The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

There Are Babies, Art, & Ourselves

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is part 8 of the 1972 lecture we are serializing. The Known and Unknown Are Kind in Poetry, by Eli Siegel, is very much about two tremendous questions critics have tried to answer for centuries: What is art? and Why does art matter? Aesthetic Realism answers these questions—truly and greatly.

Aesthetic Realism also explains that the way of seeing which makes for art, and the purpose in us which enables us to be affected by art, are completely opposed to another way of seeing we have: contempt. Contempt is the getting an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” It is the ugliest, stupidest, most hurtful thing in every person. Yet people have mistakenly felt that this ability to look down on the outside world made them clever, secure, and even creative.

I’m going to comment on an article that appeared on April 15 in the New York Times. What it’s about can seem so different from the content of Mr. Siegel’s lecture. After all, the article is about babies, infants, while Mr. Siegel, discussing an essay on the poet Milton, speaks about how a great author sees. Yet the fundamental means to understand both the babies and art at its grandest is in these principles of Aesthetic Realism:

Man’s deepest desire, his largest desire, is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.

The way to like the world and the things in it is to see both as the aesthetic oneness of opposites.

All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.

The Times article, by Pam Belluck, is about the upshot of a study: premature infants, it appears, do better if they hear music. “The researchers concluded that live music, played or sung, helped to slow infants’ heartbeats, calm their breathing, improve sucking behaviors important for feeding, aid sleep and promote states of quiet alertness.”

I find that study both very moving and important, because—though the researchers don’t know this—its results show something big about what the human self is. They illustrate the principles I just quoted.

Is It about the World?

The researchers try to give reasons why these not yet fully developed babies succeed better through hearing music. The chief cause they give is that the music “reduc[es] stress.” But I believe the reason is a much larger and more meaningful one: How central is the need of a person to like the world? And does music present the world into which a baby is born, as making sense, as to be liked, as beautiful?

In issue 93 of this journal, titled “Music Tells What the World Is Like,” Eli Siegel writes:

Music for a long time has been telling what the world is really like. What music has to say now, in a manner that has both logic and emotion in it, is that the world has a structure persons could like; be stronger by.

Let’s take a song that the article says “Andrea Zalkin sang to the tiny, fragile baby clutched to her chest in the neonatal unit.” It’s the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week,” made into a lullaby. This song puts together two of the biggest opposites reality has: change and sameness. So does all good music. As we hear “Eight Days a Week,” we hear notes that change: they go down then up, linger then go faster, come unexpectedly. Yet with all their change, the notes go together; they’re coherent; they share the same key; they make up the same melody.

That is what “Ms. Zalkin’s baby, Hudson, born 13 weeks early,” hears. He has had an enormous change. There’s hardly a more enormous change than being born; but a premature baby has less preparation for it than others have. To hear change that is continuity too, is to feel that the world he got himself into can be for him. The opposites are philosophic; they’re abstract—but they’re also as elemental to every person as the beating of our heart and circulation of our blood.

The Drama of Many & One

There are the opposites of manyness and oneness. A premature infant has come from a place that was very much a unity—the mother’s womb. Now the baby is suddenly meeting a world with multiplicity: with many things, sounds, sensations. He wants—he’s even desperate—to feel that this manyness is unified too: that the multiplicity of the world is something he can welcome because it’s not only many but one. And that’s what music enables the baby, and us, to feel, as we hear many notes—diverse, various—making a one, a composition.

Attempting to explain the good effect of music on the little ones, the researchers speculate:

One reason may be that music is organized, purposeful sound amid the unpredictable, overstimulating noise of neonatal units....[Said a researcher:] “Meaningful noise is important for a baby’s brain development.”

Certain words are here: organized, purposeful, meaningful. But what do those words have to do with a person’s sense of the world itself ? Is the biggest desire of every person, however tiny, to feel that the world is organized, purposeful, meaningful? And what do those words have to do with another word: beautiful? Is the music the infants hear just something to the side; is it just what these researchers call “therapy”? Or is it about the main matter in a person’s—which includes a premature infant’s—life: the question Is the world made in such a way that I can like it? Is music a means of having a child feel in some way that he or she was born into the right place, because the world as rest and motion, being and change, many and one, makes sense?

