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Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

 NUMBER 1696. — July 11, 2007
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 

Slowness & Speed—in Art & Us!

Dear Unknown Friends: 

n our serialization of The Opposites Theory, by Eli Siegel, we have reached chapter 10—on those big opposites which are in oceans, puppies, automobiles, arguments, everything: Speed and Slowness.

     Mr. Siegel wrote The Opposites Theory in the late 1950s. It is a work, vivid, rich in scholarship, about the explanation of art that is central to Aesthetic Realism. He was the critic to show what art, all art, is: "the oneness of the permanent opposites in reality as seen by an individual."

     Throughout our serialization, I have been commenting on something Mr. Siegel does not speak of in this work, but which he was the philosopher to explain: the fact that the questions of every person are aesthetic questions. "The resolution of conflict in self," he wrote, "is like the making one of opposites in art." Further, what causes the opposites to war in us, to be messy and ugly and painful, is our dislike of the world and our desire to have contempt.

The Speed-and-Slowness Confusion

peed is wonderful. That we can get from one continent to another with a rapidity once unimaginable, is wonderful. To be able to communicate swiftly with someone, via telephone or email, is wonderful. To run is wonderful. Speed in a waterfall, a dance, a galloping horse, the swirl of leaves in autumn wind, and much more, is wonderful. Meanwhile, like all wonderful things, speed is misusable: people can go for it not as a means of valuing the world in which all speed takes place, but because deeply they despise the world.

     Take a man we can call Jason. He finds life dull, and it can also confuse him in a way he hates. But when he gets on his motorcycle and roars over streets, leaving cars in the dust, as he cuts through air and feels that the scenes and people he's passed are discarded behind him—then Jason is excited. He uses speed to feel he has conquered reality. He uses speed to feel he can ride over and past everything, make everything triumphantly insignificant. This is contempt (and it's not the motorcycle's fault). Since contempt always makes the person having it dislike himself or herself, Jason off the motorcycle finds life duller than ever, is increasingly unsure of himself, and has a feeling of shame which he pretends doesn't exist, as well as an anger which he doesn't understand.

     We can also be slow because we dislike the world. We can be lethargic, dull in our response. We can have this unarticulated feeling: "The things and people around me are not good enough for me to meet them with agogness, respond to them with avidity." To meet the world with insufficient liveliness is terrifically frequent, and there is a triumph in this sluggishness: a feeling of superiority; a feeling, "You want something from me? Well, you won't get it, or at least you won't get it right away."

     We can be sure that right now a child is using slowness for a contemptuous victory. Zoe's mother has called her to dinner twice already, but the 5-year-old has a certain satisfaction in "dawdling": she'll wait for the third call, for that sound of anger in her mother's voice. Zoe doesn't know why she doesn't respond quickly, but she has a sense that she's punishing her mother—and having power over her.

     Then, there is that painful form of speed in a child called "hyperactivity." Is a dislike of the world behind all hyperactivity? Does a hyperactive child feel, deeply: "No place, thing, activity fits me truly, suits me that much that I can rest with it, linger with it, have it become of me. So I must always swiftly get to something else"?

In Everyday Life & History

n ordinary form of bad speediness is the desire in everyone to get "my way" in a hurry. This is contempt as rapidity: we shouldn't have to think about what other things and people deserve; we shouldn't have to think about whether what we take to be "our way" really stands for us, represents us wholly-people should do what we want, see things the way we do, and if they don't we have a right to be very angry! Such a way of seeing goes on in playgrounds, kitchens, governments, and always makes for unkindness.

     It can take the form of war—of bombs exploding, tanks covering territory rapidly, people's feelings (and also their homes and bodies) annulled in a hurry—all so that some persons, likely of another nation, can have "their way," have reality on their terms, serving them, making them important.

     And in history, contempt has often made justice come very slowly. That's because justice would interfere with the superiority certain persons want to hold on to (including economic superiority). For example, it took a long time for there to be laws against child labor in America —and such laws are being evaded to this very day.

     A fervent objection to slowness about justice is that of the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. He demanded the immediate end to slavery. The idea, as some other abolitionists suggested, that slavery end gradually, he saw as horrible and sickening. An honest person, he thought, should find it unbearable that cruelty go on a single day more. On January 1, 1831, in the first issue of the Liberator, readers found these statements of Garrison:

I am aware, that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity?...On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present.

