Before I studied Aesthetic Realism, a sentence I heard often was: "You're
so self-centered; you don't care about anybody besides yourself." I hated
hearing that; I protested and tried to squirm out of it; but I knew it
was true—I did not have enough feeling for people, and I was ashamed
What changed my life—and made me feel for the first time I could really
become a kind person—was learning from Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism
that my deepest desire is to like the world. I learned this great fact:
only by caring for things and people as much as honestly possible, can
a man like himself.
I) The Ego Hates the Idea of Caring for Things
With beautiful compassion and forthright honesty, Eli Siegel explained
in his 1950 lecture, Aesthetic Realism and People:
is something in us that says if we respect something or like something,
we have taken away from ourselves. There is that in us which wants to like
nothing but ourselves, and any time we consent to like something else we
think we are giving up some of the love pie, the approval pie.
Aesthetic Realism explains, is contempt. And, I learned, every person is
in a daily battle between two desires: to have contempt; and to like the
world, to care honestly for things.
At Oberlin Conservatory, where I was a student of music,
for Beethoven, Wagner, Stravinsky—and I was proud I had strong feelings
that the brutal war against the people of Vietnam had to end. Yet the contemptuous
way of mind Mr. Siegel so kindly and incisively described, I also had.
I was fiercely competitive. At any gathering, I wanted desperately to be
seen as the smartest person there. In a Freshman philosophy course, I arrogantly
wrote a paper ripping into Aristotle's supposed bad logic. I now see I
hated the respect my professor—and all of history—had for this great
man. Hating respect, I made myself both ridiculous and stupid.
The desire to be the center of attention, to like—as Mr. Siegel said—"nothing
but" myself, also made me terribly cold. When a friend told me his troubles,
I moved on to mine—which I just assumed were "deeper" and more
important to talk about. It was no accident that by November of my Freshman
year my roommates had moved out, and I was alone in a dorm room designed
"Have you seen your individuality as coming from where you are like other
people, or different?"—my Aesthetic Realism consultants asked when, thank
God, three years later, I began to hear the questions I needed to change
my uncaring way of mind.
"Different," I said.
They asked, "Do you often feel lonely?"
"Yes. I dread it."
"But do you think you also might cherish it?" I had never thought of that!
Earlier my consultants had asked many questions about how I saw the world
growing up—questions about my friends, teachers, and my family. "We have
to see where your loneliness begins," they continued. "For example, if
you saw where you and your mother are the same and different, would
you come out more of an individual or less?"
I'd say less. I would really feel like a satellite.
That means you're seeing yourself either as too much the same and not enough
different—or too different and not enough the same. If you wanted to respect
your mother you would want there to be an accurate relation between
But I don't want accuracy—I just want distance.
And what do you want as a musician? You have to ask: what do you deeply
want in life? Not to care about accuracy is contempt. It is completely
against art. In art there is a tremendous drive for accuracy; and that
drive is the same as good will.
The Greatest Evidence Is in Art
My consultants were teaching me what Aesthetic Realism shows: that caring
for the world—having good will for it—is caring for oneself. "Good
will," Eli Siegel defined as "the desire to have something else stronger
and more beautiful, for this desire makes oneself stronger and more beautiful."
Every instance of art is based on that. An artist is important when he
uses himself to have the meaning of other things shine!
Take, for example, the art of the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould as
he performs the "Fugue in C# major" from book I of Bach's Well-Tempered
Clavier. To play a fugue well—to have several melodies heard clearly
at once, joined to each other and yet soaring freely in space with unimpeded
individuality—that is a high point of musical art! It is technically
called counterpoint. And Gould was celebrated for the way he played counterpoint:
there was clarity and joyous energy in his rhythm; firmness and tenderness
in his touch. Listen:
[Opening 35 seconds of Fugue in C# from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Bk. I]
There is an ethical message in this music, I believe, very much related
to what my consultants were teaching me: that the existence of people different
from us, is something we need to love and welcome to be fully alive! What
Gould does with Bach's contrapuntal melodies, we have to do with
our lives—be accurate about sameness and difference. And this is
in keeping with the great principle of Aesthetic Realism, stated by Eli
beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is
what we are going after in ourselves.
