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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1865.—January 1, 2014

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Shakespeare and Mandela

Dear Unknown Friends:

We are honored to publish “Shakespeare’s Eighth Sonnet & Self,” an essay by Eli Siegel. It is mightily important as literary criticism—and for everyone’s understanding of our own lives.

I could write lengthily about Mr. Siegel’s love for and explanation of the work of Shakespeare. For instance, there are his lectures on Othello, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, Julius Caesar, and more. These talks, with vivid presentation of scenes, are part of the dramatic repertory of the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company. His Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Revisited is simply one of the great works of world literature. And he discussed, line by line, all the Sonnets, explaining them definitively.

He enabled people really to love Shakespeare, and understand him. Through what he said about Shakespeare’s plays, people can feel at last that the play is about them, their immediate lives, their inner tumults, and can feel inextricably too its true, full grandeur.

At the basis of Eli Siegel’s Shakespeare criticism is this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”

In the essay on Sonnet 8, he shows Shakespeare dealing in a particular way with the biggest opposites in the life of everyone: self and world. The sonnet, Mr. Siegel makes clear, is about the fight between care for our own cherished self and our desire to be richly just to outside reality. And it’s about that thing which Aesthetic Realism shows is the most hurtful desire in everyone: contempt, the desire to make ourselves big through looking down on what’s not us.

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Here I make a relation to something that seems very different from a Shakespeare sonnet. Less than a month ago, one of the most important people of the last century died: Nelson Mandela. And there were the memorial service and so many adulatory statements by press and government leaders about him. From what I know of those statements, at least those in the western media, there has been a tremendous inaccuracy in the placing of his life and meaning. That inaccuracy and who Mandela really was, concern the same opposites as those in Shakespeare’s sonnet: self and world. They are opposites central to how a nation should be owned.

The large thing in the life of Nelson Mandela was the seeing, put into courageous action, that the world—in the form of the land and wealth of South Africa—was the birthright of every self, every person, of South Africa; that this was so no matter what the color of one’s skin. He knew that the fight to end the horrible apartheid system could not really be dissevered from the just ownership of the South African earth by all South Africans.

Mandela had centrally to do with the writing of the Freedom Charter, in 1955. In 1994, after his election as President, he affirms in his autobiography his belief in that charter and cites these passages from it:

The national wealth of our country, the heritage of all South Africans, shall be restored to the people;

The mineral wealth beneath the soil, the banks and monopoly industry shall be transferred to the ownership of the people as a whole;

All other industries and trade shall be controlled to assist the well-being of the people. [Long Walk to Freedom, p. 152]

For this, he put his life in danger again and again. For this he was hunted, tormented, jailed for 27 years, including 18 on Robben Island. He was not a communist, though he was called one. However, the statements I just quoted are definitely against the profit system, as Mandela himself was. And that is why he was labeled a “terrorist” by various governments that are now praising him, one of which was the government of the United States.

The profit system, in any nation, is a severing of those opposites self and world—each individual and the land we’re of. The profit system is based on the idea that it’s right for some few people to own most of a nation’s wealth and use others to enrich themselves. The profit motive is sheer contempt: it’s the seeing of human beings in terms of how much you can get from their labor, while giving them as little as possible. In his autobiography Mandela tells of observing what this motive meant when, as a young man, he labored in a gold mine:

Only the presence of cheap labor in the form of thousands of Africans working long hours for little pay with no rights made gold-mining profitable for the mining houses....It was my first sight of South African capitalism at work. [P. 55]

Novelist Nadine Gordimer, writing on Mandela in the New Yorker (Dec. 5), notes that South Africa’s “apartheid forces [were] financed by Western allies.” The apartheid government did everything it could to annihilate Mandela and his colleagues. It tortured and murdered. The Reagan and Thatcher administrations backed the apartheid government, and called Mandela a terrorist, not because these administrations were so much for racial separation—but because they wanted to wipe out everything and everyone questioning the profit system. It’s quite clear that if they’d had their way Nelson Mandela would have rotted and died on Robben Island. It seems to me that persons representing those governments at his memorial service should at least have had the decency to express regret.

The Largest Matter

In the recent statements about him, the big subject of praise has been that Mandela was for “reconciliation” with the oppressors. Whether or not that reconciliation was always right—it was definitely not the largest matter in Mandela’s life. The largest matter was what he fought for so steadily for half a century. But many of the persons now praising him hate what his life was really about: that the wealth of a nation belongs to every person in it, black or white. So they prefer to speak about a “reconciler.” Again—had persons like them succeeded, Mandela would have been in no position to do any reconciling at all.

