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  The Right of
Aesthetic Realism to Be Known
 NUMBER 263.— April 12, 1978
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941 
Arrived At

Dear Unknown Friends:

    In the history of Aesthetic Realism, some ideas are clearly predominant. Perhaps the largest idea is that the opposites are everywhere in the world and when they are seen truly, the beauty situation occurs. We cannot see slowness and speed at the same time, or delicacy and grace or strangeness and ordinariness or depth and surface, without our feeling it is beauty we are close to. The opposites, like matter and space and time and motion, are the constant presence of the world. There are some things that are never absent. Space, motion, time, change, volume are never absent. We are concerned now with what can be called the Never Absent. The Never Absent is the opposites.

1. Change and Sameness

We have none of us been in a world in which change and sameness were not fully present. Whether we are in a hospital or in a skating rink, in a library or in a submarine, in an observatory or in a billiard room, change and sameness arc present. The approach of motion to the meaning of stillness or of stillness to the meaning of motion is what is going on all the time. This very moment, a watch is running down, and shortly the owner of the watch will be a little discomfited by seeing he has to ask someone else for the time. In terms of the visible universe, change and sameness or motion and rest are our constant accompaniments.

2. Speed and Slowness

Change and sameness are present wherever aesthetics or beauty occurs. Representing aesthetics or beauty are these staples of perceptive life: speed and slowness. A person watching a gondola in the 14th century in Venice, with twilight present, felt the oneness of slowness and speed. The slowness of a saraband questions the speed of a jig, with the jig musically mocking the saraband.

Where any art has to do with time, slowness and speed are present. A critic, Mr. Effingham, might say of the third act of Mr. Jimson's play, Haunted by Night: "It was rather slow." The same critic could say that too many things occurred in the fourth act and that the author, Mr. Jimson, was in a hurry to conclude his play.

     So, in a drama as in dance or music or in a poem, we have slowness and speed. There can be no such thing as change taking place in an art without there being slowness and speed.

3. Static and Dynamic

That which differentiates the arts in the 1970s is that which differentiated the arts in the 470s B.C. Architecture of a massive kind represented slowness; and nymphs near a temple represented speed.

     The Bacchae of Euripides were, as living beings, speedy—as later persons were. The way the Bacchae could throw themselves around was a lesson in measured recklessness. As we talk of the Bacchae and the dance which had some flinging about in it, we are presenting the possibilities of speed. The Keystone Cops of about 1914 continued the linear revelry which at times the Bacchae manifested.

     The slowness that is with the Watchman in Aeschylus' Agamemnon is like the slowness of dancers in late evening. The slowness of water and dancer are akin. The slowness of a massive machine is like the slowness of Charlie Chaplin walking in the rain, to just where, he doesn't know.

4. Circles and Angles

The mind of man sees an angle as swifter than a circle. Certainly, a circle can be fast, but the sharpness of an angle makes for a more unquestionable speed. It is the point of a sword that helps along the speed of the sword. As we are in the world of lines and points and angles, we are likewise in the world of speed. As we look at a period in punctuation, we have a little dwelling all by itself. The roundness of a period interferes with its unmitigated speed.

     As I am describing what is present in the world of any time, the beginnings of things are charmingly and vastly present.

5. An Inference

What I have done so far is to say that one can justly infer the world is more beautiful, the deeper one goes into its nature or structure. There is no superficiality present in the world without some accompaniment of profundity. Existence as such is profound; and it can be said that the more profound existence is, the more surely it is beautiful.

     Perhaps in one of these essays, I shall deal closely with Plato, who felt that the First Forms were the beginning of the world and were in all beauty. The kind of beauty that Keats wrote of in his "Ode on a Grecian Urn" was the kind of beauty that Plato saw as often as any.

     In the famous Grecian urn of Keats, there is a simplicity of shape but also a "leaf-fringed legend." The leaf-fringed legend tells of the fact that complexity is part of beauty. And then that strange word "plinth," with its junction of column and oblong, is an example of simple beauty; defiantly uncongested.

     It has been noted often that John Keats, apothecary's apprentice in his teens, for some reason had a deep and accurate feeling for the beauty that the Greece of long ago perceived.  If we look closely at Keats's famous "Ode on a Grecian Urn," we shall see the opposites—the Aesthetic Realism opposites—in their full, quiet glory.

     The first thing that Keats notes in his ode is: quietness itself can be beautiful. The Grecian urn of Keats is like the jar of Wallace Stevens: any quiet thing hovers about the possibility of being heard, or of moving. There are various kinds of motion and rest in the first stanza of Keats's ode. The motion has in it stillness and abandon. In the first stanza, we have a touch of an amorous brawl:

What men or gods are these? what maidens loth?

     Perhaps the one frailty in the early lines of the ode is Keats's saying that the Grecian urn can tell a story more sweetly than his "rhyme." This matter can still be debated.

     And in some later lines of the ode, the two opposites so close to each other, of gods and men, are made one by Keats through the rather coy question: "What men or gods are these?" Immortality and mortality beckon to each other.

     And then we have the utter expressions: "What mad pursuit? ... What wild ecstasy?" As might have been said many years later, there was a wild time going on right where the urn was.

6. Excursion to Silence

Two opposites of the world are silence and the heard. Keats implies in his ode that silence is part of the audible world. Silence is various. The silence of a frozen brook is different from the silence of a sleeping bird. The silence of a mountain at night is different from the silence of a huge factory. And in Keats's ode, a likeness is made between never and always which is part of the unconscious of man.

