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.”