The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Insistent Opposites

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are serializing a work great in art criticism: Aesthetic Realism and Music, by Eli Siegel. This 1951 lecture has in it what only Aesthetic Realism provides: the explanation of what beauty is, and of what we are—what is behind all our turmoil and hopes. The lecture is an illustration of this principle stated by Mr. Siegel: “The world, art, and self explain each other: each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites.” In the present section he is in the midst of showing that the relation of concord and discord in music stands for what reality itself is like, and represents how we want to be. Printed here too is part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism associate Miriam Weiss, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of this spring.

Every aspect of life, whether earthshaking or apparently frivolous, is a means of seeing that the need to make a one of reality’s opposites is the largest need we have. And so, I write about something that has become more popular these years: tattoos and body piercing.

The desire to have some part of one’s flesh pierced and an ornament inserted there, the desire for a design to be permanently of one’s skin through puncturings, have been with humanity for centuries. So a man walking down a Boston street with a ring through his nose is like a man in the midst of Africa 400 years ago. A college student in New York with tattoos on her legs is related to Egyptians of the Middle Empire (around 2000 BC).

In his book Self and World, Eli Siegel writes these beautiful, kind sentences:

We all of us start with a here, ever so snug and ever so immediate. And this here is surrounded strangely, endlessly, by a there. We are always meeting this there: in other words, we are always meeting what is not ourselves, and we have to do something about it. We have to be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves.

We Flaunt and Are Humble

But people don’t know what to do about the world, the “there” not themselves. Everyone who ever lived has wanted in some way to be humble in relation to what is not himself—and has also wanted to be proud, self-flaunting, superior—and hasn’t known how to make sense of the two desires. To have one’s body pierced is a humble thing. To be—through that piercing—ornamented, decorated, bejeweled, is a proud thing, even a showy, flaunting thing. The desire for piercings and tattoos is a desire to answer one’s question of how to be at once humble, even humiliated, and flauntingly magnificent.

Close to these opposites of pride and humility are other opposites: criticism and praise. We want to be criticized, because we want to change and become better than we are. We feel we’ve been unjust in various ways and some representative of the “there, which is not ourselves” should have us see our injustice pointedly, criticize us incisively, piercingly. But we also want the outside world to glorify us, treat us as though we were wonderful. The desire to be tattooed or to have one’s body pierced and then adorned can be a symbolic showing that one wants to be both criticized and glorified. The question is (as with other things a person may do): are these symbolic choices a substitute for, evasion of, the sincere oneness of pride and humility, criticism and honoring, we are looking for?

Aesthetic Realism shows that the deepest desire we have is to like the world honestly, to use ourselves to see justly things and people not ourselves. To like the world and try to be just to it is utterly humble: it is a saying that something is bigger than we are, and our happiness and self-respect depend on how fair we are to other things and people. To like and try to be just to the world is also the one true pride: it is a saying we can add to the whole world—it needs our fairness; and as we like the world we feel we deserve to be pleased by it. This use of ourselves to care for reality is the only way we will feel proud and humble at once. Nothing else will do: not having “supportive” friends, or possessions, or a jewel in our flesh.

Contempt Can Take This Form

Eli Siegel is the philosopher who has described the thing in every person which weakens our minds, interferes with every authentic hope we have, makes us nervous, empty, lonely, depressed, ruins love, and is the source of all the unkindness in private lives and world history. That thing is contempt: “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” We need clear criticism of our contempt; otherwise we will punish ourselves for it unclearly, through various discomfort and self-dislike. We may also go after some arrangement whereby, while seeming to punish ourselves, we invest ourselves with scornful glory. Having a part of one’s body both punctured and adorned can be such an arrangement. It can be a means of expressing the following contempt: “This world is my enemy. It wants to hurt me, cut me. But I’m better than it, stronger. Look how I can take the lacerations of reality and emerge supreme, even begemmed! I glory in the world’s hurting me—because through its very cutting I can display the fact that I’m superior. As its mean hardness passes through my soft skin, I can flaunt a medallion of my supremacy!”

A Beautiful Piercing

A piercing famous in the history of thought and religion is the dart that Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa, felt through her being. St. Teresa (1515-82) was a sincere mystic; also a very practical person and a writer of exceedingly good prose. This piercing of Teresa by God is in Bernini’s sculpture of her and Crashaw’s poems about her. I translate, from her autobiography, her own description (the dart is held by an angel):

I saw in his hands a long golden dart and at the tip it seemed to have a bit of fire; it seemed as though he put this through my heart several times and that it reached my inner parts; as it was removed it seemed to take those with it and to leave me all burning with a great love of God. The pain was so large it made me moan and the sweetness this great pain gave was so tremendous that I had no desire for it to stop, nor was my soul content with anything less than God.

I think St. Teresa felt God criticizing, with fierce penetratingness, her self-containment, her having of herself to herself, her self-love—so that she could love in a way both immensely personal and unbounded that source of everything: God. This is mysticism; but it stands for what everyone wants in an ordinary day: the criticism of ourselves that is the same as great love for us, because it enables us to love the world.

