|NUMBER 1299.—February 25, 1998||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In the present section of the great 1966 lecture we are serializing—Animate and Inanimate Are in Music and Conscience—Mr. Siegel is speaking about pleasure and pain, good and evil, in music. And this Aesthetic Realism principle is true of those enormous, bewildering opposites, as well as all the others: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." In contemporary music, Mr. Siegel says, there is a desire to go at the opposites of good and evil, dig at them, more deeply.
I believe that in America now, and in the world as such, there is also a desire, more than at any other time in history, to be deeper about good and evil. Of course, it is not the only desire. People would like to be comfortably shallow and not have to think so much. There is a desire, as intense as it ever was, to decide "what agrees with me is good and what disagrees with me is evil and that's that."
There is an intense desire to get rid of one's ethical confusions and the need to think. That is one of the reasons capital punishment is so popular: to kill a wrong-doer gives you the feeling you have dealt with the matter of right and wrong decisively and don't have to ponder further. The electric chair has been a means, not only of wiping out a person, but of seeming to wipe out the fact that there is so much about ethics one doesn't understand. It is a way of annulling the fact that there are so many questions about good and evil (including in oneself) one needs to think about honestly.
The ferocity against abortion can also be a way to avoid asking, "How fair am I, really, to human beings? What does it mean for a living person to get justice?" A person can take a stand supposedly for "life" as a means to evade looking at where he is against the lives of people. He wants to use such a stand to see himself as caring for people even though he is cold to the fact that millions of children in America are poor and hungry. He can use an intense feeling for the unborn to justify the fact that he is for an economic system which stifles millions of people's lives through poverty so that a few individuals can make big profits.
Conscience (a subject of the lecture we are serializing) is a big, unquenchable matter. And if we are too cowardly to try to look good to ourselves through being honest critics of our fairness or unfairness to reality, we will go after looking good and justifying ourselves through some evasive means.
The Beautiful Desire
Having commented a little on the huge disposition to be superficial about ethics, I still say the other desire is in Americans too, and more than it ever was in history: to be deeper about what good is, what evil is. I believe a big way this desire shows is in the high "popularity rating" of Bill Clinton just at a time when the newspapers and television programs are filled with scandal about him. I don't think those poll results have much to do with Clinton himself; the American people are not so enamored of this president. That "popularity rating" is really a way of showing they're against something. The American people are saying, "The notion of ethics, of what's good and what's evil, that's been fed to us by the press and politicians has something big wrong with it. We don't buy it. These guys have purposes of their own and they're no good. We think there's something more important to look at in America now."
Angry at the Press
For millions of Americans to indicate they are in favor of someone while the press is bombarding them with sexual tales about him, is a way of showing how much they object to the press. Those "popularity ratings " are really the American people's saying the press is unpopular with them. And never were people more against the press. This fact showed very much after the death of Princess Diana. People felt then and feel now that members of the news media are trying to gain power and money through appealing to the worst things in them; and they are angry at having their weaknesses, the low things in them, appealed to.
People feel more clearly than once that the press is trying to manage them by evoking what Aesthetic Realism sees as so important and hurtful: their contempt. The public may be taken, for instance, by accounts about the sex life of celebrities, but they also feel somewhere they're being made weaker through these stories, and they resent it very much. So they're saying to the press, "You are trying to titillate us with stories about Clinton and women. Well, we'll read your 'reports,' because having contempt is unfortunately attractive to us. But we'll tell you you haven't succeeded in managing us—we'll even act like we're more for someone than we are, just to show our opinion doesn't depend on the junk you dish out! "
Depth and Economics
The big thing which has made people want to be deeper about good and evil is that thing Eli Siegel described in the 1970s: the failure of the profit system. As people across this nation are working longer hours and making less money, are forced to work two or three jobs, are temporary workers, feel they may be fired at any moment, lack health insurance—there has come to be a questioning that is increasingly conscious. Something presented to Americans as good is looking intensely not good for oneself: economics based on making profit from people. People feel there is something profoundly unethical, wrong, evil about it: they feel their lives are being sacrificed for somebody's profit, and they're furious.
