The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

As We Were Saying


Dear Unknown Friends:

In recent weeks, The Right Of has chiefly busied itself with the fact that the present wide and sad inflation has an ethical cause. The reason for this inflation, as The Right Of sees it, is the ever so old tendency of a self to be too much in favor of what it seems to be and too little caring for all that is not it. The self for a long time has been secret, and hasn’t wanted to know itself; this has made it more willing to have a hurtful disregard of or disrespect for the outside world in the form of other persons.

It will be necessary for The Right Of to say again that the old popular plague of selfishness or narrowness is with us and is having a bad effect. Whether The Right Of and Aesthetic Realism are correct will be put to the test in coming months. If the prices of the commodities most used by people become lower and stay that way, without man’s giving himself an ethical workout—if this is so, then Aesthetic Realism is incorrect in the way it sees a manifestation of the present world. Facts will come our way, and we can only hope to be just to these, even while we see an ethical workout as inevitable.

We have with us the structure of the world as it has been for a long time; and there is the structure of man. What is true about these? Aesthetic Realism has said that the oneness of opposites is the decisive explanatory thing in the existence of the world, of man, and of the arts—and, for that matter, the sciences.

1. The World

Aesthetic Realism sees the world as the oneness of opposites—that is, as an aesthetic structure. The most salient way of seeing this is to look at the fact that scientists, busy with space and time, have not been able to say whether the world or universe is infinite or finite; that is, unlimited or limited. Every person can make a wonderful case for the world’s ending nowhere, ready to begin anywhere. This is so in terms of space; and it is also that way in terms of time. One has to see the world as simply going on, whatever space is thought of for its ending. One has to see time as ready to begin again, whatever termination one has allotted to it. Does this mean that the opposites of infinite and finite, unlimited and limited are one in the world?

How this is so is certainly not easy to see. Nevertheless, if the world is both infinite and finite, the one conclusion is that there is some arrangement of infinite and finite equivalent to their being one. And this oneness of cosmological opposites is not confined to the world as astronomical, but is present in all objects, however humble. And the oneness of unlimited and limited is present in man, and is the decisive or main thing about him. He stands and is elsewhere at once.

2. Is the Oneness of Opposites Art?

As Aesthetic Realism sees it, the oneness of opposites is the main or decisive thing in all the arts; and in every instance of art. This is so because the world itself is the oneness of opposites. We have mentioned two beginning opposites the world has, infinite and finite, or unlimited and limited. The opposites of unlimited and limited make for change and sameness as we see them in drama, poetry, painting, music, the film.

As we look at a painting, the painting going from one point to another changes as it remains taciturn. In music, we have a sense of many notes together as we hear one specific, arresting note. In poetry, there are quiet and motion, or stillness and bustle, or sameness and change. In the drama, very early we have some sense of what the play is about—and this makes for stillness even while particular things take place on the stage. And the film is the most recent and perhaps the most notable of the manifestations of change and sameness as one—for in the film, science works gracefully with art to have sameness and change one.

Whether, as Aesthetic Realism has hoped, there will be honest discussion of the opposites as the chief thing in the arts; or whether, as so far is true, there will be no honest discussion, matters certainly for the lives of people in the United States or elsewhere.

Yet what can anyone do if all the arts for hundreds of years have been the oneness of opposites in quiet glory? And certainly, if the world itself and its dear representatives, motion, matter, the atom, the electron, light, dark, change, sameness, object, life, are the oneness of opposites, that is what they will be, despite coldness, sneers, evasions. The world, in its dignity and charm, has a way of being what it is.

3. Is Man the Oneness of Opposites?

We have said that the selfishness of man is the chief cause of the harsh raising of prices. Man is selfish; but being, in his fashion, the oneness of opposites, he is also magnanimous, noble, altruistic, large. Man is a heel who can write of the stars. Man is a mean creature who can measure oceans. Man is an instance of cheapness who can be honestly moved by a Hallelujah of Handel. It is all trouble and opportunity.

The life of man has always been an inseparable presence of his little moving house and the whole world above it, around it, near to it. Suppose now somebody in Ohio thinks of the future of the African continent. Will there be a mingling of himself, Howard Gillis, and a great continent? Can it be otherwise, if Howard Gillis of Xenia, Ohio, asks of himself this: What will Africa be in twenty years?

