Report of an Aesthetic Realism Class on idioms, taught by Ellen Reiss
In Aesthetic Realism, Eli Siegel explained the central purpose of every person’s life: to like the world on an aesthetic basis, as the oneness of opposites. This fact has in it the dignity of man, present in every activity of our lives, including the most ordinary.
This is what consultants and associates had the privilege to study through a talk given by Chair of Education Ellen Reiss in an Aesthetic Realism Class. “In thinking about how to study the Aesthetic Realism explanation of the self as the oneness of opposites, and the desire to like the world,” Ms. Reiss began, “I felt it would be valuable to look at an aspect of language, which comes from the self—the meaning of idioms. Every idiom was come to by people and says what the self is.”
I’ve cared very much for words and language, and through this class, which was so surprising and exciting, I had new respect for the depth and wonder of the human self which came to language, and for the way Eli Siegel, Aesthetic Realism and Ellen Reiss see it.
Ms. Reiss read this dictionary definition of “idiom”: “A conventional phrase or expression having a meaning different from the literal.” For example, she said, “To call someone a ‘heel’ is idiomatic.” She continued, “The difference between idioms and other phrases, is that the meaning of the words together is different from their meaning individually; they have a new meaning based on a previous meaning.” Using A Handbook of American Idioms, Ms. Reiss discussed five idioms, showing how these common expressions have mystery, and stand for man’s desire to like the world. “Every idiom is in some way about the ethics and aesthetics of the world,” she said, “and I think mostly, they’re quite musical. How they were come to and what they say about the self is very important.”
Pointing out that there is a difference between slang and idiom, Ms. Reiss explained: “An idiom has become a solid part of a language, and slang, if it’s been around for 75 years, may get to be an idiom.” Many idioms are metaphors, she said, and gave this example: “A heel is something that’s the back of your foot, [but] there was a first time someone was called a “heel.’ How did it happen?”
“Heel” is defined in the handbook as “a disloyal or traitorous fellow.” “What does this say about the relation of the ethical world and the physical world?,” Ms. Reiss asked one student. “That the self wants to make a relation between them,” he said. “Do you think,” she asked, “the human mind says there is a relation?” Pointing to the fact that the heel is low, she asked, “In any society, would a person ever see lowness as standing for great character of a very fine kind? It does seem that the world itself and how it’s made has a relation to ethics.”
She explained, “Someone felt—the word ‘rascal’ won’t do; ‘scoundrel’ won’t do—no, it’s ‘heel,’” which she said has a feeling of contempt and meanness in it. To show how, Ms. Reiss gave this example: “That heel—he made me think I meant something to him. He was just after those fancy dinners I bought him.”
Ms. Reiss spoke about the fact that idioms are deeply of the very essence of a language. She said, “[It is felt that] you’re at ease with a language if you’re able to use idioms gracefully.” While a person can be at ease with the idioms in his or her native language, those of another language can be puzzling, even though a person may otherwise be fluent in that language. With such respect for the depth of idioms in the mind of man, she asked several persons in the class who speak English fluently, though it is not their first language—whether they knew the meaning of the idioms. “The purpose of doing this,” she said, “[is so that] people who, in a way, know English very well can have a sense of mystery.”
I was thrilled by this. As I studied several languages, and have taught English to persons from many countries, I have had some of the sense of mystery about idioms Ms. Reiss described. I remember wondering, for instance, as I learned Spanish idioms in high school, “How did those words come to mean that?!” I love what Ellen Reiss explained in this great class—that, with all their mystery, idioms are a way man has come to of showing the aesthetics and ethics of the world through language.
We then looked at the idiom: “apple pie order,” which means: “in neat and perfect condition.” “There’s a rightness to it,” said Ms. Reiss, and she showed it is because of how it puts opposites together: “How are you going to express the feeling of neatness that is also full? You wouldn’t say a graph was in ‘apple pie order,’ because it doesn’t have that richness.” Then, she said, “[The phrase has you feel] there’s something within the neatness—the way the lushness of apple is nice and tidy under that crust. It’s a sign that the self wanted to be fair to the world in a way that is full and neat.”
