The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

The Weighty & Light—in Ourselves & Art

Dear Unknown Friends:

Here is chapter 8 of The Opposites Theory, a work of the 1950s in which Eli Siegel illustrates Aesthetic Realism’s great, new understanding of art. He is the critic to explain what all art has in common: “the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual.” The chapter printed here is about Heaviness and Lightness.

These, like all the opposites, are in us, and so often are not one in us, are fighting, are painfully apart. There is a certain awareness in people as they feel bad, that heavy and light are amiss. The very word depression, from press down, has heaviness implicit in it. And right now a person, in an ill mood, knows she feels weighed down, lumpish, ponderous, leaden. She also is aware of having that terrible sense of lightness which is emptiness, vacancy, meaninglessness.

But people don’t know what Aesthetic Realism explains: that they are dealing with the elements of art; that they want to do what art does—make opposites one. And they don’t know that the thing which makes reality’s opposites be awry in them is contempt, which Mr. Siegel described as the “disposition in every person to think we will be for ourselves by making less of the outside world.”

I’ll comment on some of the ways contempt interferes with heaviness and lightness in people every day.

What Contempt Does with Weight & Lightness

1) There is a huge desire in a person not to give weight to other people and things—a desire to take away their fullness, annul their richness of meaning. That desire is contempt, and it exists because we feel if we can shrug things off, flick them away, dismiss them, see ourselves as freighted with importance and other people as much less significant, then we are superior.

But when we don’t want to value the world around us, we pay a price: through robbing things of their meaning, through making them unsubstantial, we come to feel our lives are empty. We also feel heavy—because there is nothing more burdensome than the false weight of conceit: the concentration on ourselves, the being laden with ourselves, and not wanting to see that we are related to everything.

2) Part of contempt too is an actual desire to feel burdened by the outside world. We can prefer to feel oppressed rather than grateful and interested. Take a woman I’ll call Tanya: she doesn’t see that she has chosen to feel burdened by having to catch a bus, burdened by a question her son is asking her, burdened because she doesn’t understand a particular word in the book she’s reading, burdened even by the fact that her husband loads the dishwasher in a way she doesn’t like. Tanya has made herself into a noble creature, having to bear the weight of a mean world—because she can feel superior that way, and she can’t feel superior if she’s grateful and having a truly good time.

Lightness of Heart

3) Everyone wants to be lighthearted. Real lightness of heart is a beautiful thing. But how shall we get it?

Feeling weighed down, one way people have gone after lightness is through drink. But because this lightness comes, not from wanting to see things justly, but from making them unimportant, the bibulous solution doesn’t satisfy. It leaves a person feeling even more troubled, and driven to that quick fake solution more and more.

A big way men, women, and children try to be lighthearted is through making fun—of other human beings, of happenings, of anything not oneself. True humor is lightness and meaning as one; but that is not the making fun most people engage in. The belittling that titters, giggles, sneers—whether in an urban schoolyard or a chic party in the Hamptons—has one later feel heavier and emptier than ever.

We want to be neither leaden nor vacuous. We want to feel we are lighthearted with substance and respect; serious with liveliness, pleasure, zest. It has been very difficult for people to feel that way. Matthew Arnold expresses both the longing and the difficulty in these lines of his 1855 poem “Stanzas from the Grand Chartreuse”:

Years hence, perhaps, may dawn an age,

More fortunate, alas! than we,

Which without hardness will be sage,

And gay without frivolity.

Sons of the world, oh, speed those years;

But, while we wait, allow our tears!

Arnold would have been thankful to learn from Aesthetic Realism that it is contempt which interferes. He would have loved learning that what we want in our lives is the lightheartedness which is in art—which comes from wanting to see the world with grand respect, see it as it truly is.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Art as Simultaneous Heaviness & Lightness

By Eli Siegel

What is everywhere in reality and what is everywhere in art is that which says something about what both are. According to the Theory of Opposites, those philosophic things the world begins with are those things art uses; are those things the technique of art is about. An instance of a philosophic thing reality always has and art always uses is manyness-and-oneness. Another is heaviness-and-lightness. Heaviness-and-lightness is two philosophic opposites seen as one, existing instantaneously in an object; opposites coming from something in common, meaning something in common.

Heaviness and lightness exist as one in the Pyramids. The fact that the Pyramids are exceedingly material, ponderous, stocky makes them heavy; the fact that they come gracefully to a point makes them light. (All pyramids—even those on tables—and triangles are studies in heaviness and lightness.) Yet one feels the heaviness and lightness not at separate moments, but at one moment. The opposites in art are felt, seen, at one moment: while two, they make up one thing; form and content always do, design and detail do, lightness and heaviness do.

