The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Music or Depression?

Dear Unknown Friends:

We begin to serialize one of the greatest of all works on art and human life: Aesthetic Realism and Music, a 1951 lecture by Eli Siegel. Aesthetic Realism has in it the explanation—magnificent and solidly true—of the self, the mind of everyone. This principle, stated by Mr. Siegel, embodies what the psychological establishment is so far from understanding: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.”

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who showed that our particular, throbbing self is a continuation of what the world is; and we want to be like art. That is, we are composed of reality’s opposites; they are us, even as they bewilder us, and we need to put them together. For example, we want to be fully independent; yet we want things, people, events to have inescapable meaning for us—which means we want to need them, we want to be dependent too. And these two desires have confused people, tormented them, had a person long for another yet resent and even punish that other for being needed.

The therapists do not understand this central aesthetic tumult and necessity of everyone. Our problem is that of a tree: proud, flourishing, distinct, yet needing light from the sun, water from the sky, air that meets the tips and surfaces of leaves. In our struggle over dependence and independence we have the problem Chardin has solved in a still life: he makes objects be individual on a table, yet jug, large spoon, iron pot each comes to be its full self because the others, in their mystery and solidness, are there; each needs the others, and the world’s light and dark, to show its own grandeur.

I love Eli Siegel for explaining what the self is: for showing that no matter how cheaply we may act, our self, even as we betray it, is large—is related to all of reality, every instance of art. And I love him for showing something else no one before him understood: what interferes with mind. That thing is contempt, “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Mr. Siegel showed that contempt is the source of every cruelty in history, from snobbishness to genocide, and of all mental trouble.

They Don’t Know

I look a little at an article that appeared in the New York Times on June 22: “Drugs for Depression Multiply, and So Do the Hard Questions,” by Natalie Angier. It stands for the ignorance of persons dealing with the human mind, and for their pretense.

The article tells us that according to “experts,” that if drugs and psychiatry can’t help you it’s because you're just “naturally cranky”: there is “an inborn temperament called the depressive personality type that is...probably not amenable to fixing.” The “logic” is utter conceit: if we, the mighty psychiatrists, are unable to change something—why then, the thing is unchangeable!

I learned from Aesthetic Realism that there is nothing more dangerous than a person’s not wanting to say, “I don’t know. I need to know more.”

The article ends with a sentence which, though alliterative, happens to be false: “Nothing about depression is simple or smooth: not its cause, not its course and not its care.” Though every instance of that excessively low feeling is complex, there is also something quite simple in the cause, and Eli Siegel greatly, mercifully explained it. He showed that no person has had what the Times calls a “relentlessly blue mood” who has not used whatever difficulty he or she met to have contempt for the world. In a lecture of 1949, Mind and Questions, Mr. Siegel explained:

The depression that gets you like a block of dark ice comes from the fact that in this depression everything else can be put aside and you have yourself....[We] are disposed to think that the whole world is a bit of filth afflicting us and that we can be pure by putting it aside, in the ash can of time.

For Example, Mariana

An early poem of Tennyson, “Mariana,” is a description of a young woman who is depressed. The poem is very musical, and I think (though it has not been seen this way) it is delicately satirical of this girl who, because the man she cares for “cometh not,” is displeased and unenlivened by everything. She has that “relentlessly blue mood” told of in the article. Writes Tennyson: “Her tears fell with the dews at even; / Her tears fell ere the dews were dried”—and that is a lot of tears. And the next lines hint that Mariana did not want to see something that could please her: “She could not look on the sweet heaven, / Either at morn or eventide.”

Mariana has been disappointed, but another person similarly disappointed might not get to such a constant dislike of things. Tennyson, in each of his seven stanzas, describes the objects and activity around Mariana; but each stanza ends, with slight variation, in this refrain:

She only said, “My life is dreary,

He cometh not,” she said;

She said, “I am aweary, aweary,

I would that I were dead!”

Aesthetic Realism could explain to Mariana that every person is in a fight between the desire to like the world, see meaning in it; and the feeling that if we can find other things unworthy of us we are superior, wonderful. “To see the world itself as an impossible mess,” Mr. Siegel writes, “...gives a certain triumph to the individual” (Self and World, p. 11). Mariana used a gentleman to solidify the desire already in her to find the world “a bit of filth afflicting [her] and...be pure by putting it aside, in the ash can of time.” A depression like hers is both the victory of contempt and the punishment we give ourselves for having contempt. We despise ourselves for making less of a world we were born to be just to, and which is, as Mr. Siegel explained, the other half of ourselves.

