The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

“Do You Want to Be Like Music?”

Dear Unknown Friends:

It is an honor to begin a serialization of Music & “Questions for Everyone,” a class of 1975, taught by Eli Siegel. “Questions for Everyone: To Be Thought about and Discussed” was published early in the history of Aesthetic Realism, in 1949. It contains 27 questions, and they are beautiful—kind and critical: they get to what most troubles people inwardly. In the class we’re serializing, Mr. Siegel comments on the first ten—in relation to music. All 27 are reprinted in issue 750 of this journal: “What Man Is.”

Art & Our Lives

Music & “Questions for Everyone” is a rich exploration of the principle on which Aesthetic Realism is based: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Eli Siegel is the critic who showed that art is essential to what every human being is, including people who think they’re not interested in art. That’s because, in order to make sense of who we are and to be as we truly hope to be, we need to see how art does what we’re trying to do: how it makes opposites one. A great, classic statement of this fact is in something Mr. Siegel said to me in an Aesthetic Realism lesson when I was nearly seven years old. I have quoted it before, including in my Preface to his Children’s Guide to Parents & Other Matters:

ES. Do you want to be like music?

ER. What do you mean “like music”?

ES. If people know how to conduct themselves they can be like music. Do you like any particular tune?

ER. I like “When You Are in Love.”

ES. Do you think that tune goes up and down?...Do you think the notes change?

ER. Yes.

ES. I like the “St. Louis Blues” very much. The notes change but they are all about one thing. When notes do different things and they surprise you, and you think it’s natural, then you have something like beauty.

The things that make for beauty, not only in music but in pictures and writing and talking, are the things that people want. Do you think there’s music in words too? —Murmur and shout?

ER. Yes.

ES. There’s music in words and there’s music in sound. Melody can teach you how to rise and fall and see that you are the same person.

Through the class we’re serializing, we can see that things which may torment us are related to what music is, fundamentally. Take the section printed here: Does the way we’re connected with people yet feel apart from them, have to do with how sounds are as to other sounds? And are we, as we hope and fear, in the midst of that huge philosophic thing possibility—and is possibility of music?

This class has been used as a text by Barbara Allen, Anne Fielding, and Edward Green in the “Opposites in Music” course, which they teach at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. It is the most exciting, important music course in the world today.

Sureness & Unsureness, in Life & Music

This issue also includes part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Marion Fennell, from a public seminar of last month titled “Modern, Smart, & Yet Unsure: The Drama in Women about Confidence & Uncertainty.” People are exceedingly pained by the way confidence and unsureness are in them; yet those opposites are one, and make for beauty, in all good music. Take two very different works: 1) The Triumphal March in Verdi’s Aida is mightily confident—after all, it’s triumphant. Yet it also has yearning, has even an ache in it, amid ancient trumpets; and yearning is with uncertainty. 2) The Rolling Stones’ sublime rock song “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” is so confident as it asserts the fact in its title; never was dissatisfaction expressed with more thrusting sureness. Yet through the way notes and rhythm are wed to those words and the words that follow, we hear, within the intense drive, abrupt hesitations: we hear unsureness within certainty.

Why are the opposites—which are grandly and delicately one in all good music—often so horribly warring in us? The central cause is the thing in us which Eli Siegel showed to be humanity’s largest danger: contempt. Contempt is the feeling I’m more if I can look down on what’s not me. And this pitting of the big opposites self and world against each other, makes all the other opposites against each other too. Art is the opponent of contempt. It arises from respect for the world. It has our opposites—with so much justice that they are one. The study of Aesthetic Realism is the needed, thrilling study of how our lives can be more and more like art.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Music & “Questions for Everyone”

From a Class Conducted by Eli Siegel

Eli Siegel. I thought it would be best today to discuss music in a way that can have it seen as being commented on by and explaining everything else in the world. I had thought of dealing with these “Questions for Everyone” as such. But I think that if one looks at a question and sees, without forcing, that there is a relation of it to music, the question itself will be seen more truly, and so will music.

So we’ll take the first question: “Do I feel the same alone as I do with other people?” Mr. Stevens, what has that got to do with music?

Will Stevens. Is it the matter of separation and relation? Music joins and separates.

