The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education


Two Ways about Women

By Eli Siegel

While men have been chivalrous about women, the picture of the scold and the shrew has also always been around: the nagging, bitter woman, the woman whom men go to the beer hall or the tavern to get away from. She has been very much in literature. It has been felt that a person who was seen as a witch was only a woman who took her bitterness a little more seriously.

From Suffering Not Understood

There is a whole literature on how women have plagued themselves, and plagued their husbands and their children at times, because of some suffering that wasn’t understood. Perhaps the most awful thing about getting badly along in marriage comes from, of all places, a book on chronology called The Every Day Book of History and Chronology, by Joel Munsell (NY, 1858). It’s a book that tells what happened on various days. Just why Munsell got this occurrence in I don’t know, but he must have thought it was very memorable; it’s about the fiercest thing of its kind that I’ve seen. It happened on May 20. Munsell mentions other things that happened that day, including an earthquake at Antioch in 526.

May 20, 1736

The body of one Samuel Baldwin, of England, in compliance with his will, immersed in the sea at Lymington. His motive for this extraordinary mode of interment was to prevent his wife from dancing over his grave, which she had threatened to do in case she survived him.

That is in a learned work.

I hope to talk more at length about this aspect of women and also deal with the corresponding thing in men: the grouchiness, the silences. It should be understood and taken very seriously. Marriage has made many a tongue more bitter; also many a tongue less willing to act.

But to present this aspect of how women have been seen, I’ll read from an article on the ducking-stool and the brank.

They Would Curse

The ducking-stool was used in England (perhaps elsewhere) for women whose tongues just had to keep on “scolding” and cursing. These women were fastened in a chair and dipped in the water. The important thing is: why did they get so bitter that they'd go around cursing? That’s the large thing. Even now in some of the laws of America there is something about the “common scold”—there are still such laws, even today!

I’m reading this article from The Book of Days, edited by R. Chambers (Edinburgh, 1863). The writer quotes an antiquary, a friend of Horace Walpole:

Mr. Cole, the antiquary, writing about 1780, says: “In my time, when I was a boy,...I remember to have seen a woman ducked for scolding. The chair hung by a pulley fastened to a beam about the middle of the bridge; and the woman having been fastened in the chair, she was let under water three times successively, and then taken out....The ducking-stool was constantly hanging in its place, and on the back panel of it was an engraving representing devils laying hold of scolds....John Gay, in his Pastorals, [writes]:

I’ll speed me to the pond, where the high stool

On the long plank hangs o’er the muddy pool:

That stool, the dread of every scolding quean.

One of the interesting things about language is that the word quean, which is a word still in use for a hussy, a bold and unendurably audacious female, is just another form of the word queen. That has a lot of meaning.

Why Was She So Angry?

Another notation is about how the ducking seemed to be a whole town matter:

It is but natural to suppose that before any scold was dipped, the community must have suffered a good deal at her hands. When at length the hour of retribution arrived, we can imagine the people to have been in a state of no small excitement. Labour would be deserted. All the world would be out of doors. . . . Men would shout; women would look timidly from doors; dogs would yelp.

The important thing is why there should have been all that shrewishness: what went on then; why was there this fear; why would a woman perhaps even get out of bed and start going around the streets cursing? It’s a question that has to be answered, because if you’re unhappy you either come out with it or you go in with it, and neither way is too good.

Yet there is still talk of how there weren’t neuroses long ago, that they’re just part of our culture! People now, instead of “consorting with the devil,” hit the couch.

A Scream of Bitterness

Another thing told of by this writer is even a little more horrible than the ducking-stool: something called a brank. It’s a sort of harness that’s put on a person’s face, and there’s a way to keep down the tongue too. The writer quotes a book which is known by antiquaries, and which one sees quoted in many English histories: Dr. Plot’s History of Staffordshire.

The warm-hearted Doctor gives a representation of a pair of branks, as seen in various cities of Staffordshire about the year 1680. The instruments look formidable enough, consisting of hoops of metal passed round the neck and head, opening by means of hinges at the sides, and closed by a staple with a padlock at the back; a plate within the hoop projecting inwards pressed upon the tongue, and formed an effectual gag.

It seems that along with the branks and the ducking-stools there was also excommunication. Excommunication was a pretty big thing: it meant that no Christian could talk to you, that you couldn’t get the benefits of the church, and you were out of Christian society. Excommunication, apparently, didn't work entirely either.

Ducking-stools and branks, however, with all their terrors, seem to have been insufficient to frighten the shrews of former days out of their bad propensities. In addition to them the terrors of the Ecclesiastical Courts were held over their heads, as seen, among others, in the records of the diocese of London, which contain numerous entries of punishments awarded to scolds. The same in the provinces....The excommunication appears to have had little effect.

Well, that is about women too.

The point is that people have been frustrated in their good nature. Women have had a hard time, and occasionally they have felt that the lines of their lives were just put awry, and their husbands were simply taking them for granted, and everything that they hoped for wasn’t around. And there came sometimes a scream of bitterness, a sourness. Of course, the women are implicated too: they should have known better.

Woman as Dear

Now, another phase. We find that women have represented all in harmony and all in disharmony, the whole stretch from almost unbearable sweetness to unbearable bitterness.

 Robert Burns, who, in some of his less known poems, wrote about some of these bitter tongued females (he also has a few bittered tongued males), wrote poems about women that, though they seem old-fashioned, are very much alive. One of these poems is “Highland Mary.” There is such a jump from the feeling in “Highland Mary” to some of the other things that I have read. It is valuable to see reality at once in this most unbearable change.

Ye banks and braes and streams around

The castle o’ Montgomery!

Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,

Your waters never drumlie:

There simmer first unfauld her robes,

And there the langest tarry;

For there I took the last fareweel

O' my sweet Highland Mary.

How sweetly bloomed the gay green birk,

How rich the hawthorn’s blossom,

As underneath their fragrant shade

I clasped her to my bosom!

The golden hours on angel wings

Flew o’er me and my dearie;

For dear to me as light and life

Was my sweet Highland Mary....

Men have felt this way too. And it is very surprising to see that they could feel this way and then feel some of the things they have, and say some of the things they have said. It is part of that seemingly terrifically mysterious whirligig.