I believe Nelson Mandela in his last years was deeply saddened by a compromise he’d felt he had to make. That is: while apartheid technically ended, a South African economy based on the profit motive did not. As a result of the retained profit system, Mandela, in his 90s, saw massive poverty continuing for black South Africans; a 70% unemployment rate for people below age 35; black government police gunning down over 100 workers on strike at platinum mines—mines owned, not by “the people as a whole,” but by private companies.

In the 1940s, Eli Siegel wrote: “The world should be owned by the people living in it....All persons should be seen as living in a world truly theirs.” Nelson Mandela would have loved that statement and loved, I am sure, Mr. Siegel himself: a person completely unprejudiced, and beautiful about art, justice, and all humanity.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Shakespeare’s Eighth Sonnet & Self
By Eli Siegel

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?

If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,

By unions married, do offend thine ear,

They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds

In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,

Strikes each in each by mutual ordering,

Resembling sire and child and happy mother,

Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing;

Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one,

Sings this to thee: “Thou single wilt prove none.”

The plays and poems of Shakespeare, like all great literature, are about the desire of a self to meet the universe at all points, and as subtly and richly as possible; and yet to retain a clear and permanent independence. Shakespeare felt that to diminish reality or dull it in order to find reason for establishing the inexpugnable existence of a self, was evil. Hamlet, much beset with the uncomeliness and disorder of the world, maintains a charming interest in things and their shows; essentially, he is profound and delightful; and if his family bewilders him almost into dullness, he still wants to see; to be just to truth in all its delicacy and tremendousness.

What the Sonnet Is About

A constant counsel of Shakespeare in the Sonnets is: Do not make thyself interesting and monarchic by making all else besides thee look dull and not so meaningful. This counsel is to be seen with unusual clearness in the eighth sonnet. This sonnet, like the others of the first twenty, is essentially not about the need for “begetting a child” but about the lovely necessity for feeling that the world is in us, and so we should show, joyously, the presence of the world in us.

Sonnet 8, perhaps, best shows Shakespeare’s feeling that a person could have himself to himself—or have what Henry James Sr. called his “unrelated selfhood”—by finding all else dull, not so wonderful. In this sonnet someone takes music languidly, aloofly; and Shakespeare chides him for letting his sense of self make him unresponsive, unmoved.

The sonnet begins with quick lucidity: “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?” The question is sympathetic; but it is satirical, too. A person to whom beauty or “music” has come does not want to be affected by beauty or “music”; and this is deep but faintly, faintly ridiculous. There is a beautiful mingling of concern and scornful criticism in the line.

“Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.” This line, too, has probing fun in it. If someone thinks himself so beautiful, why doesn’t he like other beautiful things? If he is pleased with himself, why can’t he be pleased with something else, too?

The next line is less obvious: “Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly.” In other words, the young man concerned might act as if he loved music, and could in a way care for it, but he did not want to seem glad. That would be vulgar; it would not go along with symmetrical disdain.

And then Shakespeare asks: “Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?” However, the person written of acts occasionally as if he does care for music. This means that he conducts himself as if he found pleasure in what annoyed him. There is satire here, and there is musical jesting; so if this was written about some nobleman, high in state, Shakespeare was a little audacious. The upshot so far of what he has said is: Either don’t be annoyed at something you like, or stop being pleased with something which annoys you.

In Music, an Interrelation

Aesthetics is next used as a means of ethical criticism. Shakespeare states that if a person is somehow offended by the composition in music—“the true concord of well-tuned sounds, / By unions married”—it might well be because this person, unlike the music, was not in relation to other things. In the music, there is diversity and composition making for oneness; but the person is unrelatedly his own guarded self—he “confounds / In singleness the parts” that he should “bear.”

A string in music helps another: one string is “sweet husband to another.” There is an interrelation of strings; they strike something in each other “by mutual ordering.” And here they resemble “sire and child and happy mother, / Who all in one, one pleasing note do sing.” It is striking how Shakespeare insists on the idea of composition: he is even nobly tautologous. He uses “concord,” “well-tuned,” “unions,” and “married”—all in a line and a half. Surely the being in relation has a fervent advocate.

It is in the third quatrain that the procreative idea, or the domestic idea, is most apparent. One does feel, though, that the manyness of the music goes beyond the limitation of “sire and child and happy mother” in the ordinary sense. In the 13th line, the song made by “sire” and “child” and “mother” is called “many.” Three people could hardly be called “many.” Shakespeare, rather, is thinking of creation: the meeting by mind of world in such a way that a new thing comes to be—a “child”—which is both and neither.

In The Merchant of Venice

The famous passage about music in The Merchant of Venice (5.1) makes it clear that Shakespeare saw music in an ethical way, and saw this ethical way as existing without immediate procreative bearings:

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted.

