This article is based on a paper presented
in a public seminar at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation
in New York City, February 10, 2000
|The Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel is tremendously kind in distinguishing
clearly between two very different kinds of triumph people have in love
one which is false and makes us weaker and ashamed; the other, a true
and lasting triumph, arising from the desire to like the world itself.
Growing up in Ohio, I had a feeling of respectful wonder as my 4th grade class studied the brightest star in the constellation Orion, with the amazing name Betelgeuse, so many, inconceivable light years away. But I also wanted the feeling I got at home: that I was stellar, just because I was me a Huntting, of superior New England stock, as we saw it. Without knowing it, I increasingly went after this spurious triumph of feeling I was better than others. As a result, at 13, despite praise from parents and teachers, when I began to think my best friend was more beautiful and smarter than I, I wrote to her that I was a failure something I felt quite keenly. Years later in an Aesthetic Realism class, Eli Siegel kindly asked me a question that made the cause clear to me: "Have you wanted to be superior to every woman you met?" Yes, I had. That basis for "self-esteem" was fake, and I couldn't fool myself. I punished myself with a feeling of inferiority, and was ill-at-ease with anyone outside my family and close friends.
I. The Mistake about Love
"To see another person," Mr. Siegel writes in Self and World, "as having meaning, having beauty, and having power because one can use that person as an argument in behalf of one's self-love that is really to despise a person; to hate him; to de-individualize him" (p. 182). This is what I did, with Tom and later with other men, and it made for hell: for anger, jealousy, disappointment, shame.
When I came to New York after college, I met a man who was studying to be an architect, and with his help opened a small antique store. But I had a stuck, heavy feeling as I sat in that store, and didn't want to move. I despised my indolence, yet didn't see there was an intense ambition I did have: that this enterprising young man should make me feel terrifically important and take care of me. "Were you in a relation with him of empress and lackey?" Mr. Siegel later asked. Yes! But then I only knew I felt weak and ashamed. I would have gone after this hurtful triumph again and again if I hadn't met Aesthetic Realism, and learned what love really is.
II. Eli Siegel Asks about Purpose
I saw that the victory I felt when a man showed he needed me seemed to put the whole demanding world in its place. But, I was learning, the demands I had tried to get away from were coming from me, and I should be proud of them. "Which would you rather do," Mr. Siegel asked, "scorn, or find more meaning in things?" I love him for this question, crucial to my whole life, and for enabling me to find so much more meaning in things my parents, other women, and men; meaning in the world, past and present. I, once so self-centered and cold, am so grateful it matters to me now that justice come to others! Through studying Aesthetic Realism, which I am proud to be now in magnificent classes taught by Class Chairman Ellen Reiss, I have been freed to like things and people and to want to know a man which is the real triumph in love!
III. Will It Be Intrigue, or "Plaindealing"?
I feel this is true Aphra Behn had an impelling desire to be honest. It arose from an interest in the world that had scope and particularity. For instance, I was amazed to learn that she used sign language in her plays. And in 1688 she published a revolutionary, courageous work titled Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave, about which Mr. Siegel said, it was "the first novel which tried to deal with the African as a human being, and sometimes [she] is said to have written the first anti-slavery novel."
In her comedies, Aphra Behn could put together intrigue and "plaindealing" in a way both deep and delightful, that made for art. Her characters often mingle the noble and conniving, innocence and mischief. For instance, her most popular comedy, The Rover of 1677, satirizes the coyness, silliness, and insincerity of both sexes in love. Set in Naples in Carnival time, two sisters, Hellena and Florinda, are talking:
Hellena. ...Tell me, too, who 'tis you sigh for?
Florinda. When you are a Lover, I'll think you fit for a Secret of that nature.
Hellena. 'Tis true, I was never a Lover yet but I begin to have a shreud Guess, what 'tis to be so, and fancy it very pretty to sigh, and sing, and blush and wish, and dream and wish, and long and wish to see the Man; and when I do, look pale and tremble; just as you did when my Brother brought home the fine English Colonel to see you what do you call him? Don Belvile.