I speak tonight about aspects of the life and work of Glenn Gould, who
is very much remembered for having brought a new joy to the playing of
Bach. In l955, at age 23, he took the musical world by storm with an amazing
debut recording of the Goldberg Variations—a masterpiece of Bach
that had been unjustly neglected. Here is "Variation #20" and Gould's phenomenal,
dazzling ability to put together the utmost precision with the utmost abandon:
Variation #20: (45 seconds)]
Hearing this, music-lovers around the world were aware of a blazing new
talent. His concerts—in Berlin, Leningrad, Jerusalem, and New York—were
filled to capacity. At the same time, the struggle in Glenn Gould, as in
men everywhere, about the question—"How much should a man care for besides
himself?"—was intense. At the keyboard, he could produce beautiful counterpoint—and
feel himself, and have other people feel: "Yes! Different melodies help
each other; even as they question each other, they bring out each other's
strength!" But Gould had a terribly hard time feeling this emotion in his
own life. At age 32, complaining of the "sadistic blood lust" of audiences,
he retired from the concert stage. "As I grow older I find more and more
I can do without [people]," he explained in an interview. "Isolation is
the indispensable component of human happiness."
Care for the World Versus Care for Oneself
Glenn Gould grew up in Toronto. His father, Herbert Gould, was a professional
furrier who loved to sing and play the violin. His mother, Flora Gould,
was a choir director at several of Toronto's largest churches, and a sought-after
teacher of piano. From a very early age, Glenn Gould showed remarkable
musical talent. And this, it seems, confirmed in Flora Gould a hope she
had confided to a cousin years before her marriage—that her first child
would be a son, and become a musical genius.
Flora, herself, had been frustrated by her marriage. When interviewed by
biographer Peter Ostwald, Herbert Gould explained that the reason his wife
had not pursued the operatic career she so seriously had prepared for,
came along at the wrong time...You see, in those days it would be unheard
of for a married woman to pursue a career. Once you were married, why,
you settled down to domesticity, and raised your children.
Very early Glenn Gould was encouraged by his parents to feel he was something
special—a cut above other people. He was set free from household chores.
He was warned to avoid large groups of people because of the danger of
"germs." And, at first, he was educated at home—to spare him the stress
of having to be with other, more unruly children.
He knew his parents saw him as a superior child, and he liked it. Geoffrey
Payzant, in his book Glenn Gould: Music and Mind, quotes him as
telling an interviewer in his native Toronto:
found going to school a most unhappy experience and got along miserably
with...all of my fellow students.
Though my life is very different from that of Glenn Gould, I remember vividly
how pleased I was when my mother, Dorothy Green, explained—through my
tears—why other children didn't want to play with me in elementary school.
The reason, she said, was that they were jealous of how good and smart
I was—and I had to be big about it, and not cry; but instead, feel pity
In his great 1964 lecture, The American Family Versus American Art,
Eli Siegel explains:
have a tendency already to be prejudiced in favor of ourselves...Ego-disproportion
is a horrible thing. It makes the world less interesting...But this ego-disproportion
is fostered in the family.
I am ashamed to say, though I had dim, inward misgivings, I found my mother's
explanation of why I had trouble with other children exhilarating. I ate
up the flattery, and wanted more. And I see now I used it to be even more
"prejudiced in favor of" myself, a prejudice which hurt my ability to care
for the world.
The unjust victories of childhood, I learned, have to be seen and revoked
by a man or he will spend his life a stranger to his true self.
And he will be cold, because once a man thinks he should be the
focus of other people's adoring attention, he will never be able to care
truly for anyone else.
