The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Sureness, Unsureness, and Music

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing that work tremendous in the criticism of art, Aesthetic Realism and Music, by Eli Siegel. In this 1951 lecture Mr. Siegel is illustrating the 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.” I cannot think of anything greater in this world than the fact that, after centuries of art criticism and centuries of tumultuous humanity, Mr. Siegel explained what beauty is and what will have people truly like themselves—and showed these are the same.

So as we publish the fourth section of his lecture, I am enormously grateful to write about Aesthetic Realism’s magnificent understanding of a distress all people have—often quietly though keenly and steadily, and sometimes agonizingly: why am I so unsure of myself (even though I can act so confident that people envy me), and what will have me feel truly sure? I love Eli Siegel for not only answering these questions but showing they have to do with music that sweeps us, with the undying, kind power of a true poem or painting. I love him with all my life and thought for his courage, his passionate justice, his complete lack of narrow selfishness, his beautiful humor, his might of intellect which was the same as unending kindness.

As Mr. Siegel speaks here about the term absolute music, he describes also the most dangerous thing in each of us, which he showed to be humanity’s massive yet everyday disaster, the cause of all brutality and mental weakness: contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.”

To be a self is to want to be sure of oneself: which means feel that who we are looks good to us and will look good to us whatever we may meet, in whatever circumstance we may find ourselves. That is not easy to feel. And the ways people mainly try to get to sureness make them, Aesthetic Realism explains, really more and more unsure. People feel they will be sure of themselves if they have, for instance, a lot of money, good looks, impressive clothing and possessions, the praise of many persons, and someone’s tremendous devotion. These things are valuable. But as one makes getting them the crucial goal, one comes to feel—even if the goal is attained—empty, nervous, intensely unsure, fraudulent.

The reason is, Aesthetic Realism shows, there is only one thing on this earth that can make us sure of ourselves; and I am proud to state it in its two aspects: 1) to feel we are related to the whole  world, to all things and people not ourselves; 2) to want intensely, with  terrific  exactitude, to respect a world other than ourselves, to feel as we look at a person we know or a person we don’t know, “I want to respect you—not use you, beat you out, look down on you, forget you—but respect  you!”

Substitutes for Real Sureness

The trouble about the things I mentioned­—money, looks, possessions, praise, devotion—is that people want them as substitutes for that like of the world, respect of it, which the human self was made to go after. In fact, people most often desire those things not in order to respect the world but to have contempt, to feel: If I can have more money than others, I can own the world and look down on it and people. Through having possessions, I have the world serve me. If I dress well and look good I can conquer people, be better than them, have power over them. If I get praise, I can feel I’ve fooled and managed the world, because it likes me even though I’m not fair to it. If I can get someone’s devotion I feel I’ve made a world with that person which is better than the world God and evolution came to and in which I’m supreme.

And in thousands of other ways, people use contempt to be sure of themselves. If you can feel someone is less than you and therefore you’re better, you feel—momentarily—sure. This awful logic makes, in a Manhattan office, for one man’s smug sneer at another’s tie; but it is also—Aesthetic Realism greatly explains—the cause of all ethnic prejudice and every racist thought and attack.

People also go after sureness through the contempt of blotting out most of this world, a world that has the nerve to be much larger than oneself, mysterious, unsum-upable. Men and women do this every day by means of alcohol, drugs—and narrowness, being interested mainly in family, television, and one or two subjects that don’t make for self-questioning. Yet the “sureness” through contempt has people pervasively and sometimes disablingly uneasy in their lives. Contempt, Mr. Siegel wrote in Self and World, “is that which distinguishes a self secretly and that which makes that self ashamed and weaker” (p. 362).

The Real Sureness

The authentic, big, deep, modest, proud sureness every person wants—a sureness that doesn’t evade self-questioning but contains it—comes through the seeing that we are related to everything. This seeing, in mainly unconscious form, is the source of all art. But through Aesthetic Realism, for the first time in history, people can see with consciousness and specificity how they are related to a full world outside themselves and to every work of art.

Let us take music, which Eli Siegel describes so greatly in the present lecture. He is showing that all music—absolute or program, rock or Gregorian chant—not only can please you but can tell you who you are, and how you want to be. What Mr. Siegel writes of poetry is true of music: “the agonies of [a] person are present in the technique” of music. Our bewildering sinkings and risings, rushes and hesitations, insistences and retreats, firmness and tremulousness, ferocity and gentleness, orderliness and disorder, are opposites we hear as one in music. As the beat of a good rock song both thrusts and yields, it says: your mix-up about how to put yourself forth yet welcome the meaning of things yieldingly, can make sense. A good symphony has you feel great multitudinousness—of instruments, phrases, melodies—is all going for one purpose: as you long to feel the many things in your life can have an aim, a composition, you are proud of.

To feel that what we are is not just in ourselves, apart from the world and superior to it, but in every object and in art—in music—is what we need to be sure of ourselves. We need to see that the branch of a tree, rising in a proud diagonal yet humbly bending in wind, not only can give us shade but can tell us who we are, in our struggle to be both proud and humble. To be sure of ourselves, we need to see that that person across the street is also like the proud and humble branch, and like a passage of Beethoven that surges and sinks.