Florinda. Fie, Hellena.
Hellena. That blush betrays you-...
A little later Hellena has this thoughtful, rather honest observation: "I love Mischief strangely, as most of our Sex do, who are come to love nothing else"
"It is a beautiful fact," Ellen Reiss writes in TRO 1318:
Yet she could dislike herself very much, and not know why, and fool herself about why. "She had suffering from men," Mr. Siegel pointed out, and we can see she had a fight between whether to understand a man or conquer him, which made for self-loathing. The title role of The Rover is supposed to be patterned on a man she cared for, a lawyer, John Hoyle. I think Aphra Behn wanted to understand him in writing it, and the pain they gave each other. In the play when the cavalier Willmore, the Rover, finally decides to leave off seducing women to marry Hellena, it is because she is a straightforward critic of him, and he says to her: "Thou hast one virtue I adore good nature. I hate a coy demure mistress."
Good nature, akin to good will in the way she writes of it, is clearly a quality Aphra Behn wanted to have with men and with John Hoyle. She didn't have an easy time. In this letter to a man she calls Lycidas, likely Hoyle, she's intensely critical of his desire to remain cool while wanting her to show warmth, and we feel she yearns to respect him:
IV. Our Inward Criterion: The Oneness of Opposites
Oroonoko, grandson of an African chief and educated by a European tutor, is captured and taken in a slave ship to the colony of Surinam, on the northern coast of South America. The colonists see his "greatness of courage and mind" she writes, and give him the name Caesar. His face is "of perfect ebony, or polished jet. His eyes ... very piercing"; he has "no one grace wanting that bears the standard of true beauty." On the ship, Oroonoko would have starved himself to death, rather than submit to slavery, and others follow him in this so the captain, in fear for his cargo, convinces Oroonoko he will be freed. In the colony he is again assured freedom but is told he must wait till the Lord-Governor comes from England. Oronooko marries and his wife is going to have a child; they fear the child is wanted for a slave too, so he goes to rouse the other slaves Aphra Behn writes that he speaks to them:
V. The Purpose that Will Have Men and Women Proud
Janet Peale, a young woman with striking blue eyes and strawberry blond hair, told her Aesthetic Realism consultants there were two things she didn't like in herself her desire to mock people, and how she was with men. She felt that what she humorously referred to as "The Peale Plan, Maxim #1: 'Flattery will get you everywhere" with a man, had hurt her.
We asked, "Do you want to be proud of the way you're for people and against them?" "Oh, yes," she said. "So do you want to have your critical mind working with a good purpose as you're in a close relation with a man?" "Yes, I do. I feel I almost get panicky when I see a handsome man," she said.
"Women have felt clever keeping men guessing," we pointed out. "Can your mind work clearly as to a man, or do you think that's boring? Why do you think you get fragmented as you think about a man?"
JP: I don't know.
Consultants: Are you hoping to have contempt or respect? Contempt is what the pain in love comes from.
"I'm not sure," Miss Peale said.
Consultants: Have men felt you were strategic? Do you want to make a big man fall?
JP: That's true. I did that very much with my father. I hated the way he was so sure of himself and logical, and I would consciously think of things to do to get him angry.
In an important assignment she did, "Five things about what it would mean to use a man to like the world," Miss Peale wrote about a man she was coming to know in a way that is both assertively proud and yielding at once. For example:
JP: I think I am, but I don't really understand why.
Consultants: Do you think your first thought about a man is "Does he find me attractive?"
JP: Yes, definitely!
Consultants: Do you think there's another value you want to go after that you don't honor enough?
JP: I think there is, yes.
Consultants: If you could see how much you want to have good will for a man, and use him to know and like the world, you would feel like an integrated person. You would like yourself.
I'm proud to end my paper with what Miss Peale wrote in a letter some months later, which stands for what women everywhere can feel through studying Aesthetic Realism:
For more about Eli Siegel and Aesthetic Realism click here