     Aesthetic Realism explains that the one purpose which will bring slowness and speed together in our way of mind, have them be beautiful and efficient in us, is good will. Mr. Siegel defined it as "the desire to have something else stronger and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful" (TRO 121). Good will toward anything—person, object, idea—is at once the speed of "I want to be fair to this NOW. No hesitating—I'll use all of me to be fair!" and the lingeringness of "I want to see all that justice to this person or thing would take in. I don't want to stop thinking about what it/he/she deserves. I'll never sum up the subject!" That is the way of seeing Eli Siegel himself had, and it was the privilege of my life to witness and be a recipient of it.

ELLEN REISS, Class Chairman of Aesthetic Realism

Slowness & Speed; or, Ariadne & Bacchus in Art

By Eli Siegel

lowness and speed, corresponding to rest and motion, are about everything, and everything is about them. We are always seeing them together, but there is not enough separateness in our seeing usually: it is through art that the separateness of slowness and speed is the means of seeing them entirely together. A pencil rolling on the table, looked at, makes for slowness and speed. But it is when we think of the pencil as matter, the static pencil, as a separate thing, and think of the rolling as a separate thing—even as we see pencil and pencil rolling as one thing—it is then aesthetics is taking place. And when we think of the force making the pencil roll as separate from that tendency to hold it back—and feel these forces as separate even as, obviously, they are one—it is then, also, aesthetics happens. A moving object is an orchestration of forces, shapes, planes, colors—and all of these show slowness and speed at once, in some manner or other.

     The intensity of a color is as speed to its muting; an angle is as speed to the slowness of curve; hardness is as speed to the slowness of softness; horizontality is as slowness to the speed of verticality. Is-and-Does is the world, and Is is Slowness and Does is Speed.

     These two, slowness and speed, as I said, are everywhere. They are in all the sciences-in physics, chemistry, geology, astronomy, biology, and so on. Wherever thought is, they are.

     Looking from any window, we find slowness and speed waiting for us. Observing any landscape, there they are. If we look down at the floor, we may find shadow and hardness, horizontality and the vertical—and that is they.

For Instance, George Washington

eople are instances of slowness and speed. George Washington, besides being the first President of the United States, is a study in slowness and speed. It was he who waited out the British army; and it was he who crossed the Delaware and rapidly took Trenton and prisoners. Lincoln and Jefferson and Robert E. Lee manifest the possibilities of slowness and speed at once: life being slowness and speed, every life is.

     And there are geology and geography. They both go on through centuries and more—and they have things happening each moment. Reality is eternally and momentarily busy.

     Washington Irving wrote a large life of Washington—that renowned exemplar of slowness and speed I mentioned earlier—and Irving had occasion to describe the geographically visual as delay and acceleration. It is March in western Virginia, 1748:

Winter still lingered on the tops of the mountains, whence melting snows sent down torrents, which swelled the rivers and occasionally rendered them almost impassable. Spring, however, was softening the lower parts of the landscape and smiling in the valleys.1

     The Theory of Opposites, an aspect of Aesthetic Realism, is based on the idea that the opposites existing simultaneously in reality are seen freshly, deeply, richly by an individual when art occurs. But the opposites in reality and those in art are the same. For example, there is a constant sameness and difference between Mass and Velocity in the world of physics—and this equivalence and otherness of weight and force, mass and velocity, is like what happens in art.

The Kinship

herefore, it is well to show the kinship of undisturbed reality to the processes of art. Sometimes the way reality happens or takes form is unusually like artistic work. Repose and energy meet in a work of art—as do slowness and speed—and Helen Gardner in her Art through the Ages describes the Euphrates and Tigris as flowing "artistically" near ancient Babylon. The Euphrates and Tigris form the same valley—work for the same geological or geographical objective—but their "techniques" are other.

Of the two rivers that form this valley, the western, the Euphrates, is quiet and majestic, with few tributaries, and is almost unnavigable because of the cataracts in the north and the sandbars in the south. The eastern river, the Tigris, rising in the mountains to the north and east, and augmented by large tributaries, is more rapid, and forms the highway of commerce for the valley.2

     Is the relation of the Euphrates and Tigris as to repose and energy, slowness and speed, wholly different from the relation of repose and energy in the work of Delacroix? Of Delacroix's Entrance of the Crusaders into Constantinople, this is said:

A strong movement sweeping inward from the foreground and repeated again and again defines a space in which the figures are organized by light and dark, warm and cool spots of color. [P. 660]

     This description of a painting sounds a little like a description of forces and quietude in physics. Anyway, I think one can see the appurtenances of slowness and speed—which in the unconscious, or aesthetically experienced, are the same as slowness-and-speed itself-in Helen Gardner's description and evaluation.

