Dear Unknown Friends:
In this issue we conclude our serialization of the 1970 lecture Philosophy Begins with That, by Eli Siegel. Philosophy, he shows, is not apart from our moment-to-moment life, but is in every confusion, distress, hope of ours; every object, every happening. That is because all these have in them the structure of the world itself: the oneness of opposites. To illustrate, Mr. Siegel looks at entries in the 1929 journal of novelist Arnold Bennett. And in the two commented on here, we see such opposites as the expected and unexpected, manyness and oneness, selfishness and compassion.
Here too is an article by New York City teacher Barbara McClung. It is part of a paper she gave this summer at a public seminar titled “Seriousness & a Good Time: Can a Woman Have Both?” We can safely say that most people, even as they may knock themselves out trying to have a good time, feel that life is mainly not exciting; that it’s pretty tepid stuff. A person can go through most of the hours annoyed aplenty, angry often, agitated and uneasy—but not animated, not agog, thrilled, swept. Then, because life seems largely dull, he or she tries to pump up some momentary excitement—maybe through sex, drink, seeing a violent or scary film.
An American Poem on the Subject
There is a poem of Emily Dickinson on that tremendous subject, a good time. Though one of her most famous, it has not been seen as vital news for everyone’s life. But it is. This charming, wild, musical, and urgent-for-your-life poem begins:
I taste a liquor never brewed—
From Tankards scooped in Pearl—
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!
Inebriate of Air—am I—
And Debauchee of Dew—
Reeling—thro endless summer days—
From inns of Molten Blue.
What this poem (you’ve just read half of it) is saying is: the biggest good time, the authentic, grand good time, comes from feeling the world itself truly; it doesn’t come from lessening or looking down on the world. Emily Dickinson says that what enables her joyfully to let go, is caring for reality—represented by skies, air, summer.
There is, Aesthetic Realism explains, a fight in every person all the time. It’s between two desires: the desire to be ourselves, have meaning and largeness, through seeing the world justly; versus the desire to be “big” and “free” through contempt, through making less of what’s not ourselves. One form of contempt is finding the world dull. Another is getting away from it and managing it—for instance, through what the poem refers to, drink; or simply through feeling we’re superior to others and don’t have to think deeply about them but can tell them what to do. Contempt has thousands of forms. But all of them, including the contempt people use to have a “good time,” make a person feel emptier and ashamed.
Emily Dickinson says she’s drunk on the world itself: reality straight is more thrilling than any wine. And in the poem’s verbal music we feel her conviction: how firm the lines sound as they also frolic and let go! She’s right. The only authentic good time is that which enables us to care more for reality as such. Not knowing this, people go after pleasure in ways that make them pained and mean: through contempt.
This poem is about what Aesthetic Realism shows to be the deepest desire we have: to like the world honestly. And like of the world is no tame thing: it has agogness, sweep, thrill. In the third stanza, Emily Dickinson says the desire to like the world is unstoppable: there’s nothing more enduring:
When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door—
When Butterflies—renounce their “drams”—
I shall but drink the more!
Then we have the conclusion, in which various religious figures become agog themselves:
Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats—
And Saints—to windows run—
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the—Sun—
The little Tippler—the Emily Dickinson who wants to take into herself delightedly the meaning of things—is supported by that mighty, luminous, unified thing, the Sun. And poetically there are grandeur and music as the small, unsteady sound of “little Tippler” meets the firm yet wondrous unity of “Sun.”
The Opposites in Everything—& Beauty
While the world is represented by dew and blue sky, it also has garbage in the streets and cruelty. And here we come to what Mr. Siegel explains in the lecture we’ve been serializing. The world, with all its confusingness, is a oneness of opposites—and when we see these truly, in any instance of reality, we’re excited, also composed: we have a deep, real good time.
And so the passage of Arnold Bennett you’ll soon read, about dullness in a movie, is exciting! The writing is very good, and the reason is: Bennett describes the dull dramatically, shows some of the intricacy and nuance within the tedious, while also presenting it as DULL. He has felt the world as having drama and dullness simultaneously, and so we feel in his sentences style, beauty, even something like thrill.
“All beauty,” Eli Siegel showed, “is a making one of opposites.” His seeing of that fact is great in the history of philosophy. And what’s even more magnificent, the principle continues: “and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves”!
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Expected & Unexpected, & More
By Eli Siegel
Note. Mr. Siegel is commenting on passages in Arnold Bennett’s Journal 1929.