The masonry of the Pyramids is, then, grace likewise. That is the way they have been seen by miscellaneous travelers over the years. It is the way a tall building can be seen in a city; a large ship on Lake Superior.

It should, then, be asked: Are heaviness and lightness as one thing present constantly in art? They are, but their mode of oneness is different in all instances. If you put a bright colored ribbon, or a bit of newspaper, on a tombstone, heaviness and lightness may be experienced as one; but there is less jarring in seeing the ribbon on the tombstone than in seeing the bit of newspaper.

An artist may try to make heaviness and lightness one without himself having seen them as one. For instance, a playwright may insert a bit of comic relief in a play without having fully seen the necessity. The “relief” and the substance are there, and may be in the spectator’s mind in the same minute, but not in a full junction.

The Pyramids do a good job with heaviness and lightness. The weight of the earth does become light as the Pyramids rise. The diagonals going towards the sky chasten matter into spareness.

I have said that art is always about heaviness and lightness and their possible relation. Nothing has happened in the way of art that doesn’t contain weight and lightsomeness somehow.

Are They Alike?

Well, is there some likeness between the Pyramids and George Bernard Shaw? If, as I have said, the Pyramids deal with the light and heavy; and if, as many have said, Shaw has dealt with the gravest human issues in a light manner, the Pyramids and the Shaw corpus of plays and prose should be alike. That is the way it is.

In the Preface to Back to Methuselah, Shaw writes that in his plays he has discussed:

Slum landlordism, doctrinaire Free Love (pseudo-Ibsenism), prostitution, militarism, marriage, history, current politics, natural Christianity, national and individual character, paradoxes of conventional society, husband hunting, questions of conscience, professional delusions and impostures.¹

In this list, itself a mischievous mingling of the utmost concern and verbal tiptoeing, is to be seen a lightsome approach to the oppressive, ugly, complex-in-sadness. In the same manner as some Egyptians gave rising form to the material, obstructive might of stone, Shaw gives form to social problems as they are around humanity’s neck, as they get humanity down, as they interfere with humanity’s rise.

Shaw doesn’t just giggle at the ugly—giggling is a bad togetherness of emptiness and weightiness. The ugly is inseparable from the speed and choice and sound of his words. The ugly in life is shown as making for the brightness of words.

J.W. Cunliffe (English Literature during the Last Half-Century) quotes Shaw on the two things the dramatist found in his “literary parentage":

The necessity and morality of a conscientious Laodiceanism in religion and of an earnest and constant sense of the importance of money. [P. 123]

Here Shaw takes religion lightly and makes carelessness like ardor in using the phrase “conscientious Laodiceanism,” with its quiet jesting at Revelations 3. Further, he asserts how important money is to him, and so changes into heaviness the conventional verbal muting of finance.

The words I have just quoted of Shaw approach the universe in a manner not disparate from the manner of those ancient persons whose minds arrived at the Pyramids for the Egyptian plain.

There is a fearful making of heaviness and lightness one in this “principle” from a “brief manifesto” of Shaw in 1884:

That the State should compete with private individuals—especially with parents—in providing happy homes for children, so that every child may have a refuge from the tyranny or neglect of its natural custodians. [P. 131]

How the phrase “especially with parents” is aromatic with, or subtly endowed with, mischief and sorrow. And then the words “its natural custodians” are also satirical and grievous. The whole “principle” is sportive and tearful.

A Sentence about Poverty

Shaw has written much of poverty—that most serious of Destiny’s hags. Shaw says, through Undershaft in Major Barbara:

All the other crimes are virtues beside it: all the other dishonours are chivalry itself by comparison. [P.144]

More Conspicuously

There are periods of literature or art which have in them the question of lightness and heaviness more conspicuously than usual. Whatever periods have been “rococo” were engaged with the matter of heaviness and lightness in some way to make that sharp and cheerful adjective rococo proper.

George Bernard Shaw was of the 1890s, and these, like the 1750s in Venice or Vienna, presented the problems of earth with arranged merriment. Shaw fared generally well in his taking of the oppressive lightly. In Oscar Wilde, the place where heaviness and lightness most truly merged—not where they settled on the same mental platform, on the same inches of the unconscious—is The Importance of Being Earnest.

Another Way of Making the Heavy Light

An artist can make heaviness into lightness through the jollity of form, insouciance of aesthetic keenness; but heaviness is changed, too, into lightness through mobile grace, melodic accuracy.

