The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

Having One’s Way


Dear Unknown Friends:

To live is to have one’s way somehow. The question is whether we know our true way well enough. Our desire to have our way is always accompanied by what the facts are. Insanity arises from the having one’s way even though the facts do not go along. Reality and the facts may be at one with our desire; or reality and the facts may not be in agreement with our desire. If we have contempt for reality, contempt for the facts because these seem not in accord with having our way and we go after having our way nevertheless, the disaster called mental trouble may follow.

History, dear unknown friends, is full of how monarchs and others were set on having their way; and history tells in its fashion of some of the sad results. The monarchs of history are no different from the people we know. King John of England, grandly associated with Magna Carta and written of by Shakespeare in one of his historical plays—this John, son of Henry II (1133-1189), is like John Pellew Williams, a young man of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Both John Plantagenet of London, England, and John Pellew Williams of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S.A., were much concerned with having their way. How John Plantagenet went after having his way is part of English history, while how John Pellew Williams went after having his way is the so far unwritten story of John Pellew Williams’s exultations, disgusts, puzzlements.

It is well, then, to know what having one’s way means and where it is harmful. At this moment, Mary Queen of Scots is asking that we consider her and deal with her truly and well.

1. Mary Queen of Scots, 1542-1587

Mary Queen of Scots is one of the attractively wilful people of history. She saw having her way in such a manner that, being a queen, her desire to be happy, powerful, and triumphant has become an engaging matter of history. Did not Schiller once write a play about her called Maria Stuart? Did not Maxwell Anderson write a play about her in which both she and her regal competitor, Elizabeth, impressed subscribers to the Theatre Guild? Is not Maria Stuarda or Mary Queen of Scots in Donizetti’s opera likely to be singing any evening now in Europe or America?

Yet with all the historical, theatrical, operatic trappings, so, so impressive and gorgeous, Marie Stuart was a person who wished to do as well as she could with her life. Her confusions and sorrows are remembered. Her insistences and withdrawings are not forgot. Her wilfulness and weeping are part of history. Her disappointments are safe in the chronicles of Scotland, France, England, Europe; and now in the chronicles of America. But, as I said, she was one person with the questions a person has anywhere, in any hour.

Much, much has been written of Mary Queen of Scots. She has many books all to herself. Trying to have the life of Mary Queen of Scots seen clearly and usefully in this latter day, I choose first some sentences of Walter Scott from his writings on Scottish history:

On the 15th of the same month [May 1567], did Mary, with unpardonable indiscretion, commit the great folly of marrying this profligate and ambitious man, stained as he was with the blood of her husband Darnley. The Queen was not long in discovering that by this unhappy marriage she had gotten a more ruthless and wicked husband, than she had in the flexible Darnley.

Bothwell was the famous profligate man.

So Mary, once Queen of Scotland, is making mistakes. Certainly, when Scott talks of Mary’s “unpardonable indiscretion” and “great folly,” he is somewhat in the territory of the incomplete self acting with impetuosity; and the incomplete self assuming the rule of the whole self is an essential constituent of insanity. We all, at our worst or most unfortunate moments, approach insanity. It should be said once more that insanity is a dependence on one possibility of self, its loneliness or apartness, as against the self in its completeness, or the facts in their annoying majesty and endlessness.

Mary Queen of Scots, like John Lack-land or Plantagenet more than three hundred years earlier, wanted to have love and ambition and “self-expression” her way. She was sorrowful, often distraught; and she is now historical. If she wanted to be remembered and be mighty in biographical dictionaries and conspicuous in European history and in man’s dramas, operas, and novels—she had her wish. For instance, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, describing Walter Scott’s novel The Abbot, 1820, has this first sentence:

The work is concerned with that period of the life of Mary Queen of Scots which she spent in imprisonment at Lochleven Castle, her escape....

Even when you’re in a novel, your troubles are your own. Even when your life is sung in some Italian opera, what you endured, you endured; what you hoped, you hoped. Meanwhile, let us toast Marie Stuart, Sir Walter Scott, Donizetti, fate, imagination, and everything.

2. Interlude with Elizabeth

Elizabeth, Queen of England, daughter of a mother, Anne Boleyn, who was beheaded, wanted to have her way, too. She was better, history informs us, at having her way than that distracted and wandering relative of hers, Marie Stuart—whose son succeeded her as ruler of England, anyway.

Elizabeth had an uncomfortable time between love and ambition, the two big fields with which one’s way is concerned. It was hard for many monarchs before Elizabeth to meet the demands of love and tenderness, and likewise to further what was ambitious in oneself. It can be said that Elizabeth was imperially playful with love; but both Agnes Strickland and James Anthony Froude make it clear that Elizabeth endured some of the consequences of inaccurate or unrespected love.

The way Elizabeth was taken by handsome men, often much younger than herself, was gossipingly animadverted on even in her lifetime, though, to be sure, discreetly. Elizabeth had a rival in the Queen of Scotland. She also, towards the end of her life, had a rival in Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. And, to be statistical, she was thirty-three years older than this bothersome cavalier.

