The Opposites, Love, & Florence Nightingale
Dear Unknown Friends:
Here is part 5 of the powerful 1952 lecture Some Women Looked At, by Eli Siegel. And with it we print part of a paper by Aesthetic Realism consultant Devorah Tarrow, from a public seminar of last month: “What Does a Woman Need to Know for Love to Succeed?” Yes, Aesthetic Realism answers that question—really and beautifully answers it. And inseparable from that answer is its great comprehension of women, present in the lecture we're serializing.
As Mr. Siegel looks at various writings about women, he has us feel with vividness, with texture, what is in this explanation at the basis of Aesthetic Realism: the opposites, which make up reality, are in us, and in order to like ourselves, truly to be ourselves, we have to make them one.
A Woman, Hard & Soft
In the present section, he speaks about the famous, the revered, the hugely valuable Florence Nightingale. He speaks of her with a necessary brevity, amidst many women in this lecture of about an hour’s length. But since we're presenting the section by itself here, we can pause a little and quote from a work Mr. Siegel mentions: Lytton Strachey’s short biography of Ms. Nightingale in Eminent Victorians (1918). There, as Mr. Siegel says, we find an aspect of her different from what we see in the poem on her he quotes in the lecture: Longfellow’s 1857 “Santa Filomena.” In the Strachey account there is a terrific drama of the opposites of hardness and softness—opposites all women and men have a hard time making sense of in ourselves.
There is the true tenderness, gentleness, kindness of the woman credited with beginning modern nursing, as she ministered to the suffering soldiers in Scutari, near Constantinople, during the Crimean War. But Strachey depicts also a monumental determination—hard, unyielding. To change the conditions which made army hospitals more like sewers and torture chambers than places of relief, she had to be immensely tough. She had to take on many men in official positions, who resented her. She also had to defy her wealthy family, who were horrified by her desire to be a nurse. Strachey conveys some of Florence Nightingale’s fierceness as he describes, with his noted style, her mother’s chagrin:
At times, indeed, among her intimates, Mrs. Nightingale almost wept. “We are ducks,” she said with tears in her eyes, “who have hatched a wild swan.” But the poor lady was wrong; it was not a swan that they had hatched; it was an eagle.¹
The determination of Florence Nightingale at one with gentleness made for something beautiful and life-saving: a civilized way of dealing with the injured. Meanwhile, Strachey describes another determination—not beautiful: to have her way and despise anyone who didn’t do as she wished. He may not have been correct about her, but in these sentences she is scornfully inflexible as to the people who had joined her cause:
She began to believe...that none of her fellow-workers had their hearts in the business; if they had, why did they not work as she did? She could only see slackness and stupidity around her. [P. 175]
Contempt Was There
Florence Nightingale didn’t know, and Lytton Strachey didn’t, what corrupts a good determination and can also make determination be of a wrong and hurtful kind altogether. That hurtful thing, Aesthetic Realism explains, is contempt: the desire to make oneself more by lessening what’s not oneself. We can see Strachey describing contempt in the very midst of Florence Nightingale’s most valuable, courageous time:
As she passed through the wards in her plain dress, so quiet, so unassuming,...the keener eye perceived something more...—something peevish, something mocking, and yet something precise—in the small and delicate mouth. There was humour in the face; but the curious watcher might wonder whether it was humour of a very pleasant kind; might ask himself...what sort of sardonic merriment this same lady might not give vent to, in the privacy of her chamber.
Strachey comments on the letters she wrote from the Crimea:
Her pen, in the virulence of its volubility, would rush on to the discussion of individuals....Her sarcasm searched the ranks of the officials with the deadly and unsparing precision of a machine-gun. Her nicknames were terrible. She respected no one. [Pp. 152-3]
Though he doesn’t understand contempt, he hints at what is so: that her self-reviling, depression, and sleeplessness later in life came because she inevitably disliked herself for her contempt. He further suggests that the bad softness which overtook her in her final years came because she had made herself in many ways so wrongly, contemptuously, hard:
And now the sarcastic years brought the proud woman her punishment. She was not to die as she had lived. The sting was to be taken out of her: she was to be made soft....The brain which had been steeled at Scutari was indeed, literally, growing soft. Senility—an ever more and more amiable senility—descended. [Pp. 195-6]
As I quote this, I am moved to say that Devorah Tarrow, whose writing about love is in this TRO, spoke about Florence Nightingale in a seminar several years ago, using Aesthetic Realism principles to comment on her life.
Not only Florence Nightingale but Lytton Strachey was troubled about hardness and softness. His style at its best is a oneness of these: it is graceful and sharp. But in his life there was a deep confusion about the true sharpness that had benevolence with it and the sharpness that was unfeeling and mean. Everyone needs to learn from Aesthetic Realism about the opposites which are ourselves. And we need to learn about the fight in us between contempt and respect, which, here, Eli Siegel understands so kindly in that indispensable person, Florence Nightingale.