ES. That’s so, but do you believe that before notes were put together—which occurred, it is said, in ancient times—people felt there were certain relations between sounds? There are certain relations between colors. There is a relation between people; there is a relation between times—years, minutes. And there was a feeling that there was a certain relation among sounds. Though the owl might sound different from the thrush, there was also a relation. And the thrush would sound somewhat like a nightingale.

Mr. Emory, do you think every note in a scale can exist by itself? For instance, can you say Do and then forget all the rest?

Gavin Emory. Yes, you can.

ES. And say Fa by itself, and so on, like that? In other words, every reality can be seen as lonely, including one grain of oatmeal. And somebody—it was I, so I should know who did it—put one grain of oatmeal on a desk and said, “This grain of oatmeal is now an individual!” It’s rather silly; but do you think it has a lesson?

GE. Yes.

ES. That is: anything can be seen that way. There are periods in history that are lonely. So every note in music can be alone. There is a novel called A Note in Music, by Rosamond Lehmann. You wouldn’t expect a note in music to feel the same alone as with the other notes in the scale, would you?

GE. No.

ES. But it could learn from being with them?

GE. Right.

ES. All right. We may get back to this question. The second is: “Have I thought that no one knew me or cared for me?” Well, Mr. Dalberg, what’s that got to do with music?

Neil Dalberg. I think it also has to do, Mr. Siegel, with the subject of loneliness: that a note in music can be awfully lonely, and then connected.

ES. What does the history of thought consist of? For instance, I said years ago in “Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana,” and say now, “The world is waiting to be known”—what does that imply?

ND. That there are more things to see, to know.

ES. Which means what? Can you put yourself in the place of the thing to be known? For instance, do you think gravity was waiting to be discovered?

ND. Yes, I do. Yes.

ES. Also, let’s say there are those sounds in the Fifth Symphony of Beethoven which waited until about the beginning of the 19th century to be found. And they were found. Do you think they were yearning to be found?

ND. Yes, I do.

ES. There is possibility. For example, Shostakovich, during the Second World War, wanted to write a United Nations song. It was pretty good, but it wasn’t that good. It wasn’t infectious enough. People could easily stop humming it. But if there were a melody that was for the United Nations, or for peace, or for the whole world, and was really good and people couldn’t stop humming it, and it was new, then that would be a very big thing. One can’t say that it’s not possible, because no one knows what musical possibility is.

Possibility is one of the large things in what is called ontology, because as soon as a thing is, it is also possibly different. Here is where opposites come in. For instance, suppose you are introduced to someone. At the moment you’re introduced, you know that you didn’t know her or him. At that moment the unknown and the known are together. And possibility is with all factuality; that is part of ontology.

So in relation to the second question: we are all looking for possibility. And everything can be seen as lonely. I have put it in various ways, but one way was: “A grain of sand is looking for a beach.”


Women, Confident & Unsure

By Marion Fennell

In my late teens and early 20s, I saw myself as modern and smart, but was also unsure about many things. I made good money as a secretary in Manhattan, and I went out with friends almost every night, looking sophisticated and often acting confidently brash. After a while I yearned for a career with more “creativity,” but was distressed at feeling I had no clear direction. In my journal I wrote:

I am wishy-washy. I have little willpower. I have little confidence. I don’t know what I’m doing. What do I want to do? What do I want to be?

Ten years later I had the good fortune to learn from Aesthetic Realism that how confident or uncertain we are depends on how we see the world outside us, how fair we are to it.

As I was growing up in Yonkers, New York, I was praised for things that had nothing to do with whether I was fair: for having a charming smile and long blond curls. I remember a friend of my father’s asking, “Where did you get those pretty curls?” I smiled, but thought scornfully, “What a stupid question!” I was having contempt. In Self and World, Eli Siegel explains: “Contempt...is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker.” Making fun of people became an everyday occurrence with me, and I didn’t know how much I was weakening myself!

My father worked hard to support our family of six, but could get quite angry. Also, my older sister and brother had intense fights. I remember feeling I should remove myself from this world of confusing, changeable people, be above the fray. I felt, “You’re all ridiculous. I’m going to be smarter than you by not caring much about things and not getting so upset.”

My mother seemed calmer, but would warn her children that this is a tough world that will always bring you down—you cannot thrive in it. Without wholly knowing it, my brother Kevin and I, the two younger children, agreed with her. I’m grateful that now he and I are looking freshly at what effect this agreement had on all three of us. Because of Aesthetic Realism, Kevin and I have a new agreement: to see the world as having unlimited ways in which we can thrive every day.

