The Likeness of Men and Women
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is the concluding section of the magnificent 1949 lecture we have been serializing: Poetry and Women, by Eli Siegel. We do not have the final minutes of the lecture: these early Aesthetic Realism classes were recorded via wire-recording, and it seems the spool of wire ran out before the class ended. So we publish here, to follow the last words we have of the lecture, a poem by Mr. Siegel which continues its meaning.
In the section preceding this one, Mr. Siegel spoke on an essay of Virginia Woolf about Elizabeth Barrett Browning. He was intensely critical of Mrs. Woolf’s patronizing of, meanness to, and sheer inaccuracy about Mrs. Browning, an important and true artist. As I wrote last week, I see Mr. Siegel’s criticism of Virginia Woolf as the kindest consideration she ever received. He understood what impelled her false judgment; he understood that in her which hurt her mind. Now he speaks directly about Mrs. Browning’s Aurora Leigh, which he called “the one successful novel in verse by anyone.”
It is increasingly acknowledged that women have been unjust to women, as Virginia Woolf was to Mrs. Browning: women have been wronged not only by men. Also, women have often been unfair to men. Mr. Siegel is the person of thought who explained what all injustice arises from—whether it’s unfairness in literary criticism, meanness in domestic life, or the brutality of racism and economic exploitation. That source of injustice is the desire, which we all have, for contempt: “the addition to self through the lessening of something else.”
An Aesthetic Realism Lesson
I quote further here from an Aesthetic Realism lesson of mine which I wrote about last week—because the beautiful, powerful comprehension of women in the lecture we have been serializing is continued in it. What Mr. Siegel explained in this lesson is great in its understanding of a particular person, me, and also of all people. That was always so in the lessons Mr. Siegel gave. Each was tremendously individual: he saw every person so exactly, in one’s own tumultuous and keen particularity. Yet each lesson was a grand and kind classic about the self as such: it stood for everyone.
At this lesson, when I was 25, Mr. Siegel spoke to me and the man with whom I was closely involved—I’ll call him Don Kemble. And in the passage I quote, Mr. Siegel was showing something people now need terrifically to know: that men and women are centrally alike. We see some of what I treasure so much: his width and tenderness and precision and humor. He asked Mr. Kemble, who felt women were mainly different from himself, “Do you believe that Miss Reiss is afraid of her own criticism?”
Don Kemble. Yes.
Eli Siegel. That is something that is hard for a man to realize, that a woman is criticizing herself. Miss Reiss does describe herself, and it is quite true, as George Sand described herself, as Mary Wollstonecraft described herself: she sees there are two forces in her that are not in the most blissful state of compatibility. Miss Reiss can at any moment feel she is bad and there’s no hope for her and she should be given back to the Aztecs.
Ellen Reiss. And they may not want me!
Eli Siegel. Mr. Kemble, you don’t know the power women have of dismissing themselves from reality. Do you believe they can do that?
Don Kemble. Yes.
Eli Siegel. No, you think that all inner turmoil is masculine.
Don Kemble, he said, “has a question that is about two souls fighting for mastery in him,” and so do women.
People have felt there are things in themselves that are fighting—something selfish, mean, and something nobler and kinder. But just what those forces are was not seen before Aesthetic Realism—either by people as such or by eminent describers of mind. It is Eli Siegel who explained that the fight — in both man and woman — which takes thousands of forms, is between the desire to have contempt for the world and the desire to respect reality, to like and see meaning in the outside world. This fight is present in every aspect of our lives, from love to education to how we see economics. And how these things fare depends very much on how that fight fares.
Pleasure and Strength
In the passage I quote next, Mr. Siegel gives form to something tormenting people now. Underlying what he says is this Aesthetic Realism principle, which explains people’s confusions and griefs: “All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” The opposites here are pleasure and pride, or pleasure and strength; and then mind and body, which Mr. Siegel speaks of vividly and poetically. He said to me:
You have a question as to Mr. Kemble, “Do you make me stronger or not?“ There are two things every person asks [about another]: “You please me, but do you make me stronger? You make me stronger, but do you please me?” These are terrible questions. Their terror cannot be overestimated, because the fact that something can please one and make one weaker has brought a certain sick quality to the life of man ....
In the field of expression, enjoyment, or sex, we hope to be proud and pleased at once. Ellen Reiss hopes to be proud about her manner of taking earth—in the same way that she would take the page of a book. The difference between the two things is felt by man and woman: “I’m a different person making love from him or her who goes after knowledge.”
Mr. Siegel asked Don Kemble: “Do you think if Miss Reiss could solve this problem of somatic expression and cerebral expression, you could?” “Yes,” was the answer. “Do you think,” he continued, “if you encouraged her to be a coherent self, you’d be assisting yourself?” “Yes.” “Do you think then,” Mr. Siegel asked, “the fate of man depends on the fate of woman?”
I say swiftly here what I love Aesthetic Realism for teaching me, and teaching men and women now: The way we’ll feel we are the same person making love and going after knowledge is by using the man or woman with whom we’re close to care more for the world itself and for humanity, people as such. The way we’ll be both pleased and stronger is through wanting to use our knowing a person, our embracing that person, to be more accurate about all people and reality—not to kick out the rest of the world and feel we’ve conquered it because someone agrees that we’re superior to everything!
Mr. Siegel was, in my very careful opinion, the person who most respected the mind of both woman and man. He was the best and kindest critic of every person. He was the educator who brought forth most fully and consistently, in man and woman, intellectual and ethical strength. Year after year I was a recipient of his criticism and encouragement, and so I consider myself one of the most fortunate people in human history.
He wrote the poem which ends this TRO in 1926. I see it as a conclusion for Poetry and Women. Certainly it stands for the first noun in that title: it is Poetry, immensely musical. As to the other noun, Women: in the poem Mr. Siegel joins some ordinary activities of a young woman, including activities of her mind, with the world as geography, earth, weather. The world, he showed in his teaching of Aesthetic Realism, is the other half of ourselves. We need to see and honor that fact; and a person who knows us needs to.
This poem, “Very Rainy Mornings,” tells about a Connecticut young woman. And the rain, the grass, the discarded newspaper, and more, are the world outside her and seem to be saying, We’re here, we’re different from you—but you’re not apart from us: we stand for your feelings too!
The verbal music of the poem has such delicacy, such intimacy, and also width, wonder. It represents the beautiful justice to people which is alive in Aesthetic Realism now, and permanently.