Art has to do with the unexpected and the expected; music does; a play does; a film does. In 1929 the talking movie is becoming more popular, definitely doing well. Bennett is much taken by the showmanship of Gloria Swanson. However, he says a picture of hers was not as good as the silent film East Lynne. It resembled East Lynne, but wasn’t as good:
Crude, tawdry, grossly sentimental, encumbered with stretches of acutely tedious and undramatic dialogue, and rendered ugly by the continuous falsification of the sound of the human voice which mars all talking films, it crawled along from foreseen crisis to foreseen crisis in the most exasperating manner. Its attempts to be noble were merely distressing.
It happens that in a film, if something takes place and it isn’t in keeping with what you were looking for, you don’t like it. For instance: you think that he’s a leader of a ballet company, but instead he’s a member of the CIA. You get disappointed. There are all kinds of changes in films. And there have been pictures that were just too surprising to be comfortable. Then, the other thing—everything is as expected—also isn’t liked. Art still has to welcome the expected and unexpected, because reality—and this is a philosophic matter—reality is new and old, and expected and unexpected. The famous allegory in Plato’s Republic about the shadows in the cave has some of that in it.
The Opposites Are Here Too
Bennett hears about a fight in Madison Square Garden, and in this passage there is a relation of sin and feeling for humanity. It’s about Tex Rickard, the great prize fight impresario. He’s the Sol Hurok of the fighting boys. Well, he died, and a crowd of 47,000 bowed its head in honoring Rickard:
A lawyer friend of mine, back from a visit to New York, told me that he had recently been one of a crowd of 47,000 at a prize-fight in Madison Square Garden, where there was ordained an interval for prayer for the repose of the soul of Tex Rickard, the prize-fight organiser, whom everybody present knew to be a great and violent sinner. Jack Dempsey, and a professional toast-master at a terrific salary, stood alone in the ring...while the whole vast auditorium was darkened. Everybody had to stand with bare and bowed head. The professional toast-master prayed. A silence. Then the fighting proceeded.
This is manyness going for singleness. It’s a bit like the dandelion in a prairie, where the prairie can be seen as going for the dandelion. And we have the meaning of Tex Rickard.
The statements I’ve read from Bennett’s journal have philosophic beginnings. I thought of dealing somewhat with The Old Wives’ Tale and passages there. I cannot deal with that now. But Bennett is one of the persons who made reality beautiful with his novels about the Five Towns, particularly The Old Wives’ Tale.
Seriousness & a Good Time—Both!
By Barbara McClung
It was 11 PM and I had just finished my waitress shift in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I got out of my uniform, part of which was a floor-length skirt I’d made—which could quickly change into a provocative strapless dress. With some of my fellow workers, I headed to the local hot spot to cut loose with drinking and dancing. The lights were bright, the music loud. “Yes,” I felt, “this is it!” After four years of college, this was what I’d moved to the Southwest for: independence, adventure, good times.
But within a few months I knew this wasn’t “it.” Something big was missing. I still felt painfully separate from people and locked in myself, and didn’t know why. In less than a year, I moved back east. Shortly after, I had the good fortune to begin my study of Aesthetic Realism, where I was to learn that a “good time”—the real deal, one that we can feel proud of—is the same as true seriousness.
What Seriousness Is & Isn’t
“To be serious,” Ellen Reiss writes in TRO 1574, “is not at all to be dull....To be serious is to see the life, which means the liveliness, that is in things, because one wants to be richly fair to them.”
Like many people, I did see seriousness as dull—as buckling down, doing something I didn’t want to do but had to do. I knew we were supposed to be serious in church, and when we went to Aunt Marge’s house we had to behave: sit properly at the dinner table and not “get rowdy.” As I got older my notion of seriousness continued to be associated with something not exciting and often sad, like listening to a melancholy James Taylor song with the lights dimmed, thinking I was very deep.
Yet from an early age I loved music and took it seriously. I sang in the high school chorus and played the clarinet in the orchestra, excitedly practicing difficult runs from Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture” until I got them right. At the University of Connecticut I had a great time playing the baby bass drum in the marching band every Saturday, rain or shine: it was a pleasure to memorize every step and every note, and, with over 160 other musicians, create intricate patterns on the field while playing music that thumped and soared!
But in everyday life, my notion of a good time included making fun of people in my mind and sometimes openly. My older brother and I—seen as “good” children—would put our ears to the air vent that led directly into the kitchen and listen to conversations between my grandmother and visiting neighbors or relatives. We’d mock everyone, and later when we joined the visitors, a knowing glance between the two of us would set us laughing hysterically.