What a Child Wants from a Parent

The doctor heading the study says that parents’ just “bopping the baby up and down on their lap” does not have the same effect as “a song that a parent has chosen.” The reason, I believe, is this: A child wants to see other people—his or her parents—affected by and standing for a world that is made well. Children from the earliest moments hear tones from people, feel themselves handled by people, in ways that have an effect on them. Does the infant want to feel that which, however inarticulately, he can feel through a parent’s song: “Mamma is bringing me a world that makes sense, which she likes too. She doesn’t just want to make a fuss about and worry about me. She wants me to like the world.”

Strength & Weakness, Known & Unknown

In the current section of his lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks of opposites that are one in great epic poems—like Homer’s Iliad and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Two of those opposites are strength and weakness. Babies who are born too soon are, surely, a mingling of strength and weakness—a perilous yet also hopeful mingling, bewildering to their very beings. Yet every time a baby hears music that’s good, he is hearing strength and weakness together well. All rhythm, for instance, is a oneness of strong beat and weaker note or notes, of thrust and fade. And every melody that an infant, or anyone, hears is a joining of various sinkings and risings. All music tells babies and us that the world of diminishing and mounting, ebbing and increase, weakness and strength, is a friend.

Then there are the big opposites in the title of the lecture: known and unknown. A baby is in the midst of these. He has gone rapidly from the coziness he’s known within his mother to a world that’s strange to him. Then in music, he hears those opposites as one! He hears sounds that surprise, that are unexpected. Yet these sounds simultaneously feel right, fitting—which means in keeping with what one knows. And so, as tiny babies are affected by music, they are experiencing what Mr. Siegel describes: the fact that the “opposites of known and unknown,” felt as one, “make the world seem kinder.”

Aesthetic Realism is true about the very self of a person, however young and however old. It shows that the self we all have is aesthetic, nothing less; and that to like the world honestly—not go away from it, or have contempt for it—is the same as our life’s faring well.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The “Sweet” & “Useful”

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing Paul Elmer More’s essay on Milton’s “Lycidas.”

I’m reading this essay because I looked at it carefully and asked, Can the understanding of known and unknown in poetry—of how the junction of unknown and known is kindness—be furthered? That’s the hardest thing to see: that the two opposites of known and unknown, when truly seen, make the world seem kinder. —More says:

One of the major problems of criticism [is] the relation between the content of a poem and the art of a poem independent of its content. In the beginning,...the Iliad and the Odyssey were valued theoretically, not for their charm and interest, but because in them the statesman, the soldier, the athlete, the man who desired to live honorably, could find the wisest precepts and best models.

I don’t think More is correct here. I think people felt the charm in the Iliad and the Odyssey. There was some relation of word to word which people felt from the very beginning. Words are looking to have charming companions, and in every language they have found a few. And when words find charming companions, people notice it.

For later times, and for us of the West, the principle involved was formulated by Horace in his famous saying that the most successful poet was he who knew how to mix the utile and the dulce.

I have talked about that being one of the earliest expressions of the opposites: how to be useful (utile) and sweet (dulce), how to be informative and pleasant. This still goes on: how to know the world better, and like it. All poetry enables you to know the world better and at the same time to like the world a little more: it’s utile and dulce. When we find an idea occurring in various contexts and milieus, we can be pretty sure that 1) it might be important, and 2) it might even be true.

What Horace meant by the dulce is clear enough; it is just that in a poem which gives pleasure to a reader. And what he meant by the utile is equally clear; it is that in a poem from which we draw instruction. So in one of the Epistles he tells a friend...that he is in the country reading Homer, who is a better teacher than all the philosophers: “Qui, quid sit pulchrum, quid turpe, quid utile, quid non, / Plenius ac melius Chrysippo et Crantore dicit.”

Which means that Homer “says what is pretty, what is wicked, what is useful, what is not, in a fuller and better way than Chrysippus and Crantor.”

More continues: “The question reached the Renaissance critics, with the emphasis still heavily on the utile.” We can think of a Renaissance reader. And we have records of Renaissance reading—Rabelais has a few; Montaigne has the most—people affected by what they read. It’s important to see emotion of that kind. The emotion that comes from reading is as much emotion as any emotion. Tears that come from reading a book are chemically as substantial and legitimate as tears that come from having your house burn down—that is, chemically.

