|NUMBER 1296.—February 4, 1998||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
We continue to serialize the great 1966 lecture Animate and Inanimate Are in Music and Conscience. In it, Eli Siegel—with clarity and power and also humor—speaks about musical technique, criticism, and composers, to describe what conscience is.
People have found their conscience exceedingly troublesome and have tried to do away with its gnawings and pangs. They have tried to stifle it, annul it, shut it up. Yet no person would be proud to say that his conscience was dim, or that he wanted it to be. In the "Aesthetic Realism Epigrammatic Alphabet," Mr. Siegel gives this jocular but precise description: "Conscience is usually the uncomfortable reminding that we have an opinion of ourselves worth listening to" (TRO 739).
The idea of conscience is not much of a subject in contemporary psychology. And though the various counselors and therapists would not admit it, the current trend really is to try to do away with conscience. That is, telling people their first order of business is to esteem themselves and if they feel uneasy it's due to their biochemistry or unsupportive family, is really a saying, "Ignore that thing in you which tells you so rudely you were unjust!"
Conscience though, being both more powerful and more authentic than the various media-touted counselors, cannot be exorcised by them and is as busy as ever. And Aesthetic Realism is that which explains both what conscience is and how beautiful and to be cherished it is. For example, I love this maxim from Eli Siegel's Damned Welcome: Aesthetic Realism Maxims (Definition Press, p. 87):
The self can slink; the self can crawl; the self can cower; but a self can also say it doesn't like it; the fact that a self can criticize what it is, is its resplendent justification.
Aesthetic Realism shows that conscience is fundamentally an aesthetic thing, in keeping with this principle stated by Mr. Siegel: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." In the lecture we are serializing, he shows that conscience has to do, not only with the turbulence of musicians, but with the very technique of music. So I comment a little here on the aesthetics of conscience in ordinary life. We are made in such a way that we demand justice from ourselves, even if we try to evade that demand hour after hour; and furthermore, the justice we demand is the same as beauty. This fact is our greatest dignity and our greatest glory.
Conscience Is about Self and World
The opposites most fundamental to conscience—opposites we must try to make one or we will nag at ourselves and feel deeply cheap and ashamed—are Self and World. Every instance of conscience trouble is a person's criticizing himself for that rift between self and world which Mr. Siegel identified as contempt. Contempt is "the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it." And contempt, Mr. Siegel showed, is the beginning of all injustice, from everyday snobbishness to war.
For example, a child feels bad, whether he admits it or not, for teasing and trying to manage a doggy—even if no one saw him do it. And the reason he feels bad is that something in him, inescapable as his blood cells, is saying, "You tried to make yourself more by lessening what is not you, but is as real and living as you!"
Conscience can be very inarticulate. It can take the form of an unclear shame, a nervousness, a feeling of emptiness, a difficulty in sleeping. But it is always aesthetic: it always says, you had better feel taking care of yourself is the same as being fair to the world not you. Conscience can wail unobeyed but, in one form or another, it will never stop wailing.
And we will not be able to follow and love the message of our own conscience until we see its aesthetics: until we see that we will be important, glorious, through being fair to other things, not through being superior to them, manipulating them, forgetting about them. To see this, we have to see that a self's taking care of itself by being just to the world is what happens in every instance of art. A beautiful short description of how is in these sentences of Eli Siegel's Self and World (p. 97):
Take Whitman's Song of Myself. Whitman yields himself to what he sees; to earth, to people; and he is proud doing so .... As far as Whitman is an artist—and this is very far; and as far as he gives himself, without interior vanity wriggling, to what is, he feels that he is, and he is proud.
Art is the same as the demands of conscience grandly being met.
Conscience demands that other opposites be one too. I give some swift examples.
Dependence and Independence
Dependence and independence are opposites Mr. Siegel mentions in relation to a composer: a composer needs to learn what others can teach him, so he is dependent; he also wants to express his original, independent self. Every wife has these opposites. And unless she is trying to make a one of dependence and independence in relation to her husband, she will feel deeply tricky and ashamed.
A wife has acted dependent on her husband, as though she couldn't do or think much without him—as a means, really, of not giving the world the respect of trying to know and be related fully to it; and as a means of deviously owning this man, having him serve and concentrate on her. A wife (it can be the same wife) has also tried to show she didn't need her husband in any way that mattered: she was her own self, wanted her own way, and being affected much by him would lessen her; to see him as fully real would be an interference with her superior existence. Both instances make for conscience trouble. And this conscience trouble is the depths of self, prodding, poking, saying, "Just as a tree needs rain and sun yet asserts so proudly its tall and spreading individuality, make sure you need another human being and want to assert your particular self for the same beautiful reason: justice to the world!"
Heaviness and Lightness
Right now a conversation is going on in which people are mockingly "light" about a matter that affects them. Men, for instance, can talk about women with a dismissive lightness that is dishonest and ugly. And two men can also have a conversation which makes them feel weighed down, heavy; where there is a terrible agreement, spoken or not, that the world (maybe represented by a wife whose mind one doesn't understand) is not a friend but a repulsive burden. Conscience will protest against both these ways, for both are contempt for reality. Conscience wants that justice to things which music has, and which makes light sounds, delicate sounds, tripping sounds be beautifully one with forceful sounds, weight, thrust. Beethoven does not hollowly tinkle; and he does not depress.
Fact and Imagination
Opposites as big in art as any are fact and imagination. And our own conscience is demanding we try to make them one. A parent, for instance, can see some "fact" about her child: Billy has just taken crayons and drawn a design on the fabric of the new couch. The mother is mad, and she may be right. But she also feels ashamed—because she has seen only the troublesome "fact" before her and hasn't wanted to use honest imagination to try to know what it was that impelled Billy, what was going on in his feelings and thoughts, what might he be objecting to?
Parents all over America feel troubled because the way they see their child is also too imaginative, insufficiently factual. They have turned their child into the most important person in the world, more important than any other child, just because the child is theirs. They have preferred a picture of their child that suits their own egos, rather than wanting to see who he or she really is, and who other people are. All over America when there is a fight in the playground, parents are ready to blame some other child and justify their own, instead of seeing the fact, the truth, as something to seek and honor and love.
Parents have worried and felt deeply unsure of themselves in relation to their children; and they haven't known that a great deal of this worry and unsureness was their conscience rebuking them, saying, "You have not loved truth, and you have not used your imagination to see what was true about the depths of your child and his relation to the whole world!"
Conscience, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the world in us, demanding its rights. And through the study of Aesthetic Realism, people at last can understand the thing in us that is trying to speak for the world—and can be proud of it, and love it, and have it win!
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Melody and Turmoil
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
Subscriptions: 26 issues, US $18; 12 issues, US $9, Canada and Mexico $14, elsewhere $20. Make check or money order payable to Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
© Copyright 1998 - 2014 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation • A not–for–profit educational foundation