The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Music, Byron, and Our Failed Economy

Dear Unknown Friends:

We continue our serialization of that magnificent, kind work of art criticism Aesthetic Realism and Music, by Eli Siegel. In this 1951 lecture, Mr. Siegel shows what music is. And he shows that music, far from being an offset to the troubles of life, has within it the answers to them—in keeping with this great Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In this section, Mr. Siegel comments on an enormous thing in art history: romanticism. It is something he spoke and wrote on extensively, definitively. He showed that romanticism—that new way, in all the arts, of seeing reality and the human self, which came to be in Europe at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th—stands for what every person, now in 1997, is looking for.

There are various aspects of romanticism; critics have described them—and they all have to do with making the opposites closer, more one. There is that which Wordsworth and Coleridge consciously and passionately went after, as Coleridge tells in his Biographia Literaria: the showing that ordinary things have wonder, and that what seems strange, far off from us, even supernatural, is close to us too, has meaning for us. There is that which Victor Hugo wrote of, and embodied: the desire to show that the human self as awry, pitiful, even grotesque is coherent with the human self as grand and dignified, and that the laughable and the mighty are deeply akin. And there is the aspect Mr. Siegel speaks of here, which other critics certainly noticed, but the importance and meaning of which he was the critic to explain: the fact that with romanticism, the Self, personality, one’s own turbulent feelings, one’s inner life and thoughts, one’s desires, became something to assert, became a subject as distinguished as the Trojan War or a theme from the Bible.

I am very grateful to speak of that aspect of romanticism in relation to America now, as a matter of terrific urgency. —Because what it means to honor one’s Self truly, affirm it, show it, lavish attention on it, and what it means to do this falsely, is a difference crucial for people’s lives and the U. S. economy. And it is a difference other critics, describers of mind, and economists have not understood, but which Eli Siegel understood and made blessedly, grandly clear.

Byron vs. the Profit System

So let us look a little at that person of English romanticism who stands most for the thrusting forth of individuality, George Gordon Lord Byron. And let us relate him to that thing which has also been seen as representing individualism, the profit system: that way of economics which is now causing millions of Americans to be thrown out of work; to see their jobs go to “cheap labor” in Central America and Asia because an employer doesn’t want to pay them decent wages; to have the indignity and constant insecurity of being temporary workers, used and discarded; to work, without benefits, two or three low-paying jobs as they worry whether they will have enough money for their children’s clothes and food.

In 1812, when the first portion of Byron’s poem Childe Harold appeared, England was swept by it—soon Europe and America would be. Byron wrote, “I awoke one morning and found myself famous.” The reason chiefly was: he was presenting, in musical Spenserian stanzas, a new notion of self. Byron (as Childe Harold) described his own pride and shame; his loneliness, angers, yearnings; his passion that nations be free; his confusion about love—his desire for love and the fact that love in his life had made him feel against himself. He made his own beating heart and unquiet mind the subject—in the midst of rugged landscape in Portugal, a Spain of bullfights and humanity, the wildness of Albania, Greece with its glowing past and suffering present.

What Byron did, what romanticism did, was show that the self could make itself dazzlingly important while making other things important too, while showing the outside world as vast, deep—as more comprehensive and interesting than it had been seen to be. Byron was popular because through him people felt, simultaneously, that they were close to a wide world, nations, land, people they had seen as just foreign, and that a single individual was big, was thrilling, could display himself and be right.

The Other Self-Glory

The notion of self on which profit economics is based is utterly different. It happens to be a hideous severing of the very opposites romanticism brought together: self and world. The profit motive is by definition the seeing of a fellow human being—not in terms of who he is, his depths, his hopes—but in terms of how much profit you can make from him as a means of enlarging yourself. And Byron and the other romantic poets hated it. Profit economics, described without camouflage, is based on giving someone as little as possible while getting as much as you can from him.

In all its massiveness, in all the millions of lives it has taken in, the centuries it has gone on, the profit system is an instance of that fake care for and glorification of self at the expense of the outside world which Eli Siegel described as contempt. He defined contempt as “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt goes on in people’s minds every day, as they make others’ feelings less real than their own and look down on people. And, Mr. Siegel showed, this contempt is the source of every injustice, from snobbishness to racism and murder.

The enlargement of self in profit economics is a boss or stockholder taking to himself the wealth other people have worked for, spent hours and days producing with their thought and hands and very beings. And the boss and stockholder hope to take as much of that wealth—and so leave the persons who worked for it with as little as possible. The profit system is based on what Shelley describes in his “Song to the Men of England”: “The seed ye sow, another reaps; / The wealth ye find, another keeps.” The care for self in profit economics is the hope that someone else, a competitor, falls on his face so you can succeed. And it is the hope, forced on people now, that someone doesn’t get a job he may desperately need, so you can have it.  The self-enlargement in profit economics is the owning by just a few selves, of the means to produce what all people need—often achingly need—in order to live.

Byron, who made his own feelings so important, wanted to see meaning and give dignity and justice to things and people outside him. He could present himself as statuesque and brooding on a ship or near a mountain. But he also wrote (for instance) pulsatingly, passionately, of the men and women of Greece, who he said had the right to own their own noble nation, and he lost his life trying to fight for them. He wrote, “I live not in myself, but I become / Portion of that around me.” He wrote with such feeling and eloquence in his journal, January 13, 1821, of the right of the ordinary people of Europe to rule themselves and the efforts of the monarchies to stop them: “The king-times are fast finishing. There will be blood shed like water, and tears like mist; but the peoples will conquer in the end. I shall not live to see it, but I foresee it.”

