The Beautiful Understanding of Bitterness
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 3 of the culturally important and enormously kind lecture Some Women Looked At, which Eli Siegel gave in 1952. Using literary and historical texts, he presents various ways women have been seen. And we learn about men's confusion about women and the confusion within women themselves.
Aesthetic Realism explains that the questions, the turmoil, the hopes of a person are aesthetic matters, as described in this principle: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves” Most often, men have been inexact with the opposites in thinking about women—haven’t made opposites one. For instance, a man can go from seeing a woman—the same woman—as the loveliest, most angelic person in the world, to seeing her as an impossible person who thwarts him and wants to run his life.
Meanwhile, a man feels, painfully, that his own forcefulness and gentleness don’t go together. A woman feels hers don’t. And she doesn't understand these opposites in a man she knows. She doesn't see that, without being clear about it, he hopes desperately to make them one somehow: to feel he can be strong and kind at once. And she doesn’t see that she has the same unclear but unremitting hope.
Why Were They Bitter?
In the section of the lecture published here, Mr. Siegel quotes descriptions of some awful ways English towns and municipalities once dealt with “scolds” and “shrews”—that is, overtly angry women. So often, from as early as Medea and before, women have been bitter and angry. The important question, Mr. Siegel says, is Why?
And here it moves me very much to quote from an Aesthetic Realism lesson in which Mr. Siegel spoke to a very bitter woman: my grandmother, Ruth Smith. I was then three years old, and it was the one time Mr. Siegel spoke with her. But looking now, decades later, at my mother’s notes of that lesson, I see in them the comprehension that millions of women over the centuries have hoped for.
My grandmother had been married to a man, Hyman, chosen for her by her parents. She had traveled across an ocean to live with him on a farm in Connecticut, where they raised five children amid much work and little money. She hated him; she saw him as selfish and brutal, and divorced him when her youngest child, my mother, was ten. At the time of the lesson, Ruth was living with my parents and me. Though she would read a newspaper in Yiddish ( the Forward ), she was not interested in speaking to people or going anywhere. Her English was minimal, and she didn’t want to learn more. I remember her sitting at the window hour after hour, talking to herself.
The First Question
The first question of Mr. Siegel to Ruth Smith in mymother’s notes is: “Do you believe in life?” The notes include few of my grandmother's answers (some of them we can surmise), but later in the lesson they present her using a phrase she often used with bitter dismissiveness: “I’m lived-out,” she said. Mr. Siegel explained: “When you say you are ‘lived-out’ you’re saying that the world you’re living in is no good for you. You want to make everything like nothing. You have been disappointed in life, but you shouldn’t make everything like nothing.”
I'm quoting from this lesson because I think that what is in it explains also the ladies Mr. Siegel speaks about in the present section of Some Women Looked At. There he says, “Why would a woman...[go] around the streets cursing?...If you're unhappy you either come out with it or you go in with it, and neither way is too good.” The ladies who were called shrews and scolds had been terrifically displeased with how they were seen by men, and “came out with” their unhappiness in a way that could terrorize the town. My grandmother largely “went in with it”—wanted to make a world within herself and “make everything like nothing”—though she could occasionally come out with it hurtfully too, through sarcastic, mean remarks.
The Cause of the Unhappiness
Aesthetic Realism shows that the cause of all the unhappiness between men and women, women and the world, also men and the world, is contempt. Mr. Siegel identified contempt as humanity’s “greatest danger”: it is “a false importance or glory from the lessening of things not oneself.” It was men’s contempt that, century after century, had men see woman as less than themselves; as not possessing a mind as good as a man’s; as existing to be a man's servant, decoration, chattel.
Women, of course, had a right to be angry at that. But it’s very hard to be angry accurately, and besides, women too want to have contempt. So there was a tremendous tendency in women to do what Mr. Siegel described: use their displeasure to be contemptuous of everything, disgusted with everything. And the disgust could be both deeply inward and propulsively outward.
“The World Is Not Hyman”
I quote now, from my mother’s notes, more of what Mr. Siegel said in the middle of the 20th century to a woman born in the 19th.
He told my grandmother: “Because one man didn't understand you, you shouldn’t take that out on everybody. The world is not Hyman. When you were born, you were born into everything....If there is a good thing in the world and we don’t see it as good, we're unfair to it. We owe it to that thing to appreciate it. If there is a bad thing, if we want to understand it we can be proud.”
During the lesson, my grandmother apparently used a gesture I saw her use often, and Mr. Siegel explained: “When you wave your hands like that you're pushing everything away.” He said about her lack of interest in so much: “Do you want to learn things? You’re so disappointed. If you felt the world was good to you, you wouldn’t want to stop learning.”
He asked, “What do you like most in the world?” She must have answered, “The family,” because he said then, “Do you know any good people outside of the family? Do you believe there is somebody in Philadelphia who, if you met him, could do you some good?...You feel that if Hyman was so mean to you, you have a right not to care for anybody. I don’t want you to take out on everybody your disappointment with Hyman.”
How Alive We Are
Aesthetic Realism explains that the deepest desire of every person is honestly to like the world, and our like of ourselves and how fully alive we are depend on how much we are trying to see meaning in the world. This desire to see meaning is what Eli Siegel was encouraging in Ruth Smith—fighting for in her—half a century ago.
He asked, “What do you like best in the paper?” It seems that she answered, “I don’t remember things,” because Mr. Siegel asked her next, “Do you remember anything? Is forgetting about everything good for you? Here’s a green book, and I’m going to wave it five times. You’ll remember that, and you should remember everything that way. You want to forget. People want to be just themselves and they want to put aside everything; this being so, they feel if they remember things it will interfere....The Yiddish language came from a lot of people. Something that wasn’t made by your family is used by you. Don’t you believe you should remember that other people have to do with you?”
Mr. Siegel said, “Something in you wants to be unhappy because this is your way of getting revenge on a world that disappointed you.” And he told Ruth Smith it was necessary that she think of one new thing she liked each day and talk to someone about it—“a new kind of tree, a book. If you can do this you won’t feel ‘lived-out.’ Before you go to bed each night, tell your daughter something that you enjoyed. You need to be interested in something new each day if you want to be interested in life.”
He explained: “If you try to find out what life is really about and not take out your disappointment on people, then you will appreciate green grass. I want you to begin life and not think that it’s over.” And he said to her: “Every person should be like a flower—going toward the sun.”
A Woman, Seen
So I add my grandmother, Ruth Smith, to Some Women Looked At. She was looked at by Eli Siegel himself, and I think his sentences about her, some of which I’ve quoted here, are not only true, and great in their comprehension of humanity, but beautiful. That is why they are alive after all these years, and for the years and people to come.