The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known

Aesthetic Realism was founded by Eli Siegel in 1941

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.

Ellen Reiss, Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education

There Is Florence Nightingale

By Eli Siegel

One way women have been seen, and still are, is as very kind and efficient. There has been much written about Florence Nightingale since she was seen as the Lady with the Lamp, as the lady who brought cheer to all the wounded in the Crimean War. Lytton Strachey changed that, and there have been other biographies, but she is still seen as somebody. To get to a different aspect of women, I read now this poem by Longfellow, which made popular the phrase “the Lady with the Lamp”:

Whene'er a noble deed is wrought,

Whene'er is spoken a noble thought,

Our hearts, in glad surprise,

To higher levels rise.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Thus thought I, as by night I read

Of the great army of the dead,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The wounded from the battle-plain,

In dreary hospitals of pain,

The cheerless corridors,

The cold and stony floors.

Lo! in that house of misery

A lady with a lamp I see

Pass through the glimmering gloom,

And flit from room to room.

And slow, as in a dream of bliss,

The speechless sufferer turns to kiss

Her shadow, as it falls

Upon the darkening walls.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

A Lady with a Lamp shall stand

In the great history of the land,

A noble type of good,

Heroic womanhood.

Nor even shall be wanting here

The palm, the lily, and the spear,

The symbols that of yore

Saint Filomena bore.

Since then, qualities have been pointed out making Florence Nightingale akin to some of the women I spoke of earlier: to Lady Holland, to the Duchess of Marlborough, and even a little to those ladies who were put in the river. Yet with everything said—how determined she was, and also how ill-tempered—we can see some of the quality that Longfellow puts forth.

Kindness, But...

People do want to be kind and they do want to be useful, but they don’t see a clear way to do so, and they cannot see themselves being kind and honest and useful and also taking care of themselves. The problem of how women want to be kind and still be accurate, is one of the big ones. The problem, too, of how to affect men with their bodies and still be seen as a person, is a major one. I’m not talking of those things now. But there are matters that the life of Florence Nightingale brings up which, in a way, put together some of the contrary things in women.

A woman wants to be kind, but she wants her kindness understood. She also wants her kindness to be based on fact. If that doesn’t happen, it is hard to see the universe with such largeness as to say, “Well, so this is a disappointment, but things should still be seen in the large.” She feels that she has been knifed by destiny, and she comes back. She can come back in such a way that she can be a terror to a town.

Florence Nightingale, like many women, didn’t know what to do. She wanted to be useful, and there was a desire to do something immediately good for someone. There was vanity in it, to be sure; but the question is, can a person try to be useful with less and less vanity?

It is true, as Longfellow says, that whenever we see a person being sensible and not idiotic, and still being somewhat noble, we get encouraged. Florence Nightingale may have pretended a little, but she was not idiotic. And she sure did annoy her relatives: the idea of an English girl going to the Crimea! with all those men!—even a wounded man can be dangerous, you know.

Something New

Whatever else happened, the picture of Florence Nightingale there—the one woman among so many men—brought something new. Women were going to places in the world which were more hazardous, stranger, more remote than they had gone before. And they went not for a man’s purpose only, but for their purpose. So the fact that Florence Nightingale showed that women, with all the yieldingness and passivity, could be this, was important. She felt that a woman should be useful. There is something very lovely about it. And in one way or another, if a person doesn’t feel herself useful, she can get bitter.

“Lo! in that house of misery / A lady with a lamp I see.” The phrase “a lady with a lamp” is still very taking. The picture of a mother or a nurse, with a light in the dark, is already something grand, because woman as making for light, not for darkness, has the idea of woman as she deeply wants to be. The fact that light was changed into darkness abruptly, made for what was called the shrew, the scold, the termagant, the virago, the nag.

I cannot say that Longfellow’s verses are poetic entirely, but they are good narrative, and essentially true.

