Pretense & Love
Dear Unknown Friends:
One of the early Aesthetic Realism lectures that Eli Siegel gave at Steinway Hall is Pretense and Self-Conflict, of 1947. From notes, rather fragmentary, we print the first half here—and one can see through them a new, great understanding of a subject that affects everyone mightily. Mr. Siegel speaks not only about the pretending that people consciously choose to engage in, but about pretense that’s unconscious.
Pretense can, on the one hand, be hideously unjust, vicious, and ugly. It is insincerity, lying, perpetrating a fraud, conning people. On the other hand, it can be completely kind and beautiful. For example, pretending is in art. It’s obviously in acting, and it’s in fiction. One can say that such characters as George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, Flaubert’s Mme. Bovary, Cervantes’s Don Quijote are immortal because of the exactitude, conviction, scope, delicacy, and richness with which their creators pretended they were real, and used English, Russian, French, Spanish words to do so.
Pretending is central to compassion—the “putting oneself in another’s place.” And the “let’s pretend” impulsion is in the games of children, and can be beautiful there (though sometimes it’s not). So what makes some pretense good, and other pretense bad?
Aesthetic Realism is the knowledge that, for the first time, explains the crucial distinction. Pretense is good when its purpose is respect for the world. It is bad when its purpose is contempt, the looking down on reality, truth, and people as a means of making oneself important. The fight between the desire to respect the world and the desire to have contempt for it is, Aesthetic Realism explains, the fundamental fight in everyone’s life.
Conquest, Pretense, & Pain
This TRO includes an article by Aesthetic Realism consultant Carol Driscoll. It’s from a paper she presented at a recent Aesthetic Realism public seminar titled “Logic & Passion: Do They Have to Fight in a Woman’s Life?”
The field Ms. Driscoll speaks about, love, has been a tremendous territory for pretense. In fact, men and women have felt they have to pretend if they’re to be successful in love. They feel they have to put forth some sort of show that’s not the same as who they are, or a person won’t care for them. There are strategies, flattery, efforts to look as good as possible not as a means of showing oneself truly but as a means of conquering. And there is—and still can be after 60 years of marriage—the quiet assumption that it’s imprudent to show everything one feels.
So men and women go about adroitly trying to impress each other, and get each other. Yet each feels, under it all, 1) ashamed, because we tricked the person; 2) lonely, because we’re not seen and cared for as ourselves (even while we’re not clear who ourselves are); 3) contemptuous of the other for being fooled by the display we put on; 4) angry at the other, for not trying to see us truly.
For a while the thrill of conquest, the exquisite aggrandizement of oneself through another’s adoration, can seem to push aside the shame and anger that pretense makes for. But these are present, and are central to the suspicion and fights the couple will have. However much accompanied by intrigue and embraces, this pretense in “love” is contempt for a person and the world, and so it’s a fundamental cause of the coldness the couple will come to feel toward each other, the emptiness, the sinking feeling of “What happened to us?”
In one of the great prose writings of the 20th century, Eli Siegel explains that taken-for-granted pretense in love, with its triumph and agony. In the Preface to “The Ordinary Doom,” he says:
The large inward catastrophe of today is: We let ourselves be pleased by and do what we can to please a person we still want to hide from, we still do not fully respect. The one way we can fully respect a person is to feel that that person deserves wholly to know us and it would be good for us to know that person.
The rift between sexual achievement and the happily and deeply being known, goes on, as it did in past centuries....Our attitude to the world is still one of fear, one of contempt, and one of aloofness. This means that whomever we know, our attitude to that person will be one of fear, contempt, aloofness. Wrestling in bed does not annul this. Elaborate proximity of sections of body will not annul this.
Yeats Says It Went on in Ireland
There is a poem of Yeats about pretense between two people, a poem that has some of his worry on the subject. “The Mask” is a conversation between two lovers. One (let’s assume it’s the man), says: “Put off that mask of burning gold / With emerald eyes.” He says he wants to see what’s under it—to “find what’s there to find, / Love or deceit.” The woman answers, “O no, my dear,” and,
“It was the mask engaged your mind,
And after set your heart to beat,
Not what’s behind.”
Even as we pretend ourselves, wear a mask ourselves, we haven’t been interested in knowing who the other person is. The woman is saying: You were so ready to be taken, not by me, but by what I put forth and pretended was me!—we have an unspoken agreement not to try to know.
Aesthetic Realism explains—and is great and life-changing in explaining—what love really is. Love is the desire to know and care for the world through knowing a representative of the world, whom we passionately want to strengthen. But since most people dislike the world, “love” becomes a getting away from and belittling of it. Love becomes the having of an impressive someone lavishly confirm that oneself is more important than anyone and anything. This purpose, to conquer and look down, is clearly opposed to knowing. Then, as with the man in the Yeats poem, there comes to be an awful feeling that there’s something very wrong: that there are ill will and fakery amid the kisses; that there’s something about all this that weakens me. —The poem ends:
“But lest you are my enemy,
I must enquire.”
“O no, my dear, let all that be;
What matter, so there is but fire
In you, in me?”
This poem was published in 1910. It is courageous. And one may see in it evidence that in Ireland at the beginning of the 20th century, William Butler Yeats, with all his care for Maud Gonne, felt there was something not wholly sincere about the love he gave and got. “Fire” is not the same as showing who we really are. And the lack of sincerity pained him.
Aesthetic Realism is the philosophy which shows that the answers to the questions of our lives—including about love—are in the very basis and technique of art. Art, if it’s the real thing, is always sincere: it comes from the desire to show the depths of oneself, and to see the outside world truly. That is the very purpose love should have. And I’m immensely glad to say that studying this fact is thrilling, romantic, and grandly practical.