In a greatly kind class in l977, at a time when I was very pained about
love—because I had been unfair to a woman but didn't want to be honest
about it—Mr. Siegel spoke to me, asking: "Do you think your parents made
you into a potentate, and potentates never regret?" "I think so,"
I answered. And Mr. Siegel continued, with such compassion:
one understands fully what it means to have feeling. Every person has felt
they were too God-damned cold, with hearts too much like stone or cold
spaghetti. You don't have to feel picked out. But as a person is afraid
of being cold, he is also afraid of being warmer, because God knows what
it will lead to.
How Much Feeling; or, the Debate in Men About Warmth and Coldness
Glenn Gould's life was dramatic in its relation of warmth and coldness.
He could give himself deeply to things; be affected tremendously. Critics
often wrote of the ecstasy on his face as he played music. And his memory
was astonishing: once he had learned a piece—even something as long as
a Wagnerian opera—it was with him, cherished for life, in all its rich
and precise detail.
And his care for the world took other forms. He loved animals. He spoke
out repeatedly about the danger to art and society of competition—calling
it "the root of all evil." And so importantly, he wanted people to remember
gratefully the heroism of the Soviet army during World War Two, and so
began work composing a cantata honoring their victory at Stalingrad, the
battle which turned the tide of the war and saved the world from Hitler.
And he wrote many essays on music, some with charming humor—including
a valuable satire of psychoanalysis: an imaginary review, by a Dr. S.F.
Lemming, of a performance of Beethoven's Fifth.
Yet, surprisingly, when you think of the energy of the man, and the joy
which so often pervades his music, Glenn Gould had no close friends. His
relations with women were secretive and short-lived. He preferred to be
alone. In fact, he created a radio documentary, entitled The Idea of
North, for the express purpose of glorifying the cold, isolated Canadian
And there was something "arctic" in him. Some of his recordings—especially
of Mozart—have an unlikable hard sound. In his biography, Ostwald tells
of how Glenn Gould would suddenly drop people who were getting close to
him. And despite his great knowledge and talent, Gould refused to teach,
explaining in an interview:
afraid of teaching. I find it extremely stimulating when I'm in the mood
to sit down and talk with people and analyze music, but I'm subject to
periods of non-communication, so it would be very draining to have to do
it at prerequisite hours. Also, I need spinal resilence when I'm confronted
with opinions not my own.
I know from my own life, a person can draw an unconscious line he doesn't
want crossed—a feeling: "the world will have this much of me; no more!"
"Any time the ego cares for something," Eli Siegel explained in a 1969
lesson, "it has in reserve: I know I'll dismiss it. It happens when
we care for something, we think we have a right to punish that thing."
When someone present at the lesson asked why we feel we have that right,
Mr. Siegel explained: "Because that person took more from ourselves than
the ego wanted to give."
The debate about warmth and coldness took other forms in Gould as well.
He would often telephone people in the dead of the night to play them recordings,
and would not take no for an answer. He also had a constant fear of getting
sick. Even in hot weather he dressed as if it were the midst of winter.
One can ask whether this was, perhaps, a way he had come to of punishing
himself for being wrongly cold to the world.
In his distress, Gould took far more medication than was good for him—undermining
his health. And though doctors could find little wrong, he was convinced
he had serious problems with his shoulders and his hands, making live performance
A question Aesthetic Realism kindly asks—and I am grateful personally
to have heard it—is whether a man can prefer to see himself as "too sensitive"
to take part in this crass, harsh world? Can there even be a hope
to be ill, because then you have an "unarguable" reason to withdraw from
other people, concentrate on yourself, and be able to look down disdainfully
on all those boorish, healthy ones.
Punishing What We Love
In that great 1969 lesson Mr. Siegel explained further:
be wholly glad that something exists is not easy. There is distaste, toleration,
advocacy, enthusiasm, ecstasy and then the permanent vision. There are
various degrees of being for something. To be for something entirely is
the purpose of life!
Glenn Gould could be very enthusiastic. For example, in the midst of interviewing
Artur Rubinstein, the great Polish pianist, for Look magazine, Gould
says he has just heard Rubinstein's new recording of the F minor Piano
Quintet of Brahms—and adds:
drunk on it...It's the greatest chamber-music performance with piano that
I've heard in my life....It's the most spontaneous performance imaginable,
but at the same time it's so organized, so tight, so right.
