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The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl

By Eli Siegel

First he did praise my beauty, then my speech.
The Comedy of Errors   

     Girls have always found it hard to know what they should be liked for. Of course, they have wanted to be liked for how they looked; but suppose they couldn’t feel that how they looked was the same as what they really were? Then there was something missing; and there were incompleteness and pain.

     While girls have wanted to be liked “for themselves”—as men do, too—there has been that impelling them to be liked for something else. Both men and women have been in a general conspiracy to like each other for something other and less than themselves, while hoping to be liked for what they were. It seems as if both masculine and feminine persons did not rely on themselves, without some kind of arrangement preceding and standing for them. The married persons who can now say: “I am liked for myself,” are, I’m afraid, not so many.

     And so a girl in the thirteenth century “arranged” herself to have the most effect on a man. If successful, she could hardly think it was a victory for herself. If Delicia of the fourteenth century achieved the love of Hubert—for Delicia had so prepared herself, adorned herself that the susceptible and ardent Hubert fell, as a small town falls to a large army—could not Delicia, in her fourteenth-century heart, ask: “Is it me, after all, whom Hubert desires? Is it the Delicia I know?” And if Viviane of Burgundy in the fifteenth century was courted assiduously and pertinaciously by Evald, over-thrown by Viviane, could not Viviane be unsure as to what it was that so had conquered Evald, whether it was really she?

     The doubts of Viviane of Burgundy five hundred years ago are like the doubts of Doris these days. Doris knows she can do things to men, when looked upon, but is it she, Doris, the very, the ultimate Doris, who is doing them? Is it perhaps an image of Doris, a visual representative of Doris?

     Doris Holton has to meet the everlasting question of a girl. Doris is pretty, and she wants men to acknowledge it; and they have. She also has a pretty profound smile, mysterious at the corners of her lips, while still radiant. She has dignity. She also has studied successfully enough of the arts, the sciences, the humanities, to be among the educated. She has background and a manner. Yet Doris, for social achievement, chiefly depends on the way she visually adorns space: on the way she looks. She knows that the way she looks will affect Edward, or Nevin, or Les, or Van; or anybody nearly. But she is not so sure of anything else in her, with all her acquisition of the humanities, the arts, and the sciences. So she might mention Copernicus; so she might be intense momentarily about Goya; so she can show her appreciation of Tom Jones and Brahms. Yet it is on the way that she appears; on her effect as line, color, and femininity that she depends. If she couldn’t, she would be desolate. The idea of losing her power visually to permeate, is fearful.

     Yet Doris is vexed. When she seems to be affecting gentlemen, when there is admiration in their eyes, the victory is not entire. Because Doris has come to ask, perhaps more than most girls, “Is it I that is doing these things, or perhaps just someone standing for me?”—her sense of social achievement is marred.

     Doris, as I have said, is a bit unusual. The question she asks, however, is asked by all girls. Our biggest desire is to be liked or loved; and when we are liked or loved, we want it to be us. Therefore, if we know that we are liked or loved because there is the primal witchery in the symmetry of our bodies, a delicately formidable brightness in our deep and travelling eyes; a red, quiet richness in our lips; a meaningful accuracy in our walk—how well, how well this is—yet are these wonders ourselves, are these wonders Doris, the Doris of Doris?—the Beatrice of Beatrice?

     Girls, then, have to see their beauty as themselves, before they fully, composedly appreciate the effect this beauty has. In order to appreciate a compliment, or any kind or intensity of praise, we have to feel that, one, it is of ourselves; two, that we deserve it.

     So far in history girls haven’t gone around asking, “Do I deserve the praise that Wilfred gave me yesterday?” or, “Do I deserve that longing, disturbed yet approving gaze that Walter gave me?” That doesn’t mean the question doesn’t exist, and hasn’t. It has. Viviane of Burgundy, in the fifteenth century, somewhere asked it in good late-mediaeval French.

     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 that did this car. 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?

     It would, perhaps, be hard for men to realize that as they gaze at a walking girl, the girl somewhere can honestly be distressed by it. However, she can. If a girl has something of her, a belonging or manifestation of her, praised in such a way that the rest of her, the whole being of her, is diminished, she can feel disappointed and resentful. The resentment of women that arises from the triumph of a representation of them, and not the whole person, does exist; and is brought to bear on uncomprehending men, in some way or other, every day of the amorous year.

     Both men and women are at fault here. There has not been a sufficient desire to see each other completely. We have chosen to see another person in a way that suits ourselves. A great necessity is the making one of the phases of a human being. Doris Holton, for example, wants to feel that her body, and its effect, can go along with what she knows of art, and Utilitarianism, and American literature; and also with her very deepest thoughts about herself, and life and death. She cannot well survive without looking beautiful, and affecting men this way; yet, in the clearest depths of her mind, she would like all of herself to affect a man (or for that matter, her mother, or anyone) in a way making her feel honest, unhidden.

     The fact that with girls, beauty’s victory may be the girls’ defeat, has been seen in some fashion since men have thought. Women have always been protested, if incompletely, at men’s seeing their beauty or their immediate attractiveness, apart from what they were as selves. Rosalind in As You Like It and Beatrice in Much Ado about Nothing are girls wanting to be seen, tinglingy, as people: as people who are feminine; and beautiful in the right way. Romance in the deepest sense swings from the beauty of form and color to the beauty of the way a girl is and sees. There is that deep romance in Shakespeare. In the novel, Beatrix in Henry Esmond is a girl impelled by the universe as alluring in herself, to dazzle and sway men. We can see, though, that she resented men for going along with her too much in this; for, even, asking her to get them into crises of admiration.

     The novelist who, perhaps, has most expressed the girl’s dilemma is Henry James. He has been most aware of a girl’s double intention to please and pervade visually, and to be understood, honestly comprehended as a person. A girl, then, wants to be beautiful and to be beautifully understood. A girl wants to be beautiful, to see beautifully, and to be thought of as beautiful.

     A girl, however, has found it most difficult to be effective as a beautiful feminine being and yet, honestly, to go after being thought of beautifully. First, she had to see her own intention as beautiful. That wasn’t easy.

     Girls then have had to make a choice between being seen as beautiful and nothing more, or insisting that the way they be seen be beautiful too; a way they could respect. To ask for the second, implied that a girl like the way she saw herself, and the way she looked at things. So far the dilemma hasn’t been solved. It can be if the girl can see all of herself as an indivisible, but rich one; and insist that someone else see her that way. Love, though, hasn’t reached this point, as of now. Art and the amorous haven’t made a one yet. We must hope that art and the amorous, a beautiful girl and a beautiful ethics, a person beautiful to look at and a beautiful way of seeing, be together amiably some day. If they aren’t, suffering and incompleteness will continue; if they are, love will be more that than ever, and beauty will triumph at last.


NOTE. "The Everlasting Dilemma of a Girl" first appeared in 11 Aesthetic Realism Essays, by Eli Siegel (NY: Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 1979).


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