The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Everyone’s Confusion—& Music

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing Music & “Questions for Everyone,” a 1975 class taught by Eli Siegel. It is a vivid, thrilling illustration of the landmark 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.” In the class, Mr. Siegel relates matters in music to the very human matters, the bewildering self-matters, expressed in his “Questions for Everyone” (TRO 750).

The section included here is much about a pair of opposites that are together beautifully, mightily, in all good art: the known and the unknown. Yet these opposites trouble people immensely in life. And so, by means of introduction, I’ll comment on some of the tumult about them.

The Unknown: Resented

Millions of people right now feel insulted by the unknown; fear it; even hate it. They feel humiliated and angry that they don’t understand themselves, and deeply outraged that they can’t make sense of someone close to them, and life as such. For instance, husbands and wives have a tendency, foolish and also mean, to think they’re authorities on their spouse; then they’re annoyed, even furious, when something occurs making it clear that there are things in the person they’re close to that they don’t understand.

Mr. Siegel once said to me in an Aesthetic Realism class, “The test of a person’s character is how she says ‘I don’t know.’” I came to see that if we’re angry or uncomfortable saying we don’t know something, the cause is conceit. That is: the big reason people are against the unknown is contempt, the feeling that the way we’re important is through looking down on things and people. Aesthetic Realism shows that contempt is the weakener of mind and the source of every cruelty. Contempt in us says: “Things don’t have the right to puzzle me; people don’t. After all, I should be on top of them, be able to manage them. I shouldn’t have to feel there are things for me to keep trying to understand! Reality—including the reality of another person—shouldn’t be so big and rich that I’ll need to spend my life trying to know it better and better.”

Meanwhile, the same person who is angry at the unknown also has contempt for the known. There’s the feeling that what we know, what’s familiar, is boring, lacks mystery. After all, if in our minds we try to wipe out what we don’t understand in things and people, we are making them dull, unsurprising.

Knowing & Love

It’s a beautiful fact that what makes these opposites, the known and unknown, one is the desire to know. Let’s take the subject I mentioned earlier, marriage. Aesthetic Realism explains that the purpose of love is to feel close to, and know, and care for, the world itself through knowing a person; and that if you love a person, your desire to know him or her never stops. When a wife sees that the purpose she had when she was born was to like the world through knowing it, and her thrilling obligation in marriage is never to get tired of understanding this person she’s close to—she will feel the unknown in him is her friend. It moves me very much to say that even with a person’s death the magnificent need to keep trying to understand him goes on, and so does the possibility of knowing him better and better. My gratitude to Aesthetic Realism for teaching me that is immense.

We include in this issue an article by Sally Ross, part of a paper she presented in August at a public seminar titled “Modern, Smart, & Yet Unsure: The Drama in Women about Confidence & Uncertainty.” She shows that contempt makes for a great unsureness. That fact has tremendously to do with the opposites I’ve been writing of—because when you see the world as something to manage, you have to be afraid of the unknown.

Two maxims on our subject are these, in Eli Siegel’s book Damned Welcome: Aesthetic Realism Maxims: “The unknown is coming ’round the block” and “The strange really has a smile on its face; you should welcome it with open arms.” That is how he saw, because his desire to know was without limit. And the philosophy he founded makes it possible for people to welcome proudly both the known and unknown, as art does.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Division, & the Unknown

From a Class Conducted by Eli Siegel

Eli Siegel. The fourth question is “Do I think I am two persons or one person?” Well, Doreen Jackson, what technical idea as to music immediately comes from this?

Doreen Jackson. I thought of single notes and chords, and the way chords resolve.

ES. And what else—what happens often in an opera?

DJ. There’s an aria.

ES. But do you think song is sometimes divided up? That is, there are duets.

DJ. Yes. And trios.

ES. And quartets. And in every instance there is division. The idea of counterpoint is an idea of duet.

To have something said differently and also the same is a very deep idea. “O, spring has come”—“Has come spring”—“Spring is arrived”—“It is here now, it was elsewhere, but it is now here.” And people say the same thing in different ways, and it can go on for a long time.

Next, we have question 5: “Would I be afraid to know everything about myself?” So, Mr. Fraser, what does that have to do with music? What are two elements in music that everyone is affected by as we hear it?

Sam Fraser. I’m not sure what elements the question is related to, Mr. Siegel.