This passage is written in a grave manner; the sonnet has a jauntiness; but the import is similar. When Shakespeare says that “The motions of his spirit are dull as night,” he is saying, in a more solidly meditative way, what he is saying in Sonnet 8.

Like Achilles

In the concluding couplet of the sonnet, it is said that a “speechless” or wordless song, which is many, though it seems one, censures a person who sees fit to be “single.” That person is told that while he is single, he can’t be a song: “Whose speechless song, being many, seeming one, / Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’”

So, again, what does “single” mean? Does it mean single only as it has to do with marriage and fatherhood? This is hardly so: if it were, the sonnet would not have, as some people have thought, substance enough. But it does. Shakespeare is dealing with what we find in the lines of Ajax about Achilles in Troilus and Cressida (2.3):

Ulysses.We saw him at the opening of his tent: He is not sick.

Ajax. Yes, lion-sick, sick of proud heart. You may call it melancholy, if you will favour the man, but, by my head, it is pride; but why, why? Let him show us the cause.

Achilles in the play does not want to meet other things, or persons; he is like the man written of in Sonnet 8.

When Hamlet says, too, that “it goes so heavily with my disposition” and that “man delights not me,—no, nor woman neither,” he carries on the theme of Sonnet 8 and also of Ajax’s description of Achilles.

Nor is this all. Even Macbeth, man of action that he is, can become distressed with the dullness of the universe. Richard II can’t make up his mind whether existence is to be taken vividly, willingly, or not. Jaques in As You Like It looks at it with sweet questioning. —It is most important, though, for the present purpose, to make some comparison between Hamlet and the person described in the sonnet.

His Largest Purpose

Hamlet is distressed by the world as he knows it immediately, and as he sees it philosophically. What he sees makes him recoil. He can’t make much sense of father and mother, or of Ophelia, either. But his largest purpose is always to like the way he sees. He acts as if he were not interested in the universe; but his greatest desire is to be interested. He will not, like the man in the sonnet, hope that things be dull so that he can retire majestically in the perfect shadows of self; nor will he be like Achilles. Hamlet can condemn the universe sharply, question it mercilessly, satirize it acridly; but he always wants to look at it, have it be of him. When weakness or tiredness comes, he’d like to be in a nutshell, as he says, and so rule everything; but his “dreams,” which are his criticism, know better.

Hamlet is for briskly encyclopedic reality, diversely charming thingness, variously puzzling and tormenting existence. He will not find a bad superiority through aloofness. Aloof he may be from his mother and uncle, but not from the players, not from the men on board a ship, not, really, from the people in Denmark or everywhere.

And that is where he is a criticism of the person in Sonnet 8. This person has more of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (seen as one person) in him; even more of Tybalt. There are frequently to be seen in Shakespeare men and women who just are not enough interested: like Polonius, they will not go so deeply into a matter as to please a justly and greatly hoping Hamlet.

In Shakespeare

It is true that Shakespeare could see this unmoved disdain, self-maintaining snobbishness in himself—for I think he would admit, as Goethe did, that all evil was in him. But he didn’t like it. Sometimes he feared it: and that he feared it, we can see in Hamlet or King Lear. But he also could satirize this snobbishness with its tendency to placid and self-satisfied anesthesia. It is this satire we can see, with the accompaniment of string music, the right word, the suggestion of syllable, in the poetry of the Eighth Sonnet. black diamond

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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The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known (TRO) is a biweekly periodical of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
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TRO: Home |  Current |  Art |  Literature |  Racism |  Education |  Nat'l Ethics |  Love |  Economics |  Memorial |  Site Map
"Is a Person an Aesthetic Situation?" by Eli Siegel: a short explanation of Aesthetic Realism
The Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company in New York City. Authors in the repertory include Ibsen, Sheridan, Shakespeare, O'Neill.
Ellen Reiss, Commentaries in TRO:
The Mideast  |  Poetry of Eli Siegel |  Unions
Lord Byron |  Harry Potter |  Sherlock Holmes
Robert Burns |  The 'criticism' of John Keats
Racism & Its Solution
Aesthetic Realism Resources:
Aesthetic Realism Consultations
Two Biographies of Eli Siegel:
[1] Aesthetic Realism Foundation
[2] Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company Site
Friends of Aesthetic Realism—Countering the Lies
Art and Literature:
The Terrain Gallery / Aesthetic Realism Foundation
The Place of Aesthetic Realism in Culture & Literature

The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method:
Lesson Plans in Diverse Subjects
Teaching Indian Culture in the United States:
The Aesthetic Realism Method
Further Resources:
Essays and News Pieces about Aesthetic Realism
Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
A New Perspective for Anthropology: The Aesthetic Realism Method
Self-Expression and What Interferes: an Aesthetic Realism Discussion
John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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