The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Music Is about This Too

From a Class Conducted by Eli Siegel

Eli Siegel. We come to question 8: “Have I sometimes felt I didn’t care for anything?” So Mr. Fraser, what has that got to do with music?

Sam Fraser. I guess it’s related to the way notes can seem separate from one another, as they can in staccato music.

ES. Do you think there could be a melody showing indifference, vacuity?

SF. Yes.

ES. There is something like that in a song having a rather sad title, “Empty Bed Blues.” And then, in the “St. Louis Blues”—“Feelin’ tomorrow the way I feel today, / I’m gonna pack my trunk and make my getaway.” And there are other blues. But there could be a use of the violin strings to show the vacuity of things. A good deal of modern music goes for that. What’s called electronic music tries to present a feeling of emptiness and shriek that people have.

Some Songs of Grief Are Better Than Others

Eli Siegel. Question 9 is “Does something in me want to be unhappy?” What is the saddest melody you can think of?

Sam Fraser. There’s a Russian theme—“Song of the Volga Boatmen.”

ES. Yes. And “Ochi Chornye” is rather sad. Very often if somebody is complaining in a comedy, saying everything is going wrong, there would be a little of that “Volga Boatmen” sound. That would be the complainer’s anthem.

SF. Would you say the minor key is sadder than the major?

ES. Yes. But there are many ballads too that have sadness. The ballad of “Barbara Allen” has a music that is rather beautiful. There’s a version that is of Tennessee.

Meanwhile, there is that song that was popular in the ’20s and ’30s, Irving Berlin’s “All Alone by the Telephone.” Also, “Stormy Weather”—which happens to be a very important song. And the various blues songs are different. Some of them are greater than others. —Ms. Mark?

Sabrina Mark. Does the music of Chopin show something of the desire to be unhappy?

ES. Yes. But not only the music. I think the music was less unhappy than the way Chopin actually felt—because in being able to make it into art he made the unhappiness less. Chopin was one of the unhappiest musicians. I remember an early couplet about him: “I am hopin’ / He doesn’t feel like Chopin.”

SM. I love this discussion. One of the songs I remember from the time I was very young goes for unhappiness, but it goes very fast, so it also goes against the desire. It’s the Lord Chancellor’s song of Gilbert and Sullivan: “When you’re lying awake with a dismal headache....”

ES. Yes, the song about insomnia. That is one of the fastest things ever.

SM. There’s such speed, but it’s all about how dreadful you feel.

ES. You’re getting into the midst of art when you talk of that relation of the speed and the melancholy.

SM. I like Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” I remember listening to it from age five on up. It’s very sad, but it is so gorgeous. It’s a very affecting piece for me—one of the saddest, but also one of the most gorgeous.

ES. I never heard Barber praised that much before. That’s good: you mean it; you were very much affected by it. I congratulate you. You spoke about something you liked, which emotionally means a great deal to you; so you are more in the world and you are more yourself.

SF. Another song about unhappiness is “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”

ES. Yes. It’s a spiritual. And there is “The Prisoner’s Song” of the 1920s.

Music can be about sadness, and it’s trying to cover the field right now. I’ve thought of a song for our Chief Executive [Gerald Ford]. It’s called “Chief Executive Blues”; the feeling is so bad, nobody wants to put it into music. —Yes, Mr. McDavitt?

James McDavitt. One of the biggest hits of recent times is very much on the subject: The Rolling Stones’ “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

ES. Yes. And Bob Dylan again and again expressed his dissatisfaction, with a guitar. Which music has affected you, Mr. McDavitt?

JMcD. I’ve been listening to the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 21. I feel that that music represents me, and I’ve been writing about the opposites in it. I’ve really felt that it made me like the world more, because of the way calm and agitation are in it.

ES. Then you went a little step further than Mozart himself did, because he didn’t use it that way. He used it to say that in my music I can get away from all the rest of things, from what worries me. Very often composers are untrue to the largest message of their music. So if you were a little wiser than Mozart there, it’s all right; you have a right to be. We have to look into the matter. I don’t think that Mozart joined his music and his life. —Yes, Mr. Fraser?

SF. I am very grateful for this class. Bringing together the “Questions for Everyone” and music is so beautiful and thrilling that, well, it’s historic. And there’s more I hope to say.

ES. You’ll have a chance. Whatever music comes your way, listen as well as you can. —Ms. Anton?

Felice Anton. About sad songs—I’m looking for one to sing. I’ve begun work on “Mood Indigo,” but I’m unsure.

ES. Ellington’s strength doesn’t lie in his vocal possibilities. I don’t think so. Do you think so, Ms. Marsh?

Bonita Marsh. No. Mostly, they were written as instrumental pieces and were made into vocal later. Some years ago there was that book American Popular Song, by Alec Wilder. He was very thorough and it was the first book of its kind, and I read it. He didn’t include Ellington, and I got very irate. Then I found that his definition of a song is something to be sung, and he didn’t consider Ellington to have written songs.

ES. That’s right, he didn’t.

FA. There is a song you mentioned last week, “Annie Laurie.” I think about it in relation to the opposites of sad and stirring.

ES. That is a song. There are some great songs and people have taken to them for years. There’s a very deep reason for that. A song that has ever so many possibilities—it has been sung a good deal—is “Short’nin’ Bread,” one of the strangest songs going.

One of the greatest melodies in the world is “John Brown’s Body.” It has possibilities; there could be new words to that melody. —Yes, Ms. Barrie?

Allison Barrie. Mr. Siegel, why might a person prefer vocal music, be more affected by it?

ES. Well, because the word can do something that nothing else can.

Gavin Emory. There is also what you said about music and dance, that sound can make a person’s body want to move—how music can stir body and make it move with form.

ES. Yes. Other things can stir—but what music has done! “[They] slammed with their hymn-books till they shook the room / With ‘Glory, glory, glory,’ / And ‘Boom, boom, boom.’”—that’s from Lindsay’s “The Congo.” Al Jolson happens to be one of the greatest showmen in the field ever. The highpoint of Eddie Cantor was a song called “Makin’ Whoopee.” I saw him; he’d dance all over the stage. Cantor was not as energetic as Jolson; he had more of a sense of comedy though.

AB. I want to thank you for these classes. Something of what it means for art and life to be one as they are different, has been through these classes. And you just feel you’re at the very depths of the world, and it is lovely.

There Are Opera & Shakespeare

Eli Siegel. Question 10 is “Do I feel more important when I’m unhappy?” What is the saddest aria you know in opera, Mr. McDavitt?

James McDavitt. There’s one in La Bohème.

ES. Yes, Puccini’s pretty good at that. The recitative there is quite sad too. There are many arias that are sad, and Mozart has some. What’s the saddest one you know, Ms. Marsh?

Bonita Marsh. Well, I’m thinking of one in La Gioconda, which has sadness and assertion. She says she is going to kill herself—and Maria Callas, she just does it to a turn.

ES. Ms. Eames, what’s the saddest song in Shakespeare? They all once had music to them.

Rylan Eames. There’s “Take, O take those lips away.” And there’s “Blow, blow, thou winter wind.”

ES. And in Othello there is the song of Desdemona. “Blow, blow, thou winter wind” is sad and philosophic. But we’ll close with a touch of Othello. The song begins:

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,

Sing all a green willow;

Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,

Sing willow, willow, willow.

So the song is there.