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Woman's Dissatisfaction: When Is It Right and Wrong?

With a Study of Edna St. Vincent Millay

By Margot Carpenter

The subject of dissatisfaction concerns every aspect of a woman's life, and love is a major one. Women have been rightly and wrongly dissatisfied in love; and Aesthetic Realism, thankfully, explains the difference. Women complain, weep into pillows, find themselves furious with a man they hoped they would care for forever. And women have asked, as I did, "Why am I so dissatisfied?" 

In the study of Aesthetic Realism, I met the answer to this question that satisfied my logical, searching mind. Eli Siegel has shown why what happens in love has so often made for deep dissatisfaction. In his lecture Aesthetic Realism and Love he explained:

Our biggest desire is to feel that the big world in which we are is something that makes us grow, something that makes us what we want to be.And Mr. Siegel continues: But we'd also like to think that the world is bad, disorganized, ugly, and that we're superior to it....That is the victory of contempt. We would also like company; so if we can get somebody out of this world and possess that person, we think we have really pulled a universal fast one.Tonight, I speak chiefly about the dissatisfaction that comes from a woman's contemptuous desire to possess a man, manage him, have him exclusively devoted to oneself, while she is superior to the whole world. This false, narrow notion of love—which women all over America are suffering from right now—can never, never satisfy and the fact that it can't is beautiful, because what we really want is so much bigger.

I. My Intense Dissatisfaction—Understood at Last!

In my early 20s, though disappointed in men and already bitter, I was still looking for love. In Miami, visiting my parents, I met a man who was carrying a book of poems I also was reading. I loved poetry, and I thought we had something important in common.

Then there was also the desire in me for conquest. When this young man, Mark Jansen, asked me for a date, telling me that he had an "open marriage" and that his wife was seeing someone too, I felt very contemporary agreeing to go. "Do you think," Mr. Siegel would ask me later in an Aesthetic Realism lesson, "that as soon as a man desires a woman, there is an appeal to vanity?" There is, and I went for it. I didn't care about this man's way of seeing his wife and children—whether it was fair or not. I thought, as women do, that his approval would enable me to feel satisfied. Instead, I was distraught, finding myself cold, and I couldn't understand why. 

This pattern continued—and would have gone on all my life, had I not met Aesthetic Realism and begun to learn, as women today are learning in consultations, what love really is, and why the love I went after never satisfied, left me angry and bitter.

In one of the first classes I attended, Mr. Siegel asked, "What is it that makes one angry?" I didn't know. He continued:

The thing is to see what road we are compelled to take that won't represent us....You have been exasperated with yourself....People do curse themselves. And then Mr. Siegel said, relating me to one of the famous dissatisfied women in the drama:

Take Racine's Phaedra. She does call herself names....She feels she's been kicked around the Aegean, but if she could get Hippolytus devoted to her, she will get revenge on the world and will see the world as liking her....I'm saying that Margot Carpenter is trying to conquer some other things through how she sees [a man]. One of the many causes of guilt is false victories....It's a little hard to see. Should you see the guilt as solidly as possible or as little as possible?

MC I want to see it as solidly as possible.

ES  Has it sometimes affected you like a kick?

MC  Oh, Yes!

ES  Aesthetic Realism says definitely, we are ashamed of having a false victory over the world.

Mr. Siegel comprehended the depths of my self, and because of what I learned in that lesson and later, three great changes occurred in me. 1) I saw my dissatisfaction in love came, not because of men, but because I had used a man's devotion to make less of the world, and to make a narrow, confined world of my own—which is contempt. 2) I began to be honestly interested in knowing men—which was, to my surprise and delight, a thousand times more satisfying than conquest. 3) I saw that a woman's right dissatisfaction can be one of her proudest assets, because through knowing it, we can see what we're asking of ourselves and go for it. 

