proudly as wrong.