Aesthetic Realism explains our subject tonight, “True Pride & How We Can Have It,” definitively and in a way that is immediately useful to people. I learned we’ll be proud if we’re going after what Eli Siegel has described as man’s deepest purpose, to like the world honestly. In his book, Self and World, Mr. Siegel writes: “Pride is the desire to please oneself through the seeing and including of reality.”
Yet we are all in a fight between pleasing ourselves this way and through contempt, the “disposition in every person to think he will be for himself by making less of the outside world.” Contempt can make for something that’s mistaken for pride, and which we see a lot of on the news these days—bluster and cockiness. But it always makes a person deeply ashamed.
Before studying Aesthetic Realism, I felt more unsure of myself with every year. I went from feeling I had the right, cool approach, that I was smart and nobody was going to fool me, to feeling so unsure that often it was painful to be in a conversation, and I was worried that I was starting to stutter. Through the beautiful, logical criticism I heard of my desire to have contempt for the world and people, Aesthetic Realism has enabled me to be a truly proud man.
I’m going to speak about my own life and about a person who wanted very much to feel honestly proud of himself—the man often billed as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer,” Al Jolson. As he sang and danced, Jolson had tremendous, unbounded energy, he gave his all—and his all was great. In 1916, the critic for the Morning Telegraph wrote:
In Boston the audience yelled. In fact, I have never heard such cheering and such genuine enthusiasm…in all my experience as a theatregoer, which covers…more than twenty years. To be exact, Mr. Jolson stopped the show three times, and…the audience simply wouldn’t allow the performance to proceed…Some of the people…stood up, cheered, applauded, and threw hats in the air…
I love to hear Al Jolson sing. Jolson can make you want to dance and he can make you cry. And I believe he was proudest in his life of his singing. In my opinion he was a true artist whose singing is an illustration of this mighty principle stated by Eli Siegel: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” Jolson’s voice is intense and grand, rough and gentle, deep and bright, forceful and tender.
Eli Siegel placed Al Jolson’s meaning when he said in a lecture:
The important thing about Al Jolson was that he wanted to tear up the stage, and he pranced around as if he were saying to people, ‘Look, people, you haven’t been able to let yourselves go at home, and you’ve all behaved much too restrictedly, and you’ve been seeing No Trespassing signs and Don’t Walk On The Grass signs all over the place; for a while I’ll give you a feeling of what it is to see no No Trespassing signs.’
That’s what you hear in this recording of one of Jolson’s biggest hits—“Toot, Toot, Tootsie.”
Yet in his life, Al Jolson didn’t have the same purpose as when he sang, and he suffered very much. He was a fiercely competitive, lonely man who was tormented about love. Through Aesthetic Realism’s great, particular comprehension of him, Al Jolson’s life—his art and his pain—can be useful to all of us today in seeing how we can have true pride.
Pride Is a Oneness of Ourselves and the World
I learned the biggest thing we’re after is to be in a just relation with the whole world, to feel the world adds to us. I felt this when I was ten and saw the movie “The Miracle Worker.” I was so moved by Helen Keller’s life that afterwards, though I hardly ever read, I got three books about her from the library and read them one after the other. The life of this woman who had such courage and humanity affected me very much, and I was proud of this.
I was also proud of being able to sing and dance. At the Temple Israel talent show in Miami I sang “My Favorite Things” with Robin Fell and felt so happy. I didn’t know it, but I was desperate, as everyone is, to feel I joined with the world in a deep, exciting way; and when I sang and danced I felt this most. I loved being in school choruses and musical programs, studying notes, harmony, learning the choreography, trying to get the tenor part right, doing a waltz and feeling my partner and I moved well together.
But growing up, I had another completely different notion of pride—feeling superior. I thought the Coopermans were better than everyone in Miami Shores—we had the nicest house, the nicest car. I didn’t use my parents to see what reality was, to try and know, for instance, other families on the block. I used our good fortune for an ugly, puffed-up importance—to be a cool snob. I had no idea there was a direct line between this and why I often felt separate, lonely and agitated.
Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Ellen Reiss asked me if there was a calculation in me as to how much feeling I wanted to have and to show. There definitely was—I calculated what I would get if I showed a lot of feeling, and adopted a manner which I felt would get me ahead—cool and laid back. I’m grateful this was described and I began to be a better critic of where I went for a fake importance, a false pride that made me deeply ashamed. Through my study of Aesthetic Realism, I have increasingly what we’re talking about tonight—true pride.
