Art Tells of—and Criticizes—Sadness
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the final section of Music & “Questions for Everyone,” a discussion conducted by Eli Siegel in a 1975 class. The basis is this principle of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Mr. Siegel’s 27 “Questions for Everyone” are published in issue 750 of this journal. And in the 1975 class he shows that those questions, about the inner tumult of every individual self, also have to do fundamentally with music.
This final section is casual, conversational. But it’s about a tremendous matter: that what may trouble us most is present in art in a way that makes for beauty. And the beauty comes not because the artist has somehow decorated the trouble, but because he or she has seen it truly. What makes for every instance of art, Aesthetic Realism explains, is this: something is seen truly, in its specificity and relatedness; and so the world itself as structure—the oneness of such opposites as rest and motion, order and freedom, continuity and change—is felt, seen, heard. That is true whatever the art—and whatever the subject, from a rose to a bad mood.
In this issue, Mr. Siegel is looking at questions 8, 9, and 10. They all have to do with unhappiness; and unhappiness has been presented in art, as joy has been. Aesthetic Realism shows that what art does with unhappiness—in fact, with every subject—is a criticism of what people do in their lives. Art says, Use everything, both pain and pleasure, to see and value the world truly! In life, an awful mistake people make is to use their disappointment to be disgusted with the world and to be unkind. This way of using pain, however understandable it may seem, is a primal ugliness. It is hugely hurtful to the person doing it, and to others.
Charles Dickens Described It
A classic instance of the use of suffering for contempt and unkindness is in Dickens’ Great Expectations. Miss Havisham has been disappointed by a man, who deserted her at the altar. She therefore gives herself the right to want all men punished. And she will inflict punishment on men through Estella, an orphan whom she raises from childhood. There is this, in chapter 12: “Miss Havisham would embrace her with lavish fondness, murmuring...,‘Break their hearts, my pride and hope, break their hearts and have no mercy!’”
Miss Havisham—dressed for decades in her wedding gown, beside her wedding cake, with both covered in cobwebs—is comic and terrible. But she is representative of what millions of people do: they use being hurt as permission to have contempt. Eli Siegel defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” and he is the philosopher who showed that the desire for it is the ugliest thing in the human self. Contempt is the source of all the cruelty in history, and it is also the big weakener of a person’s mind.
So millions of men and women use grief to make themselves colder, duller. An instance was my grandmother, Ruth Smith. I’ll quote from the Aesthetic Realism lesson, taught by Eli Siegel, that she had more than 60 years ago, accompanied by her daughter—my mother, Irene Reiss. Here we can see Mr. Siegel speaking to one person about what’s in the very questions he’d relate to music in the 1975 discussion.
Can We Want to Be Unhappy?
Ruth Smith had been treated unjustly by her husband, Hyman, and had divorced him. She told Mr. Siegel that she was “lived-out,” and didn’t care about anything except her children. My mother’s notes contain mainly Mr. Siegel’s words; a few of my grandmother’s statements are there, and many we can infer. But as I look today at those notes of long ago, the kindness and clearness of Eli Siegel’s sentences are alive, vibrant, across the decades. For example, he said:
Because one man didn’t understand you, you shouldn’t take that out on everybody. The world is not Hyman. When you were born you were born into everything....
Do you want to be happy or unhappy? When you say you’re “lived-out” you’re saying the world you’re living in is no good for you. You’ve been disappointed in life, but you shouldn’t make everything like nothing. When we try to forget the world, we do feel guilty.
You’ve felt that if Hyman was so mean to you, you have a right not to care for anybody—you can take it out on everybody. You shouldn’t take out on everybody your disappointment with Hyman.
When Ruth Smith said she only cared about the family, Mr. Siegel asked, “Do you know any good people outside the family? Do you believe there is somebody in Philadelphia who, if you met him, could do you some good?” And he explained:
You think that if you can find nothing at all interesting you’ll get revenge on everybody. You want to be unhappy because you feel you’re more important if you’re not happy, and because this is your way of getting revenge on the world that disappointed you. Tell Irene, “I want to be interested in life.” Every person who goes through life without knowing the meaning of the world is afraid. He feels that his life wasn’t successful. If you try to find out what life is really about and don’t take out your disappointment on people, then you’ll appreciate things; you’ll appreciate green grass.
If you’re a friend to the world, you won’t get that fear of death. Every person should be like a flower—going toward the sun.
Mr. Siegel, with so much tenderness and firmness and logic, was fighting contempt. And he was fighting for what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the deepest hope in Ruth Smith and everyone—the very purpose of our lives: to like the world through knowing it.
That is the purpose that impels every instance of true art. And so, in relation to unhappiness, let us look at four lines of great poetry.
Sadness & Beauty
The lines are from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” And what they say unquestionably has pain in it, unhappiness. It can be paraphrased this way: “No matter what likable things are in your life—maybe you’re from a noble family (have ‘heraldry’), or you’ve accomplished big things (have ‘power’), or have beauty, or a lot of money—whatever glory you may be going for, the result will be you’re going to die.” People have, as Mr. Siegel once put it, “exploited the Grim Reaper”: felt everything is meaningless because it all ends in death. But see how Gray says it in four lines:
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
This is art because Gray, writing of an idea that terrifies people, was so just to it that we hear in his lines that oneness of opposites which is both beauty and the structure of the world. We hear what Eli Siegel showed to be the decisive thing in poetry: poetic music.
For example, the first of those lines is forceful, with a sound of thrust and flaunting in “the boast..., the pomp.” Yet the line, with its rs, l, m, w, has nuance too, softness, murmur: “The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power.” Then, the line that follows that forceful line seems to swirl and spread: “And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave.” Next comes a line that is like the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony; there is the firm beat of warning: “Awaits alike the inevitable hour.” Yet within that warning is a playful skip of syllables through the way the swift word inevitable is placed.
And then: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” How awful—but there is a lift in the way those syllables as sound meet the line’s rhythm. And the juxtaposition of glory and grave, with their likeness and difference of sound, makes us feel glory and grave are in a hopeful drama, even as we’re aware something sad is being told.
The message of art is: Whatever you meet, whatever you’re dealing with, use it to see honestly what is true; use it to know and like the world. What this means, how to do it, is the magnificent education of Aesthetic Realism.