In a recent Aesthetic Realism class, when I said I wanted to understand how I saw the meaning of having a good time, Ellen Reiss said that to understand what “a good time” really is, we’d have to understand the word good. She asked, “Would good in ‘a good time’ mean somewhat the same thing as good in ‘a good book’?” She explained that the true idea of good always has in it some oneness of an individual thing or person and what the whole world deserves. “A good time, then, should be a time in which one feels that oneself and the world meet with as much fullness and exactitude as possible. But do you think what people often associate with a good time is the ability to have untrammeled contempt?”
This explained so much of why, as the years went on, I felt increasingly distant from people, even as I took part in many activities. I could be lively, but I felt I was going through the motions and wasn’t really there. I remember staring at the classified ads in the newspaper, wanting desperately to call about a job opening, but the thought of having to speak to a person on the other end terrified me. Why did I often feel that my life, which was outwardly quite fortunate, was deeply empty and didn’t come to much?
In an early Aesthetic Realism consultation I was asked questions that had me understand the reason: for example, “Do you think it’s possible to have a rich life if you don’t see people as real? When we take the dimensions away from things, we make for an emptiness in ourselves.”
A Good Time Seeing People as Real
I began to look at people differently, to see them as having dimensions I’d never seen before. This very much included my mother, whom I’d taken for granted. Who was this woman I called Mom? On the one hand, I loved to watch her and my father dancing the jitterbug. I was in awe at how they worked so well together, with a precision and freedom, strictness and improvisation, that was beautiful. But I also saw my mother as overly emotional, sloppy in her exuberance, and I was often scornful. I decided early that I would have a more sensible demeanor—which often came across to others as dull and stodgy.
In consultations, I was encouraged to know who my mother, Dolores Spetly, truly was. I was given the assignment to read the novel Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis, because “he does write about people who maybe their daughters wouldn’t find too interesting.” My consultants asked the following questions: “What was your mother doing in 1942? What do you think she felt? At school, did she have an opinion of the nuns? Does your mother have more of a religious feeling than you do?”—to all of which I answered, “I don’t know.”
They continued: “Do you think it matters? If you don’t know all those things about your mother, do you think she’s rather wonderful (that is, a cause of wonder)? She is, and you can treasure each of these questions because they’re a foothold to having an attitude to your mother you can like.”
I did treasure those questions. And I’m grateful for the deep good times my mother and I were able to have because of Aesthetic Realism. I began to respect the friendly way she would talk to someone she didn’t know. I learned about her love of books and reading, and her seriousness about something I’d taken for granted: cooking. My mother loved to bake, and she taught me that there is a scientific precision—including proportion—about baking. Through my study of Aesthetic Realism, I was able to use Dolores Spetly as a beginning point for being serious about how I saw all people, and this made for a release and pleasure and ease in both of us.
Love, Knowledge, & a True Good Time
I learned from Aesthetic Realism that the purpose of love is to like the world itself through knowing a particular person. When I met Dan McClung, a young man who had moved to New York from Kansas City, Missouri, to study Aesthetic Realism, I saw a liveliness in him that I liked very much, and also a seriousness that I admired. Here was a person very different from me, who loved and studied the work of Van Gogh, and who welcomed criticism in order to know himself better. He also had a thoughtful, critical humor that was kind, not mocking. His marriage proposal to me was surprising, and had both seriousness and the quality of a good time. As a gift, he gave me a book of poetry by the Irish poet James Stephens, whom he cared for, and as I opened it I read: “Dear Barbara, Will you marry me? Love, Dan.” My answer was yes.
Earlier, I quoted this, from a class: “A good time, then, should be a time in which one feels that oneself and the world meet with as much fullness and exactitude as possible.” That describes the study of Aesthetic Realism itself, and is what I feel I’m in the midst of every day—for instance, in reading a good book, or having dinner and meaningful conversation with friends. A simple thing like taking a walk with Dan can be both thrilling and educating, as he stops to photograph a butterfly delicately probing the spiky center of a cornflower for nectar, or the vast panorama of the Williamsburg Bridge enveloped in morning mist, or the composition in a gritty, graffitied New York alleyway. We both get a new sight of things, find more meaning in everyday objects.
One of the biggest ways I’m able to put together seriousness and a good time—for which I’m enormously grateful—is teaching science, through the Aesthetic Realism teaching method, to students from 3rd to 6th grade on the Lower East Side. As we conduct an experiment following the scientific method, look through the microscope to discover the tiny organelles that make up the parts of a plant cell, we are seeing how the opposites that are the structure of the world are in the subject and in us too: freedom and order, high and low, the delicate and powerful. Students are delighted, and excited about learning. And, after 27 years in the classroom, so am I!