Eli Siegel explained that the sign of sincerity in words—at their grandest, as in poetry, and at their most everyday—is in their music. I’m grateful to be able to see how this is true, not only in this class about idioms, but also in the course The Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry, taught by Ms. Reiss. “These terms last,” she said, “because the sound is fortunate. ‘Apple pie order’ is musical. ‘Blueberry pie order’ wouldn’t do.” I love how she showed that this idiom is a oneness of slowness and speed. “In ‘apple pie’,” she said, “the two ‘p’s are nice. They are speedy and bumpy, but also confined in a good way. ‘Order’…is a richer sound than ‘apple pie;’ [it] is slower but has a repeated sound, too. It is, in its way, mouthwatering.” The idiom “apple pie order,” Ms. Reiss said, “is a way of showing lushness can be strict and strictness can be lush.”
The next idiom was “barking up the wrong tree,” which means, “…on the wrong trail or track.” The phrase likely has to do with hunting, said Ms. Reiss, “showing that dogs can be confused. It’s charming, and also rather beautiful. The certainty and amissness of self are in it. It means you can put a lot of effort into something and be dead wrong.”
A large reason this idiom is beautiful, she explained, is its rhythm. The first part—“barking up the”—is made of two trochees, each having one accented syllable followed by an unaccented syllable; and the last part, “wrong tree” is a spondee, or two accented syllables. “[It has] insistence,” said Ms. Reiss. “It does have in its sound a resonance—an echoingness, and a firmness. It [shows] a person can be so sure and be so wrong.” And she continued, “Someone said it for the first time. Then someone [else] thought it was a good expression, and repeated it.”
“Then,” she said, “there’s a lovely expression: ‘Till the cows come home.’” She asked Lorenzo Morelli of Italy what he thought this idiom meant. Mr. Morelli thought about it and said it might mean: “When the cows come home, that will be the right time.” “No,” she said, “it’s just the opposite. It means ‘a long time, forever.’” The handbook gives this example: “You can wait till the cows come home before Jim will pay you the money he owes you.” Here, Ms. Reiss said, “there’s a desire to make something vague, definite.” She described the beauty of the sound of this phrase, with its two ‘m’s in “come home.” “It wouldn’t be so beautiful if it were ‘till the cows return,’ or ‘till the cows come back.’ It’s mysterious and fixed at once,” she continued. “We have the large sound of ‘cows’ and ‘home’—it’s vague, spacious, infinite—and then so tangible, with those cows.”
The last idiom Ellen Reiss discussed, which she said is “perhaps the most poetic of any I’ve read,” is “cry over spilt milk: to weep about something which is unalterable or irreparable.” It’s usually used in the negative—as in: “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.” “This has not been a successful idiom in terms of life,” she said, “because people have.” But she showed that it is beautiful in its sound. To illustrate, she put the same idea in other words: “There’s no use crying over Chablis that went down the drain.” What a different effect this has! “’Spilt milk,’” she explained, “has assonance”—with its to il sounds. In these two syllables—‘spilt milk’—she said, the ‘l’s are liquid, and the ‘i’s are very short. “There is longing and the finite,” she said, “and the word ‘crying’ can make for that.” Ms. Reiss noted that Mr. Siegel had said another idiom using this word—“for crying out loud”—was poetic. “‘Cry’—is so longing,” she said, “such a value term, and then ‘spilt milk’—is something that is definite, but flows.”
“What I’m trying to present,” she said, “are some notes on what the human self is through what selves have done with language.” The existence and lastingness of idioms, she showed so deeply, are evidence for the truth of this great principle of Aesthetic Realism, 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.” I hope that soon, every person in the world can learn this principle in his or her own language, and know the kind, beautiful way of seeing the self and the whole world that is the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel.