There Are Music & the Sinister
Dear Unknown Friends:
The discussion we have been serializing, Music & “Questions for Everyone,” is lively, kind, great, a highpoint in the criticism of art and life. It is from a 1975 class taught by Eli Siegel. And the principle behind it is that on which Aesthetic Realism itself is based, Mr. Siegel’s landmark statement of the relation between art and our own lives: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
In the class discussion, he begins with his “Questions for Everyone,” which are about people’s thoughts to themselves, our ever so intimate human feelings. And he shows, amazingly yet with such ease, that those personal questions have their correlatives in music—what it is, its history, its technique. Those 27 “Questions for Everyone” can be found in issue 750 of this journal.
In the part of the discussion published here, Mr. Siegel has reached question 7: “Have I suddenly wanted other people to feel bad? or to be unlucky?” And in keeping with his purpose, he looks at the feeling asked about—not in terms of its cause—but in relation to music. Meanwhile, because that 7th question is about something so ordinary, yet also about some of the largest brutality in history—the inflicting of pain on other human beings—I’ll comment a little on the question in terms of people’s lives.
Why can one want “people to feel bad”? Aesthetic Realism explains why. And here is the reason, in outline:
There are two big desires fighting in every person. One is the desire to respect the world, to know it, value it; to feel we take care of ourselves the more we are fair to what’s not ourselves. The second huge desire we have is our desire for contempt, to get an “addition to self through the lessening of something else.” Contempt is based on the feeling—fake, yet universal—that the way to be ourselves, to be big, is through looking down on things and people, conquering them, managing them, diminishing them.
The two desires, to respect the world and to have contempt for it, are both about the central opposites in everyone’s life: self, our own self, and the world. As we meet a world that can confuse us, we’ll either want to understand it and to relate truly what’s good and bad—or we’ll have the contemptuous triumph of feeling we’re in an unkind world that is unworthy of us. Then—we can want people to feel bad because they represent such a world. If some representative of that disliked world flops, or we can see him or her not thriving, or if we can make the person uncomfortable, we feel we’ve gotten some revenge: we’ve put in its place, a bit, a world we see as mean to us, as having belittled us.
The bullying that takes place in schools and elsewhere, the humiliating people via the internet and social media, the insulting people through racial epithets, are all forms of “want[ing] other people to feel bad [or] be unlucky.” And so is the international horror which is torture. All of these arise from the desire to make oneself big through lessening another human being, and to get sneering revenge on the world that person stands for.
So too does a phenomenon that has been in various American towns and cities in recent weeks, and that has puzzled and worried people: the phenomenon of “scary clowns.” These are persons, dressed in clown masks and costumes, who appear in a neighborhood or near a school and beckon to children frighteningly. In a New York Times article of October 16, writer Bess Lovejoy notes that “reports of sinister clowns have spread to at least 20 states, and abroad, causing school closings and several arrests.” How many of the reports are real and how many are rumors, forms of an “urban legend,” is hard to know; but some, at least, are real. And even those that have been made up say something about the question we’re looking at, because whether you become a scary clown or create a rumor about one, you want to have power by scaring people. You want to feel superior to people and get revenge on the world because you can make children and adults feel bad.
Opposites central to the scary clown are those Mr. Siegel speaks of here in relation to music: the sinister and the sweet. But the scary clown does not bring these opposites together truly, honestly, the way music does. His purpose is not to say, as art says, “The jarring and the composing, the lovely and the harsh, even the fearsome and the kind, are together in this world—and I want to show how they’re together.” The purpose of the scary clown is to say, “Look, something you thought would entertain you, please you, make you smile, is really out to hurt you! Underneath what appears to be charm is actually cruelty. What can seem to be the kind strangeness of things—which clowns can represent—is really a fake: the world is mean. One opposite, the loveliness of things, is a phony, a cover-up, a mockery.”
Described with Beauty
There is a famous maxim of La Rochefoucauld that illustrates the question we are looking at: “Dans l’adversité de nos meilleurs amis, nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous déplaît pas.” I translate: “In the misfortune of our best friends, we always find something that does not displease us.”
This maxim is very fine prose; it is art. And the reason is: La Rochefoucauld takes an ugly feeling, a hidden feeling, a feeling that lurks or is treasured obscurely in people, and gives it succinctness, neatness, vividness. In telling of it truly, with imaginative accuracy, he has come to a composition of words that is a oneness of reality’s opposites—including mildness and sharpness; diffidence (with that coy negative “does not displease”) and directness; leisureliness that feels also swift. This oneness of opposites is beauty. And yet, though La Rochefoucauld described humorously, immortally, the ugly pleasure at someone’s being unlucky, he did not understand its source: the desire in people to have contempt.
Humanity and nations need to learn from Aesthetic Realism what contempt is. And we need to learn what can oppose contempt, and how to strengthen in ourselves and others that beautiful opponent. The opponent of contempt is the way of seeing from which all true art comes: I will be more through giving justice to the outside world. Eli Siegel himself had that way of seeing always, with constancy and might.