Dear Unknown Friends:
We begin to serialize the historic lecture Poetry and Women, which Eli Siegel gave in 1949. So much in women's lives has changed since then. Women now do just about everything men do. Yet though it is expected that girls play soccer, and female doctors and lawyers abound, and no one is surprised to see a woman wield a hammer, there is still a difference between woman and man. The question What is a woman? remains. And both men and women are pained by it—because a woman executive, say, doesn't feel she is the same person organizing a department and lying in a man's arms; and a man doesn't see her as the same person.
As this lecture begins, Mr. Siegel speaks about the difference between the mind of woman and that of man. It is, he has said, a most subtle, difficult subject; and I myself understand just a little what he describes here. In a later class, in 1972, he said the main difference between man and woman is a difference in body construction. And from that, there come to be secondary differences.
I have seen that the great principle at the basis of Aesthetic Realism is the means for kindness between the sexes, and integrity: "All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves." Both man and woman are trying to make a one of grace and energy, delicacy and strength, though the accent may be different. And both long to put together truly intellect and feeling, mind and body. In the 1972 class Mr. Siegel said: "Man has the same desire as woman to be graceful; he likes to get things done well. At the same time, he has energy." He asked later: "Can the delicate be strong? Would a mathematician be stronger and more delicate than someone else? Would subtlety be stronger [than non-subtlety]? Women and men have the same problem of how to have finesse and how to be elemental. Every human being is an assemblage of masculine and feminine that is just glorious."
An exceedingly hurtful industry of our time is the presenting of man and woman as too different from each other. Popular advice books tell us men and women give each other trouble because they see so differently, want such different things, that they're from different planets; and women want to express their feelings verbally while men don't (as though Byron, Catullus, Heine weren't men!). Aesthetic Realism shows that "explanation" to be untrue. The big desire of both man and woman is to like the world honestly. And whatever our sex, the thing in each of us which hurts our own life and makes us unkind is contempt: the feeling we'll be more "by making less of the outside world."
Contempt, not gender difference, is the source of trouble between the sexes. Because a woman wants to use a man to diminish the world and be superior to it, and also diminish him, and a man wants to use a woman that way, they mistrust and resent and want to punish each other.
In this TRO we print part of a paper by technical writer Maureen Butler, from an Aesthetic Realism public seminar of last month titled "What Do Mothers & Daughters Really Want from Each Other?" More of the beautiful way Eli Siegel saw women is in her paper.
No one respected the mind of woman more mightily and deeply than Mr. Siegel. He was the best critic of woman, as of man, enabling us to know and change what in us weakened us, and encouraging the strength and goodness in us to come alive and flourish. That is what he did for me, with magnificent abundance, and my gratitude is the same as my life.
—Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education
Poetry and Women
By Eli Siegel
The history of woman and her mind is going on, and is not over. Deeply, woman's mind is more general and logical than man's is. This is shown most clearly in the fact that when anything abstract is to be pictured, some quality, it is usually a woman's figure that does the picturing. Hardly anybody would think of making the Statue of Liberty a man; or of Justice, which is supposed to represent logic, being a man. She may have her eyes darkened or blinded, but still she is a woman, Justice is. And earth is a woman; and it is "la logique" in French, and "la poésie." This means that there is something general that has to do with femininity. It happens women most often don't show that: they are not aware of themselves as generality looking for particularity.
That may seem high-sounding, but I mean by it that a woman represents a something unknown to herself, looking for particular expression, something concrete. She is something more general. And therefore she is different from a man, who can be seen as the particular looking for the general. The mind of woman and man is the same, but the way of its being shown is different, just as the Union Pacific Railroad is the same but the trip from the West Coast to the East, from San Francisco to New York, is different from the trip from New York to San Francisco.
What is going on a good deal is woman saying that she hasn't been asked to show herself. When she does, the sexes will be really friendly. That is a big order in itself. I think woman hasn't wanted to be wholly herself, and man hasn't asked her to be. So they have both been in delicate out-of-luck situations. I hope to talk later on "Poetry and Femininity," where something of what I've just said will be shown perhaps more clearly. In the meantime, I'm going to deal with some poems by women.
There is a woman not so well known, though she is looked upon as the best woman poet in the 16th century in France: Louise Labé. She lived from 1526 to 1566, and in 1555 she published her works at Léon. Now this woman, as one sees her life, was very intellectual. She had logicians about her, and poets, and philosophers, at Léon. There was something very assertive about her. She was given, even then, to saying that women could wear what clothes they pleased, and there is something very forthright in her verse. She wrote sonnets; some are delicate, some very forthright. She was considered to be quite free. At the same time, there is a tremendous intensity of unity in her work. And no doubt she was puzzled. She is important; and I read a pretty literal translation of one of her sonnets:*
I live, I die; I am intense and I drown.
I have extreme warmth while enduring cold:
Life for me is too soft and too hard
I have great dullnesses mingled with joy.
All at once I laugh and I have tears,
And while pleased I have much disturbing sadness:
My good goes away, it never is lasting:
All at once I am in dryness and I flourish.
So Love uncertainly takes me with him;
And when I think I shall have more sorrow,
Without thinking I find myself with no pain.
Then when I believe my joy to be certain,
And that I am at the height of fortunate desire,
He puts me back in my first unhappiness.
As I read this in the English, the construction is not seen. This is a sonnet: it has 14 lines; it has a symmetry. There is a care for each syllable. But this could be written by a man; there is no doubt of it. In fact, such things have been written by men: poems that represent the ups and downs of feeling, the feeling of being cold and warm, sad and happy. The thing about this is its forthrightness. At the same time, Louise Labé showed in other sonnets a great delicacy. She was trying to put together the general and the specific.
