The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Cruelty or Music

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing the great 1951 lecture Aesthetic Realism and Music, in which Eli Siegel presents, in relation to music, this principle, the basis 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.” He shows what is true for all time, what the therapists and counselors and the various writers on history do not know: the one way to understand the human self, its worries, triumphs, disasters, is on an aesthetic basis.

The definition of aesthetics he quotes is from his Definitions, and Comment: Being a Description of the World: “Aesthetics is the showing of an object in such a way that the difference and sameness of reality as a whole is seen in that object.” He speaks here of what the rondo in music does with sameness and difference. On what we ourselves do with “the difference and sameness of reality as a whole,” Aesthetic Realism shows, will depend our pride or shame, the quality of our mind, how love fares for us, whether we are mean or kind.

That Eli Siegel explained the self—this thing had by both Shakespeare and Hitler, and by us—is the most important accomplishment in the history of thought. I love him from the very depths of my being for that explanation; also for the fact that it is magnificently beautiful and has made me—as it can make humanity—tremendously happy.

I comment now on an article in the New York Times of July 23. There have been others like it: about a person who seems a representative citizen, is pleasant to his neighbors, and turns out to have been a Nazi and to have taken part in atrocities. The article has the headline “U.S. Says a Retired Machinist Was a Guard at a Nazi Camp.” It tells of a man, now living in Connecticut, who, according to the U.S. government, was among those who “rounded up and murdered Jews throughout Nazi­-occupied Poland and brutally enslaved thousands of non-Jewish Poles.” Yet Connecticut neighbors are quoted saying he was a “4-H Club leader,” and “tend[ed] to his beekeeping and gardening."

How can an average person come to do hideous things? How could ordinary people willingly participate in horrors in Europe in the 1940s? Eli Siegel, more than 20 years ago, gave the answer. I have writ­ten about it in other issues of this journal; and I write about it here in relation to strict aesthetics—for Aesthetic Realism shows that the question of what makes for art is literally a question of life and death. Mr. Siegel begins his great 1976 work “What Caused the Wars” this way:

It is necessary to see that while the contempt which is in every one of us may make ordinary life more painful than it should be, this contempt is also the main cause of wars. It was contempt...which made for the labor camps of the Second World War. [TRO 165]

Contempt, which Mr. Siegel showed to be the source both of all cruelty and of mental trouble, is always a falsification and severing of sameness and difference—the same opposites made one in the rondo and all art. He defined contempt as “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” I describe here three aspects of ordinary contempt, which enabled average citizens to become exterminators of human beings.

1. A World Different from Ourselves

The Connecticut death camp guard was born like every child: as a self into a big world not himself. That is the first and fundamental difference everyone feels: between ourselves and all things outside us. The purpose of our lives, Mr. Siegel showed, is to like the world—which means to see those outside things and people as having the same fulness of reality and importance we give ourselves. Yet that usually does not happen. A woman walking down a well-kept American street does not see the neighbor she waves to as having an inner life as rich as hers—vivid yearnings, raw aches, subtleties of emotion real as her own. People do not give persons different from them that most needed sameness with themselves: full, three-dimensional reality. This is the most ordinary, primal contempt. Yet having it, you may be capable, given the right circumstances, of a lot: “As soon as you have contempt,” Mr. Siegel writes in James and the Children, “as soon as you don’t want to see another person as having the fulness that you have, you can rob that person, hurt that person, kill that person.”

Because every day people make another’s depths unreal, they can at a time of crisis or convenience make another’s pain, rights, life unreal, even as that person may be directly in front of them. When the world is civilized—when Aesthetic Realism is studied—each person will say to himself or herself, “I know I don’t give other things and people the fulness I give myself. I am horrified about this—and happy to be! I feel it as an emergency—and also a plea­sure—to try to see someone different from me as having the same pulsing reality I have. Through seeing as real the feelings of other people, I can come to respect and understand my own.”

2. When Comfort Is First

The next aspect of contempt is the everyday feeling that there is nothing more important than my and my family’s well­-being—and “well-being” can take the form of money and career advancement. In Self and World Mr. Siegel writes: “The fact that most people have felt...they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort­—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world.”

Thousands of people in Germany and Eastern Europe in the 1940s felt they needed to feather their nest, have a steady, well­-paying job—wasn’t that the most important thing? There were job openings at labor and death camps. In the 1840s in the American South, there were men and women who also saw their comfort as the most important thing, and being served by slaves did make life more comfortable­—also business more profitable. There is no more dangerous dealing with sameness and difference than the seeing of our comfort and importance as different from justice to other human beings. Yet such a difference is in the minds of most people. The Nazi guard in Connecticut was, I am sure, interested first of all in taking care of himself in the Europe of 1943—as were others who each morning kissed their children goodbye and went off to their jobs disciplining persons in labor camps.

