Aesthetic Realism, Founded by ElI Siegel,
"Nothing human is alien to me." —Terence
How we meet the new, with contempt or the desire to know, is the test of our intelligence and our ethics. In "The Island" Lord Byron wrote:
The New World stretch'd its dusk hand to the Old.
The dusk hand of the New World was extended to me on another Pacific island, New Guinea. I was there, in the mountains, conducting anthropological research for my doctoral dissertation, supported by the National Science Foundation and the US Public Health Service. Margaret Mead was my sponsor for this dissertation, and for her integrity and truly scientific, inquiring mind, I am most grateful.
I am also grateful to the people who welcomed me, most particularly Wepil, of the Nguna clan. Wepil translated for me faithfully and accurately from the beginning of my stay in Papua New Guinea.
The theme of our story was suggested to me by Eli Siegel, the great poet and critic, in an Aesthetic Realism class when I had returned from the field and was studying the important philosophy he founded in New York City. Could you write, he asked, about a person of New Guinea who meets an anthropologist like yourself, and how they change?
Gwe is that person, and Alan Hull is the anthropologist. Gwe is pronounced "Gway." Gwe is based on young men I knew and learned from, including Sania, Gitlep from Gaugutiana, Abineng, and of course Wepil.
Our story really begins some 50,000 years ago, when human beings first began to migrate out of Africa, the homeland of us all. As they traveled to different climates their skin color evolved in response to environment. In less than 2000 generations skin had grown lighter in the cool north, darker near the equator. By 10,000 years ago, people were settled everywhere in the world. So when Gwe and Alan meet in our story, they represent the reunion of two lines of descent, separated by thousands of miles and years.
These lines, European-American and New Guinean, had grown apart in culture and appearance. Gwe was dark brown with tightly curled black hair and dark brown eyes. Alan had light skin, brown hair, and blue eyes. But the viewpoint of Aesthetic Realism, which I study and love, is that all people are more alike than different. This was true for Alan and Gwe.
"All beauty is a making one of opposites," wrote Mr. Siegel, "and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." To see the deep likeness of all people, the opposites are scientifically necessary. The people of New Guinea you'll meet in this story-are they concerned with respecting oneself and feeling guilty?... being angry and being pleased; being excited and being calm; being fair to people and being selfish-in circumstances unique to their island? And are these the same opposites all of us are concerned with and want to make sense of in our own lives, wherever we were born? Seeing that the answer is emphatically yes, has us respect people and makes us kinder.
Before I studied Aesthetic Realism, I had not seen people as going after any goal I could respect, but as essentially selfish. I learned that my view of humanity was tainted by the contempt for people on which, academically and personally, I had built a great deal of false importance.
Aesthetic Realism had me see that contempt is the greatest danger to a self and the greatest failure of humanity. Mr. Siegel explained there is a victory in our ability to have contempt, "to depreciate anything that exists. To see the world itself as an impossible mess-and this is often not difficult at all-gives a certain triumph to the individual.... Contempt is our soothing revenge for a world not sufficiently interested, as we see it, in what we are hoping for."
Contempt, "the addition to self through the lessening of something else," is the cause of racism, prejudice-and every cruelty.
The fight of contempt against respect is in the events of history. It is in contemporary economics: should people get what they deserve-food, housing, the profits created by their own labor? Or does a human being exist to make money for a boss, an owner, the stockholders? The fight of contempt against respect is also personal and is in mothers and daughters, fathers and sons: who has not both cared for a relative and lessened him or her, too?
As I tell you about this book and its viewpoint, I am thankful as freshly and warmly as I was in 1968 for the privilege of studying in the classes taught by Eli Siegel and now by Ellen Reiss, the Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism.
Mr. Siegel suggested, after I'd returned from New Guinea and began to study with him, that I think about the "feelings, simple and subtle, among early people." He asked: "What does the reader in anthropology at the British Museum have in common with what he is reading about?"
I began to imagine respectfully the inner lives of people who I began to understand more exactly than I did when I was living amongst them. I began to realize how alive the people were; how their flesh, like mine, contains a heart that can beat slower or faster with emotion; I realized, as Mr. Siegel hoped I would, that I had the same feelings they did. It brought me close to the people I had looked on as material for professional advancement, and yet, about whom, I remember saying to myself earlier that year, "I can't turn them into numbers," and found I couldn't write any more.
I began to discover that opposites as Aesthetic Realism explains them were the means-which I had virtually given up hope of finding-to organize, respectfully, the massive amount of data I had brought home. And even more: they are the means to organize the extensive data of anthropology as a whole-the subject I'd loved and studied for years, at the University of Chicago, University of Nevada, and Columbia.
At that time Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism had already been resented by the press and academic world for decades-a terrible anger at new thought, like that which Galileo endured, and Darwin. So when Dr. Mead told me she would be my advisor for a thesis on New Guinea written from this new point of view, I was ecstatic.
The events in our story are lightly fictionalized and are based on what I saw on the coast and in the mountains of New Guinea and what people there told me. Sandep, when he told me about warfare, and the final war event in this novel, showed me the arrow scars on his body one by one. I have changed or rearranged most of the place names and people's names to preserve their privacy. The people in this work are not intended to be portraits of particular people but composites, as the characters of most authors are.
The cultural descriptions are, to the best of my knowledge, accurate. I have made an educated use of the imagination and of general principles where my original observations needed fleshing out. I have also based some cultural descriptions on what other anthropologists saw in New Guinea. I'd be glad to supply details of this imaginative supplementation for scholarly purposes to those who need it. The culture of Gwe's people is described, in technical terms, in my doctoral dissertation Oksapmin Society and World View1.
I hope that as you read this story, you will see the people of New Guinea as real, and you will want to be fair to them. It is so easy to think of them as presented in the news and movies: interesting people who paint themselves red, yellow, and blue.
I also want very much for you to learn about yourself as you read about their feelings, for Aesthetic Realism enables a person to understand oneself as never before. It encourages a person to ask, Should I see people as things to manipulate and conquer, and the world as a mess to despise and get my way in? Or should I see this world and other human beings the way Miranda in Shakespeare's Tempest sees: "O brave new world that has such people in it!"
On how we answer this question the future of humanity depends.