Contempt or Respect for Humanity

In 1970, Eli Siegel explained that profit economics had failed, could no longer function efficiently, because of the contempt for humanity and reality at its basis. Thousands of companies have folded in these years. Business in America is in the ownership hands of fewer and fewer people. And these persons are trying to keep a dying profit economy going, trying to get big profits for themselves, by forcing the American people to work humiliatingly, fearfully—part-time and/or long hours, for little money.

In a famous passage in the 4th canto of Childe Harold, Byron, that self-flaunting person, describes a gladiator killed in the Roman arena. Slavery (including the use of gladiators for sport) is the profit system as utter: it is certainly the getting all you can from someone while giving him as little as possible. Byron’s lines are big as poetry, as art. I quote them now to represent that other way of seeing—the aesthetic way—which, Mr. Siegel showed, has to be the basis of economics in America for our economy to succeed. That is, as Byron writes of this person, this “barbarian,” he sees him as real. He sees the feelings and thoughts and life within the gladiator as deep and full, like his own. He sees a human being as having grandeur, dignity, as related to the world, to earth, as caring longingly for something (his home in Dacia, his wife and children)—even while he is in pain. These are the last lines of stanza 140 and lines 1-6 of 141; the gladiator has lost, been killed:

The arena swims around him—he is gone,

Ere ceased the inhuman shout which hail’d the wretch who won.

He heard it, but he heeded not—his eyes

Were with his heart, and that was far away;

He reck’d not of the life he lost nor prize,

But where his rude hut by the Danube lay.

There were his young barbarians all at play.

There was their Dacian mother—he, their sire,

Butcher’d to make a Roman holiday.

These lines—and the whole art of the world—illustrate this question, which Eli Siegel said was the most important for America and must be the basis of economics: “What does a person deserve by being a person?” Byron, romanticism, art say: oneself is blazingly glorious through trying to give other things and people what they deserve. Economics, Aesthetic Realism says, now has to be based on what it was never based on in any nation before: aesthetics as ethics—the simultaneous making ever so much of oneself, and complete, resplendent justice to every man, woman, and child, including the fact that each deserves to own as much of this earth as anyone else.

Eli Siegel was the greatest art critic. It was he who understood and explained the meaning of romanticism, Byron, music, Shakespeare, Vermeer—world art in its wholeness and details. It was he who understood the human self—and, so powerfully and with infinite kindness, individual selves, including mine. And it was he who understood what economics really is, its deep aesthetics, and how it has been made brutal. No one hated, and fought against, injustice more than he did. No one saw more, and fought more for, the dignity of humanity. He had the most beautiful self because he had the fairest.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Self and World Get Closer

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is looking at terms defined by Robert Illing in his Dictionary of Music (1950).

Now I get to an opposite of absolute music, which, strangely enough, is romantic. That word romantic I have talked about a good deal and I’m sure I’m not through. I like the word, because the tendency is to make the personal and the outside world one in it. Romantic music, in accenting persons, feelings that had to do with persons, included absolute music too, but seemed to add to it. Illing says romantic “describes the outlook and style of those composers who...were concerned with expression of their personal feelings.”

In music, as in all life, people want to express themselves and want to express what is outside themselves. What is outside oneself is a very big thing: it takes in space, the floor we walk on, also the baby who cries maybe next door. So the composer had to show himself and be aware of all that was about him, however far it went, however close it was. In the history of art, romanticism did something with that purpose, affirmed something about that purpose. As I have said, we are still in the romantic period.

A person like Bach of course had personal feelings too. Palestrina had personal feelings, definitely. The composers of sacred music in the 14th century had personal feelings too, the composers of motets. But the history of the world does consist largely of people who are persons seemingly disposed to say they are persons and sometimes not so seemingly disposed to say it. The classicist is a person who, while not denying he is a person, doesn’t want to assert it in such a way that it is thought of quickly. The romanticist is a person who, while aware of the world, also is ready to say he is a person. They both, however, have that combination of person and everything.

What happens towards the end of the 18th century?: Beethoven (and I can tell you privately, Mozart too) suddenly saying, “The world has been without self too much! We’re romantic composers, and we’re going to get the self in, Buxtehude to the contrary!” So they did—particularly Beethoven. Because everybody in hearing a Beethoven symphony has felt his self was being rolled in a blanket in heaven.

What happened is that Brahms, for example, while being very much affected by Beethoven, made Beethoven quieter. Wagner, while being affected by Beethoven, made Beethoven wilder. But we still have the relation of self and everything, and the relation of rest and motion, and the relation of sedateness and wildness. Brahms is sedate, but if you listen carefully he is wild. Wagner is wild, but when he is at his best, if you listen carefully he is sedate.

“The terms romantic and classical are closely related to the terms programme and absolute.” That is, program music: would say, “Humans exist in music, and no matter how many majors and minors and triads and codas you have, a person is there”; while the classicists would say, “We don’t need people—we’ve got our codas.”