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The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1681. — December 13, 2006
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

What Does a Child Want Most?

Dear Unknown Friends: 

n September, a dramatic presentation titled "Parents & Children—What Do They Really Want from Each Other?" took place at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. It was cultural, kind, deep, often funny. And it had the knowledge that all people concerned with children are longing for—are, really, desperate for. We are publishing, as an article, a section of that event: "Why Have Children Loved These Songs?," written by performers with the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company.

      What is a young person hoping for? What is it within the child himself or herself that can have this child be distressed? People are as mixed up as ever on the subject. On November 11, a long article in the New York Times informed the public that psychiatrists have "deep uncertainties" about how to "diagnose" children's troubles—which is an understatement. And it happens that even when practitioners do settle on some label, some "diagnosis," for a particular child's turmoil—maybe "attention deficit disorder" or "anxiety"—they don't understand the cause, and the young person receives drugs, not the comprehension he is looking for. A 13-year-old is quoted as saying about the various pills he has been given for years, "Sometimes they make me feel like another person, like not normal."

The Human Confusions

hen there are the millions of boys and girls whose distress is less extreme, but who have the human confusions: What kind of world did I get myself into? Why do I go from having a good time to feeling so bad, down? What makes me not like myself? Why do I get so angry?

     Aesthetic Realism has in it the real, authentic, grand, practical, respectful understanding of a child. I know, because I met this comprehension early, as a child myself.

     Aesthetic Realism explains that every young person, like every adult, is in a fight between two big purposes: to like the world honestly, and to have contempt for it. Whether we're six, 46, or 96, our desire for contempt—to feel we're big because we can look down on something else—is the thing in us that interferes with our lives. It makes us mean, and also makes us lonely and unsure, and makes us dislike ourselves. In Self and World, Eli Siegel described the fight this way: "Every child has this debate: Shall I...see the world as magnificently and as delicately as possible; or shall I see the world as the material for victories for just me?"

The Encouragement a Child Wants

hether a child is tenderly holding a kitten or having a tantrum, what he or she wants most is to be encouraged to like the world. And Aesthetic Realism shows children and us that the world which can confuse us, which contains things we should certainly criticize, has a structure like our own: "The world, art, and self explain each other," Aesthetic Realism shows: "each is the aesthetic oneness of opposites." That is what the presentation we're publishing is about.

     At the September event, all the songs, and the instances from them given throughout the article, were sung—beautifully sung. We include here the words of only one, since the other songs will be familiar to most readers.

     We're also honored to publish eight short poems by Eli Siegel. Though they were not written specifically for children, they can be seen as children's poems, as well as all humanity's poems. Each has simplicity and also wonder. Each has that warmth and exactitude about the world which every child and adult is hoping for. As to the statement in the last of these poems—Eli Siegel was true to it all his life.

ELLEN REISS, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

Some Poems by Eli Siegel     

     A Silent Hill

It was a silent hill
In August.
Below it,
Flowers, dust.

     There Has Been Sewing

Stitch has followed stitch
In every land in which
There has been sewing.

     Baby in the Carriage

A sky without a flaw
Is what the baby in the carriage saw.

     I Told You So

As the tides
Ebb and flow,
Something in them seems to say,
I told you so.

     Occupied the Sky

Wild ducks in Michigan
Occupied the sky then.

    Said the Feather to the Air

Said the feather as it flew through the air,
Thanks for offering me such a correct means
Of being in motion. I shall always appreciate it.
What could a feather do, come to think of it, without air?
Thanks again, old friend, old companion.

      In That Period of History

There was no basketball
At all
In that period of history.

     The Praise Will Not Be Taken Back

The sun shines bright,
And the ink writes black.
My praise of the world
Will not be taken back.

Why Have Children Loved These Songs?

By the Aesthetic Realism Theatre Company

e've learned from Aesthetic Realism that when a child is pleased by a song, it's for the same reason any person has liked something beautiful in any field—from Hamlet to the Mona Lisa, from Ellington to Bach. The reason is: it makes a one of reality's opposites. Every good children's song puts together in its particular way opposites that a child, and also we, are trying to make sense of in our lives. And therefore it has us feel the world is a friend. We'll give some examples.