He is excited by the opposites in Rubinstein's playing. And yet in the
very same interview Gould is ill-at-ease with Rubinstein, and has trouble
learning from him. Rubinstein is describing the puzzlement Gould's retirement
from the stage made for in people, and kindly—but definitely—questions
him about it:
you just abandoned the field...It was very strange, and I've thought a
lot about it, because it is a great loss....There was never a moment when
you felt that very special emanation from an audience?
To his credit, Gould included this exchange in the published interview.
I think he himself never knew clearly why he gave up the stage. He hated
many things about concert life—including the competitiveness of it and
the exhaustion of travel. But he also knew Rubinstein was right: he didn't
have the care for people he hoped for.
There really wasn't....
But you never felt you had the souls of those people?
I didn't really want their souls, you know....I certainly wasn't stimulated
by their presence as such.
There we are, absolute opposites, you know!
Later, however, he punished Rubinstein for questioning him. In an article
in Piano Quarterly, he spoofs his older—and I believe greater—colleague,
making hurtful fun of the very thing he loved in him: his ability to be
warmly spontaneous, and gorgeously exact at once; to put opposites together.
He makes Rubinstein say:
my readers will be the first to attest, I am the last fellow to belabor
the obvious supremacy of my own art, but I do insist that it is my unquenchable
love of life and of inaccuracy which has always set my Scarlatti
I believe, is revenge on a person for having—as Eli Siegel explained—affected
us more than our narrow self could stand.
The situation was different, but some years ago—early in my knowing of
the woman I now am so proud to love, Aesthetic Realism consultant Carrie
Wilson—I found myself irritated and uncomfortable. I loved being with
Carrie; our conversations—about music, about people, about history and
nature—made me very happy, had me see new meaning in the world around
me. I was becoming a warmer person. But foolishly and meanly I felt: it
wasn't enough. I was waiting for her to say words that would have me feel
what, years before, my mother had me feel—that I was more important than
I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, and with tremendous good
will, Ellen Reiss asked: "Do you think it is a crisis, "if you are affected
very much by another person? You would like to impinge your personality
on people, but they shouldn't have you?" "I think so," I answered, and
you think you are less able to hide than you once were?...Miss Wilson would
like to praise...but occasionally she has the "cruelty" to question some
I thank Ellen Reiss with all my heart for this honest, kind discussion.
It had me deeply reconsider things; and I changed! I saw that questioning
made me stronger. And what I so much hoped for came to be—a new feeling:
that I could really, lastingly care for another person. "Truly to care
for a person is the same as caring for existence," Mr. Siegel explained
in that great 1969 lesson I quoted earlier. "If you care for a person,
the whole world looks better."
In l981, just months before his sudden death, at age 50, from a stroke,
Glenn Gould decided to make a new recording of the Goldberg Variations.
It is a tremendously moving thing; it has, I feel, the conflict of Glenn
Gould's life in it, made into art: the fight between the self separate,
and the self joined to, and caring for, the world.
Listen to how beautifully he plays the aria which begins Bach's great composition.
The tempo is astonishingly slow. Each note of the melody stands sharply
by itself, insisting on its individuality—almost on the edge of immobility.
And yet Gould uses that very slowness, that courageous lingering, to have
us feel powerfully each note is calling out to the next, yearning for it,
almost crying—"I am not myself without you!"
"The resolution of conflict in self," Eli Siegel greatly stated, "is like
the making one of opposites in art." What Glenn Gould accomplishes here—the
feeling, "my individuality goes along with, in fact depends on, caring
for others"—is what every man is hoping for, and what, heart-breakingly,
he found so hard to sustain in his life. This is the beginning of that
[Listen to "Aria" from the Goldberg Variations: (40 seconds)]
I love Aesthetic Realism for showing—with thrilling, urgent logic—that
there is only one true answer to the question of our seminar, and art embodies
it: a man should hope to care for the world itself; and he should use every
person he knows, every thing he meets, for that beautiful, life-giving,