In the last stanza there is a little about a saint who was found in 1802, Saint Filomena. There were some things inscribed on tiles near her. It seems she was very useful, and she is now a saint. In fact, some of the saints in the Catholic religion are very attractive, and can be saints anywhere. Part of the history of women is how women have been religious, sometimes sincerely. This idea was made popular in The Song of Bernadette, by Franz Werfel, who certainly didn’t start out with the idea of believing everything the Pope said. Then there is Saint Teresa. She is an executive and a mystic. She, also, is an instance of femininity.

For Love to Succeed

By Devorah Tarrow

Aesthetic Realism explains: “The purpose of love is to feel closely one with things as a whole.” ² But women have had another purpose: to conquer a man, have him extol us, make us the most important thing in existence. In an issue of TRO, Ellen Reiss writes that

love is good will:...the feeling that I am more, not because I can make this person silly about me, but because I’ve honestly seen value in someone not myself, standing for a world not myself. [TRO 1655]

A Fight between Two Purposes

Like many women today, I went after having my way with men, including through body. It wasn’t that I didn’t try to have love on what I thought was a solid basis: I would have said I valued honesty between a man and woman. I wrote in a letter to a man I felt I loved, “You I can trust. You will give me honest answers—no more façades. It seems I don’t know you or me. Oh man, I want to talk and talk and feel and feel.”

Though we did “talk and talk,” I had another value too: love meant for me to be praised lavishly, including through sex.

When he and I fought and broke up I didn’t want to question myself or know why he felt the way he did. I had no idea why this relation had failed: it had seemed to be based on so much we had in common. We had the same political views; we had the same friends; we were both Jewish! So I spent days sobbing in my bed, cursing him and myself, feeling life was over.

It was at this time that I read Eli Siegel’s essay “The Ordinary Doom.” There are these sentences:

To know a person is to know the universe become throbbingly specific. It is always the universe on two feet, with two eyes, and an articulate mouth. It is the universe we want to skip.

The universe? What did that have to do with love? Yes, we went out to movies and concerts and parties, but wasn’t the purpose of love for two people to adore and protect each other? I began to learn that, indeed, I was a universe skipper: I hadn’t really thought that the world, the big world outside of me, and how fair I was to it, had anything to do with love. The idea that it did, thrilled me!

Studying in classes taught by Eli Siegel, I heard him talk to men, and as I began to care for Jeffrey Carduner, I knew Mr. Siegel would understand his life deeply. But I also had a hope that Mr. Siegel would tell Jeff how lucky he was to have me! Instead, he asked Jeffrey deep, ethical questions about how he, Jeff, saw the world. For example, Mr. Siegel asked: “Do you give enough meaning to what is not yourself?”

When Jeffrey said thoughtfully, “No,” I was surprised, and respected him. Mr. Siegel asked more questions, including about how Jeff could see his father more justly. I began to look at him differently—not as a worshipper of Devorah. I saw that to be able to love him, I had to want to know him and encourage him to meet his hopes.

We Continue to Learn

Jeff is now my husband, and together we continue to learn that love means the desire to know. In a class years ago, Mr. Siegel spoke to me critically about my desire to sum Jeffrey up, think I knew him. At that time, we were caring more for each other but we were fighting, and Mr. Siegel explained why. “Everyone,” he said, “wants to be loved and adored, and at the same time they don’t want to respect the other living being for adoring them. The idea of respecting a person for loving them is too much for people.”

Speaking to me, he explained:

You want to be loved, and at the same time be superior to the man who loves you.... Aesthetic Realism says the fight between high and low, inferior and superior, respect and contempt, is in human nature, and if a person sees that fight this way[, as part of humanity itself,] she’ll be better off....Every woman should ask, is the problem she has something peculiar to her, or is it the condition humaine, let alone feminine?

Then he described the way of seeing we needed to have for love—and our lives—to succeed. It is to feel,

“I want to give everything to that person that he has, including his possibilities, and not to deny him anything because I seem to be the gainer by it. That way I’m fair to myself.” Give existence everything that comes to existence. It’s the only way to be fair to yourself!

I'm very glad that, with my dear husband, I can learn every day how to do this!

¹ (NY: Modern Library, 1918), p. 137.

² Eli Siegel, Self and World (NY: Definition Press, 1981), p.171.