The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

The Cause

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Music Has Even This

From a Class Conducted by Eli Siegel

Eli Siegel. There is question 7: “Have I suddenly wanted other people to feel bad? or to be unlucky?” Ms. Anton, what comes to mind for you there, in relation to music?

Felice Anton. I think it would be related to discord, where one sound seems to be against another sound.

ES. Do you remember what would prelude certain crime films, or crime television plays, or The Shadow—what kind of music?

FA. It would be sort of spooky music.

ES. It would be sinister. There are sinister colors and sinister sounds.

FA. Yes!

ES. Do you think that has something to do with wanting people to feel bad?

FA. Yes, I do. There can be a grating or a creaking sound.

ES. And those crime dramas would have the creaking of the door. There are some instruments that go more for the sinister sound than others. There’s one that is very popular in a certain country: the bagpipe.

FA. Of all instruments, that happens to be one I dislike.

ES. There are many people who just wonder why Sir Walter Scott went so wild over it. But occasionally—“The Campbells Are Coming” is rather thrilling. —Yes, Mr. Emory?

Gavin Emory. There is that music they used to use in the movies when the villain came.

ES. I remember the piano players at the silent movies and some of the sounds they would get to. They had a certain repertoire. But sounds can be sinister, as colors can be—a sick green and a certain kind of blue.

FA. I want to ask about whining. A bagpipe can sound that way.

ES. A bagpipe is supposed to whine.

FA. Do people feel it is sinister?

ES. Yes, and occasionally physiological things happen. Music has affected people physiologically. There is a whole history there. —Yes, Ms. Barrie?

Allison Barrie. Would the lower notes be associated with something not good?

ES. Both can be. There can be a feeling of the sinister through certain lower notes, but also the high soprano.

AB. I like the bagpipe a lot. One thing that affects me is how, in a melody like “The Campbells Are Coming,” it’s very energetic; but by the very nature of the bagpipe the wind has to come out of the instrument, so while you hear something energetic there’s that whine, that very human sound.

ES. That’s the beauty of it, the exultation and the whine. They’re opposites.

The Sinister & the Sweet

Felice Anton. Just last night at the Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentation there was your beautiful lecture on Hieronymus Bosch. And I was very much affected by your pointing to the way he has those sinister faces around Christ, how the sinister is there along with the sweetness. I thought that might be related to what’s being said about the bagpipes.

Eli Siegel. The joining of sinister and sweet has to do with those lines of Wilde—his saying “Yet each man kills the thing he loves,” some “with a sword,” some “with a kiss.” And from the beginning there has been a feeling about the ingratiating person; for instance, Judas Iscariot has been seen as the first floorwalker because his ways were ingratiating. How one can assume a friendliness and mask an enmity: that is a big thing, because being suspicious in man is a very large thing. And music can be that way too. Richard Strauss went after ambiguous sounds. —Yes, Ms. Barrie?

Allison Barrie. Some observations about the bagpipe: I notice that when people start to play the bagpipes the first thing that you hear are the drones, the two or three low notes. The low notes are very powerful; they’re part of the chord.

ES. But is there something very intense about the bagpipe too?

AB. Yes.

ES. In that way it is like the bass of the piano. It happens that all musical instruments consist of low and high. It is in different ways, but there isn’t any without it. That is what the strings of the violin are for; that is what the lute is for; that is what even the harmonica is for. That is what the kazoo is for, even as it seems to be all thick noise. The relation of thick and thin is a very big thing. The drone and the whine of the bagpipe have that. When they come together well, there is a great pleasingness. And the bagpipe does bring something which you don’t get in the other instruments. —Ms. Anton?

FA. I think one of the thrilling moments in musical comedy is in Brigadoon, where there is a big scene, everyone is dancing, and suddenly there is the sound of the bagpipe coming in with a funeral march. And it cuts through all the sound that’s been, and it makes for, really, a very moving thing. It’s shocking and beautiful.

ES. Yes, Mr. Emory?

Gavin Emory. Could the minor scale in music be related to this question?

