|NUMBER 1527.—July 10, 2002||
Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941
Dear Unknown Friends:
In our serialization of his 1949 lecture Poetry and Women, we have come to Eli Siegel’s discussion of poems by Caroline Norton (1808-77). We see his beautiful deep comprehension of her, and of women. We see the question which torments women now, even though a woman most often does not articulate it: How can I love a man and be loved, and yet be fully myself?
This matter has not fared well because, for one thing, men haven’t wanted it to. We know that men, and that thing called society, for ever so many centuries did not permit woman to be all she could be. But what has not been seen is that a woman herself has had purposes which make for a profound schism in her, a feeling that she is a different person in love from the person who wants to express herself in the wide world.
I am going to quote from an Aesthetic Realism lesson I had, because what Mr. Siegel explained in it is knowledge for which Caroline Norton hungered, as women today do. As a woman to whom he spoke directly, I stand for Eli Siegel’s understanding of women and all people. He comprehended my feelings, my tumult, and enabled me to do so. It is a huge understatement to say he encouraged my mind: all that is best in me exists because of what he taught.
Aesthetic Realism explains that our deepest purpose, the very purpose of our life, is to like the world honestly, to respect it. This is what love is for, and education, and expression as such. And this is the purpose which, if we go by it, will make our self coherent. It will have us feel that being in a man’s arms is friendly to, has the same aim as, looking through a microscope, or studying French, or running for public office. But the thing which has weakened and divided a woman, as it has a man, is another purpose: contempt, the "disposition ... to think [one] will be for [one]self by making less of the outside world."
In the lesson I quote from, Mr. Siegel was showing how that purpose, contempt, makes for the subtle and gigantic pain around love. At the time, I was the age of Caroline Norton when she married: nineteen. I was in college, majoring in comparative literature. And I found myself angry often with the man I was close to, whom I’ll call Jim Hanes. I would go from welcoming his embraces to not wanting them; and sometimes I would be tearful.
Mr. Siegel began to explain what was troubling me as he asked: "Do you think that Jim is interested in you to respect other things more, or as a substitute for respecting?" I answered evasively, "I think there is something of both."
A woman can want a man to respect other things less through knowing her, because somewhere she sees that as the ideal of love: a man should make her the one thing that matters in the world; he should, adoringly, have her feel superior to everything, while they make the rest of reality and humanity insignificant. Yet as this happens, she resents the man, because the depths of her want something else. That is how it was with me.
"It Never Leaves One"
Mr. Siegel said to Jim Hanes:
Any person, any girl, who doesn’t think that a person close to her is trying to have her like herself and things in life, distrusts that person. This is not a recitation—it happens to be life itself. There is that in a girl which doesn’t care so much for the liking of things. She wants to have an important time. Nonetheless, it never leaves one. I say that when Ellen repelled you, she felt that your purpose was not to have her respect things or like things. Ellen, if she wants, can fool herself all over the place. But I do say that when she repels you it’s for this reason: that 1) you’re trying to have her like you as apart from the liking of things, and 2) you’re trying to make her important as apart from how much she respects things, but to make her important because you seem to be under her spell.
Much of the pain of Caroline Norton—which you will soon read about—is explained by those firm, critical, infinitely kind sentences.
In the next sentences, we see the most beautiful thing I know: the ethics of Aesthetic Realism, which is the same as scientific fact, and Mr. Siegel’s passionate clarity about ethics. He said to me: "Anything you do, including being close to another person, which is not for the purpose of respecting things more is against your life. There are no two ways about it; never will be. Is that clear enough?"
In the following interchange, we see Mr. Siegel comprehending the very texture, the subtlety, of a woman’s distress:
ES. Right now a young man is making advances to a girl. And while she can’t very well, because she doesn’t want to, stop him, she has a feeling somewhere, "He doesn’t care about me. He cares about something I have"—if she puts it that clearly. Now, what does the word me there mean? That is, "He isn’t warm about me; he’s warm about what he takes to be me."
ER. I think what’s meant is that the man isn’t interested in how the girl feels or sees or thinks.
ES. Well, has that happened with Jim?
The Only Way We’ll Like Ourselves
Mr. Siegel described the one way any person will ever like herself, no matter how much adoration she gets. And the knowledge here is completely lacking in the psychology and counseling of our time:
ES. Do you believe that Jim approves of you in a way the rival of which doesn’t exist?
ES. But at the same time do you think that that approval is convincing to every part of you?
ER. No, it hasn’t been.
ES. It happens that sex approval and reality approval are not yet the same thing .... According to Aesthetic Realism, no person can approve of himself unless he says, "I like the way I see the world." That’s the only kind of approval that will stick. This means wanting to make a one of the world as a cause of being pleased and as a cause of respect. If you use a person to make that desire less, you don’t respect yourself ....
That is why you cry and are repelled: because at a certain time something in you reminds you that you are using Jim to respect things less with ....
You feel bad because you put aside your first purpose. Your first purpose happens to be to respect something; your second (which is, according to Aesthetic Realism, the same thing), to be approved of. You’ve made being approved of, as many people have, something by itself. Aesthetic Realism says the biggest desire organically is to respect something without the ego dirtying it up. That’s the one desire, and it is put aside for the being approved of, because the second is much easier ....
Any kind of being approved of which isn’t accompanied by respect of your own, and with the respect being first, isn’t worth it; though social life consists of trying to prove that it is.
What I learned from Mr. Siegel enabled me to love truly, and to feel intellect and love are together—to feel whole. The Aesthetic Realism understanding of people—woman and man—is the kindest and most needed knowledge in the world. It is grandly alive at the Aesthetic Realism Foundation.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
The Lasting Problem
1. The deepest desire of every person is to like the world on an honest or accurate basis.
2. The greatest danger for a person is to have contempt for the world and what is in it .... Contempt can be defined as the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.
3. All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.
Editor: Ellen Reiss
Coordinators: Nancy Huntting, Meryl Simon, Steven Weiner
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