Allen and Green Show What Music Is

In these years, the greatness of how Aesthetic Realism sees music has been described and illustrated in public presentations at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation by flutist and Aesthetic Realism consultant Barbara Allen and composer Edward Green. For example, as part of a special event this September 7, “Moliere, Bach—& the Difference between True and False Love!,” Ms. Allen and Mr. Green will be presenting “J.S. Bach’s Flute Sonata in E Major; or, What It Means to Care for Something!” And the flyer announcing this event, so glowingly important in culture and life, quotes them as saying:

Is true care for a person the oneness of encouragement and accurate criticism—like the way the firm continuo bass melody both questions and sustains the graceful melody of the flute? Through Aesthetic Realism, for the first time in history, music can teach us how to love!

This way of seeing music is revolutionary and true—but it is also what can have us feel sure of ourselves. We will be sure when we feel there is a structure in us that makes sense—in fact, has grandeur—for it is like that in music. We will be sure when we feel the opposites in us are not things we have to be tossed between or which we adroitly play off against each other—but these forces and desires can become a vibrant integrity in us, as they are in music. We will be sure when we feel the world in which we find ourselves is truly something we fit with, for it is made the way we are, as the oneness of opposites.

We will feel sure when we feel our largeness comes from the fact that we have to do with everything and all art tells who we are: we don’t have to get largeness through hoping somebody else is a flop. We will be sure through knowing the next thing we meet—whatever happens—will be a means of understanding ourselves and the world, for it will have our opposites: we don’t have to feel the next thing we meet is something to guard against or conquer.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


It Represents a Person

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing terms in A Dictionary of Music, by Robert llling (1950).

Music is divided into absolute music and program music. And when you’re a real musician you don’t like program music, because that’s usually about a doe coming to drink, or how the people made merry in the woods, or how somebody climbed to the mountaintop. For instance, many people would object to a subject like “Night on Bald Mountain” of Mussorgsky: just call it Opus 211. “Night on Bald Mountain”—you’ll have people thinking about where the mountain is soon! And “Pictures at an Exhibition”—what kind of business is that? It should be Opus 180.

But absolute music is something which represents a person too. Absolute music is that music which doesn’t have to do with human concerns. It isn’t about how the grandmother died when her grandchild left. It wouldn’t be a composition called “Grandmother Sighs Once More: An Etude” or “Mariner Looks Out at Sea.” That would not be absolute music. Absolute music is abstract; it seems to come out of reality, with the personal out. This is Illing’s definition:

Absolute Music, music which does not depend for its full appreciation on any association with a story or mood or other fact of life. As opposed to programme music, absolute music depends entirely on its own structure for its comprehension.

Now, has that got to do with us too?

Two Ways of Being Abstract

There are two ways of being abstract. One is to feel that the world does have to do with astronomy, space, time, the electron, motion; and in seeing that, have a wider and deeper appreciation for people on the street, people whom you visit, the people you know, your own family, because you see them as having come from a world that can be seen as abstract. You use your abstract thought, mathematical thought, philosophic or ontological thought, strictly logical thought as a means of appreciating the fact that all this abstraction did change into definite things, definite people, definite moments, a specific room, a specific voice. That would be the awareness of the world as abstract and as particular.

When Pascal, for instance, said, “Those infinite spaces frighten me,” if in thinking of those infinite spaces he lost a care or respect for an animal about him or a person about him, that would be a misuse of them. It would be a using of the absolute or boundless to depreciate the specific things which the absolute had become. People want to do that: when we go into ourselves we get into an absolute which doesn’t think of persons at alland we are the absolute. When a person is completely depressed, it means everything has been put out of sight and nothing that is human or definite or specific is looked on with any interest. There is an absolute of dullness.

There are two absolutes: one that in welcoming the logic, abstraction, philosophy, metaphysics of the world, its infinity, would come back with new love for what is around one. Then, there is another absolute, which identifies the sulky self with nothingness, with nothing human whatsoever, and comes to despise everything outside oneself. The tendency to do that is in everyone. And people can use music as people have used mathematics: in order to say, “I have now come into a pure world, and I have nothing to do with all these people who bother me.”

The Fear of Death

So, though absolute music can be beautiful, and though absolute music is present in all music, we must see that the problem of absolute and relative, absolute and temporary, is a problem we have. The reason people are afraid of death is that in a certain sense they have to think of that which they have used to glorify themselves; because to go into oneself and get away from every human being is a welcoming on one’s own terms of that thing, death, which comes not on one’s own terms but on something else’s terms. That is why we are so afraid of it: it is an affront to what we have already done as a means of glorifying ourselves.

All music, even a dance, is something of the abstract or absolute. Yet it can be shown that music, no matter how polyphonic, how seemingly crystallized in pure form it may be, also has its personal relevance. The understanding of music as a thing that is absolute and also has to deal with humans in varying proportions is necessary to understand who we are.