Sadness and Joy—in Music and Us
Dear Unknown Friends:
Aesthetic Realism and Music, which we are serializing, is a 1951 lecture by Eli Siegel, great in the art criticism of the world. With power, grace, humor, Mr. Siegel is showing what music is at its very essence, and also what our dear human self fundamentally, longingly, tumultuously is. He is illustrating the central principle of Aesthetic Realism, this statement by him, which I consider the most important single sentence ever written: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” We print too “What’s Real Success?” part of a paper Aesthetic Realism associate Michael Palmer presented at an Aesthetic Realism public seminar this June.
Mr. Siegel talks here about opposites that are so intimate to everyone: sadness and happiness or joy. Yet people have not known that they constitute an aesthetic question within us: that we need to make these opposites one, see them as coherent, as deeply joined—the way dark and brightness are in painting; the way in music a passage, poignant in a minor key, meets rightly a passage in vibrant major.
This year in America, people feel as persons felt in the 15th century or the 10th: deeply troubled by the way they can go, in the same day, maybe the same half hour, from hopefulness to sinking. They come to take for granted that they will shuttle distressingly between an exuberance or pleasure, and sadness, a feeling “down.” Yet that shuttling makes them feel centrally unsure of themselves and ashamed.
While a person can, of course, dislike the fact that she is sad, the same person can despise herself for not feeling another kind of sadness: an authentic sympathy for the plight of someone else. She loathes herself for being not much moved by, without grief for, the worries of a friend, a person who asks for money on the street, a disaster 2000 miles away.
Moreover, while persons in every state of America have the pain of sadness, they also have the pain of not liking how they are sad. —Because it happens that one can be sad in a way that makes for pride and in a way that makes for shame, just as there is a difference between falsely melancholy, soupy music and the great musical sadness of Chopin. Also, people have been ashamed of the way they were happy: they have felt there was something not solid or deep enough in their good time; there was something that made later for a hollowness.
So I am grateful to present now some questions, asked only by Aesthetic Realism, about these human opposites that have been at the heart of every novel and play ever written, and at the agitated heart of every person: sadness and pleasure. I love Aesthetic Realism and Mr. Siegel for showing, after thousands of years, that these opposites can make sense—for showing that the self we each have is an aesthetic matter; and therefore there are both an answer and a grandeur to our human problems.
Questions about Sadness and Pleasure
1. Does the basis on which you become sad or happy look good to you, make you proud? Most often, the reason people become sad is that they haven’t gotten their way; the reason they become pleased is that they got their way, or got praise. Aesthetic Realism says, This reason is not good enough. It’s narrow, ugly, unjust to the world, and unjust to what we ourselves really are. Aesthetic Realism explains that the deepest desire of a person is to like the world, in all its unlimitedness, to be fair to the world itself. And to see the world as good or evil, pleasing or saddening, merely because it does or doesn’t do what we want is an aspect of that thing which Eli Siegel showed to be the most hurtful thing in human life: contempt. Yet that is how men, women, children judge reality hour after hour. It is because people base their happiness on whether persons and things do what they want and make much of them, that their happiness lacks steadiness and depth, and they can plummet easily.
2. Are you happy because there is value in the world—in things as such? This is the one basis for happiness that is authentic, lasting, and proud. It is what all art is based on, and Aesthetic Realism magnificently makes it teachable, learnable. Aesthetic Realism shows that what can truly make us happy is seeing that the aesthetic structure of the world—the oneness of opposites—is in the things we meet, and in people. As we see that a leaf in late summer is delicate, yet its green is rich, strong, full; that the leaf has weight as it hangs from the branch, yet the gentlest breeze moves it; it has lived through the weeks and months of spring and summer, many people have passed beneath it, birds and insects have been near it, different weather has come to it, yet with all these changes it is the same leaf—as we see reality’s opposites as one in this leaf, we are seeing beauty, value, and we can feel truly happy. As we see that a person (even a person who doesn’t praise us) is also a composition of sensitivity and toughness; of weight, or seriousness, and lightness; of multitudinous experiences and happenings within his or her individual personality—we can feel vibrantly happy knowing, thinking about, trying to understand that person.
3. Do you know how much happiness you can get from seeing things truly—seeing how they represent what the world itself is? There is no limit!
Is It Just Personal?
4. Is your sadness just in behalf of yourself—or is it in behalf of the world, beauty, humanity? For us to respect ourselves, it has to be the latter. Even if we’re sad because we have been personally hurt, the criterion for the rightness or wrongness of our sadness is: does an injustice to us make us more against injustice as such; does our hurt make us more interested in having justice come to other people and things?
5. Therefore, if your purpose is to be just to the world, to like the world, will there be a beautiful, proud coherence between your happiness and any sadness you may have? Yes!
6. Do you think there is any desire in you to be sad? Aesthetic Realism says there is in everyone. And that desire comes from contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” It is an awful desire. It exists because a person can feel superior, regal, in seeing the world as not good enough to make him happy. Every mope is a snob in disguise: too royal, too sensitive, to be pleased by these crude, mean people and things. Behind the sulk is a hidden, triumphant sneer.
Meanwhile, contempt—that desire to be more by making other things less—is, Mr. Siegel showed, the cause of all the real sadness people have inflicted on others. Contempt, for example, is at the basis of the profit motive: the seeing of a person not in terms of who he is but as a means for your profit. The contempt of profit economics has forced on millions of people the horrible sadness that comes from being poor; it has given millions of children the awful sadness of going to bed with a stomach that aches for food.
However, I am talking now of the other sadness, the sadness of conceit, which can be asked about this way: have you used sadness to prove that you’re too good for the world?
Through Aesthetic Realism, people now and in the future can have the lasting happiness that comes from a beautiful, true way of seeing the world.