Meanwhile, in this poem about dislike of the world there is that great like of the world which art always is. Tennyson sees the world differently from Mariana. Take these opening lines, “With blackest moss the flower-plots / Were thickly crusted, one and all,” and these later lines, “The blue fly sung in the pane; the mouse / Behind the moldering wainscot shrieked.” They show there are liveliness, richness, definite interestingness, nuance in the awry, the dreary: seen truly, even the unseemly reveals to us a world that has wonder, and form.

Aesthetic Realism is as immortal as art and fresh as the leaves of this summer. It has what people are thirsting for: the means to see this world in such a way that we are proud and fully alive.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


An Aesthetic Struggle

By Eli Siegel

Music has been for many years the most popular of the arts. People may find it hard to say they are affected by a poem or even a novel, but everyone has now and then felt that music got into him very deeply. People have cried at music—say the “Humoresque”—very much. And when people hear the “Liebestraum” of Liszt they feel that something is happening to them that is so, so personal. The question is, If music is real, and if reality is aesthetic, and if aesthetics is only the conscious trying to know what beauty is, are all the things that we see in reality in general in music, and in music as things made beautiful? Aesthetic Realism says definitely yes. There is not one thing that music does which does not say something about how a person should organize himself too.

I'm going to show that today principally by reading from A Dictionary of Music by Robert Illing (Penguin Books: Middlesex, 1950). I think people will spend many, many years—in fact, the rest of their lives—finding out the meaning of the motto on Aesthetic Realism publications: “The resolution of conflict in self is like the making one of opposites in art.” You’ll never be through finding what that motto is. It will be the happy drift of one’s life if one is happy; but it will be the unwilling drift of one’s life if one is unhappy.

I begin with Illing’s definition of resolution:

Resolution, the relief of the emotional stress of a discord by its movement into the subsequent harmony. Traditionally a discord resolved by moving to a satisfying concord, but developments in harmony, even before the styles now classed as modern, made chains of discords resolving on one another a common feature and so made the original definition too limited.

Discord and Concord

The whole history of music has been a history of discord and concord. And the histories of lives are likewise histories of discord and concord. The word discord is very much around in divorce courts. One hears of discord in the family—one experiences it. There is discord in ourselves. There is discord in a city, county, state. There is also concord, or there would be no civilization at all. And we can be pretty sure that whatever happens, there will be discord and concord. In wanting excitement, we that much want something like discord, because if everything were too smooth we’d be bored. The very smooth life is had by the unconscious invalid in a hospital, and we shouldn’t envy that person.

Discord is a phase of the uncertain, the irregular, what is not smooth. We don’t like what is irregular, what is not smooth. But then, if we were asked if we like what is smooth, we’d soon find that we didn’t like that either: it would be very much like routine, like skating on a shiny skating rink hour after hour after hour, day after day after day. It would get very boring. We’d want to fall, even if we couldn’t. Such dreams have been told me; they’re nightmares. You just go along smoothly, smoothly, smoothly; you want to fall, and you want something rough but you don’t find it.

So we have to confront—as in music—the problem of discord and concord in all its meanings. They are present in painting, drama, even architecture, the dance. Aesthetic Realism says that since you have this problem of discord and concord, don’t start with yourself in studying it. You don’t have discord and concord because you’re an unlucky person and fate just picked on you and said, “Dear Mary, I’m going to give you discord because you're a bad girl and I don’t like you.” Discord and concord are in us because we happen to represent what’s real and in reality there are discord and concord. We got our share, or our representation.

What Should We Do?

The question is, since there are discord and concord, what should we do? With the principle that though reality is the creator of opposites, it is also that which tries to get order out of them, Aesthetic Realism recommends we study reality where it is unconscious (that is, before man starts being aware of it) and where it is conscious (that is, where man has done something beautiful or something orderly with it), and in this way understand ourselves. Because if we are going only to look at ourselves and get to a few phrases, “Well, you have to take the bitter with the sweet; you have to take the rain with the sun”—what does it mean? And how do you take the sun and the rain, the sweet and the bitter, the good and the bad, the salt and the sugar, the kitten and the tiger? How do you?

If one is narrow, or really doesn’t know oneself, there will be an attempt to deal with that problem as if it were only personal. And the chief objection that Aesthetic Realism has to the people who are trying to help others is that they don’t see that problem as part of reality itself. They see it only in terms of persons in the narrow sense; they see it, in a very limited sense, psychologically or sociologically, and do not have really a basis for understanding it. We cannot understand a person until we understand the reality that person represents. And we cannot understand reality until we see it as an aesthetic situation, an aesthetic struggle, and likewise an aesthetic chance for resolution.