The Drama in Self
By Eli Siegel
The Riesman essay I’m reading from, “The Ethics of We Happy Few, by Helen Howe,” appeared first in the University Observer, volume 1, 1947. —We come to this statement:
I trust no one will misunderstand me as saying that anti-fascist or pro-democratic activity is worthless or immoral. My point is that many people engage in such activity without ever deciding whether it has real meaning for them.
Today there is a consciousness that if left people get together, or emancipated people, they do in time get to be like stockholders at a meeting, or directors at a meeting. They have the same attitudes.
There is a section in this essay called “The Ethical Elite.” Riesman doubts the intellectual who wants to take part in causes. A good deal has been written by now of the state of mind of people who joined causes in the 1930s, but there is still something to see. He says:
The intellectual who professes to engage in the activities of ordinary folk only partially wants to lose his individuality in the collective whole.
That is the sentence that makes what Riesman is saying ever so much like what is said about Stella Winn and her husband in Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics. It may even be possible that Riesman knows that. I can’t say for sure.
Your Own Will
In the essay we’re looking at there’s another novel considered: Antonia White’s Frost in May, about a girl of 13 in a religious school:
When thirteen-year-old Nanda begins to write an adolescent novel, she is brutally expelled, and the head nun explains: “God asks very hard things from us,...the sacrifice of our own wills....I have seen you growing up, intelligent, warmhearted....But I have watched something else growing in you too—a hard little core of self-will and self-love.”
In an intense religious milieu, if you have anything left of your own will, you haven’t yet achieved your goal: the purpose of Christ is to take all of your will away. And if you keep secretly a little of the will, on which you nibble, Christ doesn’t like it. And there are lots of nibblers. It would be pointed out: “Brother, I noticed that there’s a little hard core of secular self-love and a mundane will in you. So let your prayers be more fervent.”
This essay should be read, and the reason is that it describes the drama in self: the self trying to be assertive and the self trying to be selfless. In a summary way, Riesman says:
It is very much harder to resist the diluted but pervasive Puritanism of sacrifice and subservience which takes modern and “progressive” forms.
I have had to talk about the difference between “sacrifice” and the true thing—the true doing of something that can be called sacred, the true giving of something to a force like God. Then, there is the false thing.
The Self: Point & Relation
There are other essays of Riesman, but as far as I can see, the most important is this one, reviewing the Helen Howe book.
And now—to the relation of that essay to what was published in the same year as the Helen Howe book: Stella Winn in Psychiatry, Economics, Aesthetics. This is what I wrote:
Sometimes there is an attempt to make the best of both worlds in a liberal or radical political fashion. By this I mean that persons will, quite often, take a political point of view which is collective, has otherness in it, seems sacrificial and altruistic, and yet have within them a preponderant belief in the self not as other, not as related, but as a point and as apart from reality as a whole.
In order to know yourself, you have to see completely how the self is a point and relation.
Since the self is basically after integration in duality and variation, a cleavage or lopsidedness of this kind is likewise harmful. In everyday terms it has resulted in persons being noble, self-denying publicly; nervous, narrow, nagging, reclusive, and unjust privately.
This is Stella Winn. But if you read the Riesman essay, you’ll see that Dorothea Natwick, as he describes her, is like Stella Winn, only Dorothea Natwick wants to give herself to good causes such as being a humble nurse.
Stella Winn is a member of a very active left group. In college she majored in sociology and German. She married, six months after graduation, a young man as intense as herself and likewise given to questioning society as it is.
Couples like these were in the ’30s and in the ’40s too—persons who had good causes and at the same time quarreled with each other:
When Stella married Edward Hale she felt she could find happiness in a profound domestic life. She had a child and gave that child all the emotional energy and care she could. Despite the presence of the child and the iconoclastic attitudes of both Stella and Edward, they disagreed between themselves.
It Is an Art
The care for something other than yourself and yourself is the greatest, most exacting art in the world, which uses all the arts to be what it hopes to be.
Stella decided to combat the narrow, self-regarding tendencies within her by giving herself to work for others—work...somewhat dangerous, work that was exacting and disciplined. She joined a left group looked on with disfavor, suspicion, and hate by many people; chiefly so by the class of people from which her father and mother came and most of her relatives. She was swept by a glow of self-effacement the first months..., and felt that her dissatisfaction with herself would be done away with.
This was felt by many people: you give yourself to a cause and at last you can bear yourself.
After a few months she persuaded Edward, who had been somewhat skeptical, likewise to join the organization....She was a social worker and he was on a newspaper and therefore they could not engage in the same activities, but often they met at the larger demonstrations against fascism or for the remedying of some injustice or in the celebration of some holiday.
We would have scenes like this: A woman would shout, “Free Tom Mooney!” and the husband would say, “I don’t like the way you say that.” One would shout, “Free the Scottsboro Boys!” And the other: “You could put more feeling into that.”
For a year or so Stella and Edward thought they were not the egoistic, irritable beings they had been too often.
