|NUMBER 1697. — July 25, 2007||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
ere is chapter 11 of The Opposites Theory, which Eli Siegel wrote in the late 1950s. This work is richly philosophic, logical, learned, and warm. In it he illustrates Aesthetic Realism's landmark explanation of what all art does: "In reality opposites are one; art shows this." Chapter 11 is about the Immediate and Permanent in art.
These opposites are in the life of everyone. And everyone is mixed up about them, even tormented by them. There's a rift in people between the immediate moment, what they're in the midst of—talking to someone, embracing a person, strategizing inwardly, surfing the Web—and what's Large, Permanent, Enduring. The separation is taken for granted, not thought about. Yet this division makes people feel untrue to themselves, and also feel empty and nervous.
In the self of each of us, the permanent is equivalent to the purpose of our lives, to what our lives are for. Is there a purpose we have when we're born, which never leaves us? Aesthetic Realism explains that this purpose is to like the world on an honest basis, to be ourselves by valuing truly what's not ourselves. Whether we know it or not, our using what we do and meet against that purpose is the thing that makes us dislike ourselves.
The disjunction between what we want now—the gratifying immediate—and the permanent purpose of our lives, takes many forms. In an Aesthetic Realism lesson when I was 25, Mr. Siegel described a form it was taking in me. And I learned that this rift was the reason I was so angry with a man I was close to. He said:
Despite the huge pretense of ease about body, people throughout the world do not feel they're stronger through another's touch, praise, attentions, even as they can't do without these things. And the reason they feel weaker, less an integrity, is: they've used the person not in behalf of their life's purpose, to respect the world, but in behalf of contempt for the world. Mr. Siegel defined contempt as "the addition to self through the lessening of something else," and showed it is the thing in each of us which weakens our mind and life. Sex has been used massively to feel we've conquered the world, gotten revenge on ordinary life with its unappreciative people, made them into nothing as someone has made us into royalty. Sex has been used to feel triumphantly that an impressive person has become silly over us, and we can look down on the world as we lushly look down on and please him. It does not have to be used that way!
Meanwhile, the chief way people use what's immediate to have contempt is by being uninterested. In a day, a person (we can call him Harry) meets thousands of objects, sights, sounds, words written and spoken by others. Harry has essentially used them to feel the world is dull. In keeping with what Mr. Siegel describes in chapter 11, this is completely contrary to art. For art says there's no object that, seen truly, can't thrill us—from an old discarded orange (what is its shape? its color? how many human lives had to do with growing, picking, transporting it?) to Harry's sister, whom he's summed up but about whose thoughts Henry James could have written for many pages.
While the moment has been used against permanent meaning, people have also used a notion of the permanent against the immediate. They've misused such great things as religion, art, science to feel they were in touch with what's eternal and were therefore superior to their fellow humans and most of reality. This notion of the "eternal" is ugly and a fake.
In his "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana " Eli Siegel wrote, "Afternoons have to do with the whole world." So, he showed, do the immediate things we meet: from traffic lights to rain to barking dogs to a person we're kissing. The structure of the world—the oneness of opposites—is in them. When we want to use them to know and like the world, the immediate and permanent will be one for us, and we will be truly intelligent, very happy, and proud.
There-It-Is; or, The Immediate & Permanent in Art
By Eli Siegel
thing is explained by everything else. This explanation goes on in space and time and manyness. A thing looked at can be seen as immediate; but the explanation is permanent. Attention is immediate; explanation is permanent. How attention and explanation, how the immediate and its significance are, how they meet, and meet again, simply has to be with us.
Art itself is like the procedure in Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Something is said with swift, plangent immediacy and is explained for the rest of the work. The first notes of the Fifth Symphony are triumphant—but are plangent, radiantly complaining, because their meaning, their permanent value, is asked for, loudly begged for. Even triumph has its background, which it desperately requires to explain itself with.