Al Jolson’s life began so differently from mine, but like every boy he had two purposes with the world. He was born Asa Yoelson in May 1886, in a log cabin with a floor of hard-packed earth in a small village in Lithuania. He was the fifth and youngest child of Naomi and Rabbi Moshe Reuben Yoelson, an Orthodox rabbi and cantor who originally wanted to sing in grand opera. He felt early that the world was a place in which he had to struggle. His father was very strict and his family was poor. I think the young boy came to feel he would have to fight to take care of himself. His older brother, Harry Jolson, tells in his book Mistah Jolson how young Asa would battle with other boys “like a small tiger.”
When he was eight, his family came to America to find a better life, settling in Washington, D.C. Young Asa was fearful of this strange new country, but soon he discovered something that gave him new hope and made him feel the world was friendly and exciting—American vaudeville, which was booming. Secretly, he went to the theater as often as he could.
Singing was taken seriously in the Jolson household. Mr. Yoelson, Sr. trained Al and Harry rigorously to sing with full, open tones the songs of the Jewish services. Now in America, unbeknown to their father, the two boys began to sing popular songs on street corners for money, and at the age of eleven Al Jolson tried to run away from home to break into show business, something he did often over the next years, living on little food or money and without a bed to sleep in. By the time he was fourteen he got offers in vaudeville.
Mr. Siegel once asked a singer in an Aesthetic Realism lesson: “Do you think all singing, in a way, is a glorification of the world?” That is a purpose that will always make one proud, and it’s what you feel when Jolson sings. It’s in his tone—the intensity, the joy, the warmth of it.
To Have Real Pride You Need Its Opposite
Aesthetic Realism shows that art and the artist’s state of mind have what we want for our lives, a oneness of opposites. And opposites central in everyone’s life are pride and humility. In Eli Siegel’s great essay “Art as, Yes, Humility” is the understanding Al Jolson was yearning for. It begins:
Humility is the willingness to see things other than oneself as having meaning for oneself. This humility makes for pride….The artist is more humble than is customary, because, as artist, he wants…to see more and more….In artistic seeing, humility and submission are pride and grandeur… The relaxation of the ego is its might.
This is tremendous. Mr. Siegel is showing that real pride begins with its opposite, humility. I always thought humility was unappealing, something people occasionally faked but didn’t really feel or want. I never knew it was central in why I liked singing and dancing so much, that I liked the submission of taking orders—which step to do and when, what pitch to sing in what tempo.
Then Mr. Siegel describes the opposition in all of us and the very fight of Al Jolson’s life:
It is more difficult to learn authentic humility than it is to learn Sanskrit or acrobatics…The self gets in the way…and artists have had to learn how to stop the tendency of the narrow, limited, fearful, monarchic self…The artist, like everyone, has had to struggle…
Al Jolson did struggle terrifically with pride and humility, arrogance and depression. In Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life, biographer Herbert Goldman says he was “alternately boastful and self-deprecating,” he would swagger and then be fearful.
Jolson became a great success, star of shows at the Winter Garden Theater in New York and of the landmark first talking film “The Jazz Singer” of 1927, in which he said his famous line that sounds so proud—“You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” But on opening nights he was terrified he would lose his voice. He stood in the wings “trembling and sweating,” and on the night he was to open the new Broadway theater named for him he “practically begged his brother Harry not to let the stagehands raise the curtain.” But Jolson went on that night and was great, and the audience made him take 37 curtain calls.
In the Aesthetic Realism lesson I quoted earlier, the person told Mr. Siegel about a fear of suddenly not being able to sing. What Eli Siegel said Al Jolson would have been so grateful to hear. “When you sing,” he asked, “you’re false to something in yourself? You can’t sing well while you want to curse the world, or insult it.” Jolson did curse and insult the world. Herbert Goldman says he “frequently disparaged others in the entertainment field” and that Jolson’s fierce competitive-ness made him “one of the most disliked men in the theatrical profession.” It is said he kept the faucets in his dressing room running to drown out the sound of applause for other acts.
Yet when Jolson sang he was mighty. Describing him in The Jazz Singer, Mr. Siegel said, “God was shown to come from Jolson’s heart.”
And when he went down on one knee, looking yearningly upward—that has something beautifully high and low, humble and proud. Jolson had, magnificently, the “submission” Mr. Siegel speaks of in “Art as, Yes, Humility”; he yielded to a song utterly. His singing is a resounding criticism of that calculation Ms. Reiss spoke to me about. Jolson’s singing says No!—you’ll take care of yourself, be proud, if you let the world get in you and do things to you, 100 percent!
