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.