Woman, Body & Mind
Dear Unknown Friends:
It is an honor to publish here one of the great essays of the English-speaking world. It is “The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl,” by Eli Siegel; and I surmise it was written in the late 1950s. While related to other notable essays—those, for instance, of Hazlitt and Lamb—in having prose that is powerful and graceful, charming and deep, “The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl” has done something different and more. Through it, women have felt, “This explains me! Someone understands what I feel. Something I couldn’t give words to but have been so distressed by, is described—and in a way that gives me hope!”
Without “giving away” what is in this work, I can say it is about the philosophic opposites of appearance and reality—as experienced by women every day. It is about the huge opposites of body and mind. And it is certainly a kind, rich illustration, in terms of a woman’s hopes, of this Aesthetic Realism principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”
There Is the Title
I think the essay’s title is beautiful. Now that recent “politically correct” notions about language are becoming less dogmatic and crude, we can appreciate again the fact that using the word girl can sometimes be ever so respectful and kind. It is certainly both here.
In the title, the phrase Everlasting Dilemma, as sound, has largeness yet also a bobbing bewilderment. The two polysyllabic words rhythmically go up and down, the way one’s uncertain pondering on a problem does. Girl, as sound, has tenderness, an enwrapping quality. But as the title concludes with weight and delicacy on that monosyllable—we hear too in Girl a spreading yet firm vastness. And, musically, the sounds of r and l run through the title, joining the words to each other: “The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl.”
I did not expect to comment on the title as poetry. However, there’s rightness in doing so, because the way Eli Siegel saw people, saw women, was poetic—with poetic meaning also terrifically down-to-earth and exact. That way of seeing was present always in how he spoke and how he wrote. I’ll mention, for instance, a particular passage in this essay: No person reading about Doris Holton’s feelings as she walks down the aisle of a train ever forgets the description.
The essay was written half a century ago. In these decades there have been big improvements as to how women have been encouraged to use our minds. Women today are certainly more able than once to be expressed in every field, from law to medicine to policing to government to space travel. Yet the dilemma Mr. Siegel writes of is with us still, as tormentingly as ever. A woman today may want to look as attractive as she can and also be as educated as she can—yet she does not see these two possibilities of herself as deeply coherent, of a piece, of the same unified self. She does not see them as having the same purpose.
Here I quote, with enormous gratitude, something Mr. Siegel said in an Aesthetic Realism lesson many years ago. It is about a matter connected with the “everlasting dilemma of a girl”: it is about the opposites of body and intellect. He was speaking to a man I had to do with then, who was confused by both me and himself, as I was. Mr. Siegel said:
In the field of corporeal expression or enjoyment, or sex, we hope to be proud and pleased at once. Ellen Reiss hopes to be proud about her manner of taking earth—in the same way as she would take the page of a book. The difference between the two things is felt by man and woman: I’m a different person making love from him or her who goes after knowledge. Do you think if Ms. Reiss could solve this problem of somatic expression and cerebral expression, you could? Do you think, then, that the fate of man depends on the fate of woman?
Aesthetic Realism makes possible, for both man and woman, what has eluded people for centuries. It makes possible at last the proud feeling that what we’re after as body and how we use our intellect go together, are an integrity.
Today in Aesthetic Realism consultations women are learning to make sense of the “everlasting dilemma,” which can be described this way: how can I use my appearance, and its possible large effect on a man, to be true to myself? In a consultation, among the questions a woman might be asked on the subject are these:
As a man is affected by your loveliness, is it only you whom he’s affected by? Is he affected by the world showing itself through you: is he affected by a certain relation of reality’s opposites, like curve and straight line, delicacy and strength, liveliness and calm, brightness and mystery?
If you wanted to look good, not to have a narrow victory—not to beat out other women or make a man silly—if you wanted to look good as a means of representing the world as takingly good, do you think you would respect yourself more? Would you be more able to respect a man for being affected by you? And would you see looking good as related to your desire to learn, and to be kind? You would see all these as means toward one purpose, your deepest purpose, a man’s deepest purpose: to be just to the world, to like the world itself.
In Three Poems
Accompanying the essay are three poems by Eli Siegel, related to it. They were written much earlier, around 1926 or ’7. I love these poems, and I’ll point swiftly to something in each. In the first, about a girl, Amoret, there is the line “The whole of Amoret”: that, the wholeness of a person, is what Eli Siegel was always interested in seeing; and what he was grandly fair to.
The second poem, “Doing Eye and Shoulder Things,” is about the large meaning, to be respected, in looks, in body—even as one is confused and troubled by these.
In the third poem, a woman, so particular, is walking. And she is quietly related to the world itself—the world in the form of moon, warehouses, the river Thames. In the music of the lines, one hears walking. In the music of all three poems there is that beautiful justice, firm and subtle, that Eli Siegel always gave.