The Chopin nocturnes and Beethoven Kreutzer Sonata instance this notably in music. Whistler’s Thames Embankment is a visual instance. John Millington Synge, a playwright more or less contemporary with Shaw and Wilde, changes sorrow in Ireland by the ocean into the grace, the lightness, of words.

Cathleen says in Synge’s one-act tragedy Riders to the Sea:

It’s the life of a young man to be going on the sea, and who would listen to an old woman with one thing and she saying it over?²

There is some mockery of sadness in these words—a repetitious old woman is somewhat ridiculous—but, chiefly, the heaviness changes into lightness through verbal ripple and undulation; through the gravity of the restrained, resonant curve of words.

When Maurya later in the play talks, after the sea has ended a life, there is sorrow made light through the way the words fall:

I’ll have no call now to be up crying and praying when the wind breaks from the south, and you can hear the surf is in the east, and the surf is in the west, making a great stir with the two noises, and they hitting one on the other.

There is some colloquial lightsomeness here—with the two surfs “hitting one on the other”; however, the lightness and grace, as before, arise from how the words happen, how the words are grouped in motion.

Four Painters

The painter who classically represents the oneness of heaviness and lightness is Titian. Surely, though, he has company. Speaking classically, Titian has the company of Raphael, Claude Lorrain, and Rembrandt. It is these four painters who, in a way, are the heroes of William Hazlitt’s essay “On the Fine Arts,” written in 1816 for the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Hazlitt on art is eloquent, but his eloquence is not unaccompanied by hard seeing. So when he says of Raphael that he “brings down heaven to earth,” he is saying, not just in a woolly fashion, that Raphael makes a one of lightness and heaviness.³

The question of the oneness of heaviness and lightness—as they take form in technique, is in these phrases of Hazlitt about Titian:

The fineness of his gradations adds to their variety and force....So he unites and harmonizes the strongest contrasts by the most imperceptible transitions. [P. 199]

In the words just quoted, “fineness” and “force,” “strongest” and “imperceptible” will, when looked at, be seen, I believe, as commenting on lightness and heaviness. Fineness is visual lightness; force is the speedy heaviness of power; “strongest” is fulness and energy at their heaviest; “imperceptible” is extreme visual lightness.

Of Rembrandt, Hazlitt writes:

He was the grossest and the least vulgar, that is to say, the least commonplace in his grossness, of all men....[Rembrandt] painted his objects as if in a dungeon. His pictures may be said to be “bright with excessive darkness.” [Pp. 201-2]

These words of Hazlitt are about the heaviness and lightness of Rembrandt as a person in Holland, and about the heaviness and lightness of Rembrandt in general artistic terms.

Shortly after dealing with Rembrandt, Hazlitt is eloquent on Claude Lorrain—and careful. Hazlitt asks:

Does the precision with which a plant is marked in the foreground take away from the air-drawn distinctions of the blue glimmering horizon? [P. 206]

Here the substantial plant as to the “blue glimmering horizon” is an instance of self-contained heaviness to wide lightness.

Later Hazlitt, writing of Titian again, states that in his work:

There is a proper degree both of solidity and transparency. [P. 213]

In Egyptian Objects

Hazlitt in his criticism generally makes much of heaviness and lightness—in painting, the play, poetry, the novel. He is carrying on a problem the Egyptians had—not only in the Pyramids and temples, but in ornament and in things of everyday use.

Helen Gardner, in her Art through the Ages, writes:

In another carving, which represents a slave bending beneath the weight of the jar, one delights in the contrasting polished and carved surfaces. In a walking-stick of Tutenkhamon two captives of the pharaoh, with bodies carved and sheathed in gold, are unified with the curve of the handle and serve to provide the hand a firm hold.4

And so these ancient objects, in their grace and significance, in their shape and substantiality, join a universe of heaviness and lightness. These objects of old Egypt are examples of art as the oneness of heaviness and lightness. They are with all things: with Hazlitt, Shaw, Wilde, Synge, Rembrandt, Chopin, Titian, and so much else; and with Irish—or any—space, wave, shore.

1 As quoted in J.W. Cunliffe, English Literature during the Last Half-Century (NY: Macmillan, 1923 ), p. 152.
2 John M. Synge, Plays (Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1922), pp. 31-45.
3 Literary Remains of the Late William Hazlitt (NY: Saunders & Otley, 1836 ), p. 195.
4 (NY: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1936), p. 67.