My gratitude is immeasurable for the life my study of Aesthetic Realism has made possible, and this very much includes my marriage to Aesthetic Realism consultant Robert Murphy. As we are together, I feel a dynamic relation of satisfaction, the pleasure of liking things and other people increasingly through knowing him; and a good dissatisfaction—because we are always asking more from each other. I know my husband wants me to be better than I am, more fair to the world and people. I know he is asking more from himself. When he proposed to me, Robert said he felt that we could know more, feel more, experience more and do more good in the world together than we could apart. And that's what's been happening in these years as we continue to learn in classes taught by Ellen Reiss. We are having the most romantic, satisfying time of our lives!

II. She Had a Wrong and Right Dissatisfaction

Judy Martin, an attractive biology teacher, told us—The Three Persons—in her first consultation that she was very dissatisfied—both with herself and with Joseph Tate, the man she'd been living with for a year. She said, "I get mixed up with the wrong kind of men." When they first met, she had felt that Mr. Tate, who was a photographer, brought to her a sight of the world that was exciting and new, and added something important to her life which had been mainly given to science. But she also, as I had, wanted a man's exclusive devotion; and she became resentful of his friends, the time he spent in the darkroom, and increasingly found reasons to be dissatisfied with everything he did. In The Right Of no.150, titled "What Opposes Love," in which Mr. Siegel writes greatly about Racine's Phaedra, he says: Love is either a possibility of seeing the world differently because something different from ourselves is seen as needed and lovely; or it is an extension of our imperialistic approval of ourselves in such a way that we have a carnal satellite.This last is essentially what Judy Martin had gone after. In her work as a teacher, she had gone after knowledge, feeling she should learn as much as she could about biology; but this was very different from her purpose in love. She had the notion many women unconsciously do, that once a man showed he cared for her, he belonged to her, and his function was to be a constant source of her being satisfied with herself. Mr. Tate objected to being seen this way, and there were many quarrels.

It was necessary for Ms. Martin to see accurately where she was for Joseph Tate and against him.

The Three Persons.  Knowing Joseph is important in your life. The first thing is to have good will which is the desire to have another person stronger. 

Judy Martin.  Would good will be wanting to know him?

TTP  Yes, and wanting him to like the world more, not just you.

In good will we want to know and encourage the best things in someone, and also to know where he wants to be better, where he is against himself. "How much do you think Joseph is worth knowing?" we asked.
JM  I never thought about him this way before, not in a whole year!

TTP  Do you think you could ask Joseph tonight, what about himself he feels you don't know, that he would like you to know?

JM  Yes, I can.

TTP  If you do, and you really want to know, you will be at the beginning of good will.

As her consultations continued, Ms. Martin saw that the man she had been so dissatisfied with, so ready to scorn, was much more interesting than she'd thought, had goodness in him she hadn't wanted to see—and his meaning for her grew. Her dissatisfaction came to take the form of criticism with the hope that he be stronger. And she asked him to tell her where she could do better—and he did! 

She also came to see something every woman needs to understand about herself, and which Aesthetic Realism is really the only body of knowledge that explains. In The Right Of no. 767, titled "Why People Are Dissatisfied," Ellen Reiss writes:

Without knowing it, people everywhere are dissatisfied with themselves because they are not doing all they can to like the world. It is a person's welcoming of this beautiful dissatisfaction which is the source of all art: for art comes from this feeling: "I have not been fair enough to the world; I must see it more truly, honoringly."Seeing this is making for a new pride and honest satisfaction in Judy Martin's life. She is in the midst of the education every woman ever born has yearned for—including the woman I speak of now.

III. A 20th Century American Poet—and Woman's Dissatisfaction

I speak some now about Edna St. Vincent Millay, who lived from 1892-1950, in relation to woman's dissatisfaction, right and wrong, especially as to love. As I do, I'm very glad to present some of what Eli Siegel said of her. In 1978, Mr. Siegel said:  Edna St. Vincent Millay is one of the most important women who ever lived. As well as nearly anybody who is feminine, she represents pride and shame. She was ashamed of the way she could fall in love, and change about love. She had every possibility of feminine highs and lows. As a woman, she felt everything a human being could feel. [8-18-78] Edna St. Vincent MillayMillay is a true poet, and Aesthetic Realism has taught me that poetry arises always from the desire of a person to see the world with the utmost exactitude and the utmost feeling, and to be fair to it. Poetry comes from a beautiful dissatisfaction—"I haven't been fair enough to this thing, I want to be!" —and when a person succeeds, her words have a music that is organic. "Poetry," Mr. Siegel stated, "is the oneness of the permanent opposites of reality, seen by an individual and given a form in words that is musical." 

I love the poems of Millay. She wrote so musically, showing a great desire to like the world; as in "God's World,"—"O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!" She also wrote many poems showing woman's dissatisfaction about love. For example:

O ailing Love, compose your struggling wing!
Confess you mortal; be content to die

How better dead, than be this awkward thing

Dragging in dust its feathers of the sky. 

[#42, FI]
Why can a woman feel love is "ailing" and "awkward?" Does it have anything to do with her purpose as to men? In a biography titled A Life of One's Own, Joan Dash writes: Edna Millay's legendary romantic career began on Waverly Place....She was to run from lover to lover, from freedom to enclosure to freedom, all the while proclaiming in poetry a woman's right to love as a man.A woman can seem very successful in getting men to care for her, yet find she isn't satisfied. Many men proposed to Ms. Millay, and she did marry at 28, Eugen Boissevain, a businessman who it seems was rather kind to her. Meanwhile, there was a nagging and often intense right dissatisfaction with herself because the devotion she sought and gave much of the time was not in behalf of liking the world, in keeping with what poetry and love really are, but against it. And so she calls love, "This beast that rends me in the sight of all." And in another poem addressed to a man she has been close to—"I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again." "Edna St. Vincent Millay," Mr. Siegel said in a 1964 talk, "will be seen as the basis for the study of pain in love, even when it seemed to be going well." 

When her poem "Renascence" brought her to national attention in 1912, she was just 20. Among other established writers, Arthur Davison Ficke and his wife wrote from Iowa to thank her. Ficke and Ms. Millay began to correspond. 

"Dear Spiritual Advisor," she wrote him, saying about poems she was sending:

Don't hesitate to tell me that you don't like them. Please criticize frankly, I want you to....I have gratefully absorbed into my system all you said about the others.This shows a beautiful dissatisfaction—and desire to be as good as she can be. She didn't know that the criticism she wanted of her poems was exactly like the criticism she wanted as to love, and she unfortunately never got it. Mr. Siegel said he would have said to Ms. Millay: "There are two interests you have: poetry and love. Do you feel the two are in disagreement?" I think she would have said, yes.

IV. The Mix-up about Love that Is Large and Love that Is Narrow

In 1918, after six years of literary correspondence, Ficke came through New York and they met. Norman A. Brittin in his biography writes: Most significant was the impact that Vincent (as she was called) and Ficke had upon each other. Though the encounter was brief, though Ficke was married....emotional lightning had struck. "Ms. Millay," Eli Siegel said, "was taken by something quite deep and philosophic in Arthur Davison Ficke." Each began a sonnet sequence to the other. "After the feet of Beauty fly my own," she wrote; and told him— You were the first man I ever kissed without thinking that I should be sorry about it afterwards....You are a part of loveliness to me.I believe the feeling Millay had for Ficke is the feeling she was most proud of having for a man. But she also missed something from him, including in his writing. The poems of Ficke, though noted then, are not truly poetic. Jean Gould writes in her biography of Millay:  [His poems] struck her as "[lacking] the beauty of color and sound"....that occasionally he did something "for an easy, and so unworthy, reason." She was right to be critical; but she also very much praised his work, and I think there was a true dissatisfaction with herself for not being honest here. Women have often overpraised a man for narrow purposes of their own, later feeling they betrayed the deepest thing in themselves. In love that is narrow, a woman makes too much of a man in order to feel glorified herself. This is an insult both to the man and her own intellect, and always makes for dissatisfaction.

