Pleasure & Respecting Oneself
An Aesthetic Realism Lesson
Conducted by Eli Siegel
Note. In this discussion, Mr. Siegel speaks with two couples: Lynn Conway and Brian Danzig; Hanna Reiter and Philip Woodward. Other students were also present.
Eli Siegel. In your note to me about this lesson, Mr. Danzig, you write of yourself and Ms. Conway, “We feel a disjuncture of respect and pleasure.” People do make that separation, and we can say plainly that it’s not good, can’t we? In any couple there can be what is called a “clear and present danger”—to use Supreme Court language. So, Ms. Conway, what is the great danger between you and Mr. Danzig?
Lynn Conway. I think it’s that we'll use the other person to have revenge on a world we see as not kind to us.
ES. I think that’s a very fine answer. What do you think of it, Mr. Danzig?
BD. It is a good answer.
ES. How will it work? Will you seize upon something in Ms. Conway to complain about? What is most available?
BD. One thing I do use is the fact that we’re not close physically—that lately, there hasn’t been sex.
ES. Do you think that something preceded this not being close?
BD. Yes, I do.
ES. Ms. Conway, what were you afraid of?
LC. I was afraid that I wouldn’t respect myself more afterwards.
ES. That happens to be a tremendous part of feminine fate. Mr. Danzig, why do you think that is?
BD. I—I’m not really certain.
ES. In sex, do you have a certain kind of triumph that is not proportionate?
BD. Yes, I’ve had that.
ES. Is it possible Ms. Conway feels it, and doesn’t want to be used disproportionately?
ES. What do you want to do about that?
BD. I’d like to understand it.
ES. When two people have been close and then cannot be, there are causes. These causes, more abstract things, take a seemingly clear physical form, mostly through abstinence. It’s a little like chemistry and physics: ethical energy, abstract energy, will change into physical energy or the absence of it, just as electrical power changes into chemical power, physical power, horsepower. —Yes, Mr. Woodward?
Philip Woodward. I wanted to ask: when you said “not proportionate”—I’m not sure I understand what that means.
ES. This is what I mean. There’s a feeling sometimes that a man is using a woman for a meaning that is excessive. That is, a woman can feel that this man thinks he has conquered the world: he seems to say, “You gave your body to me and I’m supreme. I’m Alexander of Macedonia, Tamburlaine, and God knows what else.” She feels, “I’m just a girl from Scranton, Pennsylvania.” Pride and humility are awfully related in sex. If either is outraged, there can be difficulty.
But what happens is: if a woman finds she doesn’t respect herself, she can put it another way: “I’m not interested in this. I don’t go for this.” It’s a difficult field to be honest about. Mr. Danzig, has Ms. Conway hurt you there?
BD. Yes. I feel she wants to make a blanket statement: that something is impossible.
ES. Do you think her criticism is better than concealed acceptance? The viewpoint of Aesthetic Realism is: anytime you give a person a good time without wanting the person to be a better person, you're false to that person. This is a way of putting the respect and pleasure problem.
BD. I don’t think I have pursued that.
ES. Is it necessary? Women are interested in two things, since we’re not Victorians: they want a good time as much as anybody, but they would also like to be better people. It’s strange; it’s idiosyncratic.
LC. That describes what I’ve felt! I was trying to think exactly how it was that I had seen Mr. Danzig when we did have sex. I felt afraid of the way he would want me to be pleased and yet not seem to want me to respect myself.
Is It Pretense?
ES. Mr. Danzig, do you feel that when you have sex with a lady, you come to her real character: “All your interest in thought is pretense. The only thing that you want is a man to lunge after you”?
BD. Yes, I have, most definitely.
ES. Is it true? Do you think a woman can be quivering and passionate and still be interested in French literature?
ES. Do you accept her that way?
ES. A woman, though she wants to have a good time, doesn’t want to be made less of as a person. So you believe that what women are after all the time is the sex triumph—and everything else is pretense?
BD. Yes, I have thought that.
ES. All right, what’s your evidence? Do you think Margaret Mead was using anthropology for that purpose, as Freud might say, with all her footnotes?
BD. No, I don’t.
ES. Would something in you like it that way?
ES. What should Ms. Conway think of that? Do you want to see her only as a primeval, tropical force? Men would like to feel that everything women have done in a cultural way is just pretense.
BD. Yes, I feel that way.
ES. Do you want to know what woman is?
BD. Yes, I do.
ES. Woman is a terrific mingling of opposites. She wants to be made love to, and at the same time, however, she wants to love the way her mind works. Do you think those two can be together?
BD. I’m not sure they can be.
ES. If a woman is writing a learned work or novel, do you believe her self is present in that novel or learned work?
BD. Yes. I see that.
ES. And at the same time, she may be interested in love? Can a woman be interested in corpuscles and footnotes?
ES. One of the values of reading George Sand, which some persons here have done recently, is the seeing quite clearly that George Sand wanted to write as good a book as she could and be esteemed for it, and that she also was interested in love. She was hurt and she also hurt. Should sex make for more of a comprehensive acceptance of a person or a narrowing of the person?