     The third stanza of Keats's poem is one of the happiest in the English language. Keats states that something satisfying is immortal. In the same way as the depth of joy can be stated logically, the immortality of the likable can be stated logically, likewise.

7. Delicate Aesthetics

A poet like Keats presents us with the massiveness of beauty and also its delicacy. This is another way of saying that aesthetics is minute, while it has the massiveness of a medieval gate. The words in the first stanza, "A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme," present the idyllic possibility of poetry. We have sweetness, pleasantness; a comfortable yet honest world.

     When we come to the phrase "What leaf-fringed legend," we are in the world of the watering mouth. We cannot utter the words "leaf-fringed legend" without finding some sweet obstruction against our tongues. You'll find that if you try to say "leaf-fringed legend," you have to have a definite pause midway.

     Furthermore, after the pleasant obstruction of "leaf-fringed," you have the space and walk of the word "haunts." There are hardly two expressions more different than "leaf-fringed" and "haunts." In "leaf-fringed" and "haunts," we have the two possibilities of the world: the crowded and the unencumbered.

8. Comment

It is well at this point to be retrospective a bit. Whenever we are concerned with aesthetics, we are concerned with the true beginnings of the world. "Leaf-fringed," a phrase of Keats, brings to us a crowded city in India. The word "haunts" brings to our minds a lonely place, rather historic, in Wales. The universe is not absent in either instance.

     The meaning, then, of the phrase in our title, "Arrived At," is that through looking at aesthetics, we have arrived at the uninterrupted beginnings of the world. Whenever we are concerned with aesthetics, we have to emulate reality's profundity.

     If we take a phrase in the seventh line of Keats's ode, we are right in the midst of 18th-century social life and, for that matter, Victorian social life. The phrase I have in mind is "what maidens loth." To be loth is not to be wholly unwilling; but certainly, the affirmative is a little delayed. The yes and no that is in the phrase "what maidens loth" is a large matter in the untiring hesitation of Dostoevsky or the continuing dubiety of Kierkegaard. Doubting, as the Victorians knew it, was a fetching oneness of assertion and negation.

     The question arises whether doubt is a foundation thing of the world and is deeply a oneness of granting and denying.

     My purpose is to show that as thought is in motion, the beginnings of the world are in motion too.

     It is well, still using a poem of Keats, to say that the simultaneous beginnings of reality are talked of by Keats. These simultaneous beginnings can be called Sight and Sound. There is a change from the seen to the heard and back again.

     The phrase "foster-child of Silence and slow Time" is silence kicking aside the bedclothes. The second stanza accents sound, but sound as reality itself. There is a happy conclusion to a pursuit in the second stanza.

     Stanza three is perhaps the most eulogistic of happiness. We are told that the boughs in this stanza will never shed their leaves. Spring will never be bade adieu. The melodist will be unwearied and therefore will pipe songs forever new. Love will always be present and there will always be more. Love will be panting and forever young. And it will never cloy.

     When Keats says these things, he is implying that a hope in an early section of ours will be fulfilled. There will be no cloying, no burning forehead or parching tongue; but rather, there will be a great freshness and newness in the world. How this is to be, Keats does not tell us. The problem he puts before us is how to have the security of the continuing and the known, with the surprise of the unexpected and the novel. The only way to avoid the dissatisfaction of the cloying and the fearsomeness of the unknown, is to have the opposites of strangeness and security made one.

     As I write about these things, we should see once more that we are dealing with how the world manifests itself. The Keats poem is about the close relation of what has occurred, what is occurring, and what will occur. Without the joyous meaning of time, we could not have the legendarily pleasant news that Keats provides.

     In the fourth stanza of the poem, we have a picture of death as religion, with life present too. The heifer in the fourth stanza is charming in its silkenness, and dire in its possibility. As I see it, these lines of Keats are an attempt to make death conspicuous and living; to have death exultant and somber. Keats in his life had seen a good deal of the permeatingly depressing. He was surrounded by tuberculosis early. A purpose in the ode is to find something always present and standing for what man can love.

     In the last or fifth stanza, mournfulness and joy meet each other in the battle of possibility. Eternity and the shape of the Grecian urn both make a one out of the sadness of thought and the victory of thought. Keats uses the phrase "Cold Pastoral" in the last stanza for the same reason that sculpture for a while seems more immortal than other art. Keats is saying that all beauty and all life has some coldness in it. It means much that it is a "Cold Pastoral" which teases us "out of thought / As doth eternity."

     And at this point in our essay, we come to the relation of coldness and life. Relevant here is why an icicle glitters. We cannot help feeling the coldness of ice or an icicle has in it something more living than the grayness of a tin sheet.

     As I close this essay on the opposites, I have to state that the way life is present in the visual possibilities of the world, has hardly been studied. I think that visual life in the inanimate is a new study for man. Why do we think that a bright yellow or some lines of crimson are more alive than a brown oblong with space in it, or a dull elongated pink? The study of the inanimate will make the opposites more liked by man. It is good that we are nearer to this study.

With love,    
Eli Siegel     

© Copyright 1976 by Aesthetic Realism Foundation  •  A not-for-profit educational foundation

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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John Singer Sargent's Madame X, an Aesthetic Realism Discussion

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