A Report by Miriam Mondlin of an Aesthetic Realism Class given by Eli Siegel
The lecture Eli Siegel gave July 22, 1970, was titled “The Rhythms: They Are There,” which had in it a new approach to the subject of rhythm.
Mr. Siegel explained he was going to be casual in his approach and present what rhythm is in as many ways as possible, using as his text a single issue of a 1920 journal, The Dial, a literary magazine concerned with the arts.
“The idea of rhythm,” he explained, “is in keeping with the Aesthetic Realism definition of aesthetics—the seeing of difference and sameness in an object. It comes from the Greek word, ritmos, meaning measured motion.” Mr. Siegel then defined rhythm as: “sameness in difference of sound; or of anything.”
“I will begin with a very simple notion of rhythm in lines I wrote for this occasion.” he continued, and he gave these surprising elemental lines of which he said “I can see this being played of an evening in an Osage Indian encampment with a drum:”
Ah ta-ta, ah ta-ta,
Ah ta-ta ah, Ah ha-ta,
Ah ha-ta, ah-ha
He then showed how, by giving these syllables different emphasis, we could hear different rhythms in them: “Ah ta-ta” he said, is an amphimacer, a poetic foot of three syllables—long, short, long—”Ah ta-ta.” Changing it to a dactyl, it is long, short, short-”Ah ta-ta,/ah ta-ta,/ah ta-ta,/ah.”
“The purpose this evening,” Mr. Siegel stated, “is to relate the rhythm that can be seen here to the rhythm that can be called cosmic, philosophic, scientific rhythm…Rhythm,” he said, “is always sameness and difference as the opposites are.”
I learned from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism how we are the same and different from everything else—a mother, a book, a tree, a glass of water, a person in history. This knowledge makes for the crucial difference between liking and not liking how our minds work. It is respect for the world and as this class showed, it makes for the greatest pleasure.
On page 1 of the August 1920 issue of The Dial, Mr. Siegel read an advertisement for a novel published by MacMillan, “The Stranger” by Arthur Bullard, and showed how the idea of sameness and difference—and therefore rhythm—is in what this novel is about, the sameness and difference of spirit and matter. Mr. Siegel read from the ad:
“The victory of the spirit over material things furnishes the theme of the new novel in which love, faith and artistry, transcend the barriers of alien creeds.”
“The first thing in rhythm,” Mr. Siegel explained, “is related to contrast” and he gave this humorous instance—”It’s like Mutt and Jeff …(high and low) [also] the rough and smooth are in a state of rhythm; church spire and cellar are in a state of rhythm: The opposites, seen dramatically, are always in a state of rhythm.” “The purpose of rhythm,” he said, “is through contrast to make reality clear.”‘ And he showed the large meaning this has when he said:
“The rhythms of the world taken all together are the world itself. They will occur. Some rhythms have never been evoked—some of them will be evoked tomorrow and people won’t even know they are doing it. The rhythms do want to get on the stage of the universe.”
Rhythm is being shown to have such wideness. Like most people, I saw rhythm as having to do with music, and certainly, the dance—but in this class Mr. Siegel was showing that rhythm has to do with everything you can think of, and even what you haven’t thought of!
The next advertisement in The Dial for a 1920 novel led to an exciting discussion of one of the great, puzzled-over passages of the New Testament. Mr. Siegel read from The Book of Revelation—about the Four Horsemen, who stand allegorically for war, famine, pestilence and death.
“The Book of Revelation is one of the most congested, divine works ever.” It’s difficult to make sense of. He spoke of Chapter 6 with the Four Horsemen, and said it is greater poetically than the chapters around it—5 and 7. And he noted, “I am seeing it from the point of view of… rhythm.”
Chapter 6 begins:
“And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, come and see.”
The fact that a quiet, gentle Lamb is opening a seal accompanied by a loud noise, Mr. Siegel said “can be called the thunder and mouse rhythm.” “This has wildness,” he explained, “It has contrast—a Lamb opening a seal [on the document] is already strange.”
The most famous lines from Revelation, he said, concern the opening of the 4th of the 7 Seals. “This,” he said, “has that interior rhythm called melody:”
“And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.”
On the opening of the Sixth Seal, there is a great earthquake:
“And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.”
Commented Mr. Siegel:
“Here we have a simile—it places sameness and difference in one situation. It is replete with rhythm. You have the stars of heaven mingling with figs falling from fig trees. It is like two frenzied dancers. They go so fast you don’t know which is which. This can be called The Flamenco of Divinity.”
I believe that If people saw the world as having wonderful, mysterious, unexpected, beautiful rhythms every moment, as Mr. Siegel was showing in this class, they would like it more, they would see more sense in it, and see the drama in themselves and other people.
As Mr. Siegel read from the August 1920 issue of The Dial, we heard many instances of how rhythm is in prose and even in painting.