The not fully articulated, but deep questioning of and fury at profit economics, has made people want to be deeper about good and evil as such. And that is true even though the same people may fall for something politicians and press are putting forth as I write this. That is, many Americans may want to get to a quick, horrible "sureness " by bombing Iraq. (You don't have to question; you put "evil" in its place in a grand, explosive manner—while you make unreal the over 200,000 men, women, and children killed by our 1991 bombings.)
The One Thing Immoral
Aesthetic Realism is magnificent about ethics. It describes clearly, for the first time in history, what ethics really is. "To be ethical," Mr. Siegel writes, "is to give oneself what is coming to one by giving what is coming to other things" (Self and World, p. 243). Aesthetic Realism's understanding of ethics, while beautifully definite, is also fair to all the subtleties, delicacies, intricacies of life. I love these sentences by Mr. Siegel; they have his passionate exactitude:
There is only one thing that is immoral in the world: liking oneself too much and the outside world too little.... Once you feel what is owing to yourself is more and what is owing to other people is less, you can rob people's purses, tell lies, keep back things that would do good to people, start wars.
For example, the thing that makes the profit system immoral (also ugly, cruel, and inefficient) is that in it, care for self is apart from what is just to other people. The profit motive is essentially contempt, which Mr. Siegel defined as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else": you see a human being as someone to get as much as you can from while giving him as little as possible. You hope he is desperate for that job, because the more desperate he is, the less he'll work for and the more profit you can make from him.
Then, as to sex: Aesthetic Realism explains—so kindly—that the one thing which has ever made sex immoral is the using of it to have contempt for the world. Being close, through body, to another person should stand for one's desire to be honoringly close to the meaning of that person and, as Mr. Siegel writes, "closely one with things as a whole." But presidents and others have used sex to feel, "In getting this person to do what I want, to make much of me in this utter, unmistakable way, I am having a victory over all reality: it's at my feet; I'm running it; no questions asked. I've got the world at my fleshly command, adoring me, while I don't have to be fair to anything and can despise everything."
The Biggest Immorality
Yet the biggest immorality of any politician in America now, including in the Oval Office, is the wanting of the land of America, the wealth of America, to continue belonging to only a few of America's people. The determination that Americans' jobs and incomes should go on being based on the use of human beings for profit, despite people's suffering: this is the great obscenity. The American people are being robbed, violated; and politicians are not only consenting to it but trying to prolong it.
The other great obscenity in Washington is the willingness to murder people elsewhere in the world. Lascivious behavior, real or imagined, is an awfully minor thing compared to bombing to death human beings in Iraq. (And the reasons for that desire to bomb are rather less noble than the ones officials have put forth.) Also, purported trysts become insignificant compared with US-consented-to death squads and torture in Central America. (US administrations have liked these death squads and torture, all in all, because through them, "friendly" governments combat opposition to the profit system.)
The American people, then, are in the midst of ethics. And the American people, like any people, would like not to have to think too much about ethics; would like some fast answers easy on the ego. Meanwhile, there is also that simultaneous desire in the people of this nation to be deeper than they ever were, and wider—to ask that question which Mr. Siegel articulated and showed to be the most important one we have: "What does a person deserve by being a person?" This desire in an American people angry about economics is also a desire to find out what America truly is: because something fakely put forth as "American"—the profit system—feels increasingly un-American to them, increasingly unkind and wrong. For all its uncertainty and impediments, this going now toward truer thought about ethics is beautiful, is patriotic, is with the Emancipation Proclamation and the meaning of the Mayflower.
The poems by Mr. Siegel that we publish here, have, for all their brevity, something of what Aesthetic Realism is, and what people long for. They have Mr. Siegel's conviction that beauty is a real power in this world, stronger than ugliness. And they have the authentic lightheartedness arising from that all-important and strictly scientific fact!
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Music: Pain and Pleasure
Short Poems by Eli Siegel
Music, in These
Gershwin, Haydn, Ellington, Brahms:
Even More Difficult
Life is difficult,
Seems even more difficult.
That is why
People go to the opera
And feel more courageous
As a result.
Harmony Covers International Failure
Though the United Nations doesn't do so well
In the matter of agreement,
Music still has enough harmony
To cover them; or it.
A note, a chord, a musical scale —
With these, how can reality fail?
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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