And if Howard Gillis knows a girl in Chillicothe, Ohio (and he does), does he see a specific meaning or attraction in Lucy Wendall, along with a wider mean­ing? An essay that Aesthetic Realism will talk of to illustrate the fact that love is the oneness of a specific body or way of seeing with the whole universe, is Emerson’s early Essay on Love (1841). This essay is more of a one than some others of Emerson; and if a person wants an introduction to the Aesthetic Realism idea that every man or woman is an indissoluble oneness of self and world, the Emerson essay will help much. However this may be, Howard Gillis has grand thoughts even today about Lucy Wendall; and he also has possessive, conquering, contemptuous, narrow thoughts. That is the way man is. Man is space and contempt, trying to make sense of their presence in one hour.

Here, then, are a few sentences hinting that man himself, like the objects he finds or deals with, is a oneness of opposites. Further, as we have said at various times, the grandeur and disaster of man arises from his having to make sense of himself as encased in his skin and a fierce lover of his own bones and tissues, with the fact that he is in all space and time; and is an unseen partner of all circumstance.

4. We Switch to Music

We look for a while at a once popular handbook on music, Rupert Hughes’ Music Lovers’ Encyclopedia, revised by Deems Taylor and Russell Kerr, 1939.

On page 611, we have a definition of gradation: “a gradual increase or diminution of speed or volume.” When there is musical gradation, do we have to make a one of something we heard before and something we hear later? Does all gradation make sameness and change one? Is there a pause, however small, in gradation that combines this sound and that sound? Are we, therefore, in the presence of the oneness of opposites as seen by Aesthetic Realism?

On page 620 of the work mentioned, we have the sweet Italian musical term, inconsolato. It happens that persons at various times in the history of civilization have heard music with the inconsolato or mournful touch, and yet have been pleased. The fact that mournful music can please a human being brings up the matter so central in Aristotle’s Poetics and in all dramatic theory: Why can tragedy give pleasure?

So if anyone listens to something inconsolato in Verdi, Donizetti, or Bellini—even in Gilbert and Sullivan—and likes it, is he not making a one somehow of sad and pleasing? Do not arias often put together desolation of content and triumph of projection?

We go on with music, for music has in it the nature of the world. There is an article of some length on jazz in the Hughes compilation. At this time, we shall not concern ourselves with the mischievous divinity of jazz as it was fifty years ago. There is one aspect of jazz—at least, of its history—which might concern us. This matter is syncopation, a way of having, in, say, 1913, the casual and unexpected sound inevitable. Syncopation is a change of sound, making the expected even stronger. Ragtime and syncopation are both developments of change and sameness as one.

The definition in the Hughes work describes syncopation as “tying over a note on a weak beat across the time belonging to a strong beat.” Does this sound as if frailty and uncertainty were made one with strength and assertiveness?

Since weakness and strength have been mentioned in our definition-excursion with music, it is well to see that the whole world as matter can be seen as weak compared to the whole world without limit. Weakness and strength are constantly made one in the world itself. A leaf is strong in its delicate architecture. It is weak as weight. Aluminum is weak and strong. Cleopatra, in her one hundred-twenty pounds perhaps, was weak and strong. Antony, a Roman leader in armor, was weak and strong. Weakness and strength hover about reality and are in it any moment you select.

This is all part of a casual essay on the subject of what Aesthetic Realism is and its usefulness. Moreover, we tell a little why Aesthetic Realism has been useful to people distant and near. Since, though, music is so magnificently pleasing, so grandiosely amiable, we prefer in this first representation of the beginnings of Aesthetic Realism—new series, of course—to linger with the art of Calliope and Chopin, Mendelssohn and Louis Armstrong. Consequently, we linger, too, with the article in the Hughes work on Oratorio, by H.E. Krehbiel. Some statements and phrases imply the oneness of opposites:

1. “An oratorio is a musical composition for chorus and solo voices.” This, implies the oneness of many and one in music, a most indispensable presence.

2. We are told by Mr. Krehbiel that St. Philip of Neri presented the oratorio as a means of “alluring young people to pious offices.” Could the oratorio then be a oneness of sacred and secular, of religion and pleasure?

3. A good part of the history of the world can be found in these two sentences from Krehbiel’s article, concerning a Passion of J.S. Bach:

The narrative was put into the mouth of the Evangelist, usually the principal tenor, who related the Passion of Christ; the personages in the story spoke for themselves. The chorus was often treated dramatically, representing the emotions of the onlookers, while the solo airs were of a piously reflective character.

5. Conclusion

We end abruptly (for a while) with the oratorio. Is not the oratorio a study in agreement and disagreement, in the personal and general, in the religious and the ordinary? The medley of words and sounds, emphasis and muting, saliency and reflection that the oratorio is, provides, in miniature, a picture of the world.

The world is an unheard oratorio.

Is not this so?

We shall go on with our casual description of Aesthetic Realism: its elements, its meaning, its contemporary value.