In “California Here I Come” from the first note Jolson is impelled. A man says he needs something, California and a “sun-kissed miss,” to be more himself. And the way he says it is so proud, it practically struts. Yet there is humility in Jolson’s performance, too. For example, his timing is impeccable—listen to the way he comes in so precisely on “Birdies sing and everything.” He yields to the beat, lets it tell him what to do.
In the reprise at the end, Jolson really lets go, with a spontaneous “Yeah” and “Ah-h-h”—it’s fervent and melting at once. You feel something utterly assertive and also reverent. And in the very last line he both commands aggressively and implores when he improvises “Come on, come on—open up, open up, open up that Golden Gate, California Here I Come.”
How Can a Man Be Proud in Love?
Aesthetic Realism really teaches men the answer to that question, it is teaching me. Writes Mr. Siegel in Self and World: “The purpose of love is to feel closely one with things as a whole.”
Like every man, Al Jolson needed to know this. He was tormented about love and was married four times. There are accounts of Jolson being tyrannical and then penitent.
For instance, there was what happened with his third wife, the dancer Ruby Keeler. When they met Jolson was 42, she was 19, and he was swept by her liveliness and sweetness. After their honeymoon Jolson was in California and Ruby Keeler was opening in her first Ziegfeld show, Whoopee, in Pittsburgh. She was excited, but Jolson began to say he didn’t feel well, and ultimately demanded that she walk out after a performance and take the train west to be with him. Ruby Keeler did this, but felt very bad.
Al Jolson wasn’t interested in whether Ruby Keeler was proud of herself. In fact, he undermined her, managed her ruthlessly. This contempt made for rage and shame in both of them. Once, in a frenzy, Jolson, who was Jewish, went to a church and prayed that things would be alright. He “lit every candle he could find…and…stuffed bill after bill into the money slot.”
After twelve years of marriage, Ruby divorced him. Jolson, who had always presented a confident, upbeat image in public, seemed dazed when reporters approached him. “I don’t know what I can say,” he told them:
What it’s all about, I couldn’t tell you…To me she’s still the most wonderful girl in the world…you’ve seen men go to jail, haven’t you? And they rant and rave and curse. But once they’re in the prison cell…they have to quiet down and take it, don’t they?
Al Jolson died in 1950 at the age of 64. He could have known about Aesthetic Realism and been spared so much pain.
Studying his life makes me very grateful for what I’ve learned, and very much from Chairman of Education Ellen Reiss, about what will make for real pride in a man about love, and what interferes. In a class, I spoke about a song I was working on for a performance and having trouble with, “Annie Laurie.” In it a man expresses large feeling for a woman. Ms. Reiss asked:
ER: Is there anything in you against it?
BC: I think so, but I don’t know it well enough.
ER: What would be against it?
BC: Not wanting really to be affected by something not me?
ER: How important is that? Do you think everyone is in a fight between great emotion and little emotion?
Then I spoke about the woman I had been seeing, and Ms. Reiss asked about something crucial that can work in a man:
ER: How much do you want Meryl Nietsch to mean to you?
BC: She does mean a great deal to me and I want her to mean more.
ER: But do you think if you had a tremendous emotion that you would be foolish?
And Ms. Reiss explained something very important:
ER: There is that in you that feels, “I’m not going to be taken in by anything.” And you shouldn’t be. …In Annie Laurie there is that beautiful soaring and careful feeling. A certain sweep is at one with “I’m careful, I’m thoughtful.” You don’t want to say “It’s because I’m so careful that I’m swept.”
And she said:
ER: A person is being born right now. Would it be good for that person to have great feeling or little feeling?
The answer is great feeling! What I’ve learned about love made it possible for me to fall in love and marry—my wife and friend, Meryl Nietsch-Cooperman. She means more to me with every year of our being married. I count on her perceptions about the world and me to be more myself, and I want to do the same for her.
A “Songster of the Universe”
I think the way Al Jolson sings “April Showers” is wonderful. This song is an instance of a person hoping to like the world even when it’s difficult: “Though April Showers may come your way/They bring the flowers that bloom in May.” And this recording has what I found in many attempts to describe the quintessential Al Jolson quality—one critic put it this way, and as you’ll see the opposites are central: “His voice with a tear and a smile wins.”
In The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known #42 Eli Siegel writes: “When Bing Crosby said melodiously, or Al Jolson did…’it is raining violets’…these songsters of the universe were getting the world into their notes and praising it.” That is the purpose for which we can be endlessly, confidently proud, and Aesthetic Realism can teach every person to have it.