This is being found, and it’s quite true: that the USSR has private quarrels on the public farm. This is a great discovery. But it still may be better that the farm be public.
But Stella, though she took on assignments, organized, acted as an inciter of many—and an efficient one—could still arise in the middle of the night with a strange, throbbing fear.
The lesson of social history is that you can discipline others with more certainty than you can discipline what you are.
They’re Not the Same
She could talk back to a policeman if need be, but this shapeless fear was still hers.
Another discovery many left people made was that being fresh was not the same as being courageous. Others have made it too. The concept of freshness is not yet the concept of courage. The concept of impudence is not yet the concept of bravery.
She could feel that things were black suddenly and that she was a wretched, undeserving being. There was sleeplessness and there was digestive trouble.
One evening, about eight, just before she went off to a meeting, Stella found herself bitterly quarreling with Edward; she slapped his face and then went off to her room, lay down on the bed sobbing. For some reason the meeting seemed unimportant and she did not go.
The purpose of a meeting should be for everyone to be fair to oneself and fair to the group. It is to make an aesthetic conjunction. Be fair to the other people under the same ceiling at the same time that you try to be fair to yourself.
Edward went out, came back, there was a reconcilement and things went on smoothly for a while. But another quarrel occurred; there was more dejection in Stella; she became acutely suspicious of Edward’s feelings for another woman....There is now an accepted semi-formality in their behavior. Stella has thought of leaving her husband and going off with a man in her group a year and a half younger than herself. At times she has become too irritated with her boy Tom, and has later been ashamed of her irritation. Her organizing work, however, her fulfilling of assignments, her holding of elective positions have gone on.
Completion or Atonement?
Now, what I’m saying is that the general purport of Riesman is to be found in this particular essay.
The profound trouble with Stella Winn is that she has become altruistic, collective, not as a completion of egoism or narrow individualism, but as a set-off to these, an atonement for these. Collectivism and altruism are not atonements for individuality, they are completions of it.
This matter of making atonement for individuality is the big thing—as women in 1902 would go slumming as an atonement for their hoity-toity individuality.
Stella joined a left group not so much—though she would deny this—because it was a beautiful thing to do in itself, but because there were worries she wanted to destroy. Without knowing it, likewise, she used the fulfillment of her collective assignments as the go-ahead signal for the luxuriating in of her concealed “point” self. She really did not see her political work as a continuation, extension, flowing from her self where it began.
If your altruism is as much a part of your self as your selfishness, that’s a very good beginning, also a good conclusion. If your nobility is at one with your secret inclinations, that’s a good start.
We often don’t go with our whole selves towards remedying the ugly economic conditions of the world; we don’t join a beautiful, just cause because we entirely, comprehensively, deeply see it as beautiful, but because we see it as making up for, atoning for, defects in ourselves. We are ready to suffer for our defects but we are not ready to give up those defects sharply, cleanly, wholly. We can’t really—unless we see much more than most people want to.
What people have found, and what has been found in social history, is that people would much rather suffer for what can be seen as deficiencies than give up the deficiencies and not suffer.
This is why persons advocating just, necessary political purposes can be narrow, smug, irritable. It is not the purpose they are working for, nor the group as such to which they belong which is at fault; it is the reason that persons like Stella Winn have come to advocate this purpose or to join this group. No matter how beautiful a thing is, if it is approached, welcomed, as an offset to something else, with that something else still yearned for unconsciously in opposition to the new thing—there will be mix-up, insincerity, narrowness. In the same way as a fine thing like poetry or painting can be misused, so can left politics be misused....
For Stella, despite all her external courageous activities, unconsciously had an internal life apart from the “masses,” apart from her organization, apart from Edward, and even apart from her boy. She would deny this hotly, but she really saw people not as completing herself, but as suspicious objects she could try to change.
What She Asked About
We have this description:
...Once Stella was rather drunk at a party of left persons—all active—in New York. There was gaiety there and there was sophisticated talk. The people drinking had been south and fought for the Negro, had taken part in union struggles; one or two had fought in Spain. Stella, about two a.m., found herself asking: “What are people? Am I people?” And John Studley said: “Stella, old dear, you certainly are. We’re the people, though at times they don’t know, the poor dears, that we are.” Stella, the next morning, remembered the phrase: “Am I people?” She didn’t know why she had asked it but she felt it was amusingly significant that she had.
Stella is tormented by the fact that despite her collectivism, there is a bridge between self and otherness she hasn’t yet crossed. The fact that she wants to cross it, that she has suffered in not being able to cross it, is all in her honor.
...She wants people to be free but she cannot see her husband, Edward, as loved and yet not herself. She cannot look upon her child, Tom, as dear to her and yet a being just as much not herself as the President of the United States. She still has the profound tendency to see her greatest triumph as consisting of her being able to dismiss the world when she chooses....She cannot definitely merge the pleasure in being different from everybody else with the sense of completion which occurs when she feels or can feel she is related to everyone and everything else....
So this should be thought of in relation to the Riesman essay.