In All the Arts

lowness and speed—like all the mighty reality-opposites—are in all the arts. We could hardly have music without hearing slowness and speed at once. And any poet worth much must know how to use slowness and speed at once: there are so many ways of doing this. Tennyson as poet is worth much, so he often gets massiveness, ominousness, thickness of mood in a stanza that outwardly is speedy, clear, busy. Such a stanza is this, from "The Lady of Shalott":

She left the web, she left the loom,
She made three paces thro' the room,
She saw the water-lily bloom,
She saw the helmet and the plume,
She look'd down to Camelot.
Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack'd from side to side;
"The curse is come upon me!" cried
The Lady of Shalott.

     Delightfully, beautifully, sharply, lingeringly, slowness and speed are in play here. Every syllable serves the cause; every pause; every motion; every arrangement. One is disposed to be a trifle maudlin on how good a job of visual, audile narrative gathering is done in this stanza; and aesthetically valiant in the matter are slowness and speed, serving the same possibility.

     Prose has many instances of slowness and speed meeting in powerful aesthetic amiability. There is a passage from Bossuet's "Funeral Oration of Chancellor Michel Le Tellier" (1686) which describes the rich suddenly rising from their graves and finding out what has been happening in the years. Time is sudden and long in the passage; there are complacency and fear; there are stillness and wrath—all exemplifying the comprehensiveness of slowness and speed. Bossuet in the century of Louis XIV wrote a prose severe in its ecclesiasticism—harsh in its judgment of humans—nevertheless delightfully abrupt, sudden, gay in terror. Indeed, such is the musically panting quality of the prose that often it can, I think, be put into free verse lines with propriety:

                   From Bossuet, 1627-1704

Sleep your sleep, rich of the earth, and remain
In your dust.
Ah, if in some generations
(What am I saying?)
Even in some years after your death,
You would come back—
Men forgotten—
Into the midst of the world,
You would hasten to go back
Into your tombs.
This, that you might not see
Your name dulled,
Your memory put aside,
And how you thought things would be,
Shown to be wrong—
In your friends,
In your dependents,
And, what is more, in your heirs, in your children.
Is this the fruit of the work
For which you wasted yourself under the sun,
Accumulating for yourself
A treasure of hate,
Of everlasting wrath,
Through the just judgment of God?3

     I hope that in this literal, verse translation from Bossuet, the meditativeness and startlingness of the "Eagle of Meaux" as representing French prose can be found.

     (The free verse line is as deep, as mighty, as subtle a study as any aesthetic thing whatsoever, in the junction of speed and slowness, the abrupt and meditative, the thrust and the enveloping, musical fierceness and musical quiescence.)

Charles Lamb Looks at Titian

editativeness and speed were found by Charles Lamb in the Bacchus and Ariadne of Titian. Lamb sees them there as a careful observer of the early 19th century. Since then, slowness and speed have been found in this work of Titian by more "professional" or "technical" art critics—say, Thomas Munro. Lamb writes:

But from the depths of the imaginative spirit Titian has recalled past time, and laid it contributory with the present to one simultaneous effect. With the desert all ringing with the mad cymbals of his followers, made lucid with the presence and new offers of a god,—as if unconscious of Bacchus, or but idly casting her eyes as upon some unconcerning pageant—her soul undistracted from Theseus—Ariadne is still pacing the solitary shore, in as much heart-silence, and in almost the same local solitude, with which she awoke at day-break to catch the forlorn last glances of the sail that bore away the Athenian.4

     Bacchus is fast, and Ariadne is slow. They are in, on, within, from, the same Venetian canvas. Everywhere else in art, too, are Bacchus and Ariadne.    

1 Washington Irving, The Life of Washington, vol. 1, chap. 4.
2 Helen Gardner, Art through the Ages (NY: Harcourt Brace, 1936), p. 72.
3 Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, Oraisons Funèbres (Paris: Hachette, 1926), p. 465. [Translation by Eli Siegel]
4The Last Essays of Elia, The Works in Prose and Verse of Charles and Mary Lamb (Oxford University Press, 1908), I , 754.
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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Photographic Education: the Aesthetic Realism Viewpoint
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John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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