REVIEW by Meryl Simon and Devorah Tarrow
“Gwe was born in Stone Age New Guinea. Alan was born in New York City. This is their story and the story of Gwe’s people.”
Gwe is a stirring novel set in New Guinea and peopled by the Mengti, with whom the author, Dr. Arnold Perey, lived. When he returned to the U.S., he began to study Aesthetic Realism, founded by American philosopher Eli Siegel. Dr. Perey writes:
“All beauty is a making one of opposites,” wrote Eli 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? …
In every chapter we see the answer is yes. The novel centers on Alan Hull, young anthropologist and Gwe, a young man of traditional Papuan culture, who becomes Alan’s interpreter and guide.
Dr. Perey takes us into the home of Gwe’s family.
Father of Gwe, seeing Alan walk into his dwelling in his stocking feet asks: “Are your feet like ours?” When Alan removes his socks, Gwe’s father asks to touch his foot, which he does, and says, “Your feet are like baby’s feet.” Alan explains that his feet are always in shoes, and don’t meet the rough earth barefoot.
Then Alan pantomimes the tickling of his own foot and asks “If I tickle you, Father of Gwe, will you laugh? The elder says, “Ah, yes.” Perey writes, “Everyone in the little house was satisfied by the mood of mutual confidence mingled with a certain daring.”
Then, they want to celebrate with a Singsing. Father of Gwe guides him:
Coming to Alan, he put one old hand on the young man’s back, and the other on his pale upper arm, and he began rising and falling in time to an internal music. Back and forth across the length of the house they danced….Together the old father and the young, New York-born student danced the dance of New Guinea, centuries old, in a small dwelling on a rainy slope in the Victor Emanuel Mountains, 5 degrees south of the Equator in the Eastern half of the World.
The Mengti live by sweet potatoes, taro, and pigs. But because Gwe’s selfish, brutal uncle, Yug-wek-kek, has taken possession by force of the best land, and the crops haven’t grown as well as they should, most of the people are starved for protein. Alan explains to Gwe that when a baby’s head is larger than his chest, it is a sign he is malnourished. Dr. Perey describes Gwe’s distress at the condition of the babies as Alan measures them, and we feel both Alan and Gwe’s anguish.
Meanwhile, there is something else that is new, arising from Dr. Perey’s study of Aesthetic Realism: he goes into the feelings of Yug-wek-kek—showing how against himself he is for his ill will and the effects on himself of his own injustice. We read of how his guilt takes the form of a nightmare and an episode of insanity. We see new depths in a person and we are encouraged to ask ourselves: What are the effects on me when I am unjust?
Through the character of Alan, Arnold Perey courageously lays bare racism in himself and tells how he learned to see its cause as explained by Aesthetic Realism: “The addition to self through the lessening of something else.” This is contempt for people and things, and is the most damaging drive in humanity—in us.
What is the opposition to that unjust state of mind? Aesthetic Realism shows it is in art. In the chapter titled “Sunset and a Poem,” Dr. Perey describes how educated he was by the response of Gwe to a magnificent sunset—and he quotes a poem Gwe’s people sang at twilight. Here are lines of the New Guinea Insect Song:
Koo-reng-geng-gay Aroong-geng-gay Koo-reng-geng-gay Mooroo-ro-no… The insect is singing, It is nearly dark The insect is singing Come dance…
Dr. Perey writes:
Alan was stirred by this poem about sunset the way he was …by the carvings on the Divanna men’s arrows. He saw they had art. …And now—poetry. His experiences were altering his conception of …people whose dark complexion he had felt, despite all his anthropological training, was associated with lesser minds and lesser sensitivity.
In Gwe, Dr. Perey has us see and feel our kinship to people far away in place and in time. And he shows convincingly the cause of racism and how it can end.
Meryl Simon and Devorah Tarrow are consultants on the faculty of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation, where they study in professional classes taught by Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss. Ms. Simon has an MA in Anthropology and Ms. Tarrow has an MA in Sociology.