More mentions, as standing for the Renaissance view, a treatise by George Puttenham. There are two Elizabethan critics who wrote treatises on poetry, Puttenham and Webb. Then there is Sidney, who wrote an essay that is not exactly a treatise, “The Defence of Poesie.”

So Puttenham...thinks it necessary to preface his treatise...with a long apology, wherein is shown how “poets were the first priests, the first prophets, the first Legislators and politicians in the world,” as seen in Homer, Orpheus, Amphion, and the rest.

Orpheus was seen as having great intuition—there are the Orphic sayings. And Amphion had the kind of music that could build cities by raising walls. The feeling which was expressed so intensely and memorably by Shelley was felt in the Renaissance: that there was a kind of wisdom in poetry. Then More says:

But a change came with the advent of the romantic movement....The utile was broadened so as to embrace the whole substance of a poem whether instructive or not, its sense or meaning.

Still, one of the famous stories about poetry criticism is of Jeremy Bentham reading a poem, reading every word, and then saying, “What does it prove?” And Bentham was right in the midst of the romantic movement. (Bentham, it happens, lived in Milton’s house.)

There are two things in feeling: Every feeling, if we look at it, is instructive—even if the instructiveness means only “I can feel this way.” If you have a feeling, it tells you at least that you can feel this way. So every feeling is instructive; and every feeling also, by its very nature, is feeling, with all that that takes in, which is more than one continent.

A Great Writer: Personal & Impersonal

Among the writers seen as great, there are Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, Dante; others, of course. All of these were people; they all lived somewhere. They are persons who have become impersonal because of the way they saw their feelings. A great writer is one who is a person but becomes impersonal through the way he sees his feelings.

More says that Milton, in writing Paradise Lost, hoped that “under the spell of a great heroic poem the mind of the people would respond in efforts towards great and heroic living.” I think that even now if a person reads Paradise Lost he knows better whom to vote for.

But a heroic poem is about weakness as well as heroism or strength. In the first book of Homer’s Iliad, Achilles is weak, and Agamemnon is weak, and there’s some kind of justice on both sides. The Achaeans also are weak. The mingling of strength and weakness makes for something that you cannot see as known. You cannot make sense of it: who is completely right? That mingling is in Paradise Lost too. The poems are heroic, but there’s heroism with such a tangle of ethics, of right and wrong, that the feeling is of heroism in an as yet unsurveyed wilderness. Paradise Lost is heroic, but in it evil is explained—and therefore seen as related to what is good.

Affected Mightily

Then, the final part of the essay. More, toward the end of his life, talks of how something can do something to him: “I can never peruse the climax of the poem [‘Lycidas’] without a thrill such as scarcely any other verses of the language excite.”

Whenever something like that is said sincerely, one should look. He quotes these lines:

Weep no more, woeful shepherds, weep no more,

For Lycidas your sorrow is not dead,

Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor,

So sinks the day-star in the ocean bed,

And yet anon repairs his drooping head,

And tricks his beams, and with new-spangled ore,

Flames in the forehead of the morning sky:

So Lycidas sunk low, but mounted high,

Through the dear might of him that walked the waves....

And More writes:

I am not competent to explain by what devices ...Milton obtains his sublime effect....The final alchemy of art escapes such an analysis; indeed I question whether any skill of criticism can penetrate to the heart of that mystery.

Art has been defined as a great effect with, happily, a somewhat unknown cause. Here More is using a phrase like that made famous by Rimbaud: “alchimie du verbe,” the “alchemy of the word.” And the third sentence sounds a little like Hamlet saying proudly to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Boys, you don’t know how unknown I am—you can’t even play a recorder!

“Milton’s...images are borrowed from the simplest commonplaces of faith,—the return of dawn after the sinking of the sun...” That has given hope to many people. As soon as they saw the sun come up again, they felt, What can I learn from this? They tell of a person who took an Arctic voyage, one of the early 19th-century explorers, and he didn’t see the sun for a while. It was winter and there was practically no sun. Then when he came back he was a wonderful husband to his wife, because he had seen a land where there was no sun, and through it he’d seen something about himself. (This is related to a famous story of the search for John Franklin, who was lost trying to find the Arctic; then, through his wife’s insistence, many expeditions were sent to find him. But that’s not this story.)

More says: “One thing in the end is certain, the ‘greatness’ of ‘Lycidas’ is determined by an intimate marriage of form and matter, expression and substance.” Those are opposites: form and matter, expression and substance.