The Comprehension Men & Women Desire
Dear Unknown Friends:
We are in the midst of serializing the lecture Some Women Looked At, which Eli Siegel gave in 1952. With clarity, depth, often humor, always kindness and style, he comments on various descriptions, literary and historical, of women. The basis is 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.” We see opposites in women—in the same woman: such opposites as sweetness and fierceness, yielding and assertion, humility and pride. And we see both men’s and women’s confusion about the opposites.
In this issue there appears only a brief section of Some Women Looked At, because I want to join with that 1952 talk another instance—20 years later—of Eli Siegel’s beautiful comprehension of women. In 1972 he lectured on the novelist George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). At the time, I wrote a report of the lecture, and it is this report which is printed here.
Women in Their Variousness
In his classes over the years, Mr. Siegel spoke to and about hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women. He spoke on such noted women as Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Emily Dickinson, Mme de Stael, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and spoke in lessons to women who were not famous but were trying to know themselves and make sense of their feelings and lives. The lecture on George Eliot stands for three things: 1) It represents Eli Siegel as literary critic. I think his seeing of what is central to her writing, and the warmth and width and nuance with which he presents it, is great literary criticism.
2) The George Eliot lecture shows something of what Aesthetic Realism as education is. He gave it for persons teaching, or preparing to teach, Aesthetic Realism in consultations. And through this lecture we get a sense of how an Aesthetic Realism consultant is trained to meet the self—with all its depth and subtlety—of an individual man or woman. 3) I think this discussion of George Eliot stands for the texture, the exactitude, the largeness with which Mr. Siegel saw every person he spoke to or about—woman or man, noted or not.
I am moved to quote now an instance of that seeing, from an Aesthetic Realism lesson of mine. It is about the matter which, we’ll find, Mr. Siegel showed to be central in the writing of George Eliot. What is it, really, that has men and women disappointed in each other, wounded by each other?
Aesthetic Realism explains that the big, continuous fight in everyone is between respect for the world and contempt for it: between the desire to see value in what’s not ourselves and the desire to elevate ourselves through lessening other people and things. So, on the one hand, we want to care for someone—but on the other hand we want to see that person chiefly as existing to make us comfortable, praised, glorious. We want to be kind to someone—but we don’t want to think too deeply about what goes on within him or her. This is the fight between contempt and respect in social life, domestic life. It goes on not understood by the people who have it. Yet it makes for resentment and shame, for dullness and thrusting anger. How we need to understand it, so that the desire for respect can win!
In the lesson from which I’ll quote, Mr. Siegel was explaining to me and to the man I was close to, Mr. B, why we felt hurt by each other. He said:
There are various reasons for esteeming a man that a woman can have: if he has power, money, is thought of well. But then there is something more personal: the sense that “what I have seen, you have seen.” And that approval, which is academic and intimate at once, Ms. Reiss finds it hard to give. She feels there are things she wants comprehended.
He mentioned the novelist George Sand (Aurore Dupin) and two of the men she was close to:
George Sand could feel Chopin didn’t know literature; Alfred de Musset didn’t care enough about social problems; and neither was as philosophic as she. Then, Ellen Reiss has the feeling that her self is an education.... The first thing a woman wants is for a man to say, “I want to understand you. I’ll never get tired of trying to understand you, and if I lag in any way, I want you to tell me. And if you can’t tell me on Monday, try again on Tuesday.”
He explained to Mr. B:
Ms. Reiss feels you have lagged in understanding her. Do you have a full desire to understand her?
Mr. B. No.
ES. You say it as if it’s not the large thing it is. The large question is, what is the relation of loving and understanding?
There Is a Desire Not to Be Known
The contempt in each of us can prefer our not being understood by another. We can prefer to be hidden and to fool a person—have him at our feet, or in a team with us to belittle the rest of the world. Both men and women can act as though knowing and being known is “not the large thing it is.” Yet the need for it never leaves us. That need is part of what Aesthetic Realism describes as the force of ethics; it is part of good will. We inevitably judge ourselves—like or dislike ourselves—on the basis of how much we want to understand others and be understood ourselves.
A Woman of 16th-Century France
Present also in this TRO is comprehension in another form. It is an honor to print Eli Siegel’s translation of a sonnet by the French poet Louise Labé (1521?-1566). He gave his English form of her Sonnet VIII the title “Louise Labé Tells of Herself.” And in this translation we hear the music of the original French: Eli Siegel has us feel the oneness of tumult and dignity in this woman of the 16th century, her bewilderment and eloquence.
Throughout his life, he gave that understanding which men and women long for. And in Aesthetic Realism he provided the means for people truly to know each other at last.