Lynette Abel  / Aesthetic Realism & Life

"Presence and Absence: A Consideration
of the Arts and Sciences"
Report of an Aesthetic Realism class
by Lynette Abel

In an Aesthetic Realism class conducted by Class Chairman, Ellen Reiss, we heard a tape recording of a lecture titled "Presence and Absence: A Consideration of the Arts and Sciences," given by Eli Siegel February 21st, 1969.  This was a remarkable lecture, in which Mr. Siegel showed throughout, using surprising and diverse examples, how the opposites of presence and absence meet in both art and science. He began by saying: 

"[Absence and presence] are exceedingly important. They have to do with mathematics also with some of the greatest emotions— [as in] 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder' and 'Presence of Mind.' Absence and presence are very much and constantly in all the arts and sciences. Occasionally the two things meet—the scientific way and also the artistic way."
To illustrate, Mr. Siegel presented a person in history, he said he imagined very few people had ever heard of—Constantine Francois Comte de Volney, whose years are 1757 to 1820. "Volney has affected me for a long time," said Mr. Siegel. He was one of the earliest travelers to the East. He knew Arabic and wished to observe what the East was like. "Volney did it so well" Mr. Siegel noted, "Napoleon used his observations when he invaded Egypt. 

He read about contemplating the ruins of Palmyra from Volney's book The Ruins; or Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires and the Law of Nature, translated by Joel Barlow. "The idea of going back to the past is here" said Mr. Siegel,"associated with something scholarly. This passage has affected me for years; it is pretty exact but also one of the most emotionally fraught passages in French Prose. If given a certain structure it is poetic." Volney writes: 

"The sun had sunk below the horizon: a red border of light still marked his track behind the distant mountains of Syria; the full orbed moon was rising in the east, on a blue ground, over the plains of the Euphrates; the sky was clear, the air calm and serene; ...The aspect of a great city deserted, the memory of the times past compared with its present state, all elevated my mind to high contemplations. I sat on the shaft of a column, my elbow reposing on my knee, and head reclining on my hand, my eyes fixed, sometimes on the desert, sometimes on the ruins, and fell into a profound reverie."
And of the Reverie Volney writes: 
"And now behold what remains of this powerful city: a miserable skeleton! What of its vast domination: a doubtful and obscure remembrance! To the noisy concourse which thronged under these porticoes, succeeds the solitude of death. The silence of the grave is substituted for the busy hum of public places; the affluence of a commercial city is changed into wretched poverty; the palaces of Kings have become a den of wild beasts; flocks repose in the area of temples, and savage reptiles inhabit the sanctuary of the gods. Ah! how has so much glory been eclipsed? How have so many labors been annihilated? Do thus perish then the works of men — thus vanish empires and nations?"
"This has something which is tinglingly, poignantly, emotional as anything" commented Mr. Siegel "how it once was — how different from long ago. To say it is concerned with the procedure of science and mathematics can be illustrated quite indefinitely.” 

Mr. Siegel commented that Volney "is poetic here but his knowledge of poetry as such is lacking. There is one semi-colon after another, or comma. He doesn't see certain statements should be by themselves and have periods." And Mr. Siegel showed how the arts and sciences meet in a surprising way when he said: 

"Style is just as scientific as geometry. Geometry is always concerned with curves and angles, curves and straight lines and style is too. In style we have the angular and the cut short and then the gliding."
Then to show absence and presence differently, Mr. Siegel read Volney’s portrait of a camel, made famous by the 19th Century Critic, Sainte-Beuve. Noted Mr. Siegel, "The camel is here seen as the one animal which man could not live without in Arabia or Asia Minor." Translating from the French, Mr. Siegel read the following of Volney quoted from Causeries du lundi of Sainte-Beuve, February 14, 1853.  It reads in part: 
"...the desert would become uninhabitable and it would be necessary to leave it if nature had not attached to it an animal of a temperament so strong and also frugal with the ungrateful and sterile soil, if she had not placed here the camel. No animal presents an analogy so marked and so exclusive to its climate.... Wanting that the camel live in a land where it would find but a little nourishment, nature had economized the matter in all its construction. She did not give it the plenitude of forms neither of the cow, nor of the horse, nor of the elephant; but limiting itself to a small head without ears, on top of a long neck without flesh. She has taken off its legs and its thighs all useless muscle to the movement of them.... She fortified it with a strong jaw in order to chew the harshest foods but for fear that it would eat too much made its stomach small and obliged it to ruminate....The camel alone serves all the needs of his master. Its milk nourishes the Arab family in the diverse forms of curdled milk, of cheese, and butter. Often one eats its flesh. Shoes are made and saddles from his skin. Clothes and tents are made from his hide. Heavy burdens are transported by means of the camel...Such is the importance of the camel for the desert which if one leaves it out, one will subtract or take away all the population of which it is the unique pivot."

To Part 2 of "Presence and Absence: A Consideration of the Arts and Sciences"

  by Lynette Abel
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