Among many others, Mary, Queen of Scotland; Elizabeth, Queen of England; and Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex were, because they were alive, compelled to find out what their way was. All three were interestingly imperfect, engagingly fumbling. It is dangerous to have a will, for it can go wrong. The Napoleon of Russia and snow near Moscow shows this.

3. The Dashing Earl of Essex

The Earl of Essex, like Mary Queen of Scots, is much in history and in the imagination of man. There was a play by John Banks about the Earl of Essex called The Unhappy Favourite, acted in 1682 and often later. Another play about the Earl of Essex, by Henry Jones, was acted in 1753 and likewise held the stage. And Thomas Corneille, brother of the renowned dramatist Pierre Corneille, wrote a play about the earl called le Comte d’Essex (1678), popular in Paris.

How the Earl of Essex asserted himself, then, is part of history, drama, man’s imagination and remembrance. The Earl of Essex is with the Queen of Scotland, conspicuous in past emotion.

I go to a sober source for the life of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. In the biography of Essex to be found in the 1910 edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, is the following sentence, ominous for the earl and ominously descriptive of the noted Queen of England:

On the death of Leicester he [Essex] succeeded him as chief favourite of the queen, a position which injuriously affected his whole subsequent life, and ultimately resulted in his ruin.

Flattery, contempt, favoritism, deception, insanity, are often inseparable in history. Alas, alas, says Clio, Muse of History.

However, we must tell things in a way more restrained and more in keeping with the frequent dullness of monarchical history. Clio, as person, will be quiet.—The Encyclopaedia Britannica from which I have already quoted, goes nearest to ascribing technical insanity to Essex in the following words:

Hope was succeeded by despair, and half maddened by wounded vanity, he made an attempt (Feb. 7, 1601) to incite a revolution in his behalf, by parading the streets of London with 300 retainers, and shouting, “For the queen! a plot is laid for my life!”

Walter Scott hinted earlier in this number of TRO that the indiscretion of Mary Queen of Scots neighbored madness. One imprudent, conspicuously imprudent, thing that Mary did was to go to England and come within the power of the woman who feared her, Elizabeth, she who ruled in London. Perhaps this was the most unwise choice of Mary.

There were, history tells us, some other unwise choices. Essex too was indiscreet; and his towering indiscretion was his appearing to start a revolution against the rule of Elizabeth, once so fond of him; perhaps now fond of him.

The indiscretions, or the ill-based attempts to have their way, made for two world-renowned victims of Elizabeth, in charge of the activities of the executioner’s axe in England. Through Elizabeth’s somewhat reluctant command, Mary Queen of Scots was beheaded at Fotheringay Castle in 1587. Fourteen years later, in 1601, by the same womanly and royal command, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex was beheaded. Essex and Mary Queen of Scots are inseparable in the way they died and through whom they died.

The meaning of all this is that having one’s way can ordinarily make for secret, deep discomfort. Having one’s way can also invite commanded death from another.

4. The Contempt That Is Here

Having one’s way, as I implied earlier, is equivalent often to having contempt for the facts not consonant with having one’s way. The most frequent material for a person’s contempt is the facts or the reality opposed to one’s pleasing oneself.

Along with the contempt for opposing and competitive fact, is contempt—as I said in an earlier consideration of Nietzsche—for one possibility of self as against another possibility. In history, persons eminent there have disregarded or diminished opposing fact. In history too, not so plainly, men and women have despised reason as less serviceable than their instinct, and have despised instinct as less serviceable than reason.

The Earl of Rochester (1547-1680), in a powerful and not consummately melodious poem entitled “A Satyr Against Mankind,” has contempt for reason; and later in the same poem, shows some disrespect for something looking like instinct. Rochester had a tumultuous life—one incident of which was his arranging to have the poet John Dryden attacked in the street. Rochester fared better somewhat than Essex or Mary; but his life certainly winds, falls, rises in a manner not desired. Here are lines against reason from Rochester’s “Satyr,” first published in 1680:

And before Certain Instinct, will prefer

Reason, which fifty times for one does err—

Reason, an Ignis fatuus of the Mind,

Which leaves the Light of Nature, Sense behind.

Pathless and dangerous, wand'ring ways, it takes,

Through Error’s fenny Bogs, and thorny Brakes:

Whilst the misguided follower climbs with pain,

Mountains of Whimseys, heapt in his own Brain,

Stumbling from thought to thought falls headlong down

Into Doubt’s boundless Sea, where like to drown.

This is contempt of reason, had by persons in all centuries. However, in the epilogue to this “Satyr Against Mankind,” lines, as I said, contemptuous of man’s impulse or vanity—these are on the side of instinct—are present. Man’s contempt can be both for himself as a reasoning being and for himself as impelled or instinctive.

The relation of instinct to reason meant much in the life of Rochester. It has meant much to all people. When the true relation of instinct and reason was not seen, contempt for both followed. Honestly having one’s way was more difficult than ever. And I shall say more of Rochester, his poem, and what it means to the people of now, trying to be happy.

With love,

Eli Siegel