"Old Macdonald" & the World's Opposites

By Bennett Cooperman & Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman

"Old Macdonald Had a Farm" is an American classic that children have loved for decades. This anonymous folk song is beautiful because it puts together sameness and difference in a deep and lively way.

     The structure of the song is simple: each verse is exactly the same, except for the different animals that are named and the sound each animal makes. For instance:

Old Macdonald had a farm, e-i-e-i-o.  
And on his farm he had a cow, e-i-e-i-o.
With a "moo-moo" here and a "moo-moo" there,
Here a "moo," there a "moo," everywhere a "moo-moo."

     The next verse is about a pig, with an "oink-oink"; then a duck, with a "quack"; a horse, with a "neigh"; and so on. You have sameness, something dependable, in "Old Macdonald had a farm," which begins and ends each verse and is in between all this difference and hubbub of animals.

     A child can feel that the different things and people he meets don't make a composition for him, don't go together well. But here the variety and whirl of reality are shown to be at one with sameness—making an exciting, happy organization.

     Generations of children have relished the repeated phrase "e-i-e-i-o." What do these sounds mean? We think an answer can be found in Eli Siegel's essay "The Alphabet: A Description and an Excursion Everywhere." In it, he explains the particular quality of each sound indicated by every letter of the alphabet. He writes: "A body with a self makes sounds. The sounds can represent what the self is after."

      "E-i-e-i-o" has three sounds: e, i , and o. The e sound, Mr. Siegel says in his essay, can have pain in it, something sharp and deep, like "the sound of a baby crying." "The i sound is rich," he writes; it has "pleasure, warmth." And the o, he explains, "has roundness, wonder, openness....The self goes more out in o, and is bent on reaching and taking more....There is courage in this sound."

     So every time a child sings "e-i-e-i-o," he or she is putting together in an authentic way things that can seem so far apart and confusing: how the world can please us and also give us pain; the self objecting and then having true wonder, with that ending "o."

"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" & a Child's Hopes

By Barbara Allen

his song is definitely one children love—a fact I've seen teaching young people in the "Learning to Like the World" class at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation and at after-school programs in the South Bronx and Harlem. What do the notes and words do which satisfies a child's hopes so deeply?

     In her introduction to Eli Siegel's Children's Guide to Parents & Other Matters, Ellen Reiss writes about how Mr. Siegel spoke to her when she was a child of nearly seven. He asked: "Do you want to be like music?" And he explained:

If people know how to conduct themselves they can be like music....Melody can teach you how to rise and fall and see that you are the same person.

     And just those opposites—rising and falling—are what a child hears vividly in "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." After the first two notes, which are the same, in "Twinkle," the melody immediately leaps five notes upward for the second "twinkle," then rises even higher for "little." From that height it slowly falls, returning back home to the very note where it began: "... star. / How I wonder what you are." Because each note is sung twice, we don't feel that the rise and fall are painfully abrupt—they're lingered on thoughtfully.

     Rising and falling are big opposites in children. A child can soar with delight one moment, and then later feel very low, as though she has no friend in the world. But here, as the sounds go high and fall low, they are not depressed: they make up the same lovely melody. And as we sing it, we feel, yes, we're the same person.

     The tune is an old French folk melody, and the words of the song were written in 1806 by the British children's author Jane Taylor.

     Other opposites in it are near and far. Every child's hope is to feel that both what's near and what's far away are friendly. Too often there's the feeling that only what's close to us is friendly, and what's distant is an enemy and to be feared. But in this song, something far away, that "little star" in the sky causing a child to "wonder what you are," seems very friendly. The notes linger in space as we sing, "Up above the world so high, / Like a diamond in the sky," and there's pleasure in feeling suspended, out in the world. It isn't until we reach the end, with that last "Twinkle, twinkle, little star, / How I wonder what you are," that we return to the home base, still having wonder about this celestial object so far away.

Warmth & Exactitude, Together

By Anne Fielding

e'll sing now a song that children have loved for over a century, both here and in Europe. It's the Yiddish song "Oyfn Pripetshik," written by Mark Warshavsky, who was born in Russia in 1845. In it, little children sitting near a fireplace are being taught very carefully how to say the alphabet.