Whether we pierce a nostril or feel (perhaps wisely) that this is unnecessary—we should know what we are really longing for: the criticism which can have us “be ourselves, and give to this great and diversified there, which is not ourselves, what it deserves.” The education of Aesthetic Realism provides, articulates, that longed-­for criticism.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Music Has What We Want

By Eli Siegel

Note. Mr. Siegel is discussing the definition of resolution in A Dictionary of Music, by Robert Illing. It begins: “Resolution, the relief of the emotional stress of a discord by its movement into the subsequent harmony.”

All musicians would like to have discords “mov[e] into the subsequent harmony.” But of course you don’t just say, “I want a discord to move into a harmony,” and have it done. You have to love reality and see it in its naiveté and cunning. Wherever in music discord is resolved into harmony or concord, there is a fairness to both, and there is some kind of artistic awareness of the common source of both. There is really some pondering on the subject, even if it is largely an unconscious pondering. How discord, while remaining discord, changes into harmony and shows itself to have been harmony all the time—that is magic in a way, but if one sees it only as magic one is unfortunate.

How, in other words, a thing can seem to be against itself and for itself in the field of music, and how in its being against itself it is also for itself, is a hard problem. But it is akin to the problem we have, because we are against ourselves and also for ourselves. So Aesthetic Realism would say to people: Don’t take music lightly; don’t go just to forget about your family, to brood, to sit with your head on your hands and think you’re liking music because you can forget everybody. See music as telling something to you because it comes from the world that you came from. And study music, not pedantically, in order to show off how many composers you know, or how glibly you can talk of Shostakovich’s Sixth while other people are only talking of Shostakovich’s Second, but because you see the music itself as a mingling of things representing the mingling you'd like to have: of order and adventure, precision and liberty.

“Traditionally a discord resolved by moving to a satisfying concord.” It isn’t that the discord resolved by moving to a satisfying concord. It is the ability had occasionally by the emotion, the apprehension, of the composer to see the discord so completely that the thing it represents is seen as including the concord too.

That has to do with something I wrote about in Self and World: what happens to 7 and 5 as they make 12. The way discord and concord are part of the same reality, how they’re different and the same, are how 7 and 5 as part of 12 are different and the same. Seven is the same as 5 because it is part of 12; it’s in 12. They are also different. Well, I’m not going to go into that fully. But this business of 7 and 5 being 12 and therefore being the same insofar as they both are 12; this business of how discord and concord come to be the same in a composition that has resolution, is a beautiful matter.

Music, of course, goes after beauty. We go after beauty too; although if we are going to see only the beauty that most people are interested in, we’ll never see the kind of beauty we’re going after.

"But developments in harmony...made chains of discords resolving on one another a common feature.” This meant that the seeing of one discord in music could be the means of changing a previous discord into harmony. How, through another commotion, a previous commotion is stilled—how through a discord that is akin to and also different from a previous discord, we have resolution or concord—that is quite wonderful. It happens in music, and it is the kind of thing that concerns us very much.

Though Illing says the original definition of resolution is too limited, the original definition still holds: how, while there is an undergoing of the presence of discord there also is concord in such a way that the discord is a means of giving depth and completeness to the concord.


What Should We Appreciate?

By Miriam Weiss

The desire to appreciate honestly, I am so grateful to have learned from Aesthetic Realism, is equivalent to our deepest purpose—to like the world. But Aesthetic Realism explains there is also a drive in people not to like or appreciate at all. In my second Aesthetic Realism consultation when, giving my opinion of Beethoven, I said, “He’s okay,” my consultants asked, “Do you think there’s a triumph in saying he’s ‘okay’? Do you have pleasure feeling that the largest things in reality have no meaning?”

My parents were able to introduce me to many things: foods from different cultures, Broadway musicals, innovative summer camps, the study of languages and the arts. But I always found reasons not to be pleased or excited about what was given to me. The real appreciation I had for the Japanese language was all but lost in my desire to be impressive through it and use it to look down on people who spoke mundane languages like English, French, Spanish. When I was asked in an Aesthetic Realism consultation, “If everyone were studying Japanese, would you like it more or less?,” my answer was telling. “Probably less,” I said.

In his great lecture Aesthetic Realism and Appreciation, Eli Siegel explains: “Whenever we fail to appreciate something, deeply it’s because we appreciate something else too much.” What I was appreciating too much was my own superiority and contempt. But I grew dull, lifeless, and tormented myself with fearful thoughts. I love Mr. Siegel for explaining that the best thing in us will not let us get away with injustice to reality—we inevitably dislike and punish ourselves for it.

In an Aesthetic Realism class he said to me, “The purpose of life is to find unfamiliar value in facts you are familiar with. You can’t easily say that something has no value at all. If a person found a bit of broken teacup near a galaxy, he would be compelled to reconsider [the teacup].”

In the classes he taught, I saw Eli Siegel’s beautiful, completely democratic desire to appreciate reality truly—from the work of Shakespeare, to the meaning of a broken teacup, to the thoughts of a 19-year-old girl. The real me, which I had choked through contempt, was freed to meet the air, as I saw new meaning in members of my family, friends at school, trees, household objects, which I had once been so contemptuously indifferent to.

I fell in love with literature. And what I have learned has made it possible for me to love a man, Joseph Spetly, who is now my husband. I owe the happiness of my life to Aesthetic Realism!