Technically, art is the immediacy of the object itself as at one with the permanence of its form or relations. Objects are unique and forms recur; but what we see is the individual and the recurring in one situation of mind. The everlasting as form is in the most transient thing. The everlasting as form is present in a bit of curved and dented onion skin helplessly whirling in a high wind.
The fact that vision has foreground, middle ground, background, is witness to how reality is arranged as immediacy and permanence and a junction of both. The artistic view goes towards the immediate and permanent saying something about each other in such a manner that all we don't see is friendly with what we do see; that the absent is within the present, as pleasing comment; that the purpose of things, however distant before and after, is in the visual object, the heard object.
How can we see? Art informs us that the not-seen is present in the seen, and needs to be present if what we take as seen is adequately seen. In the long run, there is no such thing as absence in art. Absence and presence tell about one thing, and in doing so they are each other. The present as immediacy includes the absent as permanence. The absent explains; and as it explains, it is that much here.
In painting, then, what we don't immediately see is the explanation of what we do see. When the explanation seizes us, the explanation is present. The permanent is as present as the immediate; in fact, the immediate is unsatisfactory without it. However, the permanent is seen as soon as we honor, ask more, are impelled to ask more from the immediate. There is a difference between an object and its meaning, yet the meaning of an object is the essence of the object.
There Are Figure & Background
he permanent takes the form of background in art. Though we may not like it, where a thing is—including where, in its full sense, a person is—seems to be more permanent than the thing itself. What surrounds seems more permanent than the surrounded. Therefore, in art there is a going towards, identification with, background. Figure merges indivisibly with landscape, landscape with figure, when intention is complete. This is done by showing that the everlasting structure of landscape is the same as the everlasting structure of figure. If the permanent were not in the transitory, the transitory would really be in a bad way.
In the world, then, permanent and immediate, everlasting and transient, dramatically and inseparably exist, are unceasingly observable. The world never shows itself entirely, but in everything it does and shows, world-entirety can be found. The world is shameless and a tease.
The idea of background, the idea of the visually permanent, is a large matter in the history of art. Perspective cannot be disjoined from the idea of the permanent. A Greek figure on a vase seems to be more permanent than a Greek figure on a flat surface. Two dimensions give self-containment; the object is its own background, or permanency—as it is in present-day abstractions.
Even in Abstract Art
et it must be pointed out that even in abstractions we have the immediate and permanent. Red to white is as immediate to permanent; so is one blue to a lighter blue; so is an oblong to a circle; so is a red to a fainter red. The immediate can assert itself as the permanent—and the assertiveness can be neatly forceful—but the immediate cannot say, ever, it has nothing at all to do with the permanent. Wherever the immediate is, in any form, the permanent is effectively waiting, successfully around.
The triumph of background as permanence in painting took place in the 17th century with Claude Lorrain and Poussin. Earlier, there had been perspective-permanence triumphs with, say, Giotto and Masaccio. Claude Lorrain seems to want to change receding space into time and hovering, unlimited significance. (Since Claude Lorrain, more things have happened to unmeasured space and space as explanation.)
Of Claude Lorrain, Louis Hourticq writes:
The interpenetration in the work of Claude Lorrain of background and foreground, of space and solidity—likewise the separation between the distant and the near, between sky and edifice—all this contains an interpenetration and otherness of permanence and immediacy. The things that stand for each other in aesthetic sight are each other. That is, when center completely stands for circumference in a visual situation, center is circumference, as it is when we look at the head of a pin.
A Moment & a Whole Life
n object has to do with space, and a moment, or the action of a moment, has to do with all time. The meaning of a moment in its relation to a whole life, the history of a character, has its great ethical aspect. The manifestation of a second, according to ethics, may tinge the years. This too is about the immediate and permanent; and if this relation of a second and years occurs in a novel, it is not unlike the way an object in the foreground of a painting is with, for the purpose of the painting, space in the background. In other words, the artistic way of Claude Lorrain has a likeness to the possible aesthetic material in these lines from Eliot's The Wasteland:
Age and moment have to show themselves at once. We separate them only "conceptually," as personal theoreticians. The acceptance of age and moment has made for art in all fields.