     So we have opposites—warmth and exactitude or severity—that have mixed children up tremendously. A child has felt the mother who's warm, affectionate, is a different person from the one who suddenly looks at him severely, or scolds. When a child sees a parent act gushingly warm, the child feels it's insincere and has contempt. And when a parent is only severe, the child is afraid.

     But "Oyfn Pripetshik" shows these opposites don't have to fight, and it's a beautiful song. While the melody is entirely in the minor, which is more severe than the major, it also has a gently embracing quality, a glowing rotundity. As the individual notes and words are pointed, precise, even a little staccato, they also linger affectionately.

     We think this song about education says that the way to get to warmth is through knowledge. As we sing it now, you'll hear the original Yiddish—the language in which many children heard it at their mother's knee—and an English version by Ellen Reiss, in which the tenderness for children and care for learning in this song come forth so deeply.

In the fireplace
A little fire burns
And the room is hot,
And the teacher shows the
Little children how
To say the alphabet.


Little children, see,
Remember, dear ones,
What you're learning here.
Say them now again and
Then another time:
Letters sweet and clear!
Learn, my children with
Greatest eagerness:
This I ask of you.
And to all of those who
Truly learn to read,
A flag I'll give to you.

As you grow in time,
As the years go by,
You will be aware
How much in these letters
People's feelings lie,
How much meaning's there.

Brahms' "Lullaby" & Authentic Comfort

By Carrie Wilson

song I remember loving as a child is Brahms' "Lullaby," or, in German, "Wiegenlied." I felt it was sweet and reassuring, and this has been felt by children all over the world. I've come to see that what makes this song honestly comforting to a young person, or one of any age, is that along with its seeming simplicity, with its gently rocking motion in the accompaniment—like that of a cradle—there is complexity too.

     In his book Self and World, Eli Siegel writes:

If a song seems simple and is a good or great song, its simplicity must have suggestion, many sides, richness to it, if its simplicity is to be other than thin, pretty-pretty, false. [P. 120]

     In Brahms' setting, singer and accompanist have different rhythms, even jostling against each other a bit. In fact, the right and left hands of the pianist are syncopated against each other too. If not for its rhythmic complexity, the sweetness could seem shallow. Its beauty and kindness arise from the fact that the world is shown as friendly, not by excluding its bumps, its confusions, its uncertainties, but by honestly including them!

     And that is what a child wants. Too often an adult has soothed a child, not by showing that the complications of the world can make sense, but by conveying to the child that "in my arms you can get away from the mean, complicated world."

     Brahms kindly makes a child, and us, feel there is a dependable foundation to things. He has the same deep note in the bass on the downbeat of every measure, even as the harmonies above it change-and that note is the tonic, the first note of the scale, which stands for security and home.

     I'll sing the first verse in English, then in the original German, and then in the English again.

A Child's Big Question

e'll end with a round that children love. There are many rounds—for instance, "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"; "Oh, How Lovely Is the Evening"; and the one we'll now sing in French and English, "Frère Jacques."

     A round puts together sameness and difference. Each child sings the same words and melody: "Are you sleeping, / Are you sleeping, / Brother John, / Brother John?..." But each person comes in at a different time. And the wonderful thing is, the parts fit together perfectly!

     A round solves the big question every child has, and we have: How can I be myself—my own individual, unique self—and yet feel I'm related to everybody else, and that we add to each other?  

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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First Thursday of each month, 6:30 PM: Seminars with speakers from Aesthetic Realism faculty 

Third Saturday of each month, 8 PM: Aesthetic Realism Dramatic Presentations
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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 • Coordinator: Nancy Huntting

Subscriptions: 26 issues, US $18; 12 issues, US $9, Canada and Mexico $14, elsewhere $20. Make check or money order payable to Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
Click here for subscription form.
ISSN 0882-3731

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

Two Teachers Speak on a Class Taught by Ellen Reiss
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

© Copyright 2006 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation  •  A not-for-profit educational foundation