ES. Yes. Sharps and flats and the minor scale. The fact that the word minor is used means that occasionally a thing becomes grander by being diminished.

GE. Something I thought of with this question, which I hadn’t thought of in some time, is the fact that the cartoons for children always use good music. They use symphonies, waltzes, various things; and I hadn’t seen the significance of it. But with this question of your 27 questions, I thought of it: how what’s in this question has been in the lives of children everywhere, and in another way it’s in the music they’re hearing. And they didn’t know that they were so much affected by the music, but it made them feel the world more widely than they would have.

ES. How children respond to music is a subject still being studied. Generally, it is said that a child cannot see everything in all the greatest music, can be affected by it but can’t see everything. It is hard for a child to be equal to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. But the matter is still being looked at. What you said is good, but I think there would be certain music that wouldn’t be played. A large question is, does every great thing in music have more knowledge in it? Is knowledge one of the elements of music?

There Is Something Like Hate

Eli Siegel. “Have I suddenly wanted other people to feel bad? or to be unlucky?” Since man’s being against other people has been a big thing in him, it would be expected that music would show that. So, what would be the great place for it to be shown?

Gavin Emory. I think of some of the more forceful parts of Beethoven. They would show that—anger.

ES. But in a more personal way? We can take an aspect of “The Marseillaise.” Or this line from a later stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” about the enemy: “Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.”

What I’m getting at is that many things in music, particularly when words go with the music, as in opera, can have something like hate. Take Tosca: the lady has to be very severe with Scarpia. In every opera there is some cursing. And in some parts of “The Marseillaise” there is a lot of hate; very fierce. —Yes, Ms. Barrie?

Allison Barrie. In film, the theme from Alexander Nevsky, when the soldiers are crossing the ice, seems to me to go along with this.

ES. Yes.

AB. Also, there is an instruction Felice Anton has given in teaching the piano—a Mozart piece: that the different sections have to do some fighting of each other; otherwise they are limp.

ES. That’s right. Music has been about hate a good deal. In every symphony there is some of it. And people are against things. To live is to be against something. To live is, naturally, to be against death. —Yes, Ms. Eames?

Rylan Eames. This is about something you said a little earlier. How is knowledge one of the elements of music?

Whenever There Is Art

Eli Siegel. In the first place, if you listen to any music, do you think you learn anything?

Rylan Eames. Yes.

ES. The other thing is the knowledge of possibility: that strength and sweetness can be put in this way. Every time we listen to new art that is art, we get a sense of the possibility of the world. For instance, if there is an acknowledged portrait, we get another sense of the possibility of that person. Lincoln is one of the most portrayed people. There is Lincoln on the penny; he is different from the Lincoln of the Lincoln Memorial. —Mr. Durán?

Bernardo Durán. Aaron Copland has a portrait of Lincoln.

ES. Yes. There are portraits in music. All art says, the world can be seen this way. And as soon as you know that the world can be seen this way, you have learned something. All humor is knowledge. If somebody painted you and it was true to you, would you learn something?

RE. Oh, yes.

ES. And if someone wrote a sestina to you?

RE. Yes.

ES. Knowledge is about what we’ve seen. And if we have a new feeling, we have also learned something. Right now, if people have a new feeling relating music to these questions, there is something known. A person can say, “I never knew I could feel this way.” All art is knowledge. And the greater the art is, the more knowledge there is. Do you want to object, Bonita Marsh?

Bonita Marsh. No! Absolutely not. I’m very glad Rylan Eames asked you that question. I would have said, yes, there is knowledge as an element of music, but I would have been hard put to say exactly how.

ES. In answer to the question: Do you know all the ways the world can be felt? Do you know all the ways a person can feel? As soon as you listen to something in music, or see a painting, you learn something of how the world can be seen and how a person can feel. —Yes, Ms. Barrie?

Allison Barrie. In all knowledge, is criticism present?

ES. I’d say so, yes. There are two aspects to all knowledge: fact and meaning. And in all fact there is some kind of meaning. When a person chooses a certain angle in photography he is giving a certain meaning.