The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Coolness, Warmth, and Music

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is the conclusion of the great 1951 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Music, by Eli Siegel. He is the critic who showed that art is not something which exists along with life, or as an offset to life—soothing, superior, yet essentially ineffectual: rather, art is the most urgently practical and powerful thing that exists. Art, he explained, shows what the world is; and the one way to see the world or anything in it accurately—from an event in history, to a person we are kissing, to our mother—is to see it or her or him aesthetically, as art sees.

“The world, art, and self explain each other,” Mr. Siegel wrote: “each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." That means the makeup of our very lives—of our personal hopes, confusions, griefs—is, gloriously, in the technique of art and the structure of reality itself. Furthermore, unless we are learning to see truly the opposites in art and reality, we won’t be able to be ourselves—we won’t have the happiness, intelligence, or pride we need and desire.

Let us take, for instance, opposites that merge in these September days and are also within us, sometimes tormentingly: coolness and warmth. Coolness and warmth are of reality itself: before human beings existed, the sun in the days we now call September shone warmly and cool breezes blew.

Yet coolness and warmth are also ethical opposites: what we are warm to and what we are cool to determine how just a person we are. And on the oneness of coolness and warmth depends the quality of any instance of art: because for something to be art, there must be, working as one in it, that severity or coolness which is structure and that warmth which is feeling. Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that art and ethics are the same. Aesthetics, ethics, and ontology (the study of being as such) are the same study!

So I present some questions you might hear in your study of Aesthetic Realism, about coolness and warmth in your very life and feelings, as inextricable from these opposites in art and in earth itself.

Questions about Everyone’s Life

1. Have you gone from calling yourself a cold person, with insufficient feeling for other people and things, to telling yourself you get hurt because you’re too warm and therefore should be less affected and colder?

2. Do you think this fight about warmth and coolness arises from what Aesthetic Realism shows is the central fight in everyone: between respect for the world and contempt for it? The deepest purpose we have, Mr. Siegel explained, is to like the world outside ourselves; but “the greatest danger or temptation of man is to get a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not himself; which lessening is Contempt.” Coldness has been a very popular means of having the horrible “security” and victory of contempt: people have felt powerful, superior, through showing that things are not good enough to stir them. “We should like; Mr. Siegel wrote in issue 155 of this journal, “to be glazed in coldness as others move about us worriedly. This is contempt triumphant, welcome, sweet.” So we have question 3:

3. Which has made you feel more important (not happy, but important): being cool or warm?

4. If you go after coolness as a means of being safe and superior, do you incur the consequence of feeling deeply apart from what other things and people are, empty, lonely?

5. Do you think that wanting two things—friendliness to the world and superiority to it—and not wanting to make up your mind, you have tried inwardly to be adroit with coolness and warmth, to shuttle between these opposites in a clever, political fashion?

Mr. Siegel explained that one of the reasons people can feel uncomfortable at the time of year when earth as warm comes to be earth as cool—when warm and cool mingle and dance about, and tease each other and merge grandly in early autumn and later summer—is that we have wanted to play off these opposites, manage them shrewdly in behalf of ego, not make them one. Then, as we feel in the very atmosphere a criticism of us—the oneness of a warm, glowing sun and a nip in the air—trouble takes place perhaps in our nose. He said:

There is that in people which feels they put something over on the world by keeping...ways of seeing apart....Then something may be met which says that it is not right to keep them apart. Then you show how uncomfortable you feel. In other words, does late summer, or fall, say to a person: “Don’t keep warmth and cold apart in you; we’re together this October day"? [TRO 432]

I will get soon to how these opposites can be one in us, sensibly, thrillingly, aesthetically. But first, some more questions about where they are not.

More Mistakes about Coolness and Warmth

6. Have you been more interested in impressing and having your way with people than in understanding them? If you don’t want to understand people, will you have to feel cold to them—even when you want to feel warm?

7. Do you judge a person’s warmth on the basis of whether he is taken by you, “nice” to you, rather than on how fair he is to the world as such?

8. Do you tend to see criticism of you as cold and praise of you as warm? That is one of the stupidest mistakes people make. For if we are praised without deserving it, the person praising us is not warm but is making us weaker. And if there is something unjust or hurtful in us, criticizing us so we be better is tenderness, is tremendous, kind warmth.

9. Have you used your parents’ making you the most important thing in the world to feel that if a person is accurate about you he is cold? Millions of people have come to associate warmth with someone’s being rather silly about them, praising them excessively, making them superior to all reality. And human lives have been greatly hindered, in fact crippled, by the feeling that we can see someone as warm only if he is not exact about us, only (therefore) if we can have contempt for him—and a person for whom we cannot have contempt is cold.