BD. It should make for more of a comprehensive acceptance.
ES. Does it do so with you?
BD. It hasn’t so far. No, it hasn’t.
ES. Well, that has caused trouble. I hope you can understand this with sincerity. Men and women both narrow each other. —Mr. Danzig, insisting on seeing Ms. Conway this way or not learning to see her otherwise, has given himself a lot of pain.
BD. I have. Mr. Siegel, I’m going to study this, with sincerity.
Knowing a Person
ES. We want to simplify life, and we like to simplify other people: we don’t want to see everything they are. Ms. Reiter, do you want to see everything that Mr. Woodward is?
Hanna Reiter. Yes, I do.
ES. Does Phil Woodward think you want to see him entirely?
HR. No, he doesn’t.
ES. Why? Is he just prejudiced? Is there anything to his opinion—you’re not narrow in any way?
HR. Well, yes, I am.
ES. You should study the history of the frontier. The Colonists got beyond the coastline; they were triumphant. They still had to get to the Alleghenies. They got to the Alleghenies and beyond that, and they still had to get to the Mississippi. Then they got to the plains. And, of course, California. But at any time, America was still waiting for them.
Is There Such a Thing as Integrity?
ES. When does a woman think a man is most unjust, Ms. Reiter? When do you think?
HR. In sex, because I’ve had the feeling Phil is thinking more about himself than about me.
ES. There are two aspects to power: one is the actual control; the other is , what do you think of yourself if you're able to exert power? There’s a story in which a man was very close to a woman, and afterwards flung her to the other side of the room: “I’m through. I’m going out to the club.” This is something one can see in American novels. Offhand, it does seem to be a bad use of power, doesn’t it?
HR. Yes, it does.
ES. Now, was the person wise as to himself ? —So Mr. Woodward, do you think sex and integrity go together? Integrity is an important value.
PW. I’m not sure if they go together. I do have a big question as to this.
ES. Is there such a thing as integrity on the subject? For example, let’s say a man of God, perhaps studying to be a minister, is with a woman. He feels that how he is with her doesn’t go along with other purposes he’s devoted his life to. Would you say that was not integration?
PW. No, it is not.
ES. It’s not the deepest form the question takes, but that is not integration. Do you think that desires can be integrated?
PW. No, I wouldn’t say so.
ES. There is pain about sex, and I’m trying to show that one deep cause is the acceptance of non-integration. If integration were impossible, then we wouldn’t feel so bad about not having it. For instance, is it possible to touch a woman and feel that doing so is in relation to understanding German poetry?
PW. I don’t think I would see the relation.
ES. Is it the same mind that touches as the mind that reads German poetry?
PW. It must be.
ES. So how do you know the two couldn’t be integrated? This is the problem: Is man a possibly unified being, or is he indefinitely divided between flesh and thought, ecstasy and cogitation, orgasm and intellectual procedure? What do you think? You can say that you aren’t so clear about it.
PW. I’m not. I’m not clear about this.
ES. The trouble isn’t the not being clear; it’s the not wanting to see that this is a subject for thought. If a person were having a good time with a woman yet felt he was using her to be unintegrated, would pain from being unintegrated come his way?
PW. Yes. And I have had it.
ES. What Ms. Conway was saying is this: the way Brian Danzig is with her gives her the feeling she’s not integrated. Women have the same problem as men here. The desire to be integrated can be seen as the greatest desire, because it means the person is one person. Do you feel, then, that this battle can be looked at?
PW. It can be looked at—it is being looked at.
ES. What Aesthetic Realism says is that every person wants to like the world as a means of being integrated. Once you’re interested in your mind, you’re interested in the integration of your mind.
BD. How would that integration come to be, Mr. Siegel?
ES. The integration is in having the same purpose: that is, that if you’re with a woman, your purpose is to like the world, as when you read French literature. That’s the first thing: similarity of purpose. Both women and men feel bad about sex because they feel that in having this particular expression they were unfair to something else in themselves. That’s the general statement, which I’m trying to make fairly immediate. As to all the details, that’s something else.
Sex and ethics have been together. If sex were such an absolute quality, it wouldn’t get mixed up with ethics whatsoever. Ethics is the study of how to be fair to yourself and all other things you have to do with or may know.
BD. Thank you for the clarity of that.
Sex & Justice
ES. It happens that a woman lets a man enter her body, yet she thinks he’s unjust. It’s not good. Anybody who enters a woman's body should be seen by her as just. That’s something I picked up from a lost part of the Kama Sutra.
Everyone has this unconscious idea: “Great is orgasm and nothing can be related to it.” That’s part of the unconscious equipment of man and woman.
LC. How did that come to be?
ES. There's a feeling that one is experiencing something ever so different from customary experience. In having it, you feel for a while that you’re equal to the problems of the world and that it’s the only time you're really successful.
Ms. Conway and Mr. Danzig are critical of each other, and they should be kind and honest about each other. If they're kind and honest, already there will be an accomplishment. Mr. Danzig, I hope that in knowing Ms. Conway you like yourself.
BD. Thank you, Mr. Siegel!