Edward Green
Composer, Musicologist & Aesthetic realism Associate
     
Faculty:

Aesthetic Realism Foundation,

 
 

Manhattan School of Music

 
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Note: This paper was originally presented with recorded musical examples as part of a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation

How Much Should a Man Care for Besides Himself?
On Glenn Gould, Men and Myself
By Edward Green

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 of it.

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:

This, 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, I cared 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 for three.

"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?"

II) 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 Siegel:

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:

[Goldberg 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."

III) 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, was:

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:

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 for them.

In his great 1964 lecture, The American Family Versus American Art, Eli Siegel explains:

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:

IV) 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 Arctic.

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:

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 impossible.

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.

V) Punishing What We Love

In that great 1969 lesson Mr. Siegel explained further:

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:

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:

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.

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:

This, 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 other people.

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 she
continued:

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 great recording:

[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, goal!