Art & Your Life: The Same Subject
Dear Unknown Friends:
With this issue we begin to serialize The Opposites Theory, a work Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s. It is a discussion, scholarly and vivid, of the explanation of beauty on which Aesthetic Realism is based—the principle that “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In The Opposites Theory, Mr. Siegel gives evidence that the oneness of opposites is what all the arts have in common. He shows that in any instance of true art, of any time, any place, it is the putting together of reality's opposites which makes for beauty—which is beauty. Mr. Siegel saw this work of 111 manuscript pages as unfinished. He certainly went on to write and say more on the subject in ever so many other forms. But with the perspective of half a century, it is clear that the book, if not formally completed, has a feeling of entirety: it makes its point with richness, grace, clarity, and without loose ends.
In this issue we publish the opening section, “Art as the Oneness of Opposites: An Outline of the Theory.” And with it is an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Bruce Blaustein: part of a paper he presented in December at a public seminar titled “Busier Than Ever—but Why Do We Feel Something’s Missing?”
What Makes Aesthetic Realism New?
Other critics have pointed to opposites as important in art, and in The Opposites Theory Mr. Siegel discusses many of those critics. For now, however, I’ll swiftly mention three, in relation to literature. In his Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope speaks about a good poetic line as both vigorous and at ease, strong and sweet: he says we should “praise the easy vigor of a line / Where Denham's strength and Waller’s sweetness join.” There is Samuel Johnson, who said, "Shakespeare approximates the remote, and familiarizes the wonderful.” There is Wordsworth, who said poetry is at once emotion and thought, spontaneity and consideration: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.”
Yes, many times in art criticism, opposites have been noted here and there—in this painting, in that section of that symphony, in this writer. But the showing that a) in every instance of beauty, opposites are together; b) these same opposites, as one, are the structure of reality itself; c) art, therefore, is the great justifier of reality, because it gives evidence reality is made well, is not a mess; d) the opposites in beauty are also central to our very own lives, and our big need is to put these opposites together: the showing of all this is the accomplishment of Aesthetic Realism alone. It is the accomplishment of Eli Siegel. Not only has he done what critics since Aristotle have hoped for—explained what beauty really is—but he has understood the basis of the human self. And he has shown this self of ours to have the greatest dignity: we are trying to be like art. Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which explains that aesthetics and our own confusions, angers, hopes are the same subject.
Let us take the opposites Mr. Siegel speaks of in relation to art in the first section of his work: continuity and change. How human these opposites are too! A large reason people are displeased with their lives, feel disgusted, bored, low, is that their lives seem too continuous: days drag on and there isn’t that sense of change, difference, newness, surprise which would bring them excitement, make for the zip they’re hoping for. On the other hand, people feel their lives consist of change without a needed continuity: they go from one activity to another and don't feel there’s a beautiful relation among those activities, a something it’s all about. They feel scattered, agitated, rather empty. People do not know, and long to, what Eli Siegel began to teach in 1941: “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.”
Contempt, & the Opposites in Us
Aesthetic Realism also explains what in us is most responsible for having opposites war in our lives. That thing is contempt: the “disposition...to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.” Contempt is a severing of the biggest opposites in the life of everyone: self and world. It’s the feeling I’ll take care of myself, not by being just to what’s not me, not by wanting to value other things and people, but by looking down on them, managing them, beating them out. Contempt is the ugly thing in humanity, the source of every cruelty. And it’s the thing that makes us dislike ourselves, even though it seems, temporarily, to elevate us.
I’ll give one instance of what contempt does with those opposites we’ll soon see Mr. Siegel writing on: continuity and change. Most people feel they have to put on a show in social life, and also business life. They feel that they change themselves for the occasion and for the persons they meet, and that life consists of a series of situations in which you have to conquer, fool, evade—and put forth various arrangements of yourself in order to do so. In a poem of T.S. Eliot, “Portrait of a Lady,” there are lines describing this way of being:
And I must borrow every changing shape
To find expression...dance, dance
Like a dancing bear,
Cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape.
I do not see these lines as good poetry, but they do tell of and perhaps satirize a certain procedure in social life. There is contempt in this procedure of changing yourself and putting on an act: a triumph in keeping your deepest self hidden while you trick and manage others. However, with the triumph, you feel you lack that continuity which is integrity; in fact, you feel cheap. There can be a beautiful continuity amid change, if you use the diversity of people and happenings you meet to try to show yourself honestly, know yourself and other things honestly.
In an Aesthetic Realism lesson I attended with my parents when I was four years old, Mr. Siegel composed a couplet for me about continuity and change. Like many children, I was confused by the people I knew because they seemed so changeable: adults could go from smilingness to displeasure in a way that didn't make sense. Here is the couplet:
I looked at a changing rubber band,
And thought, “The way people change is hard to understand.”
Those lines enabled a child to see that opposites which confused her were also friendly in the world—as that truly remarkable oneness of continuity and change, a rubber band, shows.