10. Have you divided reality into that part of it to which you will be “warm” (your family, some friends, certain fields of in family, some friends, certain fields of interest), and a huge rest-of-the-world to which you are deeply cold? According to Aesthetic Realism, the purpose of our lives, the purpose of education, is to feel that what could seem far from us is really near to us: that a play of Sophocles, the feelings of someone in Africa, the life of a child in another part of our city matter to us—in the same way that our own hopes matter or the fate of a beloved animal in our home matters.

11. Are you troubled by the way you can feel cold to someone close to you, someone you thought you felt so warm towards? Aesthetic Realism shows—and I love it boundlessly for this—that our purpose in being close to a person should be to like the world itself. And if two people are “warm” to each other for the purpose of getting away from the world and of making themselves superior to the world, they will feel profoundly betrayed by each other. And there will come to be a deep anger and coldness between them.

We can also feel cold toward someone we care for because there is that in us which wants to love only ourselves. We’re angry this person has affected us so much—because we think we should have a lot of power over a person while being superior and unmoved ourselves.

The Aesthetic Oneness of Opposites

12. Do you think justice is a oneness—a great, beautiful, powerful oneness—of coolness and warmth? That is: to want passionately to see what a person or thing deserves, to use oneself in order to give what that thing or person deserves, is to have both enormous feeling and a terrific dispassionate accuracy. That justice is what Eli Siegel had, unwaveringly, all the time. It was intense and tender, logical and clear. It was the most beautiful thing in the world; and it is embodied in Aesthetic Realism.

13. Do you think, then, that if you are trying to be just, you will feel warmth and coolness make sense in you at last?

And there is that thing which is equivalent to justice, and which Aesthetic Realism sees as the most necessary and powerful thing in the world: good will. “Good will,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “can be described as the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful” (TRO 121). The last of the questions I ask here is about how good will is that which makes coolness and warmth musically, strictly one.

14. If you have good will for a person, if you want him to be all he can be, will you be uncompromisingly cold to what is unjust and hurtful in him—not flatteringly “accept” something for which he has to dislike himself? And will this coolness and againstness have the same purpose as your desire to encourage, with the richest warmth, what is best in him?

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Reality Is Here

By Eli Siegel

I read now some statements that deal with the grandeur of music. They have ethics in them. [The first four are included in Musical Messages, ed. Rebekah Crawford (New York, 1907)]. There is this charming thing of Beethoven:

From my childhood, whenever my art could be serviceable to poor suffering humanity, I have never required anything beyond the heartfelt gratification that it always caused me.

So when Beethoven felt he was useful to others, he had a good time.

There is a passage from Berlioz, who shook up the forms:

True art is the result of knowledge and inspiration. Without these fundamental requisites, a musician will always be an inferior artist, if artist he can be called.

That is, art and music are emotion and intellect.

A statement by Schumann, who had such a troubled life and was confused in such a magnificent fashion:

A cultivated musician may study Raphael’s Madonnas with as much profit as a painter may study Mozart’s symphonies.

There is this statement by the English 17th-century writer Thomas Fuller about the getting of wildness into order: “Music is nothing else but wild sounds civilized into time and tune.” That has something to do with discipline. You don’t take wildness and change it into tameness:  you change it into music; you change it into form. This sentence is very important. It has a message for all mothers, and everybody.

The Continuity of Music

Now I shall read, as music itself, two things from Shakespeare. We should see that music, though it has to do with all those wonderful things—scales, dominants, fifths, intervals—is likewise something which is present wherever motion is; it is present wherever sound is. And we should see the continuity of music: there is music in its deepest, most intricate sense—how deep the music does get to be in a symphony, with the orchestration within orchestration!—yet it is present every time a person walks, every time a baby utters something.

The “In such a night” passage from The Merchant of Venice (5.1.1-24) has some of the most musical lines in the language. Then, shortly after Shakespeare is musical himself, he will have Lorenzo and Jessica talk about music. First, poetry as music. Lorenzo says (in part):

In such a night

Stood Dido with a willow in her hand

Upon the wild sea banks, and waft her love

To come again to Carthage....

Then Lorenzo and Jessica talk about music in a passage that is classic in English, and compare music to the way the world goes. Lorenzo says:

Here will we sit and let the sounds of music

Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night

Become the touches of sweet harmony.

Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven

Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold.

There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

But in his motion like an angel sings,

Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins.

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted.

What Shakespeare here is saying is not the whole story, but it’s a lot of the story, and most of it is true.

The Statement of Reality

The important thing we should see in music—whether we go at it in terms of emotion or in terms of studying its history and all the technicalities, all the tracery, all the networks, all the hiddenness, the seed within the seed—is that music is one way reality has of saying, “I am here, and this is what I am,” and that this statement of reality is to be disregarded at our peril. And we have to see fully, not just superficially or hastily or glibly or insincerely, the meaning of “I am here.”

Music is one way of seeing, then, that reality is here. And as we see reality say “I am here” in music, we should do all we can, as long as we can, to find out what it means.