ES. Well, what did people hint at in the title of Schubert’s 8th Symphony? It’s “Unfinished.” In all music there is the unknown, because as you hear something the notes are here—but what they are about you have to feel for yourself. Occasionally music is of such a kind that it makes you feel strange. There are some people who are affected by Til Eulenspiegel in a way that makes them feel a little funny. Strauss has certain effects—there are certain notes that give one a feeling of delightful willies. Do you think when any person gets confused, and occasionally even nauseated, the unknown is present?

SF. Yes, I do.

ES. Every time you hear a note in music, what the note is about is that much unknown.

SF. I was also thinking about the silence in music.

ES. That’s right; that too is part of the unknown. We don’t wholly know what stillness means. That’s why Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite gives people the willies occasionally—the feeling of all that silence. —Yes, Sabrina Mark?

SM. Would lyrics be adding something of the known?

ES. Yes. But you’d still get the feeling there is something unknown. If we had to listen to that most famous line—it’s now becoming popular again—in Naughty Marietta, “Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found thee,” we could ask, “So what is it, dear?” You’d have a hard time saying. —Yes, Ms. Merino?

Rachel Merino. Would the depth of color in art correspond to the unknown?

ES. Yes. Do you think every color hints of the unknown? The unknown, according to Aesthetic Realism, is a constant companion. A child is born: he or she has all kinds of bones in process and also cells and corpuscles, is burdened with a lot of biological information—yet all the child can do is cry. Then, as we go through life we never wholly know what our bodies are like. Somebody else has to tell us, usually. The unknown haunts us and never leaves us. All education is a making one of known and unknown. It’s usually called knowing, but there is something more than that. —Mr. Cameron, would you say the unknown in yourself interests you?

Ralph Cameron. Yes, it does.

ES. There are arias that say, “O, something has occurred to me and at last I see myself better!” The unknown is in all music. A chord makes the unknown somewhat richer, but every note by itself hints of the unknown. —Yes, Mr. Fraser?

SF. Does an orchestra have both more unknown and less unknown than a single instrument?

ES. I wouldn’t say that. I think all sound has the unknown in it. —Yes, Ms. Eames?

Rylan Eames. Would it be true that having more knowledge doesn’t diminish the unknown—that the unknown stays as much?

ES. I don’t know about putting it in terms of the same amount; but let’s say a child doesn’t know a word, like development—the child doesn’t worry about the mystery there. Everything we know is a springboard for what we don’t know. For instance, as soon as a person is introduced: “I hope to know more about you.” That is what a gallant young man would say. Before the introduction, he didn’t know anything about the person, so he wasn’t aware that there was more to know.

RE. Does that mean that with knowledge, both known and unknown can increase?

ES. They can. If you hear a composition for the first time, you get introduced to something you may want to study later. The known and unknown are two opposites, and like other things in the opposites field, they are deeply the same. When you respect something in art, the unknown becomes part of you in a way it wasn’t earlier. It’s hard to know what the unknown is. One can say:

The unknown

Is my own,

And not my own.

And it is alone

With me, and I am alone

With it.

The unknown is all around you. I can say much more about it. The unknown is anything that can exist, does exist, which has not been seen in terms of its whole reality.


Sureness & Unsureness: A Drama

By Sally Ross

Women have been plagued by the way we’ve gone from confidence to being oh so unsure. I shuttled from acting like Ms. Know-it-all—challenging my friends with a belligerent “How do you know?” so often that the question was printed under my picture in our high school yearbook—to a timorous creature who apologized for nearly everything I did. The fact that Aesthetic Realism understands and can change this fight is liberating.

I learned that contempt—building ourselves up by making less of what’s different from us—can temporarily have us feel we’re riding high; but it’s a fake confidence and always causes unsureness. In TRO 1271 Ellen Reiss explains that what will make us honestly sure is “to want intensely, with…exactitude, to respect [the] world other than ourselves.”

Confidence & Uncertainty in Connecticut

Growing up in North Haven, Connecticut, I cared for science—studying the human body, and going out with my stargazer map to look at the stars. At age 11 I was excited as my father helped me make an electroscope, an instrument that shows how electric charges attract and repel. As I did these things I felt happy and more sure of myself.