3. The Triumph in Looking Down

The third aspect of contempt is the feeling I am important, Somebody, if I can look down on what is different from myself, see it, him, her as less than me. A woman can want to see her husband as crude, as lacking her sensitivity, as inferior to her—it makes her feel queenly. She can get a surge of importance as she humiliates him with a sarcastic remark. Two boys in a playground can think they’re big shots as they say things to another boy making him feel he doesn’t fit in. This is contempt. It went very far in Germany. “Hitler,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is perhaps the greatest evoker of human contempt in history.” With Nazism, people welcomed contempt massively, accommodated themselves to it sweepingly. But contempt would not have been able to get that far had it not been present first in its ordinary way, as it is present in people now.

We have to know what contempt is and criticize it, and Aesthetic Realism makes that possible. We have to see what art fully is: the real opponent of contempt—justice to sameness and difference. The art state of mind says, “This reality different from me is as real as I am. I am myself by doing all I can to be fair to it!

As the people of the world study Aesthetic Realism, what Mr. Siegel describes in these sentences can take place at last: “The next war has to be against ugliness in self....Contempt must be had for contempt....Respect for what is real must be seen as the great success of man.”

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


The Rondo and Us

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing terms in A Dictionary of Music, by Robert llling (1950).

There is a delightful kind of music called the rondo; and this is a philosophic matter too. It is a cheerful thing—a rondo is like a lamb having a good time—but it represents a very large principle. Illing writes: “The elementary type of rondo had one principal subject to which a return was made after the introduction of other material.”

In other words, something which began a certain way changed into other material; but then through the other material, came back to what it was, presumably refreshed. What has that got to do with us? Aesthetic Realism says that it is a beautiful thing for a person to feel that every time he meets something different, through the meeting something different he can become more himself. That is, the experience a person goes through should be seen as differences added to oneself. These differences can be looked on as aloof from the self, or one can see the self as aloof from them; one can see those differences as hostile; one can welcome them grudgingly; or they can be seen deeply as a means of beautifying and completing the self.

Assuming that we are the early material of the rondo: We start out with something. Then we get more material. And what happens? The new material brings out what we were at the beginning, more freshly than ever. Does that say anything? It says something that all the psychologists and the psychiatrists and the clinicians ought to learn. This matter in music happens to deal with the very mystery of self; and if they want to understand the self they have to understand what this represents. The same kind of thing occurs in poetry, in painting, in other ways in music, even in architecture. But are we going to understand this thingor waste our time using a lot of terminological pomposity and pretty much vacuity or semi-vacuity? I say that a rondo can be used to explain a disturbed person more than the language that is now taught to awed but insincere students of the human soul in the various schools.

When Dominance Is Kind

The definition goes on: “The mature extended form of the rondo of Beethoven began with the principal subject followed by a second subject in the dominant (or relative major in the case of a rondo in a minor key).” The word dominant is interesting. We hear of dominating mothers; in fact, of dominating children; dominating grandmothers. What we see is that within music, one sound can seem for a while to give the lead to other sounds. But while there is this domination, there is also, to be sure, a fine assemblage. We have dominant and subdominant; but the precedence given any one note is a means really of helping the other notes.

Then, we have the matter of major key and minor key. One would expect that the major key would fight the minor and we’d have a fine instance of delinquency, because that’s what happens in people. Also, in ourselves something major fights with something minor. But in music, although there can be a struggle between the major and the minor key (in all good music, in fact, that struggle can be presumed, if it is only the complete omission of the major key), the struggle seems to be a struggle for harmony in the midst of variegated excitement.

In Illing’s definition of major and minor there is this: “Triads are called major or minor according as the interval between the lowest notes of the triad is a major or minor third.” So we have triads, and thirds; and out of all these things come the “Humoresque,” “Liebestraum,” Chopin’s nocturnes, the things that make us cry, make us put our head in our hands and brood, make us think for a while we’ve got away from all the troubling, dusty, unendurable things we went through during the day.

Beethoven, and Why People Groan

In his definition of rondo, Illing says: “The practice of varying the recurrences of the principal subject was adopted by Beethoven.”

Beethoven is important because he insisted that the world in its sameness and difference was richer than we thought. And you would expect that he would make the rondo more rondo-ish. In Definitions, and Comment you will find aesthetics defined as “the showing of an object in such a way that the difference and sameness of reality as a whole is seen in that object.” There is no limit to how much a person wants to be the sameinsist on his personality, feel that he’s not going to pieces, that there is something permanent in him, that something in him will endure forever. There is also a desire in persons to change.

People groan. One reason they groan is, they are just as they were last week. The other reason they groan is, they have been going through so many things they don’t know where they are. Too much happens. Too little happens. This has to do with the rondo, because music is a way of showing how sameness becomes difference and difference becomes sameness. The rondo does that. And Beethoven insisted on it a little more than had been done in the previous history of the rondo. Beethoven would say, “You thing in the rondoyou recur more! Also, you show more where the previous material is still the same!” He got more adventurous and also more permanent.

“The deliberate recurrence of the principal subject...is the characteristic feature of the rondo.” Which means there is a certain way of something becoming different yet insisting on what it was, in the rondo, which is different from the way that occurs in other music. The rondo is a particular form of the sameness and difference relation.