Carlyle as a writer of prose often makes the present moment continuous, indefinitely related. An example of consequence is his description in The French Revolution of Louis XV lying sick in 1774:
The immediate here, as Louis XV lying sick, goes everywhere. The complex and permanent are brought by Carlyle to a royal illness. Surely, though, Carlyle did not just bring these: they were there; for immediate and permanent always are there.
Malherbe & the Moment
arlier, in the history of the French monarchy, a French poet, Malherbe, master of serried pomp in verse, bringer of much history into one well-fashioned, trim, swelling stanza, had greeted the advent of Marie de' Medici as Queen for Henry IV. Historically, the present didn't last so radiantly as to Marie de' Medici and Henry IV; but the present is always fine, resounding, permanent, agelessly glorious in some of Malherbe's stanzas. The forms are true if the events were not. Here is a stanza with the powerful, effulgent present, asking that the eternal confirm it; in English free verse, the triumphantly self-contained stanza may appear this way:
Virgil—& the Undying Immediate
ome ancient lines, like the lovers in Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn," present the immediate as going on and going on. It seems that history, including literary history, has chosen the first line of Virgil's First Eclogue as one fitly showing the undyingness of the immediate: "Tityre, tu, patulae recubans sub tegimini fagi."
This line is discussed in terms of its translation by D'Arcy W. Thompson in his Day-dreams of a Schoolmaster . Thompson says that it should be translated: "O Tityrus, that reclinest beneath the shelter of the beech when spreading."4 Thompson wants to get more immediacy into the translation of the line: that is what his learned suggestions come to.
The line about Tityrus reclining under the beech has been translated by many, many persons ever since, as told of in Latin, Tityrus could be seen and thought of. Tityrus reclining and the beech tree have gone on and on in history and minds and minds.
There is, for example, the careful prose translation of J.W. Mackail. Meliboeus is talking:
The situation described by Virgil has in it, then, something pleasant and immediate and of a disturbing beyondness. Often the permanent which may be related to an immediate has dim tumult in it. The permanent in painting, for example, may have dark skies to stand for it, while good masonry stands for the immediate.
Still, there is Tityrus with his pipe and the beech tree. Samuel Johnson, while at school, wrote of him in this couplet: "Now, Tityrus, you, supine and careless laid, / Play on your pipe beneath this beechen shade."
Earlier Dryden had written: "Beneath the shade which beechen boughs diffuse, / You, Tit'rus, entertain your sylvan Muse."
The translation in Van Doren's Anthology of World Poetry, by Charles Stuart Calverley, reads: "Stretched in the shadow of the broad beech, thou / Rehearsest, Tityrus, on the slender pipe / Thy woodland music." —And there are other translations.
So Tityrus is permanent. Like other aspects of the permanent, he has many variations. But he is still immediate. Even with the many translations, there is Tityrus with his pipe and the beech tree.
When art says, There he is, all the other tenses come in. Much else is present. There he is! means, There is Existence! The is of existence is sharp and immeasurable. It takes in was, will be, might be, whatever.
Consequently, the immediate and permanent in art honor There-it-is. Unless both honor it, There-it-is is not honored.
1 Louis Hourticq, Art in France (NY: Scribner's, 1917), p. 210.
2 Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (NY: Wiley & Putnam, 1847), I, 6.
3 François de Malherbe, "Ode, presentée à sa Majesté, à Aix, l'année 1600," in Recueil de plus belles pièces des poètes français (Amsterdam : George Gallet, 1692), II, 234. Mr. Siegel quoted the stanza first in the original French, then in his translation.
4 (London : George G. Harrap & Co.), p. 95.
5 The Eclogues and Georgics of Virgil, trans. J.W. Mackail (London: Rivingtons, 1889), p. 3.
Aesthetic Realism is based on these principles, stated by Eli Siegel:
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.
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