Career & Uncertainty

At around age 23, in my hope for a more fulfilling job and with the feeling I’d been wasting my life, I enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Yet even as I enjoyed courses like Fabric Science and Art History, I found it hard to sustain interest in what I was learning. Later, when I got work designing children’s clothes, that too didn’t satisfy me, and I felt increasingly unsure of myself.

But as I began to study Aesthetic Realism I at last learned what in me was interfering with my life. In one consultation I said:

MF. I’m concerned about my job. I’d like to be more conscientious. I drift and make mistakes. Stupid things, like making errors in pattern-making.

Consultants. Where does your mind go? What do you think about?

MF. Anything—calling my sister, or what to make for dinner. I find pattern-making boring.

Consultants. Yet don’t you also like it?

MF. To a degree. But it’s a chore.

Consultants. Do you want the world to interest you?

MF. Ye-e-es....But I resent having to perform creatively.

Consultants. What do you want to do—what is your ideal situation?

MF. Uhmmm...

Consultants. Is your ideal to feel useful with the least amount of effort on your part, and while giving yourself the right to remove yourself whenever you please?

Yes! I was seeing that the mistakes I seemed unable to stop making at work arose from the feeling that I was too good to exert myself in this world. I liked to say about a job I saw as demanding, “I’m not going to run around for them like a chicken with no head.”

As I changed the way I saw the world, I was different about work. I became a school secretary and wanted, deeply, thoughtfully, and energetically, to have a good effect on the young people for whom I was responsible. Having this purpose made for my having much more confidence in myself.

Love & Unsureness

In my early 20s I felt sure I would find a man who would love me. But one relationship after another failed, and I didn’t understand why. To a large degree, my purpose in what I called love was to have a man take me away from the world, which I saw as both frightening and dull. I didn’t know that this purpose always poisons love.

The man I once considered the love of my life, whom I’ll call John Templeton, was an energetic person who enjoyed going out with friends to a street fair or restaurant. I felt important when he took me to bars and dance clubs, where we drank a lot and he paid for everything. In our private conversations, we’d make fun of our friends or his parents.

Some of my favorite times with John were when I could get him away from other people to a quiet room, where we’d dim the lights and have what I saw as a romantic time alone. However, increasingly there were sudden disagreements between us, angry fights. And I had a constant feeling something was terribly wrong. In TRO 1355 Ellen Reiss explains why, “despite the kisses,” two people can “come to have a deep resentment of each other, an ill nature, a fury”:

These arise from that beautiful yet unrecognized and unwelcomed doubt: “My body has been ever so close to this person’s, but I haven’t been using him to like the world more, and he hasn’t been encouraging me to. I’ve interfered with the purpose of my life!”

Several years after John and I broke up I began to learn what had happened between us. When I said I didn’t know why John had “given up on me” my consultants asked many questions about our relationship, including:

Consultants. What did he miss in you? It’s hard to think someone misses something in us. Is there something that a man is looking for from a woman that every human being is looking for? There’s been a feeling that if you love a person, or if a person loves you, it makes you more the person you want to be.

Then they asked this question, which surprised me very much: “Do you think he was scared of you in any way?” I’d never thought of that, but answered: “Uh-huh. I was interested in women’s liberation, was becoming more assertive, and he didn’t like it.”

Consultants. Do you think you were also recessive in a way that scared him? Could a man be afraid that you wanted very much to go in yourself, and to take him with you?

MF. I guess so...

Consultants. If you were talking to a man right now, might he be frightened? Because there is a picture you present: “I am a very lovely girl who would like to get away from this world and I would like you to be very nice to me so that I can do it.” You don’t see that this very thing, which made you yearn for Mr. Templeton, may also be a key thing that interfered with your relationship.

The more I looked, the more I saw that what they were saying was true. I got new hope as I learned that I would be sure in love if I had a different purpose: if I saw caring for a man as a means of being fair to the world—not getting away from it.

I’m very fortunate to continue learning about this in my happy marriage to Jeffrey Williams. Talking about where we both can do better, see the world and people more justly, has made for truly romantic feeling, and for real confidence that love will grow and last.