Yet I also thought I’d be confident through being better than other people and looking down on them. I thought scornfully that I was smarter than my mother. And while I respected my father’s work as a chemist, I liked feeling he was easy to fool. I admired some qualities in people, including my closest friends, but I looked for reasons to think less of them: Lisa was creative—but flighty; Amy was sensible about many things—but totally obsessed with her boyfriend. This ordinary but insidious drive for contempt exacted a huge toll on me. I felt increasingly uncertain and fearful. At 17 I wrote in my journal:

I’m so pre-occupied with myself that I can’t really give to anyone around me....I’ve built huge walls around me. Why do I punish myself?

Once, in the college cafeteria, standing in line behind a man from my dorm, I kept telling myself, “He’s going to forget my name.” When he did, I felt my case was clinched: I knew it, the world was no good! I felt doomed but also triumphant. Some days later I had an acute anxiety attack.

I am thankful that the next year I learned about Aesthetic Realism. In consultations and later in classes taught by Eli Siegel, I learned why I tossed between fake confidence and devastating unsureness. In one class, Mr. Siegel asked:

Do you think, Ms. Ross, you have built a career feeling people are flops? The question is, on what basis do we want to have a self? If it’s on the basis in any way of other people’s weakness, you have succumbed to cheapness. The only way to build up a self is to find what is different from yourself that you can really care for and see as good or beautiful.

This discussion affected me deeply. It enabled me to be a better critic of myself and to feel I didn’t have to compete with people all the time but could learn from them and they could add to me. The result was: I became much stronger and surer of myself.

I had done well in school and been praised by teachers. Yet there had been a steep fight in me between a real interest in knowledge and getting high grades. Outside of school, I wasn’t very interested in reading or learning. Though I graduated from college with the highest honors, I felt I was a dilettante and called myself a fraud. Years later, I heard Mr. Siegel describe a way of seeing in schools that has hurt students over the decades. “As you know,” he said, “the idea of averages and marks is still a big thing in education. One doesn’t go after truth; one goes after marks.”

Mr. Siegel defined truth as “the having of a thing as it is, in mind,” and showed that real education is a going after that. I’m grateful, both personally and as a biology teacher, to see that if our purpose is to get to the truth we’ll feel proud and sure of ourselves. But if our purpose in learning is to get high marks, we’re having contempt for truth. This purpose is a misuse of mind itself, and has to make us unsure.

Confidence & Unsureness in Love

I once felt a man’s role was to take me away from an unappreciative world and erase my self-doubts by making me superior to everything. In college I met Peter Morgan, an art student. He was pained by the way he felt separate from people, but I used the fact that he liked me to praise myself. I respected his seriousness about art, but I was in competition with it. For instance, one day when he was painting I went over to him and put my arms around him, wanting him to put down his paintbrush, take his eyes off the still life he was working on, and devote his attention to me. He got angry, and rightly so. And when Peter showed interest in other people and made new friends, I wasn’t pleased.

Some years later when I spoke about Peter in an Aesthetic Realism class, Mr. Siegel asked me, “Do you think you wanted to use a man as a possession, to glorify yourself?”

SR. Yes. What does the desire to be possessive come from?

ES. This desire to assimilate fiercely comes from our feeling that our whole fate depends on having an object. You want to be happy, but you have certain notions of what will make you happy that have to be questioned.

I began to see that my notion of love was not love at all. It was ownership—exploiting a man to build myself up. Instead of making me confident and happy, this way of seeing made me ashamed and unsure because it was against the true purpose of love: to like the world, to use another person to be in a better, more vibrant relation with everything.

What I’ve learned about love has made possible my marriage to Aesthetic Realism consultant and actor Derek Mali. Knowing him makes me closer to the world and people. I love Derek’s steadiness and good nature, and his passion about economic justice.

Meanwhile, though I had changed a great deal, there was a time in our marriage when I found myself being ill-natured with Derek and feeling unsure of myself. In a class, Ms. Reiss explained why as she asked me which I would prefer—Derek’s being interested in knowing me truly, or his making me terrifically important without being exact.

SR. I want him to be interested in me truly.

ER. Are you sure? Do you accept a certain inexact being made much of by him because it appeals to something in you?

SR. I think so, yes.

ER. You have the complaint that women have: they want a man to make much of them extravagantly—but if he does he’s not going to be a good critic. A woman can pretend and get praise, but then she has the pain of feeling a man doesn’t want to know her.

I’ve seen that what I’d been going after—a smooth, contemptuous arrangement with a man—is really an enemy to love. I thank Ellen Reiss for this criticism, which has made me so much happier and more confident. Seeing freshly each day that love is inseparable from the desire to know has brought a new sense of exploration and romance to our marriage.