Louise Labé represents one possibility of woman's mind. I can say that there is a strength and structure in this poem.
What Mothers & Daughters Want
By Maureen Butler
I've learned that what mothers and daughters want most from each other is to feel that together they can learn about this world they're in, and that through each other the world looks more friendly. A mother wants to feel, "This child I gave birth to can be a means of my knowing myself and all people better." And what a daughter really wants is, through her mother, honestly to like people.
But often a daughter, seeing a mother as disappointed and hurt, thinks what her mother wants is to be protected from an unkind world—which includes her husband. I felt this; and, growing up in suburban Cleveland, I spent a lot of time consoling my mother. I also made another mistake that is frequent: I didn't like the strength she did have because I wanted to be superior to her. The way I consoled and competed with June Butler hurt both our lives; and I'm very grateful that through studying Aesthetic Realism I'm a kinder daughter and my mother and I are real friends at last!
She had often said to me with bitterness, "You wanted to be as different from me as possible." Studying Aesthetic Realism, I came to respect qualities in my mother that I had undervalued—and that I needed to have more of myself! For example, June Butler was much more forthright than I, who was often devious. I wanted to see myself as more "tactful," while sneering inwardly at people, and I remember my mother calling me a "cool customer." Years later when I told this, in a soft voice, to my Aesthetic Realism consultants, they asked: "You think if nothing is going to faze you on the outside, you're going to be smarter than your mama?" "Right!" I said.
I also hadn't wanted to see that my mother had things against herself: that, for instance, she felt bad because she could assert herself in ways that weren't kind, and act bossy.
In Eli Siegel's magnificent essay "A Woman Is the Oneness of Aesthetic Opposites," is the comprehension she hoped for. About the opposites Outward and Inward he writes:
A woman goes out to the universe hoping it will come to her in a form that is consonant with herself; the hope of a woman is for the universe walking in a room. She also has thoughts within herself as mysterious as Africa once, currents of space now; thoughts as subtle as the filaments of a butterfly at twilight.
When I read this to my mother recently over the phone she said, "That is very beautiful!" and spoke of how moved she was that Mr. Siegel saw a woman as having "thoughts as subtle as the filaments of a butterfly at twilight."
Daughters Have Been Political
My parents were for and against each other in a way that confused me very much. But instead of trying to understand, I exploited their pain to get importance for myself. I was political: sometimes after they had an argument, I would go out to my father in the yard and say sweetly, "Can I help you, Dad?" "Thanks, honey!" John Butler would answer. I'd feel smugly superior when he'd say, "Your mother has no diplomacy." At other times he'd say admiringly, "She is really solid, straight," but I didn't like his showing care for her. Nor did I encourage my mother to care more for my father. I didn't like it when she listened with interest, even delight, as he recounted what happened at work during the day. I preferred being in a team with her against him. Sometimes at the dinner table when my father was—as I scornfully saw it—holding forth, I'd give my mother a snide look that said, "What an egotistical male; I understand how difficult he is."
In a consultation I was asked, "Do you think you saw your parents as unsure of each other? What do you think you did with that? Were you a strategist—going after the approval of both?" I'm tremendously grateful that this hurtful politics, this contempt, was criticized!
Encouragement to See Beautifully
Along with being energetic, June Butler was very pretty and stylish. We gave each other the message that we had pizzazz while our next-door neighbors were rather plain. As a teenager, I became aware that I could affect boys and men through how I looked; and the clothes I wore, which my mother and I shopped for, were definitely an aid to this. In a consultation I was asked: "Did you and your mother agree that if a girl looks good, men will do anything for her?" "Yes!" I said.
Yet while I was able to get the approval of men, I was increasingly disappointed and bitter about love. I never felt I was seen for who I was, nor did I see men as having depth of feeling, thoughts, and hopes as real as my own. I wanted to use a man to glorify myself, and this made love impossible for me. Through my study of Aesthetic Realism, I was able to change this contemptuous way of seeing, and I am very grateful that now I have real love for a man: my husband of 14 years, Ernest DeFilippis.
Though my own pain was vivid to me, I didn't see that my mother had it too. I wanted to see her as superficial, satisfied with being praised for having a lovely appearance, while I was deeper and wanted more out of life. When years later I read these sentences from Mr. Siegel's great essay "The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl," I felt understood:
Doris Holton once walked down the aisle of a train and was aware that the men on the seats were looking at her. Doris, even as she was honored, felt insulted. She did not feel insulted because the men in any way "went too far." They didn't at all. Never did the seats of a train contain a more decorous group of observant men....Doris felt insulted because there was something with her, something of her, even, which was having an effect on people; but it wasn't she. And, gods and fates, why couldn't it be she?
I love Mr. Siegel for comprehending women, and for his great style as he does so. And my eyes began to open when my consultants asked me: "Do you think your mother has 'the everlasting dilemma of a girl' in a pretty stark way?" My mother? Could it be she too felt what I did? Had the same longing? Yes! She too wanted what Mr. Siegel describes in the essay: "to see beautifully [as one is] thought of as beautiful." I came to realize I had missed so much in my mother; I'd dismissed what she had told me about herself: how much she had liked school, hoped to go to college and major in history, but could not because her family didn't have the money. I remembered how often I'd see her reading a newsmagazine, and how she'd want to talk about things going on, an election, the Vietnam War. "An intellectual woman," Eli Siegel said, "is a woman who sees her mind as concerned with the whole world." I hadn't wanted to grant her this kind of thought.
Now I look forward to the lively, deep conversations we have across the miles—including about the economy, and about what we're both reading every week in The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, which she loves. And as we talk about John Butler, who passed away several years ago, I'm very glad we're both trying to see him truly, as he hoped to be seen.