After those three days in New York, Ficke and Millay were never together again, except as friends, though there was a period when having divorced his first wife they could have gotten together. I have seen a woman can be afraid that in being near a man in a daily way, she may go after contempt, using domestic details to lessen his meaning. Perhaps Ms. Millay and Ficke were protecting themselves from narrowness, and from the feeling so common, that as we have the person who has deeply stirred us, we respect them less, see them as smaller, not larger. Many women have felt that while they can't put together respect for a man and desire for him, it is safer not to see him. 

And Aesthetic Realism explains also that we can be afraid our feeling for another person will be so large, we will lose ourselves. Judy Martin had felt something like this as to Joseph Tate. She was very grateful to hear what we told her, "Aesthetic Realism says that we have two desires: to love another person as a means of liking the whole world; and to love only ourselves." 

Millay is one of the few writers who, having described a large emotion, also describes wanting to be rid of it. She wanted to feel everything; and she wanted to feel nothing. Every woman does. She wrote to Ficke:

I only know that every hour with you
Is torture to me, and that I would be

From your too poignant loveliness set free:... 

There is no shelter in you anywhere.... 

I will be gone, and rid of you, I swear. 
A woman wants to love utterly, widely. She also wants to care only for herself, not be too stirred or affected. "If there are two contraries," said Mr. Siegel, "you have a chance to be dissatisfied with both." Women are. How I wish Ms. Millay had heard questions like those Mr. Siegel asked me, "Do you believe you treat Mr. J. a little like a wayward boy?" "Sometimes, I do," I replied. "You don't treat verse that way?...If you are to be close to a person, more and more you have to feel that love for a man is like your love for poetry." Millay didn't feel this was possible. Brittin writes: She was resolved to dedicate her soul to poetry: she would not renounce it "for all the puny fever and frail sweat / Of human love." "It's easy to think," said Mr. Siegel: in the instance of Arthur Ficke and Mr. Boissevain...and others, that Edna St. Vincent Millay was trying to take care of what she wanted to see, and had a difficult time of it.Meanwhile, Mr. Siegel understood Edna St. Vincent Millay, the woman and the poet—as Judy Martin, and I, and every woman who meets this education knows he and Aesthetic Realism understand us.

In 1925, Eli Siegel's poem "Hot Afternoons Have Been in Montana" won the Nation Poetry Prize, stirring people all across America, including very much persons in the literary world. I believe, had Edna St. Vincent Millay wanted to be fair to it, 20th century poetry in America would have flourished, and she would have met the comprehension she longed for.

What happened to Millay writing a poem is what she hoped for—and every woman does—in love. A person is completely fair to the object, and this is the same as expressing her unique, individual self. 

In her long poem, "Renascence," Millay gave herself, was affected intensely, and took care of herself. The rhythm is iambic tetrameter, four beats to each line—what limitation! But it propels us forward. She writes: "God, I can push the grass apart, / And lay my finger on thy heart." Each line satisfies, yet makes us want more, so it makes us dissatisfied too. The music of the words is a oneness of delicacy and intensity, simplicity and complexity, clarity and mystery. The rhymes are tidy, but each calls to the word that will complete it. In a lecture on dissatisfaction, Mr. Siegel said:

[Every person] has to be satisfied with himself, accept himself, and also be looking for more....To be satisfied is the same as being not satisfied beautifully. In the last part of "Renascence," after having imagined herself dead, she finds she is alive, and her joy has the feeling she wanted in love. Here are lines from the last part of "Renascence:"
I only know there came to me
A fragrance such as never clings

To aught save happy living things;...

The grass, a tip-toe at my ear,
Whispering to me I could hear....

And all at once the heavy night
Fell from my eyes and I could see:

—A drenched and dripping apple-tree....

Ah, up then from the ground sprang I
And hailed the earth with such a cry

As is not heard save from a man

Who has been dead, and lives again....

The only love that can satisfy is love that brings us honestly closer to the world and other people, has us want to be fairer to everything. This is what the knowledge of Aesthetic Realism makes possible for every person.

© 2000 by Margot Carpenter

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Also see: Web Guide to Edna St. Vincent Millay

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