Music, Computers, and Our Deepest Desire
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the tremendous, infinitely true, infinitely kind principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel defines three huge things never explained before: 1) what beauty is; 2) what the human self fundamentally, also intimately, is; 3) the relation between art and our very own life. “All beauty,” he wrote, “is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In the great lecture we are serializing, Aesthetic Realism and Music, of 1951, Mr. Siegel illustrates that principle. He shows that all music—music at its most technical—including absolute or seemingly impersonal music, is about us: is a oneness of the very opposites that make up our daily worries, confusions, and hopes.
People were unknowingly trying to put opposites together two thousand years ago and twenty years ago. And people today need to know they are trying to use the new technology of now to answer their insisting, sometimes flailing aesthetic questions. So I comment here on how, through computers, people are trying to make a one of the opposites that comprise their very lives. In fact, the term personal computer itself is a oneness of opposites: in it, the word compute, which stands for impersonal mathematics, for strict, disinterested, cool calculation, becomes personal, warm; this impersonal thing is in one’s home and is a means of furthering one’s so particular life.
I comment too on how the computer is a field for the biggest fight in a person to show itself. “The large fight...in every mind, every mind of once, every mind of now,” Mr. Siegel wrote, “is between...respect for reality and contempt for reality” (TRO 151).
1. We Are Always Self and World
The deepest desire of every person, Aesthetic Realism says, is to make the opposites of Self and World one: it is to like the world honestly as a means of becoming fully ourselves. That is why we eat, why we want to hear music, why we want to love another human being. It is also the reason people want to use the Internet.
The world we were born to feel, to know, Aesthetic Realism shows, is the whole world, not just our family. And as a person is at a computer using the Internet, there is the feeling that he has to do with a world terrifically expansive and multitudinous. A beautiful description of what the world is, given by Mr. Siegel in the 1940s, can be felt tangibly by Internet users at their computer keyboards: the world is “what begins where your finger tips end” (Self and World, pp. 370-1). The very best impulsion behind the desire to sail in cyberspace is to be more oneself through meeting the vastness and variousness of what is not oneself. It is the purpose Tennyson, in his poem “Ulysses,” has that Greek hero express:
’Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
My purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars.
All the other opposites people are trying to put together through their dear computers, also all the opposites they are misusing and trying to play contemptuous tricks with, arise from these great opposites: our self and the wide world.
2. Both Cozy and Wide
We want to be both cozy and wide. We want a vast world not just to seem vast, but to feel close to us too, friendly, warm. Our purpose both with a computer as such and with its Internet possibilities should be what Aesthetic Realism shows the purpose of love and sex should be: truly to like—to feel a grand, even tender, affection for—reality itself through a representative of it so near to us.
As I implied earlier, when we work at a computer (for instance, as I write these very words on one), we can feel the rich intricacies of science, logic, mechanical organization have come together so that we can express our own thought, our own feeling. A computer is the opposites of richness and simplicity: all that intricacy becomes the single point that is what you may want to say or do at a particular moment. And it is also vastness and intimacy. With the Internet you can extend this vastness and intimacy and do what John Donne said love should do: make “one little room an everywhere”—for someone’s thoughts in Asia or information from an Italian library can come onto a computer screen in your “little room” as you sit quietly at sunset.
The desire to make these opposites one is our desire to like and respect the world. But we can also use a computer in behalf of that thing which Eli Siegel showed to be the hideous desire in every self, the source of every private and international injustice: the desire for contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” You can use the width and intimacy of a computer to feel the world is serving you, giving itself over to you to do with as you please—you don’t have to think deeply about it, try to be fair to it: it’s yours to manage, and put aside at will. The hurtful dealings with people and facts that have taken place via the Internet have come from this contempt, from the desire to have power through commanding and manipulating the world. Computers as such do stand for the desire in self to like the world; but a person will see and use a computer no better than he sees the reality from which computers, like music and potatoes, come.
3. We Are Separate and Together
The technology of today brings a new drama to the question in every person of how to be separate and together; how to be related to people yet have oneself to oneself; how to be known, show oneself to others and know them, yet also be hidden and aloof.
People have been thrilled that through the Internet they can tell their thoughts to thousands of people and also have the thoughts of others reach them. And people have wanted to be useful to other people through the Internet, give information that could have them better off. Meanwhile, because people don’t like the world itself, they can also use technology to make a clever, hurtful compromise of opposites: they can use their computers to be connected in a fashion with people while also hiding from them; they can affect and be to a degree affected while the depths of themselves are detached, secret, and really remote. In millions of American households, people are intensely online, communicating with persons in other cities or even nations, yet the same people don’t want to think deeply about or show their own depths to a spouse or child in the next room. Communication, over the Internet or breakfast table, will be truly sane, civilized, kind only when the men and women of the world are studying what Eli Siegel explains in his Preface to “The Ordinary Doom”:
We haven’t yet come to the courage needed to have ourselves be seen and to see another fully....Our attitude to he world is still one of fear, one of con-tempt, and one of aloofness. This means that whomever we know, our attitude to that person will be one of fear, contempt, aloofness....We cannot show our feelings unless we like what represents the world possibly seeing these feelings. We have to think that what is to know us deserves to know us before candor will be cared for by us adequately or used adequately.
4. The Familiar and Mysterious
For millions of people in America, two big opposites the world has—the familiar and the mysterious—have come together in a new way through the computer. Every mechanism in our home—from plumbing to the microwave oven—is wondrous and has a construction we may know not so much about even as we use it daily. But with the computer, there is a more vivid, immediate feeling in people that this creature which is increasingly part of our life has all kinds of things within it we don’t understand; that even as it so gracefully does what we tell it, it may suddenly show in some fashion that it has a mind of its own and do something we have not bargained for. This feeling is had even by people who know computers very well.
We need, Aesthetic Realism explains, to feel the world is familiar and strange at once. If we see it as just strange, we will be frightened of it. If we see it as just familiar, we will be bored by it. And people do usually shuttle between finding the world dull and finding it something to guard against or fear. We need to see—for instance—that our mother has the wonder a computer can have: even as she is so familiar there are mysteries within her. There is a complex, deep world within her which we have not seen and which, with respectful pleasure, we need to try to understand.
5. The World Is Many and One
The care people have for the Internet shows how much they want to feel that all the meanness of the world is connected, is one. The term World Wide Web is a saying that things all can be joined with each other. And this big desire of people to feel there is a relatedness to things—things aren’t disparate and apart and lonely—testifies to how much people want Aesthetic Realism. —Because Aesthetic Realism is that which shows the whole world is related: deeply, thrillingly, essentially related, and not only because a lot of it can get on your computer screen.
In 1927 Eli Siegel wrote in his poem “And It Does, Marianne” these words which every person now, surfing the Internet or not, wants to know: “It’s a very connected world, Marianne. / Emptiness, just so, isn’t had at all, Marianne.” And in Aesthetic Realism, the philosophy he founded in 1941, he defined for the first time in history that which makes every item and aspect of reality (including you) meaningful, coherent, deeply joined to every other: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the. aesthetic oneness of opposites.”
More and more, Aesthetic Realism is reaching the people of America—who want it tremendously and need it achingly. Eli Siegel’s justice to the world, so passionate, logical, graceful, bravely kind, belongs to the people of this nation—as much as the blowing